EDITOR’S NOTE: David Sarasohn’s op ed in the unOregonian, Sunday, August 10, 2014 says it all. Our answer to having a robust public higher education system is to implement a new organizational chart not to figure out how to tap into more revenue of the public system.
Check it out with my point/counterpoint commentary:
DS: 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.
RAD: I find this mildly amusing as a Seattle native but an Oregonian by choice. I also find it amusing because while Quack Attack U has replaced my Dawgs as the premier jock straps in the PAC-12, the same cannot be said about the U of O’s academic prowess.
DS: 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."
RAD: Instead we’ve placed bets on the jocks bringing in the revenue and national fame, even though the shelf life of that gamble will probably end in a generation, maybe sooner if the loss of the U of Oregon’s current president is an indication that something smells not in Denmark, but in Eugene…
DS: 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 the 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.
RAD: With seven new boards competing with each other for private and public funds, good luck on picking winners and losers in this race to the bottom! Without new revenue it will be done according to Kitzhaber’s mantra – “doing more with less.”
Unlike Washington, Oregon does not have the deep corporate pockets which historically give to higher ed in the private or public sector. Our economy is not that deep as Washington’s nor philanthropy that robust. Unless we raise taxes, the UO will never be competitive with the UW in R&D or academics.
DS: 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.
RAD: Yes, advocacy will increase seven fold but the potential revenue base will stay the same in the Puzzle Palace. Again, the advocates will face the same old challenge doing more with less given no political will in Salem to raise taxes on corporate Oregon or the 1%.
Pitting Eugene (UO), Corvallis (OSU), Ashland (SOU), Monmouth (WOU), La Grande (EOU), Bend (OSU-Cascade) and Portland (PSU/OHSU) against each other is a prescription for failure. The big money will go to OHSU, UO and OSU - the rest will get the leftovers!
DS: 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.
RAD: Donegan is right on – in the Puzzle Palace it’s a very short list. And nothing happens outside of the leadership, especially on the Joint Ways & Means committee which will simply carve up the drippings after the K-12 budget is put to bed and human resources begs for more funding to paper over the gaping safety net.
DS: "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 micro manage.
RAD: Oregon has been “micro managing” K-12 education since ’91 with scant results. Why should one expect higher ed to favor any better? We merely shuffle political hacks around on various boards and commissions pretending that’s change - "change nobody can believe in.”
DS: He cites the warning of Oregon State President Ed Ray, a longtime skeptic, recalling his experiences with the Ohio State board: micro managing, 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 "tie-breaker," focusing on budgeting and strategic planning.
Of course, the power of the budget can extend virtually anywhere.
RAD: Every time I hear some political hack like Donegan use the word “strategic planning” I want to vomit. As a faculty member I’ve seen at least 4 such “plans” come down the pike at Pacific. None of them were worth a bucket of spit. They simply gathered dust while making a pretense of change.
Like I said before – budgeting is a legislative duty carried out by legislative leadership which works through the Joint Ways & Means committee in the Puzzle Palace.
DS: 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.
RAD: While Oregon dithers Washington invests! A board of trustees has one function – to raise money for the endowment, not online education which is a joke. If they don’t raise bucks they should be fired!
DS: 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 [its] economy, both in research and workforce creation, and under the best of circumstances Oregon would be a long time catching up.
RAD: Oregon industry like Intel just doesn’t import talent from Seattle, the Bay Area and the East but from India, China and beyond. A visit to Intel’s Ronler Acres campus proves that. We don’t have enough home grown hi-tech types in Oregon because we don’t invest in their education! We out source by recruiting students from California who pay out of state tuition
DS: 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.
RAD: One doesn’t make up a 100 years in bad planning by decentralizing boards of trustees, one does this by investing in education pre-K to higher ed. That requires funding for education at all levels not corporate welfare via SIPS and ConnectOregon grants to the 1%.
The UO is a “flagship?” Given national rankings it’s a bottom feeder.
DS: "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.
RAD: Donegan et al can say higher ed funding is a priority but if one “follows the money” there is no there, there! When you give NIKE and INTEL 30 year “no new taxes” deals – you’ve locked yourself in to an economy which can only afford mediocrity except for the jocks in the NIKE uniforms!
DS: 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."
RAD: Precisely which is why Oregon’s best and brightest high school grads go out of state!
I went to Whitman, my two sons went out of state. I earned my MA and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, one of the best public universities in the USA. The private independent colleges in Oregon like Pacific, graduate over 1/3rd of college grads in the state, many from out of state!
So who is Mr. Donegan kidding! Oregon has a public higher ed system akin to Alaska’s bridge to nowhere. We pay lip service to higher ed but “where’s the money?” At the end of the day, we care more about the Ducks winning a national championship in football than having Nobel Laureates on the faculty.