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The End Of The Oregon University System

Oregon’s seven public universities enter a new era this July: No more Oregon University System, no more Board of Higher Education and no more OUS chancellor. 

Instead Oregon state universities will be run by their own independent governing boards, as pioneered by the University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State University. Senate Bill 80, passed by both houses (not yet signed by governor as of this writing) will legally abolish the OUS.  

SB 80 would transfer all the OUS records to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC), which has more limited powers than OUS did. The governor would be charged to settle any confusion over the transfer of records or property. 

 But the law will be the official funeral for the OUS, which in many ways went to the chopping block because of the University of Oregon.   

The OUS memorably flexed its muscle in fall 2011, when the board voted to fire popular UO president, Richard Lariviere. Lariviere, who argued for an independent board for the UO, has had the last laugh. The state cut the OUS budget in the next few years and political support for a more autonomous UO grew. Lariviere’s successor, Michael Gottfredson, then made an independent governing board his main priority as UO president. 

In 2013, SB 270 established governing boards for the UO and Portland State University and effectively ended the OUS as a powerful agency. SB 80 is a housecleaning bill, editing out references to the OUS and the chancellor from statutes. The OUS was so large that the housecleaning needs to be thorough so the new system — independent boards and HECC — can legally take over all OUS’s old responsibilities.  

“The bill doesn’t directly impact the UO’s governance model or authorities,” says Angela Wilhelms, the UO secretary, who works with new UO president Michael Schill and the new board of trustees. “The transition from a statewide system to institutional boards is several years in the making; SB 80 is the next appropriate step in that transition.” 

Wilhelm describes the new institutional governing system’s first year as “extraordinary.” 

Under the new system, the UO has gone through “hiring a new president, the beginning of a robust policy review process, the issuance of new bonds, and several other approvals and actions taken by the board of trustees,” Wilhelms says.  

However, the UO’s incoming faculty senate vice president, economics professor Bill Harbaugh, says that the governing board hasn’t changed the operation of the UO very much.  

“We were told this would free the university from bureaucratic controls,” Harbaugh says. “I haven’t noticed that. We just get our policies approved by HECC instead.” 

Harbaugh, who runs the university watchdog blog UO Matters, says that the institutional governance was supposed to encourage donors to give more to the university, but ironically it’s the state funding that has increased.  

“State funding has actually gone up, despite a decline in students from Oregon,” he says. “We haven’t seen a lot of private philanthropy yet. But now the UO essentially belongs to this board of trustees and we’ll find out what kind of UO they want to have.”/p>