February 29, 2024

Whole Community News

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UO, trustees, unions, faculty, student groups testify on study bill

21 min read
Erica Thomas: On the ground, public universities feel like they are being run as private for-profit institutions with rising tuition, high salaries for admin, and CEO-level salaries for presidents who, rather than serving the students, are tasked with primarily serving the fiduciary demands of the board of trustees.

Is the public being served by local governing boards at Oregon’s public universities? Here are excerpts from testimony on HB 4125, at public hearings Feb. 6 and 8.

[00:00:14] Rep. Farrah Chaichi: My name is Farrah Chaichi and I’m the representative from House District 35, which is Beaverton and Aloha. I’m here today to urge your support for House Bill 4125, which calls for a much-needed study to assess important aspects of our current public university ecosystem across 36 counties and in every region of our state…

[00:00:31] In 2011, the legislature passed SB 242, beginning our shift in state higher education governance. SB 270 in 2013 and SB 80 in 2015 finalized our change to the new system consisting of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or the HECC, and individual private governing boards for each of our seven public universities.

[00:00:51] It’s been 10 years since that change and our legislature was given a clear mandate in SB 270, the “responsibility to monitor the success of governing boards at fulfilling their missions, their compacts and the principles stated in this section.”

[00:01:06] While we do have some data from the 2022 National Center for Higher Education Management Systems or NCHEMS landscape study and the 2022 Association of Governing Boards review, we still do not have comprehensive data on the general structural effects or costs of decentralization, or the impacts and outcomes, both financial and nonfinancial, on the health of our public universities and our state as a whole.

[00:01:30] ORS 352.025 requires public university governing boards to “act in the best interests of both the university and the state of Oregon as a whole.”

[00:01:41] The comprehensive study that we are requesting today is needed to determine the ways that our recently decentralized system is or is not meeting this core requirement.

[00:01:49] The study areas include an analysis of 10-year trends (adjusted for inflation) of tuition and student debt, enrollment, educational attainment, costs of common barriers like food and housing, percentage of classes taught by full time versus part time faculty, percentage change in admin costs, employment trends for the higher ed workforce, institutional finance and endowment metrics, campus community relations, strengths of our current structure, and comparative utility of alternative governance models used nationwide.

[00:02:17] With the clear picture HB 4125 will provide, we can ensure the most efficient and effective use of our universities to meet our current and future needs.

[00:02:30] Alex Aghdaei (Oregon Student Association): My name is Alex Aghdaei. I’m a University of Oregon student studying political science and I’m the chair of the executive committee at the Oregon Student Association. I’m here to testify in support of HB 4125 because students from across Oregon have selected it as one of their top priority bills in the Oregon Student Association.

[00:02:47] Phil Knight once said that it deeply saddens him that some people in power in our state continue to drive Oregon into a death spiral with their embrace of mediocrity. I find these words extremely fitting when attempting to describe the effects that many students feel that the current board of trustees system implemented 10 years ago have had on Oregon’s public universities.

[00:02:58] Since U of O established its board of trustees in 2014, the effects have been clear to those those of us on the ground. Back then, 25% of UO undergrads were Pell-eligible. Today, we have lost a fifth of our Pell-eligible population, over 1,000 fewer students than we used to enroll. We enroll 7% less in-state students than we did in 2014.

[00:03:29] Resident tuition, when adjusted for inflation, is 22.6% higher than it was in 2014. Meanwhile, we’ve added over 2,000 more students than we did in 2014, nonresidents, to our campus. There’s been an influx of external funds to both U of O and the U of O Foundation.

[00:03:44] This has not been reflected in stabilizing or lowering the cost of attendance. U of O Foundation has prospered tremendously since the passage of SB 270, when it initially had total assets of around $950 million. Today, its assets sit around $2.8 billion, more than a 15% increase compared to the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

[00:04:03] As a public university, where is this money going, if not to addressing student costs and access to our flagship public university for low-income students? Over the past 10 years, tuition, I will reiterate, has increased over 23% higher than inflation at U of O.

[00:04:23] Pathway Oregon, our sole single support for Pell-eligible students from the institution at U of O, enrolls the same amount of students as it did six years ago. It is clear to students that the establishment of the decentralized and individual institutional board of trustees system, U of O has transitioned from acting as a public institution to closer to a private enterprise.

