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University reform gains momentum

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

By Corey Paul

The latest stop on the campaign trail for higher education reform happened last night at Portland State University, where education officials repeated many of their same proposals: less state regulation and line item budgets, more university control of tuition. More efficient and independent universities able to save on costs while expanding the reach and quality of education.

All have been heard before. But a new and significant insight came from George Pernsteiner, chancellor of the university system, who said that the climate in Oregon is finally right for education reform, with more recognizing the importance of investing in Oregon's future. A proposed piece of legislation, Senate Bill 242, is popular, he said, among legislators and business groups including the Portland Business Alliance, Oregon Business Council, and the Oregon Business Association.

"We could balance this budget the way we have in the past," Pernsteiner said. "We could reduce enrollment and raise tuition, but that is not going to get Oregon to where it needs to be the in the next century."

Over the last two decades, state support for higher education has shriveled, as the Oregon University System's share of the general fund decreased from 16.9% to just 5.8%. Students now pay twice as much for their education than the state does. But higher education is first on the chopping block in times of fiscal austerity, because it is the safest target politically. This year the OUS faces a potential $100 million dollar cut.

SB 242 would create a 15-member Higher Education Coordinating Commission intended to help the universities and community colleges work together more efficiently. OUS's status as a state agency also would end, making it similar to the state's 17 community colleges. 

At last night's panel Pernsteiner voiced strong support for the bill. So did PSU President Wim Wiewel and Rep. Chris Harker, D-Beaverton, who said he'd attended hearings on the matter in Salem. The momentum behind the bill, Harker said, is comparable to the state's health care revision last year, which created an urgency and purpose that fostered cooperation in the legislature.

No one on the panel supported the controversial proposals by University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere, although Harker said they are worth debating. One of the proposals, Senate Bill 559, would create a 15-member regent board for the university. And the other, Senate Joint Resolution 20, would authorize to increase its endowment with $800 million in bond money that would be matched by private donations.

Cutting UO loose would heighten the burden on the other state universities, Pernsteiner said. "I can understand how the University of Oregon benefits," he continued. "I can understand that quite well, but what I don't understand is how it will benefit Oregon."

About 200 people attended the PSU forum, which was moderated by Oregonian Editor Peter Bhatia. A question and answer session was replete with issues the panel pointed out as unrelated to governance, such as students concerned with specific programs and faculty worried about salaries.

But there were a few highlights, especially when an economics major and an adjunct faculty member followed up with hard questions: Is the discussion about long-term funding a moot point given the history of disinvestment in human capital? And what about new funding?

The panel discussed a number of laws that crippled higher education over the years, like Measure 5, which limited property tax and Measure 11, which mandated new prison construction. Before those, Oregonians weren't much of a college-going population, Pernsteiner said. "And as the economy of the state changed we found ourselves in a disinvestment cycle due to those ballot measures," he said, adding that investment toward education and new industry is the path forward.

But for that latter question, about new funding, there was no answer.

Corey Paul is an associate writer for Oregon Business.

 

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