Access and Quality: Sustaining Higher Education in Oregon's Public Interest

President Gottfredson delivered the following speech to the Rotary Club of Portland on October 8, 2013.

I’m beginning my second year as President of the University of Oregon, and I cannot overemphasize what a privilege that is. I work for an institution that exists solely to improve people’s lives—I would call it a noble organization. Our product is knowledge, and our purpose is advancing the quality of life for the people of Oregon, the nation, and the world.

As members of Rotary, I know this is something you take to heart as well—this organization is similarly noble in its commitment to service above self, to the public interest. So I’m especially honored to have the opportunity to share with you today some of the ways the University of Oregon is working to sustain our mission of higher education in the public interest.

I’ll begin by telling you a bit of my own story, as it may serve to explain why I feel as passionately as I do about the importance of quality public higher education.

It’s simple: I am the product of public higher education, as I’m sure many of you are. My wife Karol and I were both born and raised in Northern California, and attended UC Davis, in the town where we grew up. Our parents attended public research universities, as did our brothers, and both of our children.

State investment in higher education made this possible. Not only did it make it possible for us to attend a university, it enabled us to attend some of the finest universities in the world. Public research universities, like the University of Oregon. This state investment provided assurance that our public universities were built on a dual foundation of access and quality. Opportunity to access excellent higher education is a bedrock principle of our society. Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, knew that education underwrites successful democracies. Abraham Lincoln, when he signed the Morrill Act of 1862 establishing our nation’s land grant universities, knew the same. They understood that education was the key to individual economic and social mobility, and as a consequence, to collective mobility.

In 1876, the University of Oregon was founded through a citizen-inspired initiative in Lane County, with this commitment to access and quality at its core. Citizens put up some land and borrowed money for a building, successfully rallying to bring the state’s university to Eugene. And so it has remained for 137 years.

In recent years, however, we have seen a significant change in the way public higher education in this country is financed. This is not unique to Oregon, but it is felt particularly sharply here. It’s a disquieting trend.

The numbers are stark. In 1990, more than a third of the University of Oregon’s operating resources came from the state. This year, only five percent will. You may have read this in the Oregonian just the other day; it is the lowest level of state funding in the university’s history—even as we enrolled more Oregon students.

This puts us in last place among our peer group nationally in this regard—well into last place. And you know too well the unfortunate consequence is that we are forced to shift the burden of financing our public universities onto the shoulders of students and their families. What you may not realize is that inflation-adjusted costs have not increased in recent years—it is who pays those costs that has changed.

So even as a college degree has become increasingly essential in today’s knowledge-based economy, access to quality higher education is slipping beyond the reach of many. This is unacceptable. As we seek evermore to diversify our student population, this is an especially critical time to enable access, not limit it only to those with financial means.

Now, we are encouraged by the diligence and creativity with which Governor Kitzhaber, Treasurer Wheeler, and the Oregon legislature are working to develop innovative solutions to the crises affecting public education in Oregon. And we are optimistic that for the first time in a long time, state funding for education in Oregon did not decrease this year; indeed, we witnessed a renewed commitment to funding education.

But we must also be realistic. If we are to continue to fulfill the promise of our public mission—the promise of access and quality that has sustained our endeavors for well over a century—we must reevaluate and reinvigorate how we are organized, how we finance our university, and how we engage our community of alumni and supporters. Access without quality is a hollow promise. And excellence without access does not serve the public interest. We must focus on both.

So that’s what we’re doing here in Oregon. Our mission is too important, its value to the public interest too essential, to forego.

It is important because our graduates are the future workforce of our state. And I don’t need to tell you that it will need to be an educated workforce. We must ensure that the best and brightest Oregon students choose to pursue higher education here in Oregon—because if they leave to attend college out of state, there’s a very good chance they will stay out of state, and make their careers elsewhere. We want them here in Oregon. Did you know that forty percent of undergraduates who come to study at the UO choose to remain in Oregon? To this end, we have increased our scholarships to Oregon students by 75 percent this year, with an intense focus on keeping high academic achievers here in our state. And we need to do even more.

We must also significantly enhance our ability to bring the best minds to Oregon for post-graduate study—because if we bring them, we know, they are likely to stay. We are developing partnerships with the other universities in the state, with municipalities, and with the private sector that have the potential to be even more significant economic drivers than they already are, to create a regional center of innovation here in Oregon. One example is the Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN), which leverages the regional strengths of the South Willamette Valley through a partnership among the UO, OSU, communities, and businesses to generate innovation-based companies. We’re grateful to the governor and legislature for allocating funding for this important initiative that will play an important role as we elevate our position as the primary importer of talent, and creativity to the state. Initiatives like this will help attract the top minds—faculty and students alike—to the state, and keep our homegrown intellectual power here in Oregon.

