13 Aug

Oregon restructures its universities; now it just has to support them

Until the Oregon State Board of Higher Education slipped quietly out of existence this summer, Matt Donegan spent five years on it, the last three as chairman. But talking about higher education and economic development recently, the first institution he mentioned was the University of Washington.

When he listens to other Oregon businessmen talk about higher ed, he “can hear a lot of envy of what UW has been able to accomplish.”

Seeing how that’s happened, of course, doesn’t take five years close study of the Oregon system. “It doesn’t seem that Oregon was looking ahead the way Washington was looking ahead,” says Donegan. While Washington invested in its research universities “In Oregon, we did not place those bets.”

Oregon being Oregon, its response to higher ed disinvestment was to restructure, and soon each of the state’s seven universities will have its own institutional board, under the new Higher Education Coordinating Commission. With last week’s sudden departure of University of Oregon President Michael Gottfredson, the new system is in line for its first workout, as the first job cited for the new boards is to hire (and fire) their presidents. In academic terms, Gottfredson’s departure is pretty abrupt, and comes quite soon after the new board acquired the official power to decide who was president.

The new boards’ broader job, of course, is to bolster their universities.

Donegan, who helped shape the process – driven largely by the urgent demands of University of Oregon supporters, a confrontation that led to the firing of UO President Richard Lariviere by the now departed state board – is hopeful about the new arrangement will work.

“Now that we’re decentralized,” he forecasts, “you’re going to increase advocacy sevenfold.”

If the Legislature, historically not a hugely hospitable place for higher education, starts hearing from all the members of all the new boards, it could warm the atmosphere a bit.
In Salem, “You do have some champions” on higher ed, notes Donegan. “(Sen.) Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) has been very thoughtful. There’s (Rep.) Peter Buckley (D-Ashland). I won’t say it’s a terribly long list.

“That will change. Now there will be 100 board members, the kind of people very involved with legislative prospects.”

Of course, the 100 new board members will also be seeking to figure out their boards’ roles, as will the HECC. Serving on a variety of public and private boards, Donegan notes an inevitable tendency to micromanage.

He cites the warning of Oregon State President Ed Ray, a longtime skeptic, recalling his experiences with the Ohio State board: micromanaging, asking the wrong questions, and caring mostly about football.

The risk of “mission creep,” Donegan points out, applies to both the local boards and to HECC itself, whose role he sees largely as a “tiebreaker,” focusing on budgeting and strategic planning.

Of course, the power of the budget can extend virtually anywhere.

Still, Donegan feels that the reorganization is a promising direction for the Oregon system – although it did mean that Oregon spent the last three years absorbed by governance while other state systems were focusing on strategies for on-line and distance education.

And Oregon has a ways to go, in a situation where the state’s businesses have a long-established practice of importing talent from Seattle, from the Bay Area and from back East. Washington has had a strategy of using its higher education system as an engine for economy, both in research and workforce creation, and under the best of circumstances Oregon would be a long time catching up.

Oregon is, Donegan notes, sitting at the end of a hundred years of decisions on the issue. Some things, like the location of its universities, can’t be changed, and some would require a considerable change of attitude and commitment.

And right now, for the third time since 2009, the state needs a new president for what University of Oregon supporters insistently refer to as the state’s flagship institution.

“I don’t pretend (decentralization) is a substitute for funding,” says Donegan, “or placing good bets, or having a good vision of where the future is going.”

Or for a solid realization of just how important a strong higher education system is to both the economy and the opportunities of a 21st century state.

“What Oregon needs now,” he insists, “is to say, year in and year out, we’re going to make higher ed a priority.

“We can continue to import people from back East, people from the Bay Area. We’ve had success doing that. But we need to provide opportunity here.

“These are our kids we’re talking about.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, Sunday, 8/10/14.