We’re all in this together

Oregon’s public universities are as together as we’ve ever been in our effort to bolster state investment in higher education. This was made clear Thursday, when several hundred students, staff, faculty and alumni from all seven campuses turned out at the Capitol for a show of force and unity.

We spent the day meeting with lawmakers, thanking them for last year’s funding boost and pressing the case that we’re still running behind much of the nation in state support. I can’t say whether we changed any minds, but we made sure that Portland State and the other universities aren’t forgotten this session.

The Legislature is meeting for its every-other-year short session — a 35-day sprint to pass new laws and adjust the two-year budget. Public universities are seeking $15 million in additional funding targeted to juniors and seniors who are doing fine academically but are in danger of dropping out for financial or other reasons. We also are asking for some relatively small capital improvement projects, and an extension of tax credits for the University Venture Development Fund. Finally, we’re asking the legislature to refer a constitutional amendment that would allow public universities to invest some of their funds.

Students, as always, make the best spokespeople for our cause. In one meeting I attended, several PSU students talked to Rep. Margaret Doherty, a Portland Democrat (and PSU alum) and talked about overcoming economic and cultural odds to attend college. They also talked to aides for Sen. Ginny Burdick and Rep. Jennifer Williamson.

One student, Trhona Johnson, said she grew up in a low-income family and “thought college wasn’t possible.” With help from high school and PSU advisors, she enrolled and is now a junior, working toward a degree in social work. Extra funding provided by the Legislature last year has made it easier for her to get the advising and counseling she needs to stay on track to graduate, she told Doherty.

It was one of many messages that resonated Thursday at the Legislature.

Our creative, crazy busy PSU alumni

Recently, I invited PSU alumni to become more vocal advocates for their alma mater. I also asked them to share stories of what they were up to. Nearly 700 have responded so far, and their accounts of life after college have been a pleasure to read.

Our alumni are doing very well. They have started businesses, they’re teaching, they’re getting doctorates, they’re helping people with disabilities, they’re making movies, captaining ships and piloting airplanes.

They work for Nike, Intel, Boeing, Google, Sony, Nikon, Cambia Health, city of Portland, Washington County, Multnomah County, the FBI, the White House and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribe, to name just a handful. The list underscores the myriad opportunities out there for graduates, and just how valuable a Portland State degree has become.

They are a creative bunch.

“I recently retired from the motion picture business,” wrote one. “I’m now a professional fused glass artist.” He went on to note that one of his pieces had been acquired by the Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles.

“I hope you will be hearing about my novel in the future,” wrote another. Another is “revitalizing and preserving indigenous languages.”

Former PSU President Natale Sicuro wrote to say he is enjoying retirement and golf in Palm Desert, Calif. Another alum wrote that she has returned to Oregon after living in Greece and volunteering with the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles.

I’ll close with one of my favorites:

“I am currently the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Operations for the Seattle Storm, one of 12 WNBA teams in the world. Our purpose is to prove that achievement has no gender. We seek to not only show the world what’s possible but to change what’s possible. I am a PSU grad, and I am fearless.”

Autonomy has been good for PSU

A classic line from political campaigns is: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? As we enter a new year, let’s apply that to Portland State. Are we better off now than we were a year ago? Two years ago?

The answer, without doubt, is yes. And one of the main reasons is our newfound autonomy, embodied in our Board of Trustees.

Start with PSU’s finances. Under the old system, we and the other public universities fell under the governance of the Oregon University System and were not allowed to lobby state lawmakers for better funding once the governor produced a budget. During the 2015 legislative session, however, those restrictions did not apply. This allowed all of us – presidents, board members, faculty, staff and students from all seven universities – to persuade the budget-writers to provide $700 million in state funding for the seven public universities. That figure is significantly higher than the governor’s recommendation, and it ended many years of state disinvestment in higher education.

This dividend alone far exceeds the costs of independence. It is just one example of how our ability to self-govern has strengthened PSU.

The board – volunteers appointed by the governor – made some tough decisions in its first 18 months: a tuition increase and sworn campus police among them. While there have been some protests and acrimony about these issues, in the past there would not even have been a PSU-specific forum for debate. This board is uniquely committed to ensuring the long-term success of PSU.

With greater independence comes greater responsibility, which is one reason PSU supporters and the Board of Trustees are discussing a possible Metro-area measure to raise revenue for scholarships and other student support. This discussion would not have been possible under the old system of governance. The board also was closely involved in designing our new five-year strategic plan, which focuses on student success, excellence, equity, community engagement, and innovation.

Last but not least, board members have been personally extraordinarily generous to PSU. Their lifetime giving totals $36.2 million, which has gone to student scholarships, faculty endowments and capital projects.
There’s no doubt in my mind–autonomy and having our own Board have made PSU much better off than we were before.

College affordability and student success: A PSU initiative

As some news outlets have reported, Portland State University is considering an initiative that would ask voters in the tri-county area to approve a local revenue measure to make college more affordable. I would like to add some context and explain why we’re looking into this idea.

Let’s start with the Oregon Legislature. For the first time in years, lawmakers increased funding for higher education rather than make cuts. Yet the state allocation for 2015-17 remains well below what public universities received in 2007-09. PSU needs a long-term solution to avoid future cuts and tuition increases. We simply can’t pin our future financial stability on a hope that the state will invest enough in higher education.

As Oregon’s main urban university, PSU embraces a unique access mission – we offer an excellent college education to a broad cross-section of mostly Oregonians. PSU students have more financial needs than their counterparts at the University of Oregon or Oregon State University. Two-thirds of PSU’s 29,000 students qualify for financial aid. Nearly half of last year’s graduates qualified for Pell Grants because of their low incomes. Only one in five students who qualify actually receive state Opportunity Grants. More than 40 percent of our freshmen last year were students of color.

