Not so fast

Independent boards may be good for UO and PSU, but not for regional campuses

Oregon lawmakers are barreling ahead with a plan to create independent governing boards for the University of Oregon and Portland State University and give Oregon State the immediate option of independence. That may be a good thing for UO and PSU, but it may be less so for OSU, and it poses a real risk to Southern Oregon University and the three other regional institutions in the state system.

In fact, what Senate Bill 270 appears to do is dismantle Oregon's system of public universities as it now exists, without a clear understanding of what that would mean.

UO has the most to gain from the new structure. As the largest and richest public university in the state, it has the ability to raise substantial sums of money on its own. SB 270 would permit Oregon to approach the Legislature directly with funding requests rather than be lumped in with the rest of the Oregon University System.

UO and PSU's independent governing boards, appointed by the governor, also would hire and supervise their own university presidents, raise money, issue revenue bonds and manage their own real estate, as well as setting their tuition independently.

SOU President Mary Cullinan has serious reservations about how this would affect her campus and the other regional universities, which are far less interested in having their own governing boards.

In a meeting with the Mail Tribune Editorial Board, Cullinan and Melody Rose, interim chancellor of the Oregon University System, explained that the Chancellor's Office currently provides a package of shared services to the state's public campuses, including auditing, risk management, legal counsel and an internal bank. What would happen to these services after two and possibly all three of the state's largest campuses break off is far from clear.

A fiscal impact statement prepared for SB 270 indicates the newly independent university boards could choose to continue using the shared services, or provide the services themselves.

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of dwindling state support of public universities. Oregon's spending per full-time-equivalent student has dropped more than 20 percent since 2006, and the state now ranks 44th nationally in financial support for higher education.

Now, lawmakers are poised to cut loose UO and PSU, without being sure what that will mean to SOU and its regional cohort. What's the hurry?

SB 270 would create a Special Committee on Regional and Technical Universities to report back to the Legislature on the future governance of those campuses.

We've got a better idea. Create the special committee, but wait for its report before making changes that could be bad for the smaller universities.

The bill is now in the Ways and Means Committee, whose House co-chairman happens to represent Ashland. Rep. Peter Buckley should make a special effort to protect SOU's interests.

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