Oregon House Higher Education Committee Testimony

Testimony of President Michael H. Schill
House Committee on Higher Education, Innovation and Workforce Development
September 28, 2015

Chair Read and members of the committee,

For the record, my name is Michael Schill and I was recently selected as the 18th president of the University of Oregon.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I’d like to share a little about myself, update you on my goals for the university, and give you some information about how our new governance model is working to benefit students, faculty and staff members.

First, though, I must take a moment to thank you for the increased funding you provided to Oregon public universities during the 2015 legislative session. My first meeting in this building was with Governor Brown the morning you received the May revenue forecast. As a dean, I would never have asked for a gift the first time I met with a donor—but as an incoming president, I would not have been doing my job if I did not make an ask. I did, and you delivered.

The $700 million budget approved for universities was the first significant reinvestment by the state in decades, and it is allowing us to expand opportunity and access to higher education for Oregon students.

At the UO we have expanded our PathwayOregon program. This nationally recognized program provides full tuition for academically qualified Oregonians who are Pell Grant–eligible. These are the students with great need who might not otherwise go to college. Not only do we cover their tuition, but we wrap services around them―advising, support and tutoring―so that they have the very best chance at staying in college and graduating, and graduating on time.

Also, with the additional state money we are establishing a graduation assistance program. These are grants for our upperclassman students who have exhausted financial aid opportunities and are in danger of dropping out.

Because of you, Oregon students who might not have gone to college are starting classes this morning. Because of your investment, the sometimes overwhelming process of choosing a major and registering for classes is less daunting. Because of your leadership, students who were at risk of dropping out are on track to earn their degrees.

I want to tell you a little bit about myself, which will explain why I am so passionate about this issue of access and accessibility. Perhaps like some of you and like many UO students, I am a first-generation college graduate.

My parents instilled in me the importance of getting a great education, but could not afford to pay for it themselves.

I would not have been able to go to college without generous scholarships. At the University of Oregon, those scholarships are made possible through philanthropy, federal funding, and state investments. College opened up my vistas—introduced me to the world outside Schenectady, New York, and prepared me for a career as a lawyer, a professor, a law school dean, and now a university president.

That is why I am passionate about public higher education and about the University of Oregon.

It is through our great public universities that the vast majority of young people will, like I did almost 40 years ago, get the opportunity to be educated and transformed.

The University of Oregon is poised to be able to expand our benefit and service to our students, our state, and our nation like never before.

This is an incredibly exciting moment for the University of Oregon.

The legislature provided the state’s public universities with a new governance system, which is working extremely well and has given us more flexibility and agility to advance our goals and priorities.

  • The governor has appointed an extraordinary board of dedicated alumni and professionals.
  • Our faculty, alumni, administrators, students, and staff are hungry to move forward.
  • The university has committed leadership in place that is also ready to move forward.

The University of Oregon cannot squander this moment. So, we will move forward thoughtfully but carefully to build our academic programs and our benefit to the state of Oregon.

Priority one is to build the faculty roster and enhance our research. We will do that by hiring 80 to 100 tenure-related faculty members over the next four to five years. We want to attract world-class scholars who will teach our students and create the research that is central to our mission as a public university.

Priority two is to keep our university affordable to students so they have the same opportunities I and many of you enjoyed. That means not merely looking to keep tuition increases as low as possible but working to improve our retention and graduation rate. Because while a $300 tuition increase can be challenging for many families, that amount is miniscule compared to the cost of taking an additional term, or a year or two, to graduate.

A four-year graduation rate of 49 percent and a six-year rate of 69 percent are unacceptable. We will increase the four-year graduation rate by offering more support and advising, and ensuring the courses are available for our students to stay on track. The state investment is the first step toward the University of Oregon improving these rates.

Priority three is to give all of our students a world-class education and make sure that they graduate and go on to great careers. That means ensuring we have rich cocurricular activities and experiences— to help them become whole people, leaders in our state, nation, and world.

I’d like to talk specifically about how these priorities benefit our state, and why I hope you will join me in supporting me in reaching these objectives.

Our success as a state is intrinsically tied to the success of our public universities. The University of Oregon creates a $2.3 billion economic footprint each year. That is the money generated by all our activities, rippling out through job and business creation, tourism, construction, grants, and direct spending.

But, while important, that is really only part of the story. We know that our greatest benefit comes from creating an educated workforce, fostering discoveries, and enhancing prosperity. You’ve no doubt heard the facts before: college graduates will earn greater than a million dollars more in their lifetime than students who do not attend college, and those earning grow far more for people with master’s and PhD degrees. College graduates also pay more taxes, are more involved in their communities, are healthier, and are happier overall.

I know that I am preaching to the choir when I talk about the value of higher education, because I know, as members of the committee, you understand all of those societal benefits to attaining a degree and you are focused on providing this path to prosperity to more Oregonians. And our state has set concrete goals to increase the percentage of Oregonians who graduate from college.

But unfortunately, even with the recent increases, Oregon’s funding for higher education does not come even close to reflecting these values and aspirations. In the most recent comparison available, Oregon was 47th out of 50 states in state funding per student.

This last weekend, the University of Utah played the Ducks. I had a chance to meet a few of the students who came to the game. They have similar hopes and dreams as Oregon students, and yet those Utah students receive 50 percent more in support from their state than the students of Oregon.

Investing in higher education is money well spent. As we’ve seen in other states, outstanding public universities work as magnet. Top-ranked, nationally recognized universities work as a beacon of prosperity. They keep the state’s best and brightest students, attract the nations’ top scholars, researchers, and professors. They bring in industry, create business opportunity, enhance arts and culture, solve problems, and prepare an enlightened, well-rounded citizenry that is at the center of any great thriving, prosperous state.

Finally, before I close I want to take a moment to give you an update on how the new structure for higher education in Oregon is working to benefit students. In 2013, you took a risk, creating boards of trustees for the University of Oregon, Portland State University, and OSU.

Many feared that this new structure would cause costs to increase and the interests of our universities to splinter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, we have created an effective shared-services enterprise that is customer-focused and managed collectively by the universities.

The other university presidents and I worked together to successfully reach agreement on the first statewide university SEIU contract outside of the Oregon University System—and did so in a way that avoided a strike authorization vote. And as you urged us to do, we have worked collectively for the future of our state—advocating together for significant reinvestment in higher education and our students.

At the University of Oregon, this governance change has had a tremendous impact on our students. Private philanthropic gifts are providing funding for more scholarships so first-generation students like me can attend the UO, and state support has allowed us to enhance advising for these students.

At this very moment on campus, construction crews are renovating some of our largest learning spaces—financed through bonds issued directly by the University of Oregon. This is one more example of how the shift in governance is benefiting our students and the state.

We appreciate the authority you granted and the resulting flexibility to act in the interest of students, faculty and staff members, and the community. We also recognize and accept the increased responsibility you and the citizens of Oregon expect and demand.

I am grateful for and respect your resolve to let the new structure work. I am here in large part because of the challenge and opportunity to fashion a new way, a better way, for the University of Oregon to achieve its potential, using the tools provided by legislative action. And I look forward to a return visit so I can continue to keep you updated on the progress we’re making in Eugene.

And so I again want to thank you for all that you’ve done already to support these priorities, from giving us the governance structure to seek these priorities to providing the funding to seed many of these great initiatives.

But we are not done. Not by a long shot. Oregon still lags the country in funding for higher education. The result has closed the door of opportunity for too many young people, and weighed down our economic growth for too long. We must do better, and we will. I look forward to working with you in February to build on our recent progress.

Thank you.