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Western Oregon examining school governance options

MONMOUTH — Western Oregon University will retain its identity while the Oregon University System splits up this summer.

Western Oregon University

Western Oregon University

January 07, 2014

MONMOUTH — Western Oregon University will retain its identity while the Oregon University System splits up this summer.

The separation of state universities is the result of Senate Bill 270, which was passed by the Legislature last year.

The University of Oregon led the charge, said WOU President Mark Weiss.

"The U of O has thought for quite a number of years that it would be a much better asset for the state as an independent institution," Weiss said.

The university would still be a state institution, but have an independent board of trustees.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Portland State University also was interested in having a board of trustees focused on its institution, Weiss added.

Once it was clear this bill would move forward, Oregon State University President Ed Ray decided it was in OSU's best interest to follow suite on the path toward independence.

"Financial sustainability is the reason why the OUS, I believe, split up," Weiss said. "Those schools that could have separate boards would be able to increase philanthropy and simply do more with less state funding."

Weiss did not think breaking up the OUS was an approach that served Oregonians best, he said.

"Nevertheless, I'm not an expert in academia by any means," Weiss said. "What has happened is indeed the bill passed, and we are where we are."

What remains are the four technical and regional universities: Eastern Oregon, Southern Oregon, Oregon Institute of Technology and WOU.

These four are left with three options, Weiss said. They may form a consortium and share one board; become a branch campus of a larger university, such as OSU; or have an independent board.

Weiss said students, faculty and staff have been vocal and unanimous in their desire not to be a branch or affiliated campus of a larger university.

"I whole-heartedly agree that Western is unique and different compared to the larger institutions," Weiss said, noting the smaller class sizes particularly in lower division courses. "We've had many students that have transferred from the large institutions and have told me what a blessing it has been for them to finally come to an institution where the professors actually know who they are. … That's what we're all about."

Weiss said he wants to see how the other technical and regional universities handle the situation before he commits to a governance structure. The state Legislature will meet in February, and may define or redefine some of the rules of governance, he said.

"Given the hand that we're currently dealt, it appears to me that the best option for Western is the separate governance structure," Weiss said. "But I am very interested in seeing if a consortium approach could work."

For that to work, he would want the state to dedicate additional funding to EOU and SOU, both of which have struggled financially. State funding has dropped in the last 20 years for higher education, Weiss said.

"We're talking less than 30 percent coming from the state," he said. "Twenty years ago, it was 30 percent coming from the students."

Because of Western's fiscal prudence, Weiss said, the university has finished the last year with among the strongest balance sheets of any of the universities.

Weiss also would like to see if OIT will elect to strike out on its own.

Each of the four smaller universities will present its five-year fiscal plans to the State Board of Education's committee on academic strategies. The meeting begins Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Portland State University Academic and Student Recreation Center, Suite 515, 1800 SW Sixth Ave., Portland.

What Changed?

• The Oregon University System had one board of trustees to govern all seven state universities. Now, the big three universities will have their own independent boards, while the smaller four will have to decide how to move forward. Many shared services will need to be attained elsewhere, including: attorneys, payroll and internal audits.

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