Restructuring Higher Education in Oregon

Jesse Cornett

Editor's note: Jesse Cornett is an assistant to the president at Portland State University. Jeff Alworth is a researcher at PSU's Graduate School of Social Work and is active with the union that represents faculty and other academic professionals. They are two of the three co-founders of BlueOregon.

Jesse: I spent considerable time drafting an initial version of the white paper referred to in the Oregonian recently that talked about Restructuring Portland State University's relationship with the state.  As I worked on it, I tried hard to remain neutral however by no means was I ever dispassionate.  I considered this of the most intellectually stimulating projects I’ve had in a few years.  But at the end of the day, even I remain uncertain that additional freedom from the state will achieve the desired objectives.  You see, I am a product of a quality affordable public higher education (with both my undergraduate and graduate degrees coming from PSU).  My top interest with higher education is making sure that the same doors are open to future generations that were open for me barely over a decade ago.

Blue Oregon Editor Jeff Alworth posted a well-written piece on former UO President Dave Frohnmayer’s writing on the very similar topic recently.  I thought his was well done (both Jeff’s piece and the white paper) but thought Frohnmayer’s article contained a significant flaw in its recommendation that it be approved by the legislature in February.  While the system of higher education needs attention and urgently, to accomplish a fundamental restructure in that short of a timeframe would lead to more problems.  It does not leave enough time for deliberation.  If we are going to make a fundamental change, we must make sure we do it right instead of making sure we do it soon.

When the piece by PSU President Wim Wiewel was publicly released, I asked Jeff if we could jointly write something for Blue Oregon.  We both have deep experience in higher education.  I work for the management at PSU (though only for a wee few more days) and Jeff is an active member of the faculty bargaining unit.

There are problems with the way higher education is governed in Oregon.  The state gives a small fraction of their annual budget to your universities, but retains complete control through legislation and budgets.  When budgets are cut, universities always see the same percentage cut as any state agency, meaning their cuts are an exponentially larger percentage.

The Oregon University System was created in 1929 when there were fewer than 8000 students in Oregon.  During that same 80-year period, over 100 studies, books, or major reports were written about how states should interact with its institutions of higher education.  Maybe before my time in Oregon politics we had a frank discussion about the best way to govern higher education in Oregon, but in the last decade, through two recessions and a change in control of Salem, we haven’t seriously considered the issue. 

As both a product of an affordable system and as the now former lobbyist for Portland State, I applaud the discussion, even back to it’s off the cuff beginning by retired Board Member John VonShlegell just a few months ago.  That said, I’ve yet to either predict the solution to the problem of chronic underfunding  or choose a preferred solution.  Oregon’s universities have to make decisions about their futures.  Should they be like the University of Washington and focus on being a powerful research engine or should they continue to make sure access is of the highest priorities?  Only then can we work toward the ultimate solution.  As Jeff mentioned to me, PSU’s white paper is agnostic to this.

I think it’s time to have a discussion about the future of higher education and it’s funding in Oregon.  While my strongest preference is to make sure the next Jesse Cornett has the opportunity to achieve a high quality affordable public university education in Oregon, I remain open to the idea that with more student aide, tuition could be raised to help achieve excellence.  Open to the idea.  Far from convinced.

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Jeff: Let's start out with a few facts.  The State of Oregon spends $5,647 on every full-time student in college.  That sounds like a lot, but it's 41st in the nation, well below the national average of $7,059.  In all, just 6% of state funds go to higher ed, and the proportion of state money within local universities' budgets continues to decline year by year.  At PSU, the state contributed just 16% to last year's operating budget.  All of this has led university presidents to say we need to re-think the way we fund universities in Oregon.  Last month, former OU head Dave Frohnmayer released his proposal to OHSU-ize the universities, and last week, Wim Wiewel PSU's current President, essentially agreed in the white paper Jesse refers to above. 

For the past 18 months or so, I've been a negotiator for the American Association of University Professors at PSU.  The Association represents 1200 folks at Portland State, including tenure-line professors, fixed-term, untenured faculty, researchers (including me), and academic professionals (lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc. who work on campus).  This position has allowed me to understand a great deal more about the mechanics of a university, and why governance models are so difficult.

