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Some Oregon universities oppose governing boards

Public universities across Oregon are pushing back against an effort in the state Legislature to give any member of the Oregon University System the ability to establish a local governing board.(Correction: This story has been updated to clarify Cullinan's role at Stephen F. Austin State University.)

The firing of University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere late last year by the state Board of Higher Education kick-started an effort to establish governing boards at U of O and Portland State University.

But legislation tied to that effort lost momentum early in the session after the introduction of House Bill 4061, which would create a 10-member Special Committee on University Governance to study the possibility and impact of allowing the state's seven public universities to establish semi-self-governing boards.

The special committee, comprising eight lawmakers and two members of the recently established Oregon Education Investment Board, would be charged with writing legislation for lawmakers to consider during the 2013 legislative session, said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.

By Aug. 15, the committee is required to submit a report to legislators recommending how much power to give the proposed boards over regulating tuition and fees, hiring and firing of university presidents, writing personnel policy for faculty and staff, managing university finances, purchasing real estate and approving capital improvement projects, the bill states.

The committee would hold a 30-day public review period at each of the seven universities before writing legislation, said Buckley.

The House Committee on Higher Education, in its introduction to HB 4061, said the legislative assembly recognizes the potential benefit of individual boards "to promote accountability, administrative streamlining and the ability to provide the best quality education possible for the amount of state dollars spent."

Buckley, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, has been working with other lawmakers to revise the bill since it was introduced on Feb. 7. He said it likely will be moved to a vote on the House floor by midweek.

"I have mixed feelings about it," Buckley said. "If University of Oregon and Portland State decide to go the local board route "… smaller schools could lose a lot of leverage."

Buckley said the majority of state lawmakers come from districts surrounding UO and PSU, opening the possibility that those local boards would have an upper hand while lobbying in the Legislature for funding.

On Friday, Buckley said he added language to require the proposed special committee to meet with and include the concerns of the presidents from each of the state's public universities before issuing its report to legislators.

Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan, joined by the state's three other regional universities and Oregon State University, said there likely will be more disadvantages to creating governing boards in public universities than advantages.

"Creating another layer of boards for campuses creates further complexities," she said in a prepared statement. "An individual institution's board is necessarily focused on that institution ... but not necessarily for the good of the state."

She said the role of a central board for a state system strengthens the ability of public universities to work collectively toward common achievements, and helps universities maintain a statewide focus for education.

The individual university boards still would operate under the state Board of Higher Education, but Buckley expressed concern that individual university boards could create an unwanted rift in the OUS.

"The first step will be to clarify what the impact would be, and to address those impacts," he said.

Although it's too early to offer an estimate, creating a local board likely would incur internal costs for SOU, said Jim Beaver, marketing director.

Additional staff and an attorney likely would have to be hired for such a board to function properly, he said, something most of Oregon's public universities are trying to avoid with budget cuts already looming.

Before landing at SOU in 2006, Cullinan served as the provost/vice president for Academic Affairs and professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. That university has a Board of Regents, which is the institution's self-governing board within the state's university system.

She prefers a central-board based process, she said, pointing to the 23 campuses managed by the California State University System.

"Surely a simple structure should be sufficient for seven public universities in Oregon," she said.

Sam Wheeler is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-499-1470 or by email at swheeler@dailytidings.com.

Southern Oregon University opposes plan to create boards of directors at each university. - Julia Moore