PSU-OHSU merger could raise value of degrees

It can be ugly out there. South of Wilsonville, you can start to feel it. Travel north on Interstate 5 and as you pass the Vancouver city limits heading towards Longview, it begins to feel uncomfortable. East of Hood River it becomes oppressive. It even can be whiffed in the normally serene salt air of the Oregon Coast. Similar to the fate of the real Vikings when they left their Scandinavian homeland, something happens when you leave the Portland metropolitan area.

The value of your degree from Portland State University drops – precipitously.

Don’t get me wrong. The quality of your degree – your education – is very high, no matter where you travel. My faculty colleagues, along with the PSU administration and staff, work our butts off to ensure that is the case. Your knowledge per dollar is still an incredible bargain, despite painful tuition raises. Think of your mates across the river at Reed, who also get an excellent education, but at a much higher price! Undergraduate and graduate students alike can be proud that if they get their PSU degrees, they have managed to acquire a gem of a life experience.

The problem is that the gem is a diamond in the rough. It has intrinsic value, but it may be difficult for others to see. This is especially true outside Portland, and this is one of the many reasons why I am in favor, in principle, of a PSU-OHSU merger. It is also why PSU students in particular should not dismiss the idea out of hand.

University stature counts, perhaps now more than ever. As biology professor Larry Crawshaw points out, we should never emphasize style over substance, but we should also never ignore the fact that in a competitive world, appearances can make a difference. In this case the appearance we are talking about is the perception of the university and its degrees among the general population.

Thus I encourage you, dear PSU student, to at least be intrigued by the idea of the merger. Do I support the proposed bill by Rep. Greenlick in its current form? Perhaps not. The idea of making PSU a public corporation makes me very nervous. (May I suggest the opposite strategy: bringing OHSU back under the OUS system umbrella? Why should OHSU lead us out, when it might make more sense for us to lead them back in?) Do I think it will be a "magic bullet" that will solve all of PSU’s problems? Certainly not; no matter what happens, the State of Oregon needs to invest more into higher education if they really want to rekindle the economic engine. Do I think that there will be sweeping money savings resulting from an economy of scale? Probably not, at least for many years. So I agree we should proceed with caution, and demand some hard funding in place to smooth the transition, if it is to happen.

What I don’t see as problems are differences in culture and mission. Undergraduate schools and medical schools co-exist at public universities all across this country. When I was at graduate school at UCLA, I would speculate that there was nary an architecture major, fine arts major or philosophy major on campus who did not benefit in some way from the decision years ago by the University of California regents to establish a medical school in Los Angeles when the campus was built in the early 20th century. What I do see as a benefit to Portland students at both PSU and OHSU is the chance to move ahead with the times. A chance for students to evolve, as higher education can and must, and thus showcase their education to perspective employers whether they be local or distant.

Immediate benefits would include easier access for PSU students and faculty to collaborators up the hill, a boost in the number and quality of graduate applicants in the sciences to both schools, and a spark of interest in steering resources to this new venture from lawmakers in Salem. But immediate benefits aside, the long-term rewards to the common PSU undergraduate student should not be ignored.

Please students, don’t rush to reject the chance to trample those misconceptions of our great university near and far. Try to give the idea a fair shake, and contemplate a diploma from Oregon Cascades University or The University of the Pacific Northwest. At least try it on for size.

Niles Lehman is an associate professor of chemistry at Portland State University.