City Club of Eugene

President Michael H. Schill gave the following remarks at the City Club of Eugene meeting on January 22, 2019:

Good afternoon. Thank you to the City Club for inviting me to talk about the University of Oregon and our important relationship with Eugene, the region, and state.

Like the City Club, the University of Oregon is committed to open inquiry that advances society, and I look forward to a great discussion today. I am pleased to be back to speak at the City Club again to share the exciting progress we have made on the goals and priorities I first detailed three years ago, and to talk about our future plans.

Before I talk about some of the great things that are happening at the institution, let me take a moment to comment on the important, mutually-beneficial relationship that the University of Oregon and the city of Eugene have enjoyed for almost 150 years.

It is obviously not without friction from time to time—that is to be expected in any town-gown arrangement —but I genuinely believe that Eugene, Lane County, and the southern Willamette Valley are vital components to the secret sauce that makes the UO the world-class university that it is today … a university that is on a trajectory to new levels of excellence and strength that will benefit not just the region but the entire state of Oregon.

This place and this community matters. When we talk to students about why they want to attend the UO or when we recruit faculty and administrators, living in Eugene is frequently mentioned as a big plus. People are attracted by the bucolic nature of community, by our culture of progressive engagement, and by the opportunity to live in a community that is both attractive, affordable, and safe.

We understand that the UO plays an integral role in supporting the region’s economy. That role is only going to grow and strengthen in the years to come as the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact begins to take root and flourish and as we welcome the world to Eugene in 2021 for the track and field world championships.

We are all fortunate and we all prosper because of the strong symbiotic connection between the University of Oregon and Eugene. Since arriving at the UO, I have been delighted to find our mayor and city manager, as well as our council, to be great partners. 

None of us should take this relationship for granted. Instead, we should work diligently to protect and nurture it.

Now I’d like to transition to talking about some of the exciting things that are happening at the University of Oregon, and I want to start with the priorities that we set when I arrived on campus three and a half years ago.

During my tenure at the university, I have been laser focused on improving the University of Oregon and its ability to teach future generations and create impactful research. While we have made tremendous progress toward achieving these objectives, they remain our fundamental priorities.

We want the University of Oregon to be the very best public research university that we can be to benefit students, the state, and world. To do that we continue to strive to:

  • build our academic and research excellence;
  • improve student access and success; and
  • enhance the student experience and campus diversity.

For each of these priorities we have taken major leaps forward but for each we still have plenty of progress yet to achieve … for that we need the support of our community and so many others who understand the benefit higher education affords our economy and society.

Now I want to talk about student access and success.

Educating students from every walk of life remains our primary mission and we are committed to ensuring that every qualified Oregonian student who wants to attend the UO has a path for doing so.

  • We want the UO to be the school of choice for the state’s best and brightest.
  • We want the UO to be the school of choice for all those who are the first in their families to attend college.
  • We want the UO to be the school of choice for graduates of our community colleges and for our returning veterans.

In order to achieve these goals we have our many merit- and needs-based scholarship programs like our incredibly successful PathwayOregon program.

We celebrated 10 years of PathwayOregon this fall. This ground-breaking program provides full tuition and fees for academically-qualified, Pell grant-eligible Oregonians. I want to emphasize the profound impact of PathwayOregon—which is focused on providing not just a free education to Oregonians from low-income families—many of them are the first in their families to go to college and many are under-represented minorities—but we also wrap-around services to these students, including enriched advising, tutoring, and other academic support opportunities.

It has made a huge difference. PathwayOregon was the first of its kind in the state, and to date, more 5,000 Oregonians have received a free education at the UO thanks to the program.

This fall we welcomed our most diverse freshman class (36 percent are ethnic or racial minorities) and our second most academically qualified class in history.

Getting here is just the beginning, of course. Oregon has a problem in both K-12 education and undergraduate education. Too few of our students graduate and some that do are not well-prepared for their future employment. One critical way to address this is for the State of Oregon to better fund education. Another ways to help is for us to be smarter about how we support students at the UO.

So we have also invested in student success with new programs, initiatives, and soon, a new space focused on student success—Tykeson Hall—under construction at the heart of campus.

The UO is reimagining how to combine academic and career advising to create a successful experience from the moment students step foot on campus to the time they leave and beyond.We are hiring 25 new advisors to work in that building when it opens this fall, increasing our advising staff by over one-third.

Even before Tykeson Hall, we have increased our four-year graduation rate from 49 percent to 56 percent. It’s the best in Oregon, but this is still not good enough, which is why we are doubling down on student success as we look to the future. I will talk more about this in a moment.

Turning to our academic and research efforts:

As we shift into 2019, the 2020 opening of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact building is getting closer and closer. It is hard to believe that it was almost two and a half years ago that Penny and Phil Knight made a half-billion dollar gift to make this $1 billion vision possible.

The Knight Campus allows us to dream big about our academic future and reinvent the way we think about applying scientific discovery to solve big problems.

All you have to do is drive past on Franklin Boulevard to see the physical progress on an amazing 160,000-square-foot facility set to open this time next year. Our team has hit every milestone laid out for the Knight Campus on time or, in many cases, early.

When the vision for this project is fully realized over the next decade, the impact on the UO and Eugene will be stunning:

  • 30 new principal researchers and their teams will support about 750 new, high-paying jobs
  • 550 new undergraduate, graduate, and post-doc researchers will work and learn in this new environment
  • Our faculty will conservatively bring 30 percent more federal money for research to our community
  • This will translate into an estimated $80 million in annual economic activity that spins off the Knight Campus, even before we begin to think about the discoveries, technologies, and cures that come from research conducted on the Knight Campus … research that will be focused on improving the health and wellbeing of the citizens of Oregon, the nation, and the world

Yes, the vision is grand and audacious, but we are making tremendous strides toward its realization.