We’ve seen other regions do this, with great success.

It’s why Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are such centers of innovation.

It’s why Austin rocks.

It’s why Seattle booms.   

It’s what will elevate Portland, as it elevates the state.

We must ensure that our local reputation is so strong that the highest-achieving students in our state will have no reason to go elsewhere, and our global reputation is such that a University of Oregon degree carries the weight and currency befitting one of the best research universities in the world. 

As a premier public research university, I consider it our obligation to achieve these aspirations, for the future of our students and the future of our state. The state of Oregon is engaged in substantial reform of education across the board, reform that will enhance our ability to fulfill this obligation. Many of you in this room have been partners in this process.

In the coming year, oversight of Oregon’s three largest public universities will shift from a single board governing the state’s entire seven-university system, to independent boards intimately familiar with each institution’s particular mission, challenges, and aspirations. This is bold reform. OHSU and President Joe Robertson blazed the trail for institutional governing boards for Oregon’s public universities, and we’ve witnessed that university’s remarkable success in accelerating the quality of their academic programs and the level of philanthropic commitment. It provides an excellent model as we move forward. And I very much appreciate the strong partnership of Portland State University and President Wim Wiewel, who recognized that this model is beneficial not just to the UO, but to the entire state.

As we’ve seen with OHSU, an independent board structure will offer Oregon’s universities a new way of operating, that is less dependent on the state for operational support, that is more flexible, more agile, better able to respond quickly and effectively to the changing needs of its students.

We will all benefit from supportive institutional boards that are intimately familiar with each university’s distinct missions, and focused on their success.

And we will all benefit from reform that allows us to seek additional methods of financing our infrastructure needs—to borrow money for capital projects, to build the classrooms and laboratories that we so desperately need to serve our students.

We will now be able to assure our supporters that private funds intended for our academic mission will remain with the institution, will align with our donors’ philanthropic intent, and will not diminish other sources of revenue.

For the UO, I use words like “watershed” and “historic” to describe this change, and I do not use them lightly.

Building on the momentum of this transformative shift, the UO is developing strategic goals that will dramatically strengthen the academic competitiveness and national reputation of the university among our peers, ensuring that Oregon’s best and brightest students stay in Oregon, and others see our state as a destination where their talents and creativity can thrive.

We are strengthening our financial incentives for the top academic achievers in our state, through new scholarship programs like Apex and Summit, which provide substantial support to academically accomplished Oregon students, and our Pathway Oregon program, which ensures that every qualified, Pell grant-eligible Oregon student will have their UO tuition and fees paid.

We are focusing intently on key areas of excellence within the university, investing in the future of programs that will impact the economic vitality of the state and propel the success of our students, faculty, and alumni.

We have outstanding faculty, such as Geri Richmond, who is a member of the National Science Board. The UO is known nationally for the strength of our science programs, and we are reinvesting in the programs that helped earn that reputation: programs in neuroscience, green chemistry, materials science, genetics and epigenetics. We are, after all, home to the zebra fish lab that has produced one of the most important genetic models. We are also focusing on our best-in-class programs in our College of Education, which boasts five programs in the top ten in the nation. Similarly, our School of Law consistently achieves top rankings for programs such as Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Appropriate Conflict Resolution. We also have the number-one program in sustainable architecture.

And it’s important to note that we are not doing this alone. We are collaborating closely with Oregon State University, with Portland State University, with Lane Community College and other community colleges and all the universities in our state to collectively serve the people of Oregon and affirm the crucial role our institutions play in the advancement of the public interest. We are partnering with communities and municipalities, and with the private sector, to create education reform that is truly transformative for our entire state, thought initiatives such as Sustainable Cities, RAIN, and Connected Lane County.

As we stand at the threshold of this exciting reform, I see a bold path forward. If you had told me a year ago, when I first arrived at the University of Oregon, that today we would be this far along this path, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But our state has taken remarkable steps this year, choosing this bold path, secure in the knowledge that it clearly benefits Oregon and Oregonians, it clearly advances the mission and quality of each of our universities.

Our mission is unchanged: we remain one of the nation’s premiere public research universities, in service to the state.