My to-do list

As I enter my ninth and final academic year as PSU President, I will be working hard to move the university forward on several fronts, and to ensure a smooth transition. Let’s call this my “No lame Viking” post.

Earlier this week, the PSU Board of Trustees approved my three key goals for the year. I’ll give a brief rundown of each.

Implement our strategic plan. The plan lists more than 70 separate initiatives that we all want to accomplish. Almost half are well under way or already ongoing. Keep in mind, this is a five-year plan, so we won’t get to everything in the first year.

We are, however, making notable progress in a number of areas. One is student cost containment, such as reducing the cost of textbooks, adding flexible and online courses and creating a faster pathway from bachelor’s to master’s degrees. Another is in our commitment to equity, in which we are working toward more culturally responsive curricula and classroom experiences.

Increase revenues. We have a number of opportunities to bring more resources to PSU in the coming months. When the Legislature convenes in February, I will once again be part of a joint effort by all seven public university presidents to make a case for solid investment in Oregon higher education. Much depends on the outcome of Ballot Measure 97, the $3 billion statewide corporate tax proposal. If it passes, we will push for a substantial share. If it fails, we will strive to avoid harmful cuts.

In the same vein, I continue to work with the College Affordability and Success Coalition to come up with $25 million a year in additional local revenue for PSU. This effort sprang out of the proposed regional business tax for PSU scholarships. Two other tracks we’re working on include beefing up philanthropic giving through our Foundation, and working to attract more out-of-state students.

Assist in transition. We already have a search committee and search firm in place to start the process of recruiting candidates to replace me. I have been working with the Executive Committee to increase collaboration among departments so the university can continue to operate smoothly under new leadership.

It’s going to be a busy year. I am confident PSU will continue its upward trajectory.

Oregon’s public universities are at a tipping point

It’s my favorite time of year. The trees are just starting to turn color on the Park Blocks, the mornings are crisp, and thousands of students are getting ready to start classes at Portland State University. As I begin my ninth and final academic year as PSU president, I would like to take stock of what this ritual parade of books, backpacks and brainpower really means for our state and our city.

First, and most obvious, is the incalculable opportunity that comes with a college degree. Rising tuition costs, prompted by steep drops in state support, have left the misimpression that a college education has become restricted to the privileged class. Not so.

At PSU, 39 percent of our 29,000 students come from low-income families. Roughly one out of every three entering freshmen is the first in their family ever to attend college. Nearly 40 percent of our incoming freshmen are students of color. They come with help from PELL grants, state financial aid, family members and other sources, including student loans. These students and their families, many of whom are making tremendous sacrifices, know better than anyone that college is their ladder to a successful career.

They and their classmates represent the economic, cultural and civic future of Portland and Oregon. The vast majority, 80 percent, will remain in the area after graduation to join the workforce, start new companies, teach our school children, raise families and become part of the social fabric of this wonderful place. Local companies and organizations, from Intel to OHSU, hire more graduates from PSU than from any other college.

Oregon’s universities are not isolated bubbles of learning and academia. At PSU, we require all students to spend time in the community working on projects or working as interns in businesses, schools, nonprofits or government organizations. They gain invaluable experience, and we as a region benefit from their sweat equity. On a yearly basis, our students put in an estimated 1.1 million volunteer hours, which translates to $26.8 million in value to the community. That’s truly how, as our motto says, we “let knowledge serve the city.”

As PSU has grown on Portland’s south Park Blocks, we have established ourselves as an essential partner in the region’s economy. Not only are we educating future leaders, we also are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually into local coffers. Our faculty brings in more than $66 million a year in federal research dollars. And while 78 percent of our students are Oregonians, we educate thousands of out-of-state and international students, who spend an estimated $241.5 million a year locally.

All told, economists peg PSU’s impact at around $1.4 billion a year. Add in the contributions made by the University of Oregon, Oregon State and the four regional universities and it’s impossible to deny the positive difference we are making in Oregon.

In my time here, we have done all we can to shore up PSU’s financial strength: We tripled private fund-raising; we struck a $25 million development deal with the city to modernize our campus; we forged a coalition with local businesses to raise local revenue for scholarships and student support. We also have worked hard to keep costs down to the point where PSU now charges the second lowest tuition and fees among all the public universities in the state.

