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Not much to ask

The higher ed chancellor's proposal deserves lawmakers' consideration

Almost lost in the concerns about K-12 school funding in Oregon is the desperate state of affairs facing the state's university system.

Richard Jarvis, Oregon's new chancellor of higher education, deserves credit for taking on his new job at a time when support for higher education is at an all-time low and the state's finances have seldom, if ever, been worse. He also deserves credit for recognizing that state of affairs and developing a proposal to resurrect the university system that doesn't just ask for more money.

Jarvis' plan can be detailed in easy steps, but will be anything but easy to pull off. For starters, the steps are:

Ask the Legislature to provide funding at a level equal to at least 80 percent of the national average. It should be embarrassing to Oregonians that we see that as a positive, but Jarvis says at least the system would then have a floor from which to begin rebuilding.

Approve a modest increase in tuition, accompanied by increases in available scholarships.

Provide the university system with the flexibility to manage its own finances and to make decisions without involving the Legislature.

The backdrop of this request is bleak. Oregon's funding for higher education is 26 percent below the average of the 50 states. The system has seen its budget cut by &

36;52 million so far this biennium and faces the prospect of an additional &

36;25 million in cuts if voters reject a statewide tax measure in January. That would bring the total cuts to &

36;77 million, almost 10 percent of the higher education system's budget.

Our university system is now ranked as second to last in affordability among the 50 states, based on tuition costs and average incomes in Oregon. It is ranked as a second-class system in many national studies. State funding falls short by 7,000 students. Faculty salaries are the lowest in the West. The list of shortcomings and slights goes on and on.

You can demand efficiencies and seek innovations all you want, but programs cost money and without money, the best and the brightest not only won't succeed, they won't stick around.

We are encouraged that Jarvis isn't seeking the moon, but merely solid ground to start on. He asks that the Legislature guarantee it won't drop financial support below 80 percent of the national average. If the system gets that as a starting point and is given the flexibility to manage its own affairs, he says, it can begin to emerge from the hole. It's not much to ask.

We have previously expressed concern, and express it again now, that any newfound flexibility doesn't simply turn into tuition increases. Our public universities are, after all, intended for the public and the state has a considerable investment in ensuring that Oregonians have access to a college education.

But that assurance is already sketchy, as the system reels from years of underfunding. Giving the university system some autonomy from the state would free it up to develop more private-public partnerships, to respond more quickly in changing academic offerings and to eliminate many restrictions on funding sources.

If the state can't make dramatic improvements on the miserable level of funding that's been provided, it should agree to allow the universities the flexibility they need to improve their own situation.

Sounding the call

When he discusses his proposal for Oregon's university system, Chancellor Jarvis includes this quote:

In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inheret the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. (Eric Hoffer, 1989)

That quote captures the essence of another movement gaining strength on college campuses across the nation: a return to liberal learning.

If you're a politicsl conservative, don't be alarmed. Liberal learning refers to a breadth of education that stretches across the specrtrum of learning, from science to philosophy, economics to literature and math to the arts.

Southern Oregon University was among the colleges and universities nationwide to provide a forum earlier this month to discuss that effort. Educators, students and community members came together to find areas of agreement on what a college education should mean.

It's evident from those discussions that it means different things to different people. But one area of agreement from college professors and business owners alike was that the system of higher education should not be running job training schools. It should focus instead on developing students who can think on their feet, who can adapt to changing economies and who can thrive in and understand a diverse society.

The business leaders embrace this idea because they know a specific job skill may quickly be outdated by technology changes, while an employee prepared to deal with change will never be outdated.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities labels the education initiative Sounding the Call. It's a call that educators and community leaders should hear.