Open Mike: Maintaining momentum against headwinds

Dear Colleagues,

Universities today face headwinds from a multitude of sources. In the political sphere, one party castigates us for being ideologically unbalanced and intolerant of free speech and the other for being unaffordable and elitist. Trust in universities is battered by a deluge of criticism and well-publicized scandals involving sexual violence, administrative misfeasance, and admissions improprieties.

Political support has diminished with public trust. Many public universities, including the University of Oregon, never recovered from the 2008 recession in terms of state funding. Underfunded pension plans, skyrocketing health-care costs, and skepticism about our mission and operation have created tremendous pressure on our twin missions of education and research.

Despite these challenges, I am incredibly optimistic about the future of higher education, generally, and at the University of Oregon, in particular. I know some of you will read this, roll your eyes, and think to yourself, “He gets paid to be an optimist” or “He would say this even if the sky was falling.” But any of you who know me know I am a straight shooter. I do not pull back from saying what is on my mind.

American higher education, despite its challenges, remains the envy of the world. Each day, particularly in our liberal arts curricula, we teach our students to think critically, grow individually, and prepare for lives as informed global citizens. For first-generation students, like I was more than 40 years ago, we open the doors of opportunity and expose young people to cultural and educational riches that used to be only the province of the wealthy.

Are we perfect? Of course not. Can we do better? You bet. Are people left behind? Yes, too many lower-income students and racial and ethnic minorities never get the chance to take advantage of what we offer or leave without ever feeling they got what they needed. But in my bones, I believe that we are getting better both in knowledge production, knowledge transmission, and opportunity promotion.

At the University of Oregon, I spend too much of my time banging my head against the wall about why state legislators don’t appreciate our value and reading occasional letters and blog posts that try to twist the facts into elaborate conspiracy theories that demean our dedicated faculty and administrators.

But then, I go out of my office and meet with our faculty, staff, students, and alumni and see how positive what is happening here is. Whether it is walking across campus, hosting a dinner at my house, or in a random aisle at Costco, I often bump into faculty members who will tell me how thrilled they are to be here, excited they are by their research, and engaged they are in the work of their colleagues and students. As I walk down 13th Avenue, wait for a flight at the Eugene Airport, or attend a women’s basketball game, I meet students who tell me how much they love being at the UO and how being here has transformed them. Or when I attend meetings of presidents of peer schools like those in the Association of American Universities, I hear repeated comments that the trajectory of the UO over the past five years has been “unprecedented” and “remarkable” (their words, not mine).

I am an empiricist by nature, both in my scholarship and my approach to management. Therefore, I am suspicious of extrapolating from anecdotes, wonderful though they might be. So let’s look at some hard data. Over the past five years we have increased the faculty by 72 new tenure-related scholars. Many of our searches yield candidates with multiple offers from schools that often sit above us in the academic pecking order. We have launched or greatly expanded cutting edge academic and research programs in areas as diverse as the Knight Campus, environmental humanities, science media, Black studies, and data science. Federal research awards have increased substantially; this year alone the dollars awarded in the first three quarters exceed those for all of last year, and our research expenditures are approaching an all-time record. Our fundraising campaign has surpassed an almost unthinkable $2 billion mark, including a gift that is the biggest ever to a public flagship research institution.

Our renewed focus on student success and diversity is having an impact. Graduation rates have increased by almost 8 percentage points and student carrying loads have also increased. The number of young people receiving full tuition scholarships and advising through PathwayOregon has hit an all-time high—2,360 this year—roughly one in four of our resident students. Looking more broadly, only half of our students graduate with debt and of those who take out loans, the average indebtedness is about $25,700, which is less than both the national and state averages. And our student diversity reached an all-time high, with 36 percent of this year’s entering class coming from diverse backgrounds.

I could go on and on with our progress, but I want to close by returning to our challenges. First, as all of you know, we are experiencing a difficult funding environment caused by a drop in international enrollment and state funding that lags behind rising operating costs. A couple of weeks ago I saw no choice but to require a reduction in expenditures of $11.6 million. While I don’t want to minimize the impact of these reductions or the pain they will cause some members of our community, I have directed the provost and our vice presidents to allocate the cuts in such a way as to preserve our core missions of teaching and research. Indeed, some academic units, such as the College of Arts and Sciences, will experience cuts that are less than 1 percent of their budgets. When you step back, the financial challenges are tough but not insurmountable.

We are also experiencing, for the first time since I became president, some leadership turnover. Dean Andrew Marcus stepped down a year ago after five years of distinguished service as dean of CAS. Provost Jayanth Banavar announced last week that he will step down at the end of the school year. Dean Christoph Lindner of the College of Design will move to the UK to become a dean at the prestigious University College London. And, I suspect, we will see more turnover in this year or next. This type of change is normal and reflects a healthy institution. We should be proud to have leaders and deans that other schools try to hire. We also want leaders to step down once they feel they have done what they can do to move the institution forward. The UO is a vibrant university that cannot afford to stagnate; we will always require fresh leadership and new ideas.

In closing, as I near the end of my fourth year of service as president, I am as proud and excited to be here as I was the day I set foot in Eugene in 2015. We have accomplished only a small portion of what I believe we can achieve together. Like Oregonians throughout history, we will always face difficult challenges. We will be tested. But we will always overcome and succeed. We will do so because we are the University of Oregon, and we are all committed to advancing knowledge, teaching, and caring for our students.

Michael H. Schill
President and Professor of Law