Opening Western Oregon University to the world

The Oregonian
By the Editorial Board

Retiring President John Minahan created an international presence, along with striking success in serving first-generation college students

Western Oregon University, in Monmouth, has long been a problematic part of the state higher education system, going back to its former identity as the Oregon College of Education. Uncertain enrollment and finances often drew the attention of system downsizers, who would wonder aloud whether the state even needed a campus just up the road from Corvallis.

But lately, WOU’s finances have improved sharply, its enrollment is up considerably, and it has become a national leader in the successful retention of first-generation and minority college students. Under the leadership of President John Minahan, who recently announced his retirement this summer, its student body went past 5,000 and then 6,000, finding students in new places and intensifying efforts to keep them on campus and successful. Last year, Education Trust honored Western as having the lowest Hispanic graduation gap in the country.

“We ended up getting a lot of recognition for stuff we should have been doing normally,” Minahan said this week, “so I was a little embarrassed by that.”

Since taking office in 2005, Minahan has expanded and strengthened student counseling, as well as strategies he calls “recruiting families,” including sending admissions officers to high schools to offer immediate admission to Western. The university has recruited bilingual faculty and devised tutoring to help students whose first spoken language is Spanish and first written language is English. It offers the Western Promise, guaranteeing that the freshman tuition level will hold for all four years, with tuition rising only for incoming freshmen.

And Western has come out of what was a $3 million hole.

A large element of that gain was Minahan’s dramatically increasing the enrollment of Chinese and other foreign students, who pay the out-of-state tuition that subsidizes the education of Oregon students. WOU developed relationships with about 30 schools in China, learned to work the visa process, and worked to make the foreign students comfortable with rousing parties at the president’s house that sometimes brought the police on noise complaints.

The benefits, explained Minahan, weren’t just financial.

He says Arab and Chinese students “closed down our library at 2 in the morning. The American kids didn’t. The competition made the American kids better.”

The process also included faculty exchanges, with six or seven international faculty on campus at a time.

“What John Minahan has done is little short of remarkable,” says Oregon higher education chancellor George Pernsteiner. “He has created the most ethnically diverse student body in the entire system. To do that in Monmouth, Oregon, and not Portland, Oregon, is quite an achievement.”

Minahan leaves a mark of resourcefulness, responsiveness and entrepreneurship increasingly vital in a higher education system struggling with state underfunding, increasing demand and the rapidly rising bite of PERS payments. To Minahan, a presidency isn’t a checklist of institutional obligations.

“What really counts,” he says, “is doing all the things necessary for these kids to have a good life.”

And maybe one other thing: “I don’t think anybody’s going to be trying to close Western any time soon.”

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