Legislators seldom confront the cultural truths of their state. You don't hear Oregon lawmakers say: "You know, for all of our blather we Oregonians really don't care about educating the next generation. What we really care about is the residents of our state prisons. Educational opportunity isn't a young Oregonian's birthright today. But incarceration is. In fact, it is our state's only entitlement."
Dave Frohnmayer has confronted an unpleasant aspect of Oregon's DNA. The former president of the University of Oregon has said that the Oregon Legislature's funding of higher education is paltry. And it won't change.
To compensate for that cultural truth, Frohnmayer advocates - in a paper commissioned by Oregon Higher Education Chancellor George Pernsteiner - that the state's big three universities be redefined as public corporations. By doing that, argues Frohnmayer, Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and Portland State University would be free of state regulations that hamper the kind of timely decision-making that is essential to an institutions's survival and growth in 2009.
For roughly the past 20 years, Oregon's cultural landscape has been governed by a set of ballot initiatives. Measure 5 in 1990 was a tax-cutting measure. Next, Oregonians enacted a crime initiative that puts more criminals in prison and for longer sentences. Thus we have a state budget that must increase spending on corrections while public education (kindergarten-12) holds its breath every two years and higher education predictably takes a hit. As a consequence, Oregon has disinvested in higher education for two decades.
Oregon is not alone in its financial bind. But it is unreasonable to expect that legislative appropriations to higher education will improve. Writes Frohnmayer: "... (T)here are those who argue that structural reform is no substitute for restoring funding to something remotely approaching national and international norms. I agree, of course, but the present structure clearly has reached the outer limits of its utility."
Frohnmayer is not just one more analyst offering his thoughts on Oregon's universities. As president of the University of Oregon for 15 years, he was one of our most successful higher education leaders. Within the bounds of niggardly funding, Frohnmayer raised $1 billion for the UO. What he sees in the public corporation model is a great leap in flexibility and faster response time. "The underlying reality," he writes, "is that most university resources now come from private or external sources, but university operations are bound by archaic, crippling and expensive state regulations."
Of course, the public corporation model assumes the continuation of state funding. And for an institution such as PSU - freed from legislative constraints - that might also include regional tax support.
Anyone in business knows that our futures are all about intellectual talent, imagination and resourcefulness. In this information age, only a foolish state would starve the institutions that represent our future. That is why the public corporation concept deserves serious legislative examination and discussion.