[00:04:45] The decision by the U of O to leave the athletic conference it had should raise alarms for those interested in prudent checks and balances. Why was their state not able to review, revoke, or revise this decision? Who is in charge of our public universities?

When interviewed by U of O’s student-run newspaper, Chuck Lillis (a former U of O Board of Trustees member, after a long career in private equity investments, he joined the board), he told students that he has a confidence that our students, campus community members, diverse and public at large, have benefited significantly since the board was created by legislation in 2014.

[00:05:19] Myself, my peers at the Oregon Student Association and the campuses across Oregon are wondering: How have we benefited significantly? Students are unaware of who their trustees are. We do not select our trustees. We do not elect our trustees. They largely appear to be from outside our community and in some cases outside our state as a whole.

[00:05:39] Shared governance relies on honest transparency, open communication, and a commitment to acting upon shared values. At U of O, we are met with an uncooperative system, which is ambivalent to the needs of the student body, such as access, affordability, and accountability. Many trustees are not U of O alum and do not even currently live in Oregon.

[00:06:02] It is worth taking a closer look at the direction this governance model is taking our state and the impact that it has had. As students, we know that evidence, data, and studies are the backbone of good decisions. HB 4125 will do all of these things and more to help policymakers, including student policymakers like myself, make informed decisions as we advocate for a higher education system that works for all students. For these reasons and many, many more, I encourage you all to support HB 4125.

[00:06:35] Rajeev Ravisankar (GTFF, University of Oregon): My name is Rajeev Ravisankar. I am the former president of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, AFT (American Federation of Teachers) Local 3544, which represents over 1,300 graduate employees at the University of Oregon.

[00:06:46] I rushed here after teaching a ‘Media and Society’ class of 150 students because I thought it was important to come here in person to express support for House Bill 4125.

[00:06:57] I wanted to start by sharing an incident involving the Board of Trustees at UO in March 2020, just after the pandemic had started. The board opted to hold an in-person meeting despite the fact that the university had moved to remote education and officials were saying not to hold meetings of more than 10 people.

[00:07:15] A group of students demonstrated at the entrance to oppose the decision to hold the meeting and to make financial decisions without consultation or input from the university community.

[00:07:27] Then Board Chair Chuck Lillis arrived, refused to engage with students, and used force to push his way past a student to enter the building. Why were they so committed to holding this meeting?

[00:07:37] Well, they wanted to approve a $12 million video scoreboard at Autzen Stadium, largest in the country, and to lock in a tuition increase through a guaranteed tuition plan. The approval of the scoreboard came as we were heading into a period of intense uncertainty and staff were facing the specter of furloughs.

[00:07:54] The incident exemplifies the mode of operation of the Board of Trustees at UO. To be clear, it’s not an independent board. It works in lockstep with high-level, high-paid administrators and private donors. And it rubber-stamps decisions, mostly through unanimous votes. The campus community is cut out of participating by design. Only email comment was available during the pandemic.

[00:08:18] And the meetings are typically scheduled during finals week, which makes it very difficult for the campus community to participate. Unfortunately, we’ve moved far away from any notion of shared governance.

[00:08:28] Our union, GTFF, has come within days of striking in 2019 and 2024 for us to protect our health care and then to fight for a living wage. But we’re making appeals to people who are completely different from workers and students on campus. These boards are not independent but influenced, influenced by money and influenced by private agendas.

[00:08:51] Should a group of wealthy people, some who have no connection to higher education, get to decide the budget priorities and spending in a public university? We say no. Universities and boards that govern them are not meant to be playgrounds of the rich.

[00:09:05] Public universities are meant to serve the needs and help improve the lives of communities in our state and beyond. So with that, I strongly support House Bill 4125 to understand the impacts of the current board of trustees model and to learn about alternative governing structures.

[00:09:21] It will help us make a plan to invest in students and fund our higher education workforce. This is the first step in moving toward a system of higher education that actually aligns with and serves the needs of communities and working people around the state and beyond.

