A relationship between a college town and a university is a lot like a marriage, says Michael Schill. The relationship can’t be one-sided and must be a symbiotic relationship.
If that’s the case, Schill wanted to remind the City Club of Eugene on Friday, Jan. 11, that the UO is planning to bring home the bacon with the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. He added that the community should then help the UO advocate for a fairer deal in Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed budget. However, some of the student groups attending the City Club talk say they felt left out of the conversation and that they could provide the event’s attendees with a more complete picture of the current state of the UO.
Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) President Michael Magee was in the audience during Schill’s packed speech. When he learned that the audience couldn’t ask questions to Schill, he was surprised. He was able to ask a City Club member to ask a question on the union’s behalf, though the event ran out of time before the question was asked. City Club’s longtime policy is to only allow members to ask questions.
Magee wanted to know what Schill meant about calling the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact “recession proof.”
“So far [UO] has been able to get a small amount from state bonds to cover it, but in the case of economic downturn or recession, it’s unclear to me that those bonds will be forthcoming. We’re already seeing that the state funding is more and more drying up,” he says. “What does it mean to be ‘recession proof’ if you have to come up with half a billion dollars off of something like raising tuition?”
Half of the funding for the new project ($500 million) came from Knight. The rest of the money will come from donors already identified by the university, Schill says.
“A lot of what happens in the local economy is if it turns bad, projects don’t get done,” Schill tells EW in a post-City Club interview. “This will get done regardless — it’s already funded. We don’t rely on financing it. There’s a gift commitment. The money’s coming in. We’re doing it.”
He adds that the project isn’t market-driven. If the economy slows down, it won’t stop the UO from completing the project.
However, Magee still seems skeptical about the project — calling it a “money sink” — and that it might actually detract from supporting university activities, especially as Brown doesn’t increase the university’s budget.
Furthermore, Magee adds, because of the incoming Knight building’s tie to private money, no one will know what the research projects will be like.
“The Knight campus is so STEM-focused,” Magee says. “The stated goal of the Knight campus is to bring in more private money. As for private industry to give money for researchers such that they can create products to be marketed.”
Throughout Schill’s speech and his replies to the audience, he sent reminders about the importance of conducting research and how large of an economic impact the Knight building would have on the surrounding community.
“It will be stunning,” he said in his speech. “Thirty new faculty members, principal researchers and their teams will put forth 750 ongoing, high-paying jobs.”
The economic impact would be $80 million annually from the Knight campus, he adds.
The amount of attention in the speech paid to the Knight campus and STEM suggested a lopsided commitment to humanities and social sciences.
However, when talking with EW, he says humanities and social sciences is an important aspect to UO.
“We’re a comprehensive university, so we need to be strong all the way through. The humanities is incredibly important. To be a great research university, you need strong sciences, social sciences and strong humanities,” he says.
The biggest problem that faces the university, however, is its funding — which may become a point of leverage when negotiating with GTFF and SEIU on their contracts this year.
“The best thing we can all do is make sure the state funds higher education. We’re in for zero increase,” Schill says, adding that higher education is at risk right now.
He adds that Brown wants to suggest the Legislature to include higher education in an investment package and the UO is planning a lobby day in Salem to convince lawmakers to support higher education.
Schill talked about another Knight project — the new Hayward Field. When asked about the new track, he told an attendee that he only cared what the athletes and track team think about the project.
“They’re over the moon with excitement,” Schill told the City Club member.
Billed as a “State of the University” by the City Club of Eugene, UO’s interim spokesperson Molly Blancett backtracked that title by saying it was just a regular City Club meeting.
She adds that the university doesn’t have a concrete time when the president holds such a speech.
However, it should be noted that the last time that Schill held a “State of the University” in 2017, students protested. Schill responded in a New York Times opinion piece titled “The Misguided Student Crusade Against ‘Fascism.'” EW obtained email correspondence between Schill and The New York Times to capture the sausage making that occurred to write the opinion.
When asked Schill about what sort of message he sent to the university community that only City Club members could ask questions, Kyle Henley, vice president for university communications, shot down the question.
“He was invited,” Henley says, adding that Schill couldn’t change the City Club’s policy.
However, Schill adds that if a student is concerned, they can always schedule an appointment with him.
“I’m pretty accessible,” he says.
Magee found the City Club appearance odd.
“If something is billed as the ‘State of the University Address,’ one would hope that members of the university would be able to speak,” he says. “I didn’t see many people whom one would assume were undergraduates here. For someone so gung-ho about free speech last year, it’s a little odd there were so many restrictions.”
When Sen. Ron Wyden attended a City Club meeting in October 2018, he didn’t feel tied to the City Club policy of only allowing members to ask questions. He urged the handful of high schoolers who attended his speech to ask their question instead of having a City Club member ask it.