The public tends to think of universities as monoliths: they educate young minds.  That's true, but it's only a part of what they do.  In addition to educating undergraduates, universities serve as engines for independent research.  They educate graduate students, training the next generation of scholars.  They are also critical in supporting basic functions in a city.  My own job as a researcher is connected to the School of Social Work.  The School educates social workers and therapists who go on to work with abused children or counsel veterans.  My own research helps the state child welfare agency understand what interventions are effective in helping prevent child abuse.  It is no accident that Portland is considered one of the most livable and well-planned cities in America; the College of Urban and Public Affairs is one of the most famous and ground-breaking of its kind, and graduates find themselves into the bureaucracy that runs this livable city.

Here's the fascinating thing: these different components, while functionally complimentary, are logistically separate, and sometimes in active conflict.  Take the issue of tenure and undergrad instruction.  The trend nationally is to try to stanch red ink by admitting more students.  This is only effective if universities simultaneously find cheaper teachers.  As a consequence, adjunct professors fill in the gaps created by ballooning enrollment.  (At Portland State, there's a middle category of accomplished, Ph.D. professors who work full-time and receive benefits, are hired year after year, but lack the benefits of tenure.  It is rare in this regard.)  But adjunct faculty do nothing to support the other functions of universities--they can't do research, help establish excellent departments, or nurture graduate students.

As a negotiator for AAUP, I represented the people who serve in all these capacities.  We have both a ground-level and 50,000-foot sense of the value of a university.  No one knows better than a researcher how his work will guide policy; no one knows better what a student is learning than her professor. We're also the canaries in the coal mind when funds run dry.  Our salaries have been stagnant for decades, and our benefits have slowly eroded.  In the fall, AAUP agreed to cut salaries, less than a year after it concluded a 16-month negotiation to squeeze out small salary increases.  Yet along with these salary cuts arrive yet more students--5.2% more than in 2008.  No one was complaining--in fact, we ratified the contract to cut salaries with a record "yes" vote.  It's a pleasure to work in higher ed, and while PSU professors need to catch up to their colleagues at other schools, this wasn't the time to make a stand.

However, when I hear various proposals, one thing I'm not hearing is a case made for the critical value of universities.  They provide enormous benefits to cities and states.  They increase personal wealth, and are one of the few investments states can make that actually provide a greater return on the investment--$1.39 for every $1 of taxes spent, according to this recent UV study.  Wiewel's white paper makes some sense.  I think it makes a lot more sense than Frohnmayer's, which seems designed to sacrifice everything for undergraduate education.  But what I'd like to hear is agreement from all interested parties--university administrators, state and local politicians, students, and even regular voters--that starving higher ed has to stop.  The state must spend more.  Educating our young minds, building valuable schools of advanced learning, doing critical research--these are things every Oregonian needs to support. Higher ed is not a luxury, it's an essential service that benefits everyone in the state. No matter what governance structure we decide to adopt, we must recognize this fact. Our future literally depends on it.

Comments

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    Provided that things stay as they are right now, students in high school need to be made more aware of the financial hurdles that accompany the dream of a college education.

  • Joe Hill (unverified)
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    Agreed. But . . .

    Everything you say is true. Still, as the recent health care debacle so clearly illustrates, you not only need to build a political consensus - and this is what you call for explicitly, and it won't be easy - but you also need to be able to crush the entrenched opposition who exist independent of any democratic consensus.

    With respect to constructing a political consensus, one would think that this is a (pardon the pun) no-brainer. The figures to support what you are saying are so clear everywhere in the US and throughout the world. Nevertheless, as you no doubt know, Oregon is just a weird and special case. Oregonians have never valued education very much; they were born of extraction industries and they vaguely resent the fact that they still can't live off of logging and fish.

    Then you've got certain individuals who'll come with a lot of malarkey about learning Chinese and trade and giving everyone a laptop and we really don't need the old style research university anymore. In fact, there's a whole wave of folks who will insist that we can do education (any kind of education) on the cheap. Teachers (any kind of teachers) are paid to much. Tenure is the denial of the discipline of the market. You know the drill.

    Moreover, the graduates of the U. of Oregon and Oregon State U. have, for the past three decades or so, done everything they could to stifle and strangle the growth of Portland State, knowing that this is the only place that a first class (read: very expensive) research university could thrive in Oregon. Even if magically a supermajority of the citizens of Oregon lost their romantic fascination with ignorance and grew to accept the plain truth about what was in their economic and social best interest, the political power in this state would make it very, very difficult to spend the money necessary here in Portland, I think.

    It's obviously the best and right thing to do. I just don't see the road map to do it.

  • (Show?)

    Jesse and Jeff, thanks for putting this issue out for discussion.

    (1) I agree on the importance of our higher ed institutions to bring in research funds, to do research, and to serve generally as engines of economic growth. I also agree that investing in the skills and knowledge of our next generations is a high priority. And I recognize that our existing public higher ed institutions are essential to the communities and economies in which they reside.

