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  • Opinion on independent state university boards mixed

  • SALEM, Ore. — A proposal to free some of Oregon's public universities from the grips of the statewide higher education board has garnered mixed reviews from the seven university presidents.
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  • SALEM, Ore. — A proposal to free some of Oregon's public universities from the grips of the statewide higher education board has garnered mixed reviews from the seven university presidents.
    Some love it, some hate it, others are somewhere in the middle. Regardless, the issue is certain to be a hot topic for the Legislature next year, and a group of wealthy donors has put up more than $400,000 to be sure of it.
    University of Oregon and Portland State University officials argue that they can't reach their full potential while so many key decisions are made by the Legislature or the State Board of Higher Education.
    They've asked the Legislature to create new governing boards, specific to each institution, that would take on the oversight of many of their most important affairs — hiring and firing a president, making decisions about salaries and other spending, and setting tuition.
    Administrators at several of the other schools, however, worry that the universities will end up competing instead of collaborating; that the four regional schools will lose clout; or that higher education would end up with yet another layer of bureaucracy and micromanagement.
    A task force created by the legislature has been studying the issue for months and is writing a bill that lawmakers will consider next year. The panel must have a draft ready by Aug. 15 and will take public comment for 30 days.
    Oregon's public four-year colleges are currently governed by 13 people appointed by the governor to the higher education board. They hire and fire presidents, set budgets and tuition, and determine each school's niche in the whole system.
    "There's only so much they can know, in fact, there's very little they can know about any one institution," said Wim Wiewel, president of PSU. "It's not because they aren't good and smart and dedicated people. They just can't know too much about any one of them."
    A board that's dedicated to PSU and accountable for its success, Wiewel argued, could help him strategize about the university's future and squeeze money from donors. Moreover, he said some donors are reluctant to give money because the statewide board, not the school, has ultimate control over the finances.
    Some of the other presidents see it differently.
    "The seven institutions should continue working as a system, collaborating, designing approaches together that will attract, retain and educate more Oregonians," Mary Cullinan, South Oregon University president wrote in written testimony to lawmakers. "Collaboration will be more challenging if we have independent university boards."
    If the dominant universities get institutional boards, the smaller schools will probably follow suit, Cullinan wrote.
    The proposals under consideration wouldn't completely eliminate the authority of the statewide board over the schools that get their own governing body. Details are still being worked out, but the statewide board would likely continue to be responsible for requesting money from the Legislature and coordinating academic programs — an attempt to keep the schools from competing with each other for money or students.
    "What I don't want is another board telling me how to run the university," said Ed Ray, Oregon State president. "I've got a board. I don't need another board. And I think they (UO and PSU) don't need another board, but — you know what — they're grown-ups and they're going to make their own decisions."
    Ray has said Ohio State University had its own governing board while he was an administrator there, and the board often micromanaged university operations. He said administrators and the board never discussed needs of the state or the higher education system as a whole.
    The debate over institutional boards is not especially new, but it became a hot-button political debate late last year, when the statewide board fired then-UO President Richard Lariviere. He had aggressively lobbied to get more independence for the UO, with its own governing board and a new funding stream.
    A 2011 bill gave the seven public universities and the statewide chancellor's office, as a group, more control over their own income and spending, but it retained the longtime governance model.
    While discussion of boards and governance has dominated legislative discussion of the university system in recent years, the schools are still struggling to make ends meet. State funding, adjusted for inflation, has been relatively flat for more than a decade and universities have raised tuition precipitously to make up for the difference.
    "No governance system, in whatever form, can make up for disinvestment in higher education by state legislatures," Oregon Institute of Technology President Christopher Maples told the legislative panel in June.
    Maples said he believes it's too soon to move forward because there are still more questions than answers about the creation of institutional boards.
    Earlier this year, a group of wealthy donors including Phil Knight, the Nike founder and UO benefactor, and Tim Boyle, chief executive of Columbia Sportswear, created Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence, a political action committee that now has more than $400,000 in the bank.
    There's no specific plan for the money yet, Boyle said, but it could be used to push for a ballot measure if the Legislature doesn't act.
    The state's control over universities far exceeds its financial support for their operations, Boyle said.
    "This is about improving higher education in Oregon, and the goal is to have the governance system more closely match the realities of the state support," he said.
    ———
    Associated Press writer Steven DuBois contributed.
    AP-WF-08-11-12 1403GMT
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