I believe, however, that Oregon has come to a tipping point. If we return to our historic pattern of cutting state higher education funding, we will have to raise tuition to the point where we will price out the very students who need us most. They will suffer, our universities will suffer and, ultimately, Oregon will suffer from this loss of human potential.

Other states have concluded, wisely, that healthy funding of their universities is not a subsidy but an investment in a better future. It is my deepest hope, as I prepare to leave the president’s office at PSU, that Oregon makes the same decision.

My wife, Alice, and I have grown to love this state, this city and especially this university. After taking a sabbatical in 2017, I will return as a member of the PSU faculty in the College of Urban and Public Affairs. There, I will work to ensure that Portland State and Oregon’s public universities attain even higher levels of excellence.

 

Note: This first appeared in The Oregonian, Sunday, Sept. 11

Stepping down

Colleagues and friends,

It is with mixed emotions that I’m announcing that this coming academic year will be my last one as PSU president. By next summer, I will be 67 years old and will have served nine years, and I want to have time to pursue some other interests.

It’s been a tremendous honor and pleasure to work with so many of you to make PSU one of the nation’s leading urban universities, one that truly lives up to our motto of “Let Knowledge Serve the City.” I can think of no other place that takes its mission of providing opportunity and access to excellence, through deep engagement with its region, as seriously as we do.

Many challenges as well as opportunities for future growth and excellence remain, but I am grateful for all that we have been able to accomplish together.

The work of faculty and staff is at the core of what makes a university great, and I am continually impressed by their dedication to our students. And it has been an enormous pleasure to watch our students succeed in the classroom and in the community.

Critical also has been the leadership of the executive committee; the deans; the Board of Trustees and the boards of the PSU Foundation and the Alumni Association. And we could not have done it without the support of our many donors, friends and colleagues.

I am confident that with all this great work, PSU will continue to do well in the future. Some of the highlights of the past eight years include:

• Enrollment growth to over 29,000 students.
• Doubling the number of Latino students, and raising retention and graduation rate of Latino students equal to or exceeding that of non‐Latino white students.
• Clear recognition of PSU as one of the “big three” universities in Oregon and an anchor institution for metro Portland.
• Establishing PSU’s own Board of Trustees and independence from the Oregon University System.
• Completing or starting $572 million in major construction projects, involving ten buildings with 1.85 million square feet of space
• Annual growth in externally funded research from $40 million to more than $65 million.
• Annual growth in philanthropy from $12 million to more than $30 million.
• Received PSU’s largest gift, $25 million from the Miller Foundation, making PSU a national leader in sustainability.
• Creating dozens of online courses and student‐focused technology applications through reTHINK PSU.
• Establishing the OHSU‐PSU School of Public Health.
• Developing an urban renewal agreement with the city of Portland that generates more than $25 million for PSU.
• Establishing a College Affordability and Success Coalition that will generate $25 million per year for PSU.
• Completing the most participatory strategic plan ever, reaffirming our commitment to “Let Knowledge Serve the City.”
• Appointing PSU’s first Vice President for Global Diversity and Inclusion, and establishing dedicated spaces for Latino, African‐American/Black, and Asian/Pacific Islander students.
• Developing strong partnership agreements with OHSU, PGE, the City of Portland, and others.
• Helping to establish All Hands Raised, a cradle‐to‐career collaborative for Multnomah County.
• Recognition by U.S. News & World Report of PSU as one of the nation’s 20 most innovative universities, as well as other top rankings for specific academic programs and sustainability.

These, and many other accomplishments, are those of the entire institution. Certainly more will be added in the future.

During my final year, I will focus on implementation of our strategic plan and on increasing revenue through the College Affordability and Success Coalition and from the Legislature and philanthropy. I will work with the Board of Trustees to ensure a smooth transition and after a sabbatical, I will return part‐time as a professor.

Again, I want to thank everyone for their hard work and support during these years. Last but not least I want to acknowledge my wife Alice, whose contributions as “first lady” have been greater than anyone will ever know and without whom I would not have lasted nine years.

