Proposed PSU-OHSU bill moves to House

A proposal to integrate Portland State and Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) into a single institution moved one step closer to discussion in the Oregon House of Representatives this week.

The bill’s name assignment, House Bill 2560, marks the official introduction of the bill, which now awaits possible discussion.

The proposal would convert PSU into a public corporation under an expansion of the board that oversees OHSU, a public corporation. Over a period of 10 years, PSU and OHSU would synchronize operations, creating a large hybrid university that would combine PSU’s liberal arts and general education focus with the medical research-based OHSU.

Portland State President Dan Bernstine and OHSU President Peter Kohler both oppose the idea, saying combining the institutions would be expensive, inefficient and irrelevant.

It is not the first time the legislature has seen this proposal. Mitch Greenlick, a Democrat who represents Northwest Portland and Washington County in Salem, introduced the same idea as House Bill 2628 in 2003.

This time, however, he has signed on supporters from both sides of the aisle. Oregon City Republican Linda Flores co-sponsored the bill, with support from Republicans Mac Sumner of Molalla and John Dallum of The Dalles, as well as Democrats Robert Ackerman from Eugene, Steve March of Portland and Chuck Riley of Hillsboro.

The legislators say combining the universities would create synergy that would spur economic growth as well as boosting an Oregon higher education institution in national rankings.

The proposal was the first bill Greenlick introduced as a freshman legislator.

"Our city cannot expect to be the economic engine of the Northwest if we do not take drastic steps to improve our local colleges and universities," he said in 2003. As then, Greenlick calls the plan "inevitable."

If and when the bill gets a hearing, PSU representatives will testify in opposition, said Debbie Murdoch, assistant to President Bernstine.

"At a time when the institutions are planning for the future in a reduced funding climate, it’s difficult to focus on structural changes that would take a lot of time and attention," Murdoch said.

According to Governor Kulongoski’s proposed budget, both PSU and OHSU face budget decreases – 5.6 percent for PSU and 40 percent for OHSU.

"We have completely different missions, and changing the infrastructure is very expensive," Murdoch said. "We are happy being governed by the Oregon University System right now."

Portland State is the largest public university in Oregon, with more than 24,000 students and 3,000 faculty and staff in Fall Term. OHSU’s student population doesn’t reach the 3,000 mark, but has an operating budget many times over PSU’s.

"Just because you can put those two things together and create mega numbers for U.S. News & World Report doesn’t make it a sound thing to do," Bernstine told the Portland Business Journal. He said current partnerships between PSU and OHSU make a full-fledged conversion unnecessary.

Kohler opposes the merger on the grounds that it would decrease each university’s flexibility. OHSU must be able to respond to health industry changes quickly, he told the Portland Business Journal, leading to OHSU’s withdrawal from the Oregon University System in 1995.