Painting a picture of disinvestment

“I was a historian who fell into bad company and became a journalist,” David Sarasohn told the assembled crowd at Portland State’s Native American Community Center on Wednesday.

“I was a historian who fell into bad company and became a journalist,” David Sarasohn told the assembled crowd at Portland State’s Native American Community Center on Wednesday. It’s a background befitting the author of “Failing Grade: Oregon’s Higher Education System Goes Begging,” a book in which he chronicles the last quarter-century of the state’s educational system with remarkable acumen.

Sarasohn, an associate editor at The Oregonian, spoke before an audience that included PSU professors, Oregon University System board members, student representatives and a member of the Legislature. His hour-long keynote address focused on the state’s continued policy failures and disinvestment in higher education, as well as the pivotal role that Senate Bill 242 (SB242) could play in putting OUS back on track.

The senate bill, which goes before the Legislature in February, would permit OUS to act as an autonomous agency, granting universities greater freedom in spending tuition dollars on staff and infrastructure.

“Historically, whenever there have been budget cuts, Oregon has always cut its higher education budget quicker and harder than other states,” Sarasohn said, adding that Oregon also has a history of cutting educational spending even when other states are not.

In the past 25 years, funding for Oregon State prisons has surpassed the state’s investment in higher education. With the state economy in turmoil and further educational cuts expected, OUS has stated that university control over tuition dollars is the only way to deal with increasing enrollment and shrinking budgets.

In addition to having to educate more students with the same amount of staff, Oregon’s public universities had a deferred maintenance backlog of over $650 million as of 2007, a figure that has since grown. Even with increasing enrollment, growing class sizes and facilities falling into disrepair, Oregon universities are unable to spend their own tuition dollars on educating students without legislative approval.

During the lecture, Sarasohn offered some historical context to the state’s disinvestment in higher education over the past two and a half decades.

 “Part of our problem here in Oregon is that we’re in a historic situation where for years we had timber jobs that could support families without a higher education,” Sarasohn said. “It was thought of as optional if someone wanted more than that, and as the reality of the situation has changed, the attitude has lagged behind it.”

As SB242 gains momentum, little has been said of what involvement students will have in tuition-setting measures, should the bill pass. David Yaden, a member of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education, elaborated on possible changes to the tuition-setting process under a restructured university system.

“The tuition-setting process as it exists now is rather opaque and not overly friendly to students…Under this restructuring, the process will not increase the likelihood that tuition will be raised,” he added, emphasizing that its goal would be greater transparency. 

With the control measures and proposed OUS restructuring absent from SB242—to be added if and when the bill passes through Legislature—there exists great potential for growing pains and power struggles between Oregon’s universities, according to Yaden.

While the restructuring of the university system doesn’t guarantee an end to the steadily increasing tuition that the state has seen in the past three years, it would place the onus for such decisions back with educators, rather than the state legislature, he said. ?