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.
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.