[00:09:38] As workers and students we’re committed to supporting our institutions and we know that UO and other universities work because we do. Our broader goal is to put the public back into public universities and move to a model where we contribute as equal partners in democratic decision-making process to fulfill a shared mission.

[00:09:58] Rep. Ben Bowman: Ben Bowman, state representative from House District 25. So I want to speak very briefly about why I support this bill. I was a student at the University of Oregon between 2010 and 2014 when some very large governance decisions were being made at the state level.

[00:10:12] I remember, as I’m sure Chair (Rep. John) Lively does, President Richard Lariviere’s white paper on the new partnership and some of the concerns that students and other organizations had about what local boards would mean, and there was a lot of uncertainty. And the legislature made their decision. They decided that we should move to local boards and kind of created their own framework for doing so.

[00:10:30] I’ve spoken to a majority of the university presidents over the last year since I’ve been in office, and what they’ve told me is that they find these institutional boards to be advantageous and to advance the mission of their university. And I think some of that is very clear to us too. The shift to local boards has produced some very positive outcomes.

[00:10:50] But we also all sat on this committee when the conference change debacle was going down and where that decision bled into the legislature, bled into the state level. And the question I asked, to both the institutions involved, said: What role should the state have in a situation like this?

[00:11:08] And you can review the answers, which were vastly different from the two institutions. One said really there is no role for the state, this is a local board decision, and the other institution had a longer answer about how the state might think about their involvement.

[00:11:23] So I think what this bill proposes, which is a 10-year look back: What were the goals? Did we accomplish them? To what extent is it an appropriate step, especially for us as actors who don’t have an obligation to a specific institution (sports teams aside that we might root for in games), but we have an obligation to the state and to taxpayers and to students at all the universities. So I think it’s an appropriate step that will provide us information about decisions to make in 2025 and beyond.

[00:11:53] Trent Lutz (University of Oregon): My name is Trent Lutz and I represent the University of Oregon and I’m here today in opposition to House Bill 4125.

[00:12:00] You heard a number of voices that came forward and talked about, what I heard was the needs of our university. They talked about the need for funding for their benefits, for their health care, for their salaries, for their tuition.

[00:12:15] And at the same time, what has come out of this and in the news this morning (it’s in the Capital Chronicle), what I saw was that this is leading towards a lot of divisiveness versus leading towards what’s a unanimity, and an approach that brings us together to really deal with those needs in order to move us forward.

[00:12:33] There were a lot of questions that came up around how are our governing boards working, and what are the systems that move forward. And on the record, you’ll have some testimony that I’ve submitted as far as a PowerPoint and some datasets.

[00:12:45] What we can look at is, we can say from 2001 to 2014, when we were under State Board of Education, the average tuition increase was about 6.5%. Since our governing boards in 2014, it’s down to 4.2%. We’ve actually bent the cost curve as far as increases in annual increases in our tuition.

[00:13:02] Our graduates with debt is down 9% in the last five years. Our number of undergraduates with loans is down 14% in the last five years. The numbers receiving the Pell Grant and the Oregon Opportunity Grant is actually in the last five years up to 3% and 8%, respectively, and our completion rates over the last five years have increased 7%.

[00:13:20] Our institutional boards are working. They are the most representative boards in the entire nation. They include faculty voting members, staff voting members, they include student voting members that actually work with their community-based appointments to be able to work through the issues on their campus.

[00:13:36] Those pieces are working, bringing us together to talk about what are the investments that need to be made? How do we work together in a collective? This legislature has done that in the past. They’ve had bicameral bipartisan solutions where they bring people together to talk about whether what we’re going to do in K through 12 funding or transportation funding in other spaces.

[00:13:55] What I ask is that this is studying the bill any further or studying these issues is just to continue for us to examine the problem and not to do something about it. What I would be asking is that, that this bill just further studies, you have the AGB report, you have the NCHEMS report that have all been submitted in testimony that talk about these issues.

[00:14:13] We can talk to the HECC about submitting more data about what the trend lines have been over the last several years in our governance system, and over the longer haul. That data exists. Studying it further doesn’t get us any closer to putting more investments in our infrastructure.

[00:14:27] John Q: Trent said that data was for all Oregon public universities, not just the UO.