    (2) I am skeptical that the economic returns to investments in the educational components of higher ed, either by the state or by individual students, are as great as as they are usually portrayed. Simply put, the costs (not just tuition, but the basic costs) are going up while the returns on investments are going down. See my blog posts “Musings on Higher Ed” and “Frohnmayer’s Higher Ed proposal.”

    (3) I tend to think that, over time, online universities are going to do to the educational component of higher ed what Craig’s list and blogs have done to newspapers. Simply put, the current bricks-and-mortar (often residential) model, although a nostalgic favorite, will increasingly be unable to compete with the newer business model. Even a federal Department of Education study found online higher education to be more effective than traditional brick-and-mortar higher ed.

    (4) I have little confidence in the leadership of public higher ed in Oregon. I have been trying for more than three years to get more higher ed students studying Mandarin and studying abroad in China. Not one university president nor even one Board of Higher Ed member has, to my knowledge, done anything to move these issues ahead. I, therefore, don’t sense any strategic visions for Oregon's future at the heads of our educational enterprises.

    (5) I tend to support moves toward privatization. I think the state should fund targeted research activities and shift over time to higher ed scholarships instead of payments to institutions for education. The scholarships could also be used for online higher ed so long as the student resides in Oregon. Under those conditions, I’m for much more funding of higher ed scholarship.

    But, let the discussion continue. The issue is important.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    Well, I hope your students make better arguments than this.

    Looking at your linked list of states that are also below the mean in state support for higher ed per student, we find such bedraggled educational backwaters as Wisconsin (one of the finest state public higher ed systems, with the flagship in Madison being a world-class institution), Texas (a system with several strong campuses, again with a world-class flagship), Pennsylvania (with Penn State another) and, just above Oregon, Michigan, with the "public ivy" in Ann Arbor and the strong-in-some-areas Michigan State and with Michigan Tech providing an excellent engineering program. Below Oregon is Ohio with several strong schools including one you might have heard of in Columbus, and Montana with an excellent engineering program at Montana State.

    Should all states adopt a Lake Woebegon rule and be required to spend more on higher ed than the mean each year?

    It would also be useful to see the same data side-by-side with household income and incarceration rates and percentage of budgets in each of the ranked states.

    I certainly view with deep skepticism any study that purports to quantify an ROI to a state from higher ed spending, considering such to be in the same league as the many studies funded by sports barons showing why the taxpayers should build them a stadium. Further, I think you harm your case by suggesting that method of evaluating spending on higher ed in the same way that the standardized testing madness has been destructive of primary and secondary education.

    P.S. Why can't Eugene and Corvallis support top research schools? Have you been seen Ithaca, NY (Cornell)?

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    When I started my freshman year at the U. of O. in 1966, tuition and fees were $110 per term. I was raised by a single mother on a waitress salary. Yet educational opportunity was huge. In those days the state of Oregon offered a scholarship to any resident with a 3.5 or better to a public college. Work-study and federal loans at minimal interest under the Nat. Defense Education Act made a college education accessible for all who could handle the academics. The state contribution in 1966 was 80 plus %. The reality is public investment in higher education has collapsed as a total of the costs of state investment. In 03-04 the total percentage was less than 14% at the U. of O.

    Let's face ourselves. As a people we really don't value education for our children in the way we did in the post-war period.

    It looks to me that the economics of education are moving towards a graduated system of community college, four year public, four year private, and access to post graduate, depending in large part on social class and economic access. The only bright spot is the affordability of community colleges.

  • One Problem (unverified)
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    Jesse and Jeff, your youthful experience, excusable it would be if it weren't that you don't give due credit, is showing. The idea of spinning of the state universities as Constitutional corporations is not new. It LAST surfaced in 1990 when Measure 5 passed and significantly reduced the general revenue funding to the state universities. Kitzhaber was not even governor by that time and he too seems to not be responsible in recalling the lessons of history. At that time, pre-blogs, the issue was debated and rejected on the basis of how it would accomplish little in terms of actually improving access to education for working people or reducing costs in a number of forums I attended.

  • (Show?)

    A step in the right direction? Get rid of the the entire Office of the Chancellor.

    • Tim Young, Former OUS Director, Former PSU Student Body President
  • (Show?)

    A thoughtful analysis of the situations and circumstances at PSU. I look forward to learning more and hope Jesse and Jeff will continue their conversation on BO.

