Western Oregon University can make a strong case for being the state’s best-run public university, but its future will hinge on two significant changes.
One is the selection of a new president next year to succeed Mark Weiss, who is retiring. The other is the transition next summer to WOU’s having its own governing board, instead of being under the statewide Board of Higher Education.
Led by the University of Oregon and Portland State University, Oregon’s public universities pushed for more autonomy. One rationale is that the individual institutional boards can be more successful raising money, given the Oregon Legislature’s relatively meager investment in higher education.
With that autonomy comes great fiscal and educational responsibility. Oregonians have first-hand experience with what can happen under a weak board of directors: Cover Oregon. The health-insurance exchange’s board members lacked the expertise, experience and inquisitiveness to oversee that complex project.
The University of Oregon also got off to an awkward board transition last summer. About five weeks after the new, independent UO board took office, university President Michael Gottfredson abruptly resigned.
WOU might be better-positioned. Although the board won’t assume power until next summer, the members have been confirmed by the Oregon Senate and will participate in the search for a new president. The state Board of Higher Education officially will run the presidential selection process, giving the WOU board members time to get oriented.
That board has a diverse array of leadership and management experience. Its members include former Gov. Ted Kulongoski; former WOU President John Minahan; Maj. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, Oregon’s adjutant general; Gloria Ingle, a council member and elder with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians; Cecelia Koontz, a Monmouth city councilor and the business manager for the Central School District; Dr. Jeanette Mladenovic, provost at Oregon Health & Science University; and former state administrator and legislator Lane Shetterly, a Dallas lawyer.
Mark Weiss will leave the new president and board with a solid foundation. By some measures, WOU is in the best financial shape among the state universities. Meanwhile, the other two regional universities — Southern and Eastern Oregon universities — are struggling. WOU’s enrollment is about 6,200 students and is projected to keep growing.
Many WOU students are the first in their family to attend college, and many are low-income. WOU has a diverse student body as the most popular state university for Oregon Hispanic students and the second-most-popular for African American and American Indian students.
Founded in 1856, WOU is Oregon’s oldest public university. For generations, it primarily was a teachers college — Oregon College of Education — but has evolved into a comprehensive liberal arts university. Only about a third of current students are in the College of Education.
WOU’s adaptations to 21st century include adding degree options that emphasize hands-on job skills, while still maintaining classes with an average size of about 25 students.
Western Oregon University remains an excellent institution with an intriguing future.
Go to wou.edu/board to read about the Western Oregon University’s presidential search and the new board of trustees.