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Business conference to focus on higher education

Business conference to focus on higher education

The global economy has caught and surpassed America in key areas, including education, says Dave Frohnmayer, former state attorney general and retired University of Oregon president.

Frohnmayer is one of several speakers who will share their perspective on how bolstering higher education can help develop a skilled, competitive work force during the annual Southern Oregon Business Conference Wednesday afternoon at the Red Lion Hotel in Medford.

"Basic wealth creation is tied to knowledge," says Frohnmayer, a Rogue Valley native. "There is no substitute for an adequately funded higher education system. That was the basis that helped speed the growth in California in the post-World War II era. Educational attainment determines wealth. We've taken it for granted that our nation indisputably had the best higher-ed system, and everyone else has been copying us and are exceeding it. "

While China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and more have gone to school seeing how it was done in the U.S., Frohnmayer says, "we've rested on our laurels."

"We've been faced with a combination of complacency and hard economic times that have cut back basic investments in post-secondary education. We haven't appreciated how the nature of the economy has changed from one built on manufacturing and heavy labor to one that's much more intellectually intensive and technical."

Frohnmayer says voter-backed projects have siphoned cash flow away from higher education in recent decades.

"We spent a tremendous amount of public resources building and supporting prisons versus supporting schools," he says. "The way we have used the initiative process makes it more difficult to find funds."

The shift away from a natural resources-based economy in Oregon's rural regions has made it all the more important for learning and developing advanced skills, he says. The federal government owns 52 percent of Oregon's land. As a result, sustainable timber harvest decisions became political, distant and increasingly judicial, he says.

"It's always harder when you have to look to another government entity for solutions," Frohnmayer says. "It's really tough when someone else comes in and tears up your plan every two years. It means you're not flexible and you have no effective control on it."

The solution to leveraging timberlands, he says, isn't back-tracking but taking a more circuitous route.

"We have to plan around it more than with it," Frohnmayer says. "We have to look at (forests) as value added, but certainly not a sure thing. That's why we need to look to industries and employers of the future."

Although the state's brain drain reversed in the late 1990s, plenty of Oregon's top students go elsewhere, he says. Statistically, two-thirds don't come back. At the same time, Frohnmayer thinks upcoming generations need to take learning seriously, developing writing and oral expertise as well as collaborative skills.

"They need to be clear, analytical and conceptual thinkers," he says. "They need to realize they will change jobs four to six times in the course of their lifetime — and the last four of those jobs haven't been invented yet. They will need enormous emotional and intellectual flexibility."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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