Independence Growing At Oregon’s Small Universities

Welcome to Monmouth sign
Western Oregon University has about 6,200 students. The population of Monmouth, OR is about 9,500. Lucy Ohlsen/OPB.

Oregon Public Broadcasting
June 6, 2014


Oregon’s universities are going to start operating independently. That’s after almost a century of operating in a centralized system. The larger schools became independent first. Now, the smaller universities are starting to create their own institutional boards.

Eight students eat popcorn during a working meeting in Monmouth Oregon. All of them are among the first in their families to attend college. They’re making plans for a program most of them participated in during their first year at Western Oregon University: summer bridge.

Kimball said, “Coming here to Western, you meet this huge group of people who are in similar situations, and they also didn’t know where they were supposed to be at. So you kind of create this family bond.”

Angela Kimball is a Criminal Justice major from Reno, Nevada. She picked Western largely because of the support it offers first-generation students. The Summer Bridge program for freshmen is an example of how the school helped her.

“Western beat out U of O. Sorry Ducks!,” she said.

Kimball and her peers say they’re excited about the recent changes at the state level of university governance. Soon, all seven universities — big and small — will have their own institutional boards.

Kimball explained, “Us having a board down here, we’re going to have more say with what happens with our own university.”

Western Oregon University student Angela Kimball.
Western Oregon University student Angela Kimball. Lucy Ohlsen/OPB.

According to the Oregon University System website, the 11 to 15 member boards will hire and fire presidents, approve tuition increases, budgets, and draft mission statements. The boards will include a student representative, a faculty member, and a staff member. Boards will also likely include alumni, community members, and representatives from academic areas that are of special interest to the universities.

Western Oregon University president Mark Weiss wasn’t thrilled when the bigger schools — University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State —argued for their own governing boards.

Weiss said, “I was perfectly satisfied with the way it was. Seven universities under an Oregon University System.”

But after the big universities broke off, Weiss and the presidents at Eastern Oregon, Oregon Tech and Southern Oregon saw there could be advantages to having independent boards. Mary Cullinan is Southern Oregon University’s president.

Cullinan said, “There was really strong feeling that if we’re going to make a change, let’s make a change that creates powerful advocacy on the ground in our community.”

The state isn’t giving the universities total freedom. A new group called the “HECC” — the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission — will maintain statewide oversight and provide some shared services.

Back in 1929, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education was created to “eliminate unnecessary duplication” across universities. Ben Cannon is the Executive Director of the HECC. He says the schools all competed against each other at the time—and it wasn’t a healthy competition.

Cannon said, “The thinking of the legislature was ‘We’ve got to get this under control. To do so, we’re going to create a single system with a single board and a single chancellor.’ “

The new governance system is a little bit like going back in time. But the hope is that today, the universities will be able to take advantage of their independence, and still cooperate to meet broader state goals.

Cannon said, “Increased differentiation could become really positive for the state. Where you have certain institutions that become even more focused on the access portion of a university mission. And other universities that are allowed to become even more focused on a sort of excellence or quality and research.”

In some ways, differentiation already exists — like Western’s reputation for serving first-generation, minority and low-income students particularly well. Back at the summer bridge planning meeting, another student, Joleen Braasch says she hopes the independent board will help Western gain recognition around the state.

Braasch said, “It’s always U of O and PSU and OSU and you never hear about Western. But I think we’ve been growing a lot, especially in the last couple years years. Like, we’re going to be getting a new college of education building. It’s things like that that people don’t understand and don’t realize. Nobody talks about Western. I think we’re going to be getting more out in the open now.”

PSU, OSU and the U of O will have their boards in place this year. The four technical and regional universities will have theirs approved by July 2015.

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