Size matters

"How many of you got your degree at a university without a medical school?" Rep. Mitch Greenlick asked a boardroom full Portland State higher-ups last week. "You all know what real universities are like."

Since introducing a bill to merge PSU with Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), Greenlick has drawn both criticism and excitement from members of both universities. Both sentiments made it to testimony in before the House Education Committee in the past week.

The bill would remove PSU from OUS starting July 2006 and place it under an expanded version of the corporate board that oversees OHSU. The two schools would then have 10 years to merge into one entity.

Interim Provost Michael Reardon and his OHSU counterpart Lesley Hallick testified before the committee against the bill last Wednesday, saying calling the merger insufficiently planned, expensive and risky.

Greenlick is a friend of both institutions. He has been involved with PSU since it was Portland State College. He taught courses here for years, often without pay.

"I want to make it clear that the reason I’m here is because I love these two institutions," he told the House Education Committee. He bills his proposal to the general public as a way to drive economic development in Oregon and possibly save money in administrative costs.

"The future of the metropolitan area depends on this university which can’t get ranked in the same class as University of Wyoming," he said.

When addressing the university communities, he outlines the potential for synergy. "Imagine adding 15 statisticians to the math department," he said. "Imagine how the business school here could facilitate the intellectual property models OHSU is trying to develop. Now, who opposes it? Well, both university presidents. But anyone you talk to from business says, ‘Well, of course.’"

As he did when he introduced the bill in 2003, he continues to call the merger "inevitable."

Support at PSU

Proponents at PSU say the merger would not only be a boon to the hard sciences departments, but the increased clout would benefit every part of PSU.

Biology professor Larry Crawshaw sees the merger as a challenging but exciting chance to raise the PSU profile across the board. When reviewing grant applications, some organizations look at current research levels and/or university size as their first criteria for awarding grants.

"It’s pretty straightforward that combining the schools should increase rankings," Crawshaw said.

Associate chemistry professor Niles Lehman seconds Crawshaw’s view that while a merger wouldn’t necessarily save money or be easy, but would be worthwhile.

"It’s not a free lunch, but terms of things you can do that are cheap, this is a good deal," Lehman said.

"I believe it would be difficult," Crawshaw said. "I also totally believe it’s worth it." He estimated that "about 85 percent" of his department supports the concept.

Even if there are administrative savings later, selling the proposition as a money-saving measure misses the point, Crawshaw said.

Administrative opposition
The administrations of both schools have come out strongly against the proposal, saying that in a climate of decreased funding, both schools have enough to handle without an expensive merger. Even with more money, they have said, differences between the institutions make the "arranged marriage" likely to fail.

Acting Chancellor of OUS George Pernsteiner called the plan "an important and intriguing idea" in his testimony to the committee. "I don’t know whether or not it’s the right idea at this time," he said, echoing administrators’ concerns about funding.

"We’re not saying it’s a terrible thing," Vice President of Finance and Administration Cathy Dyck said. "But looking at a total reorg without additional funding is very difficult, if not impossible."

Bridging the difference in cultures between the two schools presents a challenge even if funding isn’t an issue, OHSU Provost Lesley Hallick. "We think those differences might be irreconcilable, especially in the face of no additional funding," she said.

But until the funding climate changes dramatically, the cost of a merger presents too much of a hurdle, administrators say. PSU is facing a 5.6 percent cut in state funds for the 2005-07 biennium, and OHSU forecasts a 40 percent loss.

"We would welcome increased funding from the legislature," Reardon said. "Where we have been given the resources, we have excelled."

"This requires an investment," Halleck said. "We’ve undergone other smaller mergers. They are expensive."

Administrative resistance has given rise to a few gibes from Greenlick, who points out that the administrations have a lot at stake should the schools combine.

"They both have two complete chains of command. There are two presidents. [A combined university] would probably only need one president. I’m sure that has nothing to do with the objection of the presidents," he told the House Education Committee.

The provosts "certainly wouldn’t protest this out of a fear for job security," he added. "They’re both people who could find a job anywhere. Downstream there’s a tremendous potential for administrative savings."

"It’s easy to say we’re afraid of change," Hallick said. "I don’t think any two institutions in the state have changed so much."

OHSU left the Oregon University system in 1995 to become a public corporation. That experience gives Hallick insight to future snags in a merger with PSU, she said.

"We intensely studied changing OHSU for five years before making the switch," she said. "But we badly underestimated how much work there was to do."

"While there’s nominally a 10-year period," Hallick said, the plan would pull PSU out of the Oregon University System within a year. "That’s action without prior analysis."

"No one’s had enough time to study the implications," Dyck said. "He’s allowing for time for that to happen, but [deliberation] would happen after it’s already a done deal."

Monday, Greenlick said these concerns can be alleviated by amending the bill. He plans to draft an amendment delaying the merger by an additional year.

Though Greenlick has indicated he’s willing to amend the bill, he told PSU staff and faculty that this idea, which was also introduced to the Legislature in 2003, could have been discussed extensively already.

"I gave you the opportunity to comment on it," Greenlick said. "I told you I was going to pass it this year. So if it’s not in there, you should have added it."

The House Education Committee finished its hearings without a vote or mention of additional study.

Three members of the seven-member committee have already endorsed the bill, including Chair Linda Flores and Vice Chair John Dallum.

Greenlick dismisses concerns, saying it’s possible to try and call it off later.

"Will it work? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but we can always split them back off," he said. "If we want to be somewhere 10 years from now, we have to start now, today."