15 Jan

On supporting higher education, Oregon should just do it

The highlight of Oregon higher education in 2016 – especially when you consider the football season – was Nike founder Phil Knight’s 10-year gift of $500 million to the University of Oregon for a science research complex.

University of Oregon President Michael Schill called the gift – possibly the largest individual donation to any state university ever – “spectacular,” and declared that with the donation, “the University of Oregon can achieve a level of excellence and national prominence that has previously been out of reach.

Knight himself said how happy he was to make the gift “in an age of declining public support for scientific research generally and declining public higher education support specifically.”

Funny he should mention that.

For a place that’s just gotten a present of half a billion dollars, the University of Oregon – along with Oregon’s other six public universities – is once again in a difficult financial position. That’s not to mention the situation of the Oregonians attending or hoping to attend them.

In November, the seven university presidents, working together under the new Higher Education Coordinating Commission structure, requested an increase in state support of $100 million – getting the number about where it was in 2007, back before the legislature proudly proclaimed the goal of 40 percent of Oregonians having four-year degrees. “This investment,” the presidents pledged, “will allow all campuses to keep tuition increases to a manageable level for the next two years and ensure that students can graduate without taking on a lifetime of debt.”

Unfortunately, in the state’s current financial crisis – funny how often these arrive since the passage of Measure 5 – Gov. Kate Brown’s budget proposes flat-funding the universities, giving them what they received in 2015-2017. The problem is that the universities’ costs aren’t staying the same; as Schill points out, just for a start the universities’ insurance costs, PERS costs and union contracts will be rising.

“The governor’s budget is basically cuts for us, after many years of cuts,” said Schill last week. “We will have to raise tuition by a very large amount, particularly on in-state students.”

The UO, of course, will not be alone in that situation. Looking at the challenges now facing the universities, and the legislators, HECC executive director Ben Cannon commented last week, “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and they’ve got a lot of work to do, to keep tuition increases below 10 percent.”

There may be legislators prepared to try to find a way. “From my perspective,” commented state Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, co-chair of the legislative Ways and Means Committee, “flat funding universities is not an option that we can realistically consider.”

This might be particularly true because some of the universities will be less able to withstand flat-funding than the University of Oregon, and less able to jack up tuition. “For smaller regional universities, this budget will represent a particular challenge,” notes Cannon. “At some institutions, the cuts would be quite deep and painful.”

At the University of Oregon, there is the prospect of a billion-dollar, Death Star technology-level science innovation complex set into a university otherwise stretched to support its students. “It can’t just be the Knight campus isolated from the university,” says Schill. “The entire university needs to be healthy.”

Besides offering opportunity to Oregon students, and providing Oregon business a workforce that it doesn’t have to recruit from other states and other countries, there’s another reason why Oregon needs a strong higher education system. “There’s Seattle to the north, and Silicon Valley to the south,” points out Schill, “and we’re getting pressure from both.”
And the track is just getting faster.

At just about the same time in late October that the University of Oregon was exultantly announcing the Knight donation of half a billion dollars, the University of Washington went public with its $5 billion fund-raising drive, with $3 billion already committed. The leaders of the drive wrote in the Seattle Times, “(T)he UW’s ability to provide the level of world-leading education, research and public service we have come to expect is at great risk, with college diplomas sometimes accompanied by burdensome student debt and broken dreams.”

The University of Oregon is not, of course, the University of Washington, a world-class research institution with a major medical school. But much of the UW fund-raising is dedicated to maintaining undergraduate education and limiting tuition increases.

The fund-raisers note that the drive partly responds to state disinvestment – although Washington still spends considerably more generously on its universities than Oregon. But as Michael Schill points out, private donors generally are less eager to replace vanished public money than to add to it, to strengthen an already strong institution.

Phil Knight’s support for the University of Oregon, and for Oregon higher education, has indeed been spectacular.

We just shouldn’t expect him to do it all by himself.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 1/15/17.

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