A meeting scheduled tonight at OSU-Cascades Campus in Bend could prove pivotal in determining the future of higher education in Central Oregon.
Members of the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee will be at the school as part of a statewide tour to solicit public input on how they should proceed in the face of a budget shortfall projected at $4.4 billion over the next two years. The roughly 30 percent shortfall would likely result in cuts to all levels of state government, including the possible closure of OSU-Cascades.
Becky Johnson, dean of OSU-Cascades, said she and others are prepared to make the case that not only should the 8-year-old program not be shut down, it should be spared from deep cuts. Johnson said she’d like to see OSU-Cascades treated in the same fashion as smaller schools like Southern Oregon University and Eastern Oregon University, where smaller cuts have been proposed. She’s hoping a good turnout tonight will make an impression.
“I think it’s going to make a difference,” Johnson said. “People have described it as, ‘You can’t really win the game — but you can lose it if people don’t show up.’”
Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, co-chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, said she raised the option of shutting down OSU-Cascades due to the seriousness of the state’s budget shortfall.
Killing off OSU-Cascades could spare better established programs at the state’s other universities, Carter said, describing the choice facing the state as between providing “mediocre” education at the state’s eight universities and two branch campuses, or quality education in a slightly smaller system.
“It’s not a matter of this mean woman from the state Legislature wanting to close any one school, but the question begs an answer. And like I said, given the fiscal crisis we are in, we’re having problems funding our schools, we must ask that question.”
Johnson said OSU-Cascades is a relatively easy target for cuts, compared with the state’s better established schools.
“I think there’s a little bit of a tendency to maybe target things where there’d be less backlash than in other places,” she said. “Since we’re the smallest and the newest, that might seem like an easier decision than to cut something that’s been around a lot longer.”
Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, co-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he and other members of the committee have been receiving a lot of calls and letters from Central Oregon residents in favor of saving OSU-Cascades. He said the argument that the state is “watering down the soup” by maintaining an overly large university system in a time of budget cutbacks is compelling, but the committee is looking forward to hearing what Central Oregon residents have to say.
Buckley said the budget picture will become clearer on May 15, when the Legislature receives its next revenue forecast. He said it looks likely the projected shortfall will end up in the 15 to 20 percent range rather than 30 percent, but that even at that level, the future of OSU-Cascades won’t necessarily be secure.
“I think it’s still in play. Obviously it takes pressure off of it, but we still have a gap to close,” Buckley said. “People who’ve been around this process for decades are saying this is unprecedented, we’ve never had to close this large of a gap.”
State Treasurer Ben Westlund, who was a key advocate for the creation of OSU-Cascades when he was in the Legislature in the mid-1990s, said having a four-year university is critical to Central Oregon’s economic development.
Westlund recalled the five special sessions in 2002, when legislators repeatedly considered and voted down proposals to cut funding for OSU-Cascades, and said he was frustrated to see the same process being repeated.
“That was really low hanging fruit, really an easy target to help balance the budget back then. It should not be, but regrettably is, on that same list seven years later. It’s an outrage. Believe me, I as well as anyone understand general fund budget shortfalls. This is not a luxury for Central Oregon.”
Kirk Schuler, president of Brooks Resources and a member of the State Board of Higher Education, said he’s surprised to see legislators getting involved in decisions about which universities should be funded at what level. He said he’d prefer to see the Legislature provide the state Chancellor’s Office with a budget figure and let education professionals determine how the money should be spent.
“It’s just interesting that the Legislature feels compelled to make decisions like that at that level,” he said. “As long as they don’t start picking out which textbooks kids have to read, I guess we’re OK.”