Cuts lead to call for autonomy.
If the state is going to contribute only 20 percent of the cost of running its university system, it shouldn't have almost 100 percent of the control over how schools are operated, the presidents of Oregon's seven public universities contend.
That's what's behind a proposal to restructure the Oregon University System and cut the campuses loose from the state bureaucracy. The plan would give university presidents more latitude to raise and spend private money, set tuition, offer new programs and make other management decisions on a campus-by-campus basis.
In a letter to an Oregon State Board of Higher Education planning committee, the presidents of all seven state universities said major changes are needed to address a funding crisis brought on by declining state budget support and rising enrollments. The only way for universities to maintain the quality of education and meet demand, they said, is to give them more freedom to operate in a marketplace where they already are responsible for raising 80 percent of their operating revenue.
"It's time to recognize the realities," University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer said. "If the state is going to withdraw its support, it also has to withdraw the handcuffs and shackles that keep us from operating efficiently in an environment where we have to earn most of our revenue. The state's shackles keep us from being as efficient as we otherwise need to be."
Details of the plan and how it would be put in place remain to be worked out, and higher education board members are expected to discuss the proposal at a retreat Thursday. The board eventually could adopt some elements of the plan on its own; other elements would need approval by the Legislature.
Among the shackles Frohnmayer wants to eliminate are state rules regarding purchases of computer and telecommunication systems, oversight of contracts for technology transfer and legislative approval to construct buildings financed through private donations. He said those restrictions don't allow universities to move quickly enough or develop their own niches in the marketplace.
"Unless we can break out of the lock-step mold that one size fits all of the institutions, none of the institutions are going to be successful," he said. "You can't simply make a template for success and have a uniform cookie-cutter approach to it."
But clearly one of the biggest changes - and potentially the one to bring the most new revenue - is giving universities control over setting tuition. Allan Price, the UO's vice president for development, said tuition at the UO would increase with the new structure.
It's too soon to say how much, and the amount would vary among the seven universities. But Price said that without some influx of money, the cost of a college education will jump even more sharply as universities are forced to reduce the number of classes even as enrollments rise.
The result will be that many students won't be able to take all the classes they need to complete a degree in four years. And if they must attend school an extra term or an extra year, they'll end up paying more in tuition than if they finished in four years at higher tuition rates, he said.
"If we're going to continue to grow in quality ... we've got to do some things differently," Price said. "When we are having to earn almost 85 percent of our income, there are certain realities that come along with that."
Since 1990, state support has dropped from 32 percent of college budgets to an average of 20 percent. The amount is less at the UO, where state support was 18 percent last year and is falling.
Price said state funding per university student in Oregon is the lowest in the Pacific 10 Conference and the lowest among members of the Association of American Universities, of which the UO is the state's only member. He said the university can't cut more and still offer a quality education, adding that the continuing erosion of state support has left the UO at a crossroads.
"We're at the point where things are either going to get better or they're going to get worse," Price said. "The status quo is not an option."
Under the plan, universities would maintain accountability through local boards of trustees. But it's not clear whether those boards would be similar to those at community colleges - which have authority to set policy, approve contracts and hire the college president - or would act as advisers only, leaving most authority with the university president.
The presidents said the proposal isn't a one-way street. In exchange for greater autonomy, universities would agree to meet certain goals that would vary by school.
The UO is putting the finishing touches on its proposal. Among the pledges it plans to offer are:
Admit all Oregonians who meet entrance requirements up to the number funded by the state through per-student allocations.
Also admit 25 percent more Oregonians than what the state funds, using donations to offset education costs.
Maintain resident undergraduate tuition at no more than one-third of nonresident undergraduate tuition and resident graduate tuition at no more than two-thirds of nonresident graduate tuition.
Ensure that all Oregon students receive the full amount of financial aid for which they qualify under federal guidelines.
Match state contributions to research and public service programs.
Jim Lussier, president of the state higher education board, called the proposals worth exploring. He said there are some changes that could be made sooner and others that would take more time, but he doesn't think anything should be done until the board discusses them in depth.
"I'm not at all taken aback by the proposals they've made," said Lussier, CEO of St. Charles Medical Center in Bend. "I think a lot of thought went into what they proposed, and I think we ought to put them in the proper context and explore each and every one of them. That doesn't mean each and every one of them is going to come to fruition, though."
UO sociology professor Greg McLauchlin, president of the University Senate, said that in general he favors the direction universities want to go, as long as they don't price Oregon students out of the higher education market. He said one idea might be some kind of sliding scale that would give low- and middle-income families a tuition break.
He also said it's important that universities not become so market-driven that they weaken their core curriculum or narrow the breadth of a college education.
"We need to really emphasize that a crucial part of a research university like the University of Oregon is the core liberal arts and sciences," McLauchlin said. "Those core fields are going to be as important 20 years from now as they are today."
State Rep. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, said she understands why universities would seek change, even if she is uncertain about its scope.
"Clearly the state of Oregon has failed in its duty to fund education," she said. "They're just trying to find a way to stay alive and offer the kind of quality product people expect but that we're not willing to pay for."
She added: "I appreciate their creativity, but it does make me a little bit nervous."
Business leaders appear enthusiastic about the plan, and members of the Oregon Business Council have given it good reviews. Keith Thompson, former director of Intel's operations in Oregon, said businesses have long seen the value of an educated and well-trained work force, particularly in today's global marketplace.
"With the Oregon economy, the U.S. economy and the global economy all moving together toward a knowledge economy, you cannot have inferior education," he said. "There are wonderful places with great education systems that would love to have the jobs that are here in Oregon, and they'd do whatever they have to do to get them. That's just the nature of a global economy.
"I don't think allowing the quality of education to suffer is an option we have."