Go Viks!

A response to The Oregonian’s editorial board

Note: This is an op-ed I wrote with PSU Foundation Board Chair Mark Rosenbaum in response to a particularly harsh editorial in The Oregonian.

By Wim Wiewel and Mark Rosenbaum

We at Portland State University are puzzled by today’s editorial in The Oregonian that describes the pledge by local business leaders to help raise millions for PSU students as a “disaster.”

Really? Our current and future students and their families across the metro area use words like “enthusiastic” and “excited” to describe the prospect of more than $25 million a year going toward scholarships and student support such as advising and hiring faculty.

Strangely, the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board dismisses such student benefits as “incidental.” With 70 percent of our 28,000 students dependent on financial aid to attend college, the benefits of this new college affordability coalition between PSU and business leaders should be obvious.

Many are unaware that students at PSU have greater need than their counterparts at University of Oregon and Oregon State not only because of their finances but also because PSU receives about $5,000 less per student. The disparity is driven primarily by PSU’s lower undergraduate tuition and our urban campus that draws far more metro students than out-of-state students who pay higher tuition.

Let’s be clear: We proposed a metro business tax because chronic underfunding of higher education by the state has resulted in increases in tuition, student debt and the number of students who can’t afford PSU or drop out for financial reasons. We need a long-term solution to reverse this trend.

The Portland Business Alliance recognizes our need but opposed the tax. Rather than wage an expensive and confrontational campaign, we have come together to develop an alternative that not only will support PSU but help forge deeper connections between us and the PBA’s 1,850 big and small companies in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Clark counties.

That’s an unprecedented breakthrough that ought to be applauded by The Oregonian, as it is by political and community leaders. This is how metro Portland moves forward, in contrast to gridlock in Washington, D.C., and a campaign year already characterized by cynical attack ads and hostile rhetoric.

We recognize that this is just the beginning of what will be a long process to determine how the money will be raised. Business leaders have identified potential sources as philanthropy, a new state funding allocation based on need and an alternative regional tax. Raising $25 million a year is an ambitious goal, and it will take an ambitious partnership to get there.

Greg Ness, president and CEO of The Standard and chair of the Oregon Business Council, who will co-chair the affordability coalition, summed up the significance of the agreement: “The collective human and financial resources of all of us are better put to use solving this problem rather than engaging in a damaging and divisive political campaign.”

That makes sense. Metro business leaders depend on us to produce skilled graduates for their success. PSU generated $1.44 billion into the local economy last year. More than 100,000 PSU alumni live and work in the metro area. They are scientists and engineers at Intel, designers at Nike, physicians and nurses at OHSU, teachers in metro schools, tech startup innovators and small business owners.

From a personal standpoint, both of us have worked for years to build public support and increase private giving for PSU. We welcome the challenge of working for another year or two with business to make this commitment a reality. Our students and our community depend on it.

Tough but necessary decision on tuition hike

The PSU Board of Trustees last week approved a tuition and fee increase for next year. While it troubles me as much as anyone that the cost of higher education continues to rise, it’s helpful to put this latest increase in perspective.

The increase, 3.77 percent for resident undergraduates, is necessary to balance PSU’s budget in the face of rising costs, including additional staff and operating costs, salaries and benefits – traditional cost drivers at any university. Without an increase, we would be looking at budget cuts of nearly $6 million. Cuts of that size obviously would be painful and hurt our goal of increasing student success.

PSU has worked hard to keep tuition hikes reasonable. Since 2011, resident undergraduate tuition has increased by an average of 2.2 percent annually. The cost of attending most other public universities in Oregon has been going up more. With our new tuition rates, only Eastern Oregon University is lower.

Nonetheless, the continued escalation is bound to have an impact on the ability of Oregonians to go to college and get a degree. That is why our new strategic plan calls on us to find innovative and strategic new ways to contain costs and raise revenue.

Measures include the streamlining of processes developed as part of reTHINK PSU; the comprehensive fundraising campaign; and our continued advocacy with the Legislature and Higher Education Coordinating Committee.

We will keep you informed on all these efforts and welcome other suggestions.

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.