SALEM — Concern is growing that a dire budget situation in the Capitol could mean drastic cuts or outright elimination for Oregon State University-Cascades Campus in Bend.
At a time when state lawmakers are looking to close a projected gap of $4.4 billion in the state’s general fund budget, Rep. Judy Stiegler, D-Bend, said that her sense from talking to other lawmakers is that Cascades is in “a lot” of danger and is “sticking up there like a sore thumb” for lawmakers looking to make cuts.
“I’m working my butt off to save (it),” she said, adding that although nothing has been announced formally, she believes the idea is being discussed in back channels of “the higher stratosphere: Ways and Means,” referring to the Legislature’s powerful budget committee.
Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, agreed with Stiegler’s assessment.
“I think they’re being looked at (for possible elimination) and we’re going to do all that we can to convince the leadership here that it’s wrong to do,” Whisnant said.
Supporters viewed the founding of the branch campus in 2001 as heralding a bright future for the region, bringing with it both jobs and a more cosmopolitan Central Oregon. However, the campus has not met expectations in terms of its physical growth or enrollment, for which defenders of the campus blame chronic underfunding by the state.
The co-chairwoman of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, is one of the most powerful lawmakers in Salem. She has been saying openly and repeatedly that the state may need to close down one of its institutions of higher education.
“I just don’t know how we can afford eight institutions of higher education,” she said.
She declined to either include or rule out the Cascades campus as being part of her budget-cutting focus, but said, “I think it’s a matter of looking at the weakest links. … I would rather see something go away than be half-funded.”
In another worrisome sign, Central Oregon lawmakers were alarmed last month when the Senate’s Committee on Education and General Government was considering whether to study the Cascades campus under Senate Bill 442 as part of a consolidation and cost-cutting effort.
Stiegler, Whisnant and Sen. Chris Telfer, R-Bend, co-signed a March 25 letter to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, asking him to exclude the campus from the study.
Instead, on April 3 the committee adopted an amendment to the bill that singled out Cascades for a study of its “financial viability” and per-student costs relative to other campuses.
Asked about the bill, Hass cited figures showing Cascade’s cost per-student as $19,903, relative to the average $12,482 cost per-student in higher education statewide.
With just 305 students, the school received about $4.4 million in general funds in 2007-08, along with more than $1.6 million in student tuition and fees.
Interim Dean Becky Johnson said the comparison is not fair. For one thing, Cascades offers only upper-level courses, which are more expensive. Also, the branch pays rent of more than $500,000 to Central Oregon Community College, a cost that other campuses need not include in their per-student costs.
She cited the latest numbers: enrollment of 532 students in the spring of 2009, and a 16 percent increase expected for next fall.
Hass, for his part, denied any intent on his part to close Cascades. He said the intent of the study is to help the campus grow.
“I spoke with the (state’s university leaders) and there was concern statewide over how we get more students in Central Oregon to attend Cascades,” he said.
Others, though, are viewing the study more as a bull’s-eye than a helping hand.
“The way I read SB 442 is that we have to explain to the Legislature the costs of Cascades relative to other campuses,” Oregon University System Chancellor George Pernsteiner said.
Telfer said she spoke with Hass and got the impression that other universities’ officials are behind the apparent focus on Cascades.
“Obviously it’s the other campuses that are complaining,” she said.
Asked whether Johnson feels like she is fighting for the survival of a campus that has been targeted for elimination, she replied, “It seems that way. … Hopefully (the state’s budget situation) won’t be as bad as everybody thinks.”
COCC President Jim Middleton believes Cascades’ size may explain the speculation. “I think it is understandable that since it is smaller that some people see it as an issue or a target,” he said, but added that the campus is key to Oregon’s future. “We, locally and statewide, have to keep our eye on the ball and focus on where we need to be 10 or 20 years from now. Clearly Central Oregon, Bend, Redmond will be major players in the economy and population centers at that time.”
Stiegler said she has met with key lawmakers and has the sense that the campus’s fate is not a foregone conclusion. “They basically said, ‘We’re open to you making the case’” for Cascades’ survival, she said.
“It is one of my top priorities,” she added. “It has become apparent to me that they’re going to need a champion, in a hard-hitting way, to make their case.”
Kirk Schueler, of the planning firm Brooks Resources, has been on the State Board of Higher Education for six weeks. He said he’s not aware of the speculation about the branch.
“I think the presence of higher education in Bend is very important,” he said, adding that if the campus went away, “I would be very disappointed, as would the community. I think the community believes that Bend and Central Oregon is of a size and significance in the state that higher education belongs in the community.”