The Oregon University System will sustain an additional $27.2 million in budget cuts, announced Governor Kitzhaber last week. The budget crunch should prompt universities to seek independence from budgeting decisions in Salem. One school may have a unique opportunity that could be instructive for the others.
A philanthropist offered the Oregon Institute of Technology a $100 million endowment to enable the school to transition to a private university. The idea appealed to OIT president Martha Anne Dow, who wants greater funding stability for the school, as well as more academic freedom. In recent years the state has blocked the school’s plans to expand academic programs.
Some Oregon universities have previously considered going private. If more philanthropists stepped up to the plate, OIT and others could make that dream a reality. Then the state’s role in higher education could be limited to providing financial aid to needy students, as was recommended in 1994 by Lewis & Clark College president Michael D. Mooney and in the 1997 Cascade report Power to the Student.
More immediately, administrators can respond to tightened budgets with creativity. For example, in 1989 the University of Texas at Dallas offered the first on-campus privatized housing at a Texas public university. According to the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the arrangement is saving the school at least $500,000 per year, and the model is being emulated in 24 other universities in Texas.
For the long-term health of higher education, Oregon’s universities should explore avenues toward greater autonomy while reducing non-education related expenses.
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