OSU Beavers dammed by deficit

Last Thursday, the big zeppelin crashed and burned. Not my zeppelin, not PSU’s zeppelin. No, this was the big blimp from Corvallis that hit bottom. Oregon State University revealed it is $19 million in the hole!

A deficit of $19 million – talk about shock. For the past three years, the Beavers have been pumping up their balloon of bravado. They have been crowing about how they engineered a dramatic resurgence. They positioned themselves as being well along on the comeback trail after years of languishing deep in debt, of suffering a feeble athletic program and watching steadily declining enrollments. Now it appears this great leap forward constituted a grand delusion, a game of sleight of hand, a balloon which took only one small pin-prick to deflate.

I was one who felt a grudging admiration for the guts the OSU folks showed in adversity. Apparently doomed to slide regressively down that slippery slope, they suddenly started pulling themselves up by their bootstraps through sheer audacity. They invested big bucks in a television campaign. They hired a big-name football coach. He put together an amazing football season of 11 victories to one defeat, made national headlines. The university saw enrollment rise, turned disconsolate alumni into frenzied boosters.

My admiration was a grudging one because I remember too well the threatening events of only a couple of years ago, when it appeared Oregon State was headed for the ashcan. One of the proposals floating in the air to “save” OSU was to cancel out Portland State University and convert it to a mere Portland branch of Beaverville. Happily, that idea got squelched. But is it entirely dead? With this latest calamity in Corvallis, I would not be surprised to see the threat resurface.

It has been no secret that, behind the scenes, the future prosperity of OSU has been long in doubt. Higher education faces a fundamental problem. The size and shape of Oregon pretty much dictate that the state can support adequately only two major universities. In today’s world, one of them needs to be located in Portland, close to the center of industry and business, big enough so students can find jobs and embark on careers.

The state does not need two major universities to locate midway down the Willamette Valley, especially when situated only 40 miles apart. That made some sense only when Oregon functioned as an agriculture-dominated state.

Beaverville did build a distinguished and enduring engineering reputation. But as times changed, the luster faded from such historic OSU majors as home economics and agriculture. Slipping away were former big majors such as pharmacy and veterinary medicine. The university had even maintained what became an anachronism, a school of mines.

The biggest problem with OSU, the biggest obstacle to building back its enrollment, is its location. Corvallis has to be the most boring town in the West for its size. Albany, a few miles away, plays like a hectic metropolis compared to Corvallis. Even rather mild Lebanon can generate more excitement than Corvallis. There’s a bit of technology industry in Corvallis, but generally speaking all is dullsville. The only thing going on there is the university. This is the city that took the incredibly backward step of banning all smoking in bars and restaurants.

There are only two good things you can say about Corvallis. One, it’s a great home town for people looking for the quiet life. If you want to avoid excitement at all costs, locate in Corvallis.

Two, it is only a short hop to the coast. The idea that the university would be able to build a dominating football program proved, alas, only a fleeting dream. This year the team appears doomed to a losing season. Last Saturday it got utterly skunked by a weak sister, Arizona State. OSU has yet to beat a grade-A opponent this year. Beaver football is proving similar to the Florida Marlins of baseball. They bought one great season. Now they are out of cash.

The dynamism of their coach, Dennis Erickson, and their willingness to fund the football program and build a fancy new practice facility worked in the short run. But the bulk of the good football players come from California. The monotony of life in Corvallis does not appeal to athletes accustomed to urban excitement.

Besides football, another obvious attempt to save it has been to award OSU the university branch in Bend. Supposedly, Oregon State had the best presentation. It would not be easy to convince me of that. I believe Bend is viewed as a Band-Aid for Oregon State. Something to stop the bleeding, or at least slow it down. Bend is an area with pace. Having a campus there could prove the salvation of OSU.

The Corvallis campus itself is becoming a liability. Some of its buildings creak with age, some are not energy efficient, some not the right size for present-day needs; a number have been declared not sesmically safe.

How does OSU propose to surmount its staggering deficit? There have been vague comments about restructuring. We got the usual generalities about new sources of revenue, cutting administrative costs, collapsing colleges and eliminating departments. There is talk of delaying faculty pay raises, a suggestion not playing well with the professors.

OSU counts many thousands of loyal alumni who become hysterical at the smallest glimmer of a winning football team. They represent considerable political pressure and they are not about to let their franchise of a degree from OSU go into limbo.

OSU apparently suffers grievous administrative defects. Beaverville officials reportedly do not understand why they can not balance their budget, while Portland State and the University of Oregon do this successfully. Maybe they should consult George Pernsteiner, Portland State’s vice president for finance and administration. He seems to know where to make the right X’s and O’s.

I have no idea how Oregon State can be saved, or if it can. A deficit of $19 million represents a crushing load for a university which seems only to be fading. Maybe Bend will help OSU turn the corner. But please, no greedy eyes focusing on Portland State.