Oregon's public universities near independence

PORTLAND — The University of Oregon and Portland State University are poised to declare independence from the Oregon University System — and other public universities soon could follow.

In the final days of the legislative session, lawmakers reached a deal on bills that would allow the seven state universities to establish independent governing boards with the power to hire and fire a president and take on debt in the form of revenue bonds.

The panels also could set tuition rates, though increases of more than 5 percent would need legislative approval.

"I think in five, 10, 20 years you'll be able to look back at the passage of these bills, and they will have had a catalyzing effect," said Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, a central player in writing the legislation and negotiating the changes that were needed to get it out of a subcommittee.

The Senate could vote as soon as Saturday. Gov. John Kitzhaber will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk, said Ben Cannon, the governor's education adviser.

The push for independence gained steam after a 2011 decision by the State Board of Higher Education to fire popular University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere.

The bills as initially conceived would have given the state's three largest universities the ability to form independent boards. Officials with Portland State and the University of Oregon, who have lobbied hardest for autonomy, said they can get more donations and raise their prestige if they are no longer tied to the State Board of Higher Education.

To persuade reluctant legislators, the bills have been revamped to grant the possibility of freedom to all seven public universities. In another change, the bills now require each board to include one student, one faculty member and one classified employee.

The University of Oregon and Portland State would be the first to establish boards. If the bills pass, the governor must submit the names of prospective appointees to the state Senate by Aug. 19. The boards would not have full authority until July 2014.

The four smaller universities — Southern Oregon, Western Oregon, Eastern Oregon and Oregon Tech — wouldn't be able to establish their boards until 2015.

It's uncertain what will be become of the State Board of Higher Education if all seven public universities opt for local boards. It might be limited to overseeing the schools' shared administrative services.

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