Oregon University System needs clear leadership

Sometimes, it seems the State Board of Higher Education is still drowning in the wake of Neil Goldschmidt.

Goldschmidt, you may recall, was appointed board president by Gov. Ted Kulongoski in January 2004, and was hailed as the visionary who would lead to the renaissance of Oregon’s public university system. That was all before the Willamette Week revealed that Goldschmidt had sexually abused a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s.

It’s been almost two years since the former governor went down in flames in June of 2004, but no new leader has emerged from the ashes to give the beleaguered university system the vision it desperately needs.

Let’s face it, the Oregon University System is in dire straits, and the forecast for the future is looking pretty grim. Among the problems discussed at the state board’s March meeting were ballooning healthcare and retirement benefit costs, two campuses likely to go broke within a year and declining state funds for the entire system.

No doubt, if the system is to have any hope for a sustainable future, drastic and daring changes are necessary.

The board has begun to consider some major reforms. Among them, closing either Eastern or Western University, pulling OUS out from the state group health insurance plan, and changing the tuition structure at individual universities. But it seems that the current board president, Henry Lorenzen, has not stepped up to engender the cohesiveness of vision that the board needs. While many ideas are being bandied about, the board does not yet seem able to agree on a specific plan for rescuing the state’s universities from financial ruin.

Right now it seems the person producing the most alternatives to the status quo is Jay Kenton, the vice chancellor for Finance and Administration, who is not even a member of the board. It was Kenton who proposed this month changing the way the board provides health insurance and retirement benefits.

Much of the reform currently on the table seems to us a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The reality is that Oregon’s public universities are embarrassingly underfunded, and any serious consideration of pumping more revenue into the system has been neglected by both the state’s lawmakers and those who elect them.

What the Oregon University System needs is a strong leader. One who will rally Oregonians behind valuing public post-secondary education. A leader who will advocate for the benefits of a robust university system to the state’s lawmakers. Someone who will encourage Oregonians to invest in public education, rather than just trying to live within the system’s means. That leadership should come from the state board, because the system can only pinch pennies for so long before it will begin to offer just a second-rate education.