Our exploration of a possible revenue measure – most likely some sort of small business payroll tax – stems from our desire to offer more scholarships, and hire advisors and faculty to boost the region’s highly educated workforce. We’re calling it the College Affordability and Student Success Initiative. It is one of a variety of solutions we are working on to ease the cost of college and help students graduate with smaller debt loads. Among them:

• Persuade the Legislature to increase funding during the February session.
• Increase our efforts to encourage philanthropic giving.
• Launch new reTHINK initiatives that encourage efficiencies and cost-effective ways to offer courses.
• Offer additional support to help students graduate more quickly and with less debt.

We haven’t made a decision yet on whether to go forward with a possible ballot measure, and we won’t move forward without authorization from our Board of Trustees. But this is an idea well worth pursuing. I will keep you informed on new developments.

PSU opportunities in Southeast Asia

Recently I visited Vietnam, with side trips to Malaysia and Indonesia, to identify recruitment and training opportunities for PSU. We’ve been quite involved in Vietnam for some time, primarily through the training program for engineers that Intel sponsored for several years, and work by the Center for Public Service to train public officials. (I have to admit that I still marvel at the historical irony of a U.S. university training Vietnamese communist party officials in governance, citizen participation, and budgeting!)

Vietnam is an amazingly impressive country, with a great entrepreneurial spirit and rapidly growing infrastructure and employment base. However, 80 percent of the population is still employed in agriculture and the challenges the country will face as it industrializes are huge. A key area of need is higher education, and PSU already is working with Vietnamese universities to enhance their capacity. Additionally, about 90 Vietnamese students are studying here in Portland.

My visit was part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of normalized U.S.-Vietnam relations — a series of events that our Center for Public Service in the Hatfield School is helping organize, at the request of the U.S. State Department. We held a conference on emergency preparedness in Hoi An, in Quang Nam province in the center of the country, and we co-sponsored a conference on higher education in Hanoi. We also visited about half a dozen universities and signed several memoranda of understanding, intended to increase faculty exchange and create programs that will bring more Vietnamese students to PSU.

Malaysia and Indonesia both present great opportunities for student recruitment, but our relations there are at an earlier stage. We have a great ally, though, in Melanie Billings-Yon, wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia. Melanie is a PSU alum and adjunct professor in the School of Business Administration!

These three countries present enormous opportunities for PSU to internationalize our education and research. Their students will expose ours to different cultures and fascinating development challenges, while joint faculty work can contribute to ‘letting knowledge serve the world’. We will continue to strengthen these relationships.

Photo: Wim and Alice Wiewel touring Southeast Asia

Strategic Plan: Ideas, initiatives pour in

Now that the year is winding down, I’d like to offer a quick progress report on where our strategic planning effort stands. It’s not done yet – we won’t hand a finished draft to the PSU Board of Trustees until December — but it is starting to take shape.

Eight “topic teams,” including about 100 faculty, staff and students, have delivered several dozen proposed initiatives that they would like to see PSU undertake over the next five to 10 years. The initiatives are meant to keep PSU abreast of changes in higher education and to move the university forward.

Here are just a few examples, edited for brevity:

• Reduce organizational barriers to student success.
• Facilitate innovation and revenue generation.
• Prioritize diversity in the curriculum.
• Drive next generation scholarly agenda on “The Engaged University.”
• Develop quantitative and qualitative metrics to measure research activities, degree programs and faculty activity.

These are just a handful, selected more or less at random. The Strategic Plan Development Team, about 30 faculty, staff and students, is working to synthesize all the proposals. It also is working to rewrite PSU’s vision and mission statement, which needs an update.

Over the summer, a small subcommittee will work on distilling all the proposals into a draft strategic plan. In the fall, the plan will be put out for public comment.

While the final elements of the plan are still taking shape, the effort already has been a success based on how many of you have participated. Thousands of you have weighed in on PSU’s future, whether online or in person. You helped flesh out the proposed initiatives and let us know what we’ve missed. At last month’s “Strategic Ice Cream” event, more than 700 of you took the trouble to visit one of the booths in the Urban Plaza and fill out a form listing your recommendations.

It’s not too late to provide input. And in the fall, there will be further opportunities to provide input. I want to thank everyone who has participated so far; the collective effort is helping PSU move in the right direction.

The push for $755 million goes on

The Oregon Legislature is heading into the homestretch, and the budget for higher education remains in flux. However, a lot has been happening behind the scenes, and I’d like to share some of that with you.

We started the 2015 session with all seven public university presidents united behind a request for $755 million – a figure that roughly puts us back to the level we were at before the Great Recession of 2007. Our argument has been that all other state agencies have been restored – now it’s higher education’s turn.

At this point, the leaders of the Joint Ways and Means Committee – the ones who write the budget – have proposed $670 million. That’s an increase, to be sure, but not nearly enough to make up for years of cuts. That figure, however, was proposed before the most recent revenue forecast, which indicates that the state could have significantly more money to spend over the next two years.

Now we get to the behind-the-scenes part.

The presidents are asking legislative leaders to boost the Ways and Means proposal to $705 million. Then, if the economy continues to improve as expected, we would request the additional $50 million be approved when lawmakers return for their short legislative session in February 2016. If we were to get that level of funding, the presidents have agreed to hold tuition increases at most universities, including PSU, to 2 percent during the following academic year.

My viewpoint? This is more than fair. Attaining a college degree is more important than ever before, and we have to find ways to keep it affordable for all Oregon students. I believe Oregon legislators understand that and hope they will come through for us — that is, Oregon’s students.