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Ore. university independence push hits snag

Published On: Jun 16 2013 07:30:25 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 16 2013 07:41:40 PM CDT
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SALEM, Ore. (AP) - A push by two of Oregon's largest universities to break free from the statewide university system has hit a snag amid renewed opposition from some of the smaller, regional schools.

University of Oregon and Portland State University insist they can bring in big checks from donors and elevate their prestige if they can loosen the chains that tie them to the State Board of Higher Education. After initially opposing the idea, Oregon State University said it might be interested in similar independence.

Some of the regional schools, however, worry they'll be left with higher bills and less flexibility if the big schools begin reporting to their own local governing boards. The regionals are now asking for similar independence.

"We'd like to have the same playing field as all the institutions, having it be equitable across all the platforms," said Tim Seydel, vice president for university advancement and admissions at Eastern Oregon University. "We're interested in what the impact's going to be in the overall system, to be sure we can provide services to students and a quality education."

They have a powerful ally in Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat and co-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, where the bill has been parked since April 22.

Buckley, whose district includes Southern Oregon University, is pressing for changes that would satisfy the regional schools. Southern, along with Eastern Oregon University and the Oregon Institute of Technology are working together, Buckley said, while Western Oregon University is staying out of the fight.

Advocates for the larger schools are nervously watching the calendar as the Legislature's July 13 deadline to adjourn draws closer.

"They risk unwinding a lot of good work that's been done already, and they're putting this legislation in jeopardy," said Sen. Mark Hass, a Beaverton Democrat and a central player in writing and negotiating the bill.

There's plenty of time to work out their differences, Buckley said, "but it's going to take some give from the governor and from the advocates for the larger institutions to get this done."

The bill would give UO and PSU independent boards immediately, with an option for OSU to follow suit in the fall. They'd have authority to hire and fire the president and take on debt and limited power to set tuition.

The State Board of Higher Education and the Oregon University System would continue overseeing the schools that don't have independent boards. The Higher Education Coordinating Commission would have authority to approve academic programs and the budget requests to the Legislature to avoid the universities fighting with each other over money and territory.

"For us to be a globally competitive city, people always say we need a great institution," said Portland State University President Wim Wiewel. "I would say we are a very good university, but indeed we're not as great as we have the potential to be. This is one of the structural mechanisms to help us get there faster."

The smaller universities have two primary concerns - money and equity.

They fear higher costs for administrative services if the large schools begin handling their own administrative services like payroll, human resources, risk management and auditing. By pooling these costs, the large schools, in effect, subsidize the smaller ones. The seven universities also share a sort of internal bank and might face lower credit ratings and investment earnings if the larger schools pull out their money.

Officials on both sides of the debate say there are so many variables that it's hard to estimate how much it will cost the smaller schools. The regional schools want to extend the time for continuing shared services; the bigger ones fear that would delay their ability to sell bonds and begin reaping the benefits of independence.

Gov. John Kitzhaber believes the state already has authority to move money around and avoid a financial hit to the smaller universities, said Tim Raphael, a spokesman for Kitzhaber.

The regional universities say they should have the same right to create their own boards if they think it's in their best interests, without having to go back to the Legislature for authority.

They fear they'll be at a disadvantage, especially if Oregon State opts for its own board and leaves just the four regional schools to be governed by the State Board of Higher Education and the Oregon University System.

But Kitzhaber and other key advocates of university independence are weary of rushing to include the regional schools without the extensive debate and research that's preceded the push for bigger schools.

"I'm not so sure if a university board is the best thing for Southern Oregon or OIT," Hass said. "It might be the best, but we haven't done the due diligence yet."

The smaller schools dismiss that view.

"They feel like they have their own institutions' best interests at heart, and they're fully capable of making the decisions that would be best for their institution," Buckley said.

Last year, a group of wealthy donors including Phil Knight, the Nike founder and UO benefactor, Tim Boyle, chief executive of Columbia Sportswear, and former UO Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny, created a political action committee to advocate for university independence. Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence has than $445,000 in the bank.

They said at the time they had no specific plans for the money, but it could be used for a ballot measure if the Legislature doesn't act.

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The bill is SB 270. Contact or follow AP writer Jonathan J. Cooper at http://twitter.com/jjcooper

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