Too many cooks in Bend.
The state Board of Higher Education supposedly decided 10 years ago that Oregon State University, not the University of Oregon, should open a branch campus in Central Oregon. Only now, however, will OSU's victory become final with the phaseout of UO courses and degree programs at OSU- Cascades in Bend.
There's a good reason for ending the UO's presence: If OSU-Cascades is to grow as intended, it needs a coherent identity provided by a single institution. Central Oregon's educational kitchen has one too many cooks.
The UO has been a junior partner in the Bend enterprise since it began. A third partner, and in many respects the dominant one, is Central Oregon Community College, where the OSU-Cascades campus is located. Most students enter OSU-Cascades after completing a two-year program at COCC.
OSU-Cascades was born of a recognition that Central Oregon was the state's fastest-growing region but was remote from the state's universities. The future social and economic vitality of the region would depend on the availability of educated citizens and workers. Competition for the Bend prize was spirited, because both schools saw a potential market. OSU President Ed Ray believes that by 2025, OSU-Cascades will enroll about 3,500 full- and part-time students, up from 611 today.
For that kind of growth of occur, OSU-Cascades needs a clear vision of what it will become. In 2009, the state board formed the Higher Education Assessment Team for Central Oregon and asked it to survey current and future higher education needs in the region. The assessment team invited public comments, and one of the loudest messages was one of frustration over having both OSU and the UO on the Central Oregon campus.
"Community members, especially students, expressed confusion about having both universities offering degrees, and the need for three advisers, three student ID cards and the lack of community between OSU and UO," the team's report says. The lack of unity between the universities' programs was summarized in territorial terms: "OSU is in Cascades Hall and UO is in Chandler Hall, and never the two shall meet."
Such a split identity is a recipe for poor coordination and wasted effort. More than that, it's an impediment to the assessment team's goal of making OSU-Cascades more like a regular four-year university.
The team recommends creating a "four-year experience" for students at OSU-Cascades, allowing them to progress with a cohort of classmates from the first day they arrive on campus. This "university college" concept could be a step toward the creation of a stand-alone, accredited university in Bend. The emergence of such a university would be 20 or more years in the future, and it would depend on a favorable economic and political climate. In the meantime, it makes sense to make OSU-Cascades educationally coherent and give it a strong identity.
From the beginning, the Bend enterprise has suffered from a lack of state support. As the assessment team notes, "Unfortunately, OSU- Cascades has not received the level of state investment originally envisioned to operate and build its campus." State funding per full-time-equivalent student has declined 31 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since OSU-Cascades opened. The funding situation is not going to improve anytime soon. Any duplication of effort in Bend by OSU and the UO weakens both institutions at a time when they have a shared interest in efficiency.
Ten years ago, it appeared that the UO would be a better fit for Central Oregon. The COCC faculty strongly felt that way, and the UO private fundraising for offerings in Bend was successful. But that battle ended with OSU in the lead, and now the interests of OSU-Cascades, and particularly its students, will be best-served if the UO steps aside and focuses on its branch campus in Portland.