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    To be more fair to the point I raised about putting to rest the bureaucracy of the Chancellor's Office, I should start by asking what does the Chancellor's Office do that the campuses could not reasonably do themselves?

  • alcatross (unverified)
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    Well, this isn't a new topic or something is isolated to Oregon. A quick Google will turn up similar calls for more public higher ed funding from most of the states ABOVE the national average here. There's a preview of an entire book published in 2006 here that includes discussions of many of the issues above.

    (BTW, median real household income nationwide has been stagnant for more than a decade and has only grown ~10% since 1989. In addition to also seeing the erosion of our benefits in the private sector - retirement pensions are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. So AAUP members are hardly facing some sort of uniquely dire situation here relative to the rest of us...)

    What isn't talked about above is the significant increase in federal money flowing into higher education nationwide - and how that in itself has contributed to the out-of-control upward spiraling cost of higher education. Or how/why an annual tuition bill of $125 in 1960 had ballooned to $6000 by 2005 - far outpacing the effects of inflation.

    I maintain it a fools errand to just throw more money at this issue without ALSO figuring out how we're going to rein in costs that are only continuing to grow at an unsustainable pace. Otherwise we'll just be reading this same post again in a few years.

  • truffula (unverified)
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    At Portland State, there's a middle category of accomplished, Ph.D. professors who work full-time and receive benefits, are hired year after year, but lack the benefits of tenure. It is rare in this regard.

    18.5% of faculty nationwide are full-time non tenure track. That doesn't seem rare to me. About 31% are tenured or tenure track and the rest are part-time. The trends since 1975 are here.

  • (Show?)

    Alcatross,

    BTW, median real household income nationwide has been stagnant for more than a decade and has only grown ~10% since 1989. In addition to also seeing the erosion of our benefits in the private sector - retirement pensions are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. So AAUP members are hardly facing some sort of uniquely dire situation here relative to the rest of us...

    True enough. But I am not uniquely outraged by our situation; I think wage stagnation is an outrage across the board.

    Truffula,

    18.5% of faculty nationwide are full-time non tenure track. That doesn't seem rare to me. About 31% are tenured or tenure track and the rest are part-time. The trends since 1975 are here.

    A slight clarification. What's unusual about PSU is that there are three categories: tenure line, full-time non-tenure, and adjunct. It's that middle category that is unusual. And PSU's proportion of tenure-line faculty is well below other Ph.D.-granting universities. At PSU, just 39% of the teaching staff is tenured or tenure-track. That's down from 54% in 1996, and well below half of what OU and OSU have.

  • Steve Marx (unverified)
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    "I think wage stagnation is an outrage across the board."

    Unless you are a public employee (Fed or State or CoP) and get nice regular raises regardless of the economy.

  • (Show?)

    This is just a quick comment to Steve's uninformed teabag comment above. Professors entering the field today now often make up 20,000 30,000 even $40,000 more than theit colleagues who have been serving for decades. Salary compression is a real problem and it deserves more than a stupid, ideological retort. We owe more to people who spent a decade earning a PhD than off-hand derision.

  • stacey d Jordan (unverified)
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    Tim Young was a student member on the board of higher ed that was turned down for a reappointment, and has been lurking around higher education for a while trying to get a job now that he's a has been notorious for being awkward.

    Sounds like someone has a little bitterness about not getting a job, rather than any insight about how we ought to restructure higher education.

  • Del (unverified)
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    I agree that it is seriously depressing that we could not get good medical insurance passed.

  • rob nosse (unverified)
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    I read President Frohnmeyer's paper. Nothing I have never heard before. Too me this just feels like higher ed leaders giving up. "The state will never do the right thing so lets practically privatize and then we don't have to worry about it." I am fine with the Higher Education system getting out from under many even most state regulations except for collective bargaining rights and for the ability of the legislature to set tuition. Once the legislature has no role in setting tuition it has no incentive to fund the system properly. It is off the hook. Our government's leaders can rely on the universities raising tuition enough to cover their expenses. I have to worry that this whole move on the part of the OUS system to get out from under the state's control is really just a way to be able to raise tuition with out anyone saying "no your proposed increase is too much."

    THere is no problem in higher ed that more priority/money from state goverment would not cure.

  • Steve Marx (unverified)
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    “This is just a quick comment to Steve's uninformed teabag comment above. Professors entering the field today now often make up 20,000 30,000 even $40,000 more than theit colleagues who have been serving for decades. Salary compression is a real problem and it deserves more than a stupid, ideological retort. We owe more to people who spent a decade earning a PhD than off-hand derision.”