[00:14:32] Trent Lutz (University of Oregon): The data I provided are a collective as a whole of Oregon public universities.

[00:14:39] Inara Scott (OSU Board of Trustees): My name is Inara Scott. I’m a resident of Eugene. I’ve also been on the faculty of the College of Business at Oregon State University since 2012. I’m a member of the OSU Board of Trustees, and I’ve served as the faculty representative to the board since November 2021.

[00:14:56] I think Oregon’s current university governing system is working well.

[00:14:59] In 2021, the state commissioned a review of our university governing system and that AGB (the Association of Governing Boards) report was presented to the Senate Education Committee in January, 2022. Now the AGB report did identify areas for improvement in board practices such as more systematically identifying and incorporating national best practices. and several of the concepts from that report were ultimately incorporated into Senate Bill 273, which passed in 2023. Public universities need to report by July 2, 2024 to the legislature on the adoption of these policy changes after gaining input from representatives of official student, faculty, and nonfaculty staff organizations.

[00:15:45] I believe giving implementation and impacts of Senate Bill 273 time to play out is extremely important. The changes have not had much time to take effect. Some have not yet been implemented. For example, the requirement that the HECC convene boards and commissions, so members can learn from each other and discuss how to make best decisions for the institution and the state and to receive training from the HECC, has not yet been incorporated.

[00:16:12] I’m concerned that the study appears quite broad and that some of the issues the study might seek to address will not be within its reach. I also believe, as noted, the study is premature and that it cannot account for changes that will result from the implementation of Senate Bill 273. So one option the legislature could consider would be revisiting this proposal at a later date when the effects of Senate Bill 273 can better be examined.

[00:16:41] Ariana Jacob (American Federation of Teachers – Oregon): My name is Ariana Jacob, and I am the president of AFT Oregon, which is a federation of 27 unions across the state, including the labor unions that represent full- and part-time faculty and graduate employees at almost all of our public universities…

[00:16:56] I have personally seen a lot of changes over this last decade. Some of them have been positive and hopeful, but much of it has been deeply disconcerting, including the fact that the average student debt load has increased by almost $10,000 per student and the percentage of classes taught by part-time faculty at Portland State University has gone up by about 10%.

[00:17:18] Now, almost half of the classes at PSU are being taught by part-time faculty who lack job security or long-term mentorship abilities with the student body. This is not good for Oregon. Some of the consequences of that many classes being taught by part-time faculty is that a significant portion of our public university faculty makes so little money that they qualify for food stamps and the Oregon Health Plan.

[00:17:43] At Portland State University, last year, part-time faculty who taught five classes, which is the maximum that a part time faculty can teach, still made less than $25,000 a year.

[00:17:54] It isn’t okay that the faculty who teach our young people at our public universities and community colleges live in poverty when we expect these institutions to be the mechanisms for economic mobility and the pathway to middle-class life in our state.

[00:18:08] It’s difficult to focus on the educational and social needs of your students when you don’t even know if you will have a paycheck coming next semester or whether that check will help make sure you make your ends meet.

[00:18:20] What House Bill 4125 will do is collect the data that we need to take a good look at the last 10 years of what has been happening in our public universities since the breakup of the Oregon University system. In particular, what have been the outcomes of breaking up the university’s board systems.

[00:18:38] A decade has passed and it’s high time to strategize about how we can create more stable and accountable funding mechanisms for our public universities. To do that, we need a clear and informed picture of where we are now with the cost of tuition, books, fees, housing, and the rate of pay and benefits across all of our universities to be able to make a strong plan for what we want to see happen at our public universities over the next decade.

[00:19:12] Victor Reyes (American Association of University Professors Oregon): My name is Victor Reyes. I’m the Executive Director of the Oregon State Conference of the American Association of University Professors. On behalf of the more than 6,300 members of the AAUP in Oregon, our collective bargaining chapters at the University of Oregon, Portland State University, Oregon State University, or the Oregon Institute of Technology and our advocacy chapters, we urge you to support HB 4125…

[00:19:37] The promise of institutional boards is not reflected in the actual impact that they have had on their individual institutions.