Our director, Bob Guldberg, started work this summer, continued strategic planning, and launched our first faculty hires. Bob is an incredible researcher and entrepreneur in his own right. Guldberg studies muscle and bone growth and development, focusing on potential regenerative therapies following traumatic injuries and degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. His lab is already up and running as he continues his groundbreaking research.

The Knight Campus is allowing us to deepen our relationship with Oregon Health and Science University. Ten research teams are already working together on promising programs to advance science and the human condition.

Let me round out my comments about the Knight Campus by noting that it is recession-proof. The project is fully-funded by the generous support of Phil and Penny Knight, and the building, hiring, and work on the campus will move forward no matter what happens with the economy or state funding in the years to come.

But the Knight Campus is not the only initiative that we’ve launched over the last few years to strengthen our academic and research capabilities. The university has continued to bolster its academic leadership as we have hired new deans and welcomed Provost Jayanth Banavar. We have also sharpened our focus on investing in academic strengths in promising areas.

A few examples:

  • We have launched a new Data Science Program focused on helping interpret and make sense of huge amounts of information. This has applications in nearly every field imaginable from health care and science to linguistics and business marketing.
  • Our nationally-ranked College of Education recently received a $32 million grant that will allow the Educational and Community Support Unit to continue its work helping teach students with disabilities. It’s the largest grant ever awarded to our university and an example of the way in which our research is being applied to help local students and communities.
  • The university continues to invest in and carve out a name for itself in its innovative and collaborative programs such as zebrafish research, obesity prevention, neuroscience, sustainable and urban design, volcanology, green chemistry, and many other programs.

Another key priority is enhancing diversity and the student experience.

As I mentioned, our student body continues to become more diverse. But we are not satisfied. Thanks to the continued advocacy of students and faculty of color, we continue our efforts to recruit under-represented minorities to our campus and to make them feel welcome and part of our community.

Some of the ways we’ve made progress to create a more welcoming campus with diverse perspectives and curriculum:

  • we’ve broken ground on a new Black Cultural Center
  • created a Black Studies Program
  • revamped our multi-cultural curriculum
  • we are in our third year of hosting an African American speaker series on campus
  • renamed a residence hall for a prominent black alumnus
  • and required all units to create and implement diversity action plans on campus

As we continue to expand our academic offerings and enhance our diversity we will also modestly grow the number of students on our campus to meet the needs of our community and state.

We recognize that growing the institution, even if modestly, has an impact on the local community, and we are committed to working with our neighbors and partners to ensure that we thoughtfully manage those impacts and proactively work to mitigate potential challenges.

Obviously, all of the progress we have described costs money. 

Turning to our fundraising campaign:

This fall we extended our fundraising campaign by $1 billion to $3 billion. It is likely that we will hit our original goal of $2 billion in the next few weeks.

Thanks to the urging and ambition of our supporters, rather than declare victory, we are upping the stakes and continuing to raise more money for the university’s highest priorities.

A major focus of this campaign extension will be on student success including:

  • additional support for PathwayOregon and increasing merit-based aid like our Presidential scholarship
  • reducing the tuition for our nationally-ranked Clark Honors College
  • increasing support for “Dreamers”—students under DACA and others not eligible for traditional financial aid
  • increasing pipeline programs that help under-represented and first-generation students understand they can attend college
  • continue to support expanded advising at the UO to help students find their passions and great careers after college
  • expanding experiential and global studies programs that prepare students for the job market
  • creating programing for the Black Cultural Center

Our campaign extension will continue to seed these efforts as we also seek to build a new 60,000-square-foot classroom building with a focus on environmental and sustainability programs.

We also will pursue new funding for the basic sciences, interdisciplinary projects in the humanities and social sciences, and the Presidential Science Initiative.

The third pillar of our extended campaign is to complete fundraising for the Knight Campus so that it may reach its full billion-dollar potential.

There is so much to be excited and optimistic about, however the University of Oregon does face formidable financial challenges.

My job as president of the University of Oregon is to provide opportunity for Oregon students, make this university the best it can possibly be, and ensure that every dollar we receive is well-spent and accounted for.

Our operating costs continue to increase. There is no escaping the reality that we are a people-centric enterprise, and those talented and hardworking teachers and researchers cost money. More than 80 percent of our budget is personnel.

With PERS and health care costs rising rapidly, a good portion of our budget is escalating out of our control.

On the revenue side, an equally large share of our budget, more than 80 percent, comes from tuition. But we know that increases in tuition are challenging to students so we want to work hard to keep increases below 5 percent.

We must look to our elected leaders to ensure that higher education is better funded to benefit students, their families, and the state.

And to be honest, what we are hearing from Salem so far this year is very concerning. There is no more urgent need that increasing support to education, and that should K-12 and undergraduate education. We will be making our case in the coming weeks and months—proactively meeting with our alumni, legislators, employees, and labor leaders to advocate for more resources for higher education as we enter the next legislative session.

I look to all of you, as active community members, to help us remind legislators that having a strong public university that is accessible to students of all backgrounds is vital to our economy, prosperity, and happiness.

We would welcome your active support, so if you would like to help us make the case for education in Salem, please let me or any of my staff know.

These are exciting and seminal times for the University of Oregon and Eugene. I am honored to lead the institution during this important era of evolution and change at the state’s flagship institution.           

More importantly, I am eager to build and strengthen our partnerships and relationships with the community to make Eugene, the region, and state an incredible place to work, play, learn, and thrive.