    OK, now I am confused. We are paying new professors plenty, but regular professors not enough? Perhaps it is because the new professors have a skill set that is of greater value. For example, a person teaching English lit for the past 30 years may not be worth as much in the market place as a PhD in alternative energy sources.

    If you are talking about salary compression, it happens.
    I think the highest paid player in the NFL is Matthew Stafford who is a rookie. In the private sector, some engineers who lag behind on jobs skills (like still programming in BASIC and refusing to learn anything else) are probably not going to be making as much as a fresh JAVA or C++ programmer.

    In addition, some fields are deemed worth more in remunerative terms than others (a la the example above.) I mean if we have few alt energy PhDs and a surplus of English lit majors, I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect a bidding war for the alternative fuel guy while the English lit PhD languishes.

    Before you get dismissive, maybe you should make your point a bit better - Like maybe instead of calling names addressing the merits of an issue.

  • alcatross (unverified)
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    Jeff Alworth commented: But I am not uniquely outraged by our situation; I think wage stagnation is an outrage across the board.

    Be careful about your outrage, Jeff - otherwise some people here at BO may start calling you a 'teabagger'...

  • (Show?)

    I haven't had time to leap back in here. First, thanks to Jeff for going along with my idea to do a post together. We come from very different places on this issue. We agree on many issues, one of which is faculty salaries. They are abysmal. The salary for many of our new teachers would be a perfectly fine salary if the jobs required a Bachelor's and not a Doctorate.

    Anyhow, thanks for all the comments. Oh yeah and one thing. While I disagree with his position, I was impressed by Tim Young's willingness to affix his name to a bold post.

  • (Show?)

    Stacey Jordan:

    I'm sorry you feel that way. I was just trying to make a point. If you knew me, or of me accurately, you would know I was a cantankerous board member. Where awkward comes from, lol, I have no idea. They needed the leadership and I am sure I pissed off some but if I agreed with everything put before me I would not have been doing my job. I told them to form a PAC back in 2002.

    FYI: Kitzhaber appointed me and Kulongoski chose another former student body president -- a really good one. I went to grad. school. Worked out great.

  • (Show?)

    FYI:

    Only a person who worked in the Chancellor's Office would even know of, or remember, what "Stacey Jordan" said in personal attacks against me. I make a comment about the Chancellor's Office that many share and see how angry they get.

    I expected a more professional reaction.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    Nice thought on the value of college teaching here, with a link to a great article:

    http://www.samefacts.com/2009/12/education-policy/please-audit-me/

  • (Show?)

    Steve, salary compression works like this. Say professor X get hired at $50,000. Because PSU and Oregon in general pay professors so abysmally, she is earning, say $55,000 a decade later. But, since the standard for new hires continues at a far faster rate, the only way the department can make a new hire is to offer professor Y $60,000. Ten years later, professor Y has finally cracked $60k. But Professor Z is hired into the department at $75,000. All across PSU we have accomplished, full professors earning tens of thousands less than incoming assistant professors. This is not a business vs. English issue, it's an Oregon vs. the rest of the country issue.

    As I said earlier, this comment was reactionary, dismissive and just stupid:

    Unless you are a public employee (Fed or State or CoP) and get nice regular raises regardless of the economy.

    Sometimes I lose my cool in the face of blind ideology. Sorry about that.

  • Alena (unverified)
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    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Alena

    http://grantsforeducation.info

  • Steve Marx (unverified)
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    "Ten years later, professor Y has finally cracked $60k. But Professor Z is hired into the department at $75,000."

    One thing you forgot, Professor X can leave and if they have continued to keep their jobs skills current should be able to get a $75K salary at a new place. Once PSU starts losing professors, then they will have to pay more for all.

    Sorry, but this is a new economy, workers and their employers are not joined at the hip for 50 years anye more. THe days of getting a job and doing the same thing for 40 years and getting more every year automaticaly are gone, unless you have a job at USPS or something similar. We need to continually gorw and justify our worth if we want to be reawarded for it.

    I am not trying to be antagonistic either and appreciate it takes a long time to get a PhD, however realize that pay may not be the only reward in some professions like social work.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)
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    Sometimes I lose my cool in the face of blind ideology. Sorry about that.

    Me too. The Democratic Party must drive you insane! I guess all the sell-outs of late could be seen as "not blind ideology".

    Sorry if I don't say "thank you" for the improvement.

  • HANSOM BOY (unverified)
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  • WORLD BLOG (unverified)
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  • HAPPY BLOG (unverified)
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