JPR flap reveals weakness of top-down higher ed system

The increasingly bitter dispute between the Oregon University System/Southern Oregon University and the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation is a symptom of a larger problem.

The unified, top-down management model of Oregon's public universities is becoming obsolete in the face of Oregon's declining fiscal fortunes, and the state's largest universities want more independence to control their own destinies. This issue has become so acute that the Legislature appointed an interim committee to visit every public university campus, discuss the consequences of more independence and report back when lawmakers meet again next January.

The roots of Oregon's higher education management crisis began in March 1929 when the Legislature created the Oregon State Board of Higher Education and the Office of Chancellor to oversee the state's two universities and three Normal Schools — teacher training institutions. Lawmakers wanted to end the practice of the University of Oregon and Oregon State University coming directly to the Legislature and lobbying for money to support what lawmakers often saw as competing programs.

Under the new law, the colleges and universities would bring their wish lists to the Board of Higher Education. The board would sift through them and decide priorities and the chancellor would take a unified wish list to the Legislature. The chancellor's serious clout came from a provision that prohibited any college or university president from appearing before the Legislature or its committees without the permission of the chancellor. But that clout also meant the chancellor was responsible for getting adequate money to finance higher education.

The system worked reasonably well through the Great Depression and the rapid expansion of higher education during the post-World War II era with its GI Bill, GI housing loans and the subsequent baby boom. Roy Lieuallen was the last chancellor to understand that his job was to get enough money to sustain the state's colleges and universities. He served from 1961-'82.

In fairness, no chancellor has had a chance to do the job of getting the money since Lieuallen left. The Legislature does not have it to give. The stake driven into the heart of state's unified, top-down higher education management model was in the form of two budget-busting, voter-approved initiatives — Measure 5 in 1990 and Measure 11 in 1994.

Measure 5 shifted the burden of Oregon public school finance from locally raised property taxes to the Legislature's General Fund of personal income tax revenues without raising new income tax revenue to pay for the shift. Measure 11 created mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes that required the construction of a vastly expanded state prison system and its operating costs — again with no new revenue to pay for it.

Some of us warned at the time that these ballot measures would be paid for at the expense of public higher education and that is just what happened, because neither public schools nor prisons can raise their own revenue from users. higher education can raise tuition.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon in 1965, my tuition was about 25 percent of the cost of undergraduate instruction. State taxpayers put up the other 75 percent with the understanding I would probably stay around long enough to help pay my share for the next generation. No more. Today the state's share of undergraduate instruction is below 10 percent. Student tuition and the University of Oregon's aggressive philanthropical efforts make up the difference.

There is no going back. The political climate to raise enough in tax money to lower tuition no longer exists. Today's ruling generation is unwilling to give as good as it got.

Sometimes it takes a newcomer to see through the cobwebs of the past. That newcomer was University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere. He understood that a central chancellor's office can no longer raise the money to sustain the Oregon University System. Lariviere began arguing for more independence of individual institutions.

It was not a message legislators or the OUS wanted to hear. It cost Lariviere his job. Chancellor George Pernsteiner and the Board of Higher Education say they want the new UO president to be a "team player." You can't be a team player when the coach can't produce.

That brings is to the present dispute over Jefferson Public Radio. Twenty years ago it became clear to JPR's Executive Director Ron Kramer that the state-supported public radio model was unsustainable. Kramer began moving JPR toward the listener-supported public radio model with the understanding it would eventually be governed by a public nonprofit foundation so it would no longer be dependent on SOU and state appropriations. Two SOU presidents approved this transition, provided an SOU employee was a member of the foundation's board of directors.

For unexplained reasons, Chancellor George Pernsteiner is trying to unring a bell and derail the deal. Despite the legally-important pieces of paper that say the JPR Foundation, SOU and OUS own various parts of the network, the real owners of JPR are its listeners, who give it the money to operate. No one has bothered to talk to them yet.

Russell Sadler taught journalism at SOU from 1993-2001. He was also employed at JPR where he had a daily radio commentary and created the Jefferson Exchange on JPR's News and Information service. He divides his time between Ashland and Friday Harbor, Wash..

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