A world-class university?

After attending an economic summit in December 2002, state Rep. Mitch Greenlick was struck with an idea to create a top-level university in Portland by merging Portland State and Oregon Health and Sciences University.

After attending an economic summit in December 2002, state Rep. Mitch Greenlick was struck with an idea to create a top-level university in Portland by merging Portland State and Oregon Health and Sciences University.

With the state budget providing less and less money for higher education, Greenlick, who has unsuccessfully tested his idea two previous times, said he feels 2007 could be the year his state Legislature colleagues start to take his proposal seriously.

“I think it’s more important than ever ,” said Greenlick, who taught at both Portland State and OHSU before entering politics. “As long as the state isn’t funding these schools adequately, they need some room to maneuver. PSU is getting completely screwed over.”

After Greenlick submitted House Bill 3024, the Oregon University System commissioned a $170,000 study to examine the viability of the bill’s purpose: removing Portland State from the Oregon University System (OUS) and ultimately merging PSU and OHSU.

Greenlick and others said they wouldn’t know whether a merger would create an improved PSU until the study is complete, which is expected by the end of April.

Unlike previous bills, there are also provisions in HB 3024 that could create new local taxes to help fund the merger. The bill mandates that the newly formed parent body over PSU, the Portland Metropolitan Universities Board of Directors, form a subcommittee to explore possible tax options.

Greenlick said he didn’t know how a new tax would work and that there could be multiple taxes to pay for different university needs.

“Will Oregonians be willing to embrace a new tax?” said OUS Chancellor George Pernsteiner. “It has a certain amount of intrigue.”

Greenlick, a Democrat from Northwest Portland, said he hopes that combining Portland State and OHSU would create a university capable of competing with top urban research institutions such as the University of Washington and the University of Michigan, both academically and financially.

“We could increase our funding streams by enhancing research-funding capabilities,” Greenlick said, adding he expects PSU’s funding woes to ease once it “is out of the clutches of OUS.”

While there seem to be few people adamantly against the concept of a merger, some remain concerned that PSU’s culture and mission would clash with OHSU’s.

“OHSU has a very specific mission regarding health, teaching and wellness. It’s a very focused mission,” said Kirby Dyess, vice chair for the State Board of Higher Education. “I think the missions of the two institutions are very different. It’s not clear to me that by putting OHSU and PSU together we’ll get 1 + 1 = 3 or 4 or 5.”

Dyess, a private investor and former vice president of Intel Capital, the chipmaker’s investment arm, said that while she remains skeptical, she isn’t opposed to change. However, educators at both universities are worried about a merger.

“I want to do the best thing for Portland and the state,” she said. “Almost to a person, they say ‘We’re afraid you are going to devalue the mission.'”

Among the critics of the merger is outgoing PSU President Daniel Bernstine, who has accepted a job at the Law School Admissions Council in Newtown, Pa. starting in July.

“I don’t think it would be in the best interests of Portland State,” Bernstine said.

Greenlick and the bill’s supporters argue that something must be done because the current system simply isn’t working.

Under the new bill, Greenlick said Portland State would instantly gain more stature by having an academic medical center and would immediately become ranked among the top 150 universities in the world.

Greenlick also said he sees numerous opportunities to create new schools, such as a School of Public Health and a School of Mathematics, by combining existing programs.

“The metropolitan area needs a world-class university to compete with other cities,” Greenlick said.

Pernsteiner said that while many people he talks to in Portland are in favor of creating a university similar to UW in Portland, he warned that emulating Seattle’s success would not be an overnight process.

“It took them more than 40 years of investment,” he said. “They are one of the top two research universities in the country, and it took them 30 to 40 years.”

Many officials, including State Board of Higher Education President Henry Lorenzen, declined to comment until the report comes out.

“The state board has not reviewed this matter yet,” he said. “Hopefully there could be a very comprehensive study.”

In 2003, Greenlick’s initial attempt-House Bill 2628-died before it could be voted on. Greenlick wrote a similar bill for the 2005 session that was also quickly shot down.

This year’s bill, HB 3024, would call for Portland State to be removed from the OUS in 2009 and placed under the OHSU Board of Directors.

The OHSU board would be renamed the Portland Metropolitan Universities Board of Directors and expanded from 10 members to 15, including one student and both university presidents.

“The overall idea has a lot of traction,” said state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, chair of the Education Subcommittee on Higher Education, where the bill started before being referred to the Ways and Means committee Wednesday. “Mitch has sold me on the vision.”

“I’m looking for any kind of bold move to focus us on higher ed and investing in it,” Buckley said. “The state has not proven trustworthy as a partner in education. This session is vital.”

Portland State would become a public corporation and, unlike OHSU, would still be subject to public records law and current labor agreements.

A public corporation is an entity created by the state to carry out public missions and services. It runs much like a private business but retains key principles of public accountability and fundamental public policy.

PSU becoming a public corporation would clear the way for a merger with OHSU, which left OUS 12 years ago to become an independent, public corporation. The Board of Directors would have until Oct. 1, 2013 to develop a plan to merge the two institutions.

There would be an assessment 10 years after the bill took effect, at which time the board would decide whether to continue implementing the merger or allow PSU to remain an independent, public corporation.

Until such a merger occurs, PSU would be allocated funds by the Portland Metropolitan Universities Board using the same formula the State Board of Higher Education currently employs. The state Legislature would then provide PSU funds based on that formula, much as it already does.

The latest bill has already drawn much more attention than its predecessors. The OUS commissioned the study by the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, an education research and consulting firm led by University of Pennsylvania Professor Robert Zemsky.

“We got one of the heavyweights, if you will,” Pernsteiner said, referring to the consultant. “We asked them to take a look at mergers across the country. Sometimes you learn more from those that weren’t successful.”

The report will look at a number of factors, including the costs and benefits of merging the two institutions and the money needed to improve both universities after a merger. The report will also include an examination of how a merger would serve students and how the culture and missions of both schools could be integrated.

“Every time I came to talk to everyone they kept saying that no one has studied this. I think we need to have an external report that gives it some legitimacy,” Greenlick said, adding that his main hope is that removing PSU from OUS would ease the university’s budget woes. “That study may say this is the dumbest thing ever and that would end it for now.”