[00:19:44] Since 2013, tuition and the resultant student debt to pay that tuition have exploded, and an undue amount of revenue has gone to fund ballooning upper administrative costs.

[00:19:55] Meanwhile, faculty and staff wages and working conditions have been greatly diminished in the last ten years. Our wages are stagnating behind record inflation, our full-time positions are facing adjunctification, and when our colleagues vacate a position, the burden falls on those to who remain to do more with less.

[00:20:14] The prevailing experience of many student, staff, and faculty organizations is the institutional boards show greater deference to the university administration than any group on campus. One example of this from my time at Oregon State University was the way that OSU’s board of trustees handled the community outrage over former president F. King Alexander’s leadership. Alexander was hired in a clandestine fashion that did not adequately include the university community’s input or perspective.

[00:20:43] Then, when the Husch Blackwell report was released outlining his inappropriate handling of Title IX cases at his previous position, the institutional board closed ranks in support of the beleaguered president, rather than listening to the perspectives of the rest of the university community.

[00:21:00] The combined effort of OSU’s labor unions, faculty senate, student government and advocacy groups and the ensuing interest from local and national media was required for the board to take action and remove Alexander.

[00:21:13] We must examine the present state of our institutions and determine the best path forward.

[00:21:23] David Ramos (SEIU): My name is David Ramos, and I’m a political strategist representing SEIU Local 503. SEIU 503 represents about 4,000 classified workers across our state’s seven public universities, which makes up a majority of the nonteaching and nonmanagement positions on these campuses. They maintain campus grounds, operate the libraries, provide IT services, feed the students, and help them succeed.

[00:21:46] University governance is an important issue for our members, who’ve advocated for changes to the institution’s governing systems that we believe would make them more conducive to independent, equitable, and truly representative outcomes, which is especially important given that public universities are public goods, and should as a result be held to the same standard of accountability, oversight, and transparency that other state-funded entities and services are. On behalf of our members, we urge you to support House Bill 4125.

[00:22:17] Ben Cannon (HECC): Ben Cannon, Executive Director of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

[00:22:22] I’ll be brief. I want to explain both why I’m hopeful about this bill, as well as why I am skeptical about this bill. As an agency and as a commission we are neutral.

[00:22:31] First of all, I was a legislator in 2011 when Senate Bill 242 was passed. I served as the governor’s education policy advisor in the period 2011-2013 when most of these changes took place. I was very much involved in that and I have been at the HECC running the agency since 2013. So I feel I’ve got a lot to say, but I’m going to make a really brief.

[00:22:56] Hopeful: It is the case, I believe, that the specific effects of this governance transition have not been studied in the decades since that transition took place. And a well-designed study, I think, can provide valuable information to us about what those impacts have been.

[00:23:14] Skepticism: Many of the concerns expressed here including, for example, increasing reliance on part-time faculty, rising tuition costs, are the continuation of long-standing trends in higher education in Oregon and nationally that certainly predate the governance change of 2011 through 2013.

[00:23:34] In fact, they were the issues I heard about when I was running for the legislature in 2006, from higher education. So I just think that gives me some skepticism about the contribution that the governance changes have made to those worsening problems.

[00:23:51] Three things to consider in connection with this bill, and I’ll just summarize our written testimony. First, any study of this kind should be appropriately contextualized in a way that allows the reader to tease apart the contribution that different factors have made to these issues.

[00:24:10] So, for example, what contributions has funding or lack thereof made to rising cost versus changes in how higher education was governed. That’s important.

[00:24:21] Number two: The researchers who conduct this study under the Bill’s proposal, it would be LPRO (Legislative Policy and Research Office) contracting with an outside firm, should be allowed pretty significant latitude to use their expertise to determine the methodology and appreciate the updates and the amendments that were posted today that seem to provide more of that ability to the researchers to determine how to put those studies together.

[00:24:45] And finally, I think it’s just important to recognize that what’s appropriate, an appropriate model for governing Oregon public universities depends in part on what your goals as a state for your higher education system are.

[00:25:00] We have 50 different governance models in the 50 different states. And partly that’s a result of different cultures and different goals, different expectations, the balance between sort of giving local control, local autonomy versus a more state and standardized system. Those are not just issues that can be resolved sort of for all and in an objective way. They are related to your goals as a state for higher education, so I think it’s important to that the study the legislature take that into account as it designs the study.

[00:25:38] Erica Thomas (PSUFA): My name is Erica Thomas. I’m a 15-year member of the PSU community and I’m currently the co-chair and chair of political action for PSUFA, the adjunct faculty labor union on PSU’s campus. And I’m here to advocate for this for House Bill 4125.

[00:25:55] Originally adjunct positions were created to bring in real world experience into the academy. However, currently 47% of PSU’s faculty are adjuncts, and nearly 40% of the university’s credit hours are taught by adjuncts. A disproportionate number of students are first- and second-year students.

[00:26:15] So these are the entry points that most students have with college are being taught by more than half adjuncts.

[00:26:22] My colleagues and I are dedicated educators and our commitment to this care is being leveraged for the business of running the university.

[00:26:30] We’re paid less per credit hour than full-time faculty. We’re not allowed to work more than half time, which is primarily so the university will not be responsible for paying for benefits. The vast majority of us do not have access to the means-tested state health care plan for adjuncts. Most of us will never have our student loans forgiven because that only applies to full-time workers. We have no job security and we’re paid less than full-time faculty for the same work.

[00:26:55] While we have no pathways to advancement for full-time work, no pay for research that we do on our own unpaid to make our classes better, no pay for advising or committee work, and no other administrative duties paid outside of the classroom on our contracts. Just for comparison, PCC’s recently-won tentative agreement does give pay for full-time and part-time faculty both to do that work.

[00:27:19] Our maximum salary, which few ever achieve, is approximately $28,597 per year per new contract. And adjuncts like me face food and housing insecurity, rely on food stamps and second and third jobs, and as you might imagine, this is taking a huge toll on the student experience at PSU.

[00:27:39] These are unfortunately not just facts, they’re policy decisions. These are as a result specifically of the decisions that are being made by the board of trustees and the higher administration at PSU.

And to the question here also about, yes, these trends have been going since the ’90s, so these trends started much before this decision was made, but they have also increased under this decision.

And frequently, the blame, for example, during our recent bargaining session in 2023, the sort of scapegoat for why the administration was unable to meet our pretty reasonable demands for our new contract, were placed upon the board of trustees and their fiduciary duties, so they were used as a bottleneck in order to not give us a living wage.

[00:28:28] On the ground, public universities feel like they are being run as private for-profit institutions with rising tuition, high salaries for admin and CEO-level salaries for presidents who, rather than serving the students, are tasked with primarily serving the fiduciary demands of the board of trustees.

[00:28:44] We also know that state funding has not kept up with the need for funding for students. And while STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programming and semiconductors might be sexy and attract private funding, students still need well-funded humanities programs, history classes, and other knowledge about culture and history and critical thinking skills.

We’ve given this testimony over and over to the board of trustees at PSU and they do not give us substantive responses to these concerns about budget and program cuts.

[00:29:14] For all their purported business acumen, the board of trustees at PSU, along with the president’s office and administration, are responding to the declining enrollment that they continually cite as reasons that they cannot continue programming or that they’re cutting by lowering the standards of living for faculty and staff and increasing the reliance on temporary part-time gig labor as well as reducing the quality of academic programming, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to do much good for attracting new students and increasing enrollment.

[00:29:45] I believe every single Oregonian deserves a high-quality, well-funded education without going into enormous debt. Every time my students bring up ROI (return on investment) as a reason for not selecting the pathway in life that they’re truly passionate about, it breaks my heart. And I believe that nothing is too good for the working-class students of our state.

[00:30:08] Bill Thorndike (Southern Oregon University): My name is Bill Thorndike. I’m the president of Medford Fabrication and I’m here to give comments on House Bill 4125. I served as the inaugural board chair of Southern Oregon University and continue on the board at this time. I urge the committee and the state to allow the HEC and our university boards to continue their good work to before encumbering them with supporting an outside study of dubious current value and costs.

[00:30:37] John Q: After 10 years of local governance, the legislature considers a study of key data trends at Oregon’s seven public universities. The UO says it’s against the study, while unions and student and faculty associations express support.

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