Last week, new University of Oregon President Michael Gottfredson experienced his first days on the newly awakened campus, working on a full to-do list.
Gottfredson, 61, took his post as the 17th UO president Aug. 1, but the summer studies are slower and the campus is emptier. He was formerly the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Irvine.
With the opening of the fall session, he greeted the arrival of a record number of students — upwards of 24,600 — although the official count won’t be ready until the fourth week of classes.
Gottfredson sat down for an interview about some of the issues the university will face in this, its 137th year.
The issues include establishing a local board to govern the university, the shortage of classroom space and the state’s educational goals, which could bring thousands of additional students to campus.
In 2013, the Legislature is expected to pass a bill allowing Oregon’s public universities to be governed by individual boards. Lawmakers are considering how big the boards should be, who should serve and what their powers should be. On Gottfredson’s to do list is contributing his ideas to the ongoing deliberations.
Here are edited highlights of the interview:
Q: Who would you like to see serving on an institutional board at the UO?
A: We want an institutional board that attracts a diverse group of advisers and managers. We want to attract the intellectual and financial contributions of our community. So, people with ideas, people with experience, people who are willing to dedicate their time and talents to the university to make us better.
Q: Would you like to see students on the board?
A: I’d like to see a student involvement in the board. I’m still wondering about the composition of the board with respect to voting membership and ex officio membership. The student voice is critical. The question is what would be the best organizational form for that to take place? It’s difficult for anybody to represent everybody, so the idea that you represent a constituency is always difficult. Boards work best when people come to the board with a common objective: the best interest of the university. They hang their affiliation at the door.
Q: Do you feel similarly about having faculty on the board?
A: Yes. I feel the same about any representation. The key is to get people who will work to the best interest of the organization. Those voices are essential, though. Faculty, student, staff voices are essential.
To some extent these issues also depend on the quantity of board membership. You want a board small enough so people feel they’ve got a meaningful role in it; the business is real business, and they are active participants in it — and yet it covers the ground of interest that ought to be covered at a university like ours. About 10 to 12 is a number that people feel they can invest and participate in.
A larger board is useful, however, if the method of operation is subcommittees with specialization. We’re large enough and complex enough that that could be a successful approach, where you meaningfully delegate portions of the board’s work to subcommittees of the board. They work very well because they specialize within the board and get the work done in a committee structure.
Q: How important is it for the Legislature to let the UO have its own board?
A: It’s very important. What’s happened in public higher education nationally, and of course it’s happening here in Oregon, is the state has withdrawn financial support from higher education. As a consequence, (it) has shifted more of the burden for financing education to other sources. Those other sources have big roles and big voices in the operation and management of the institution. For them to continue to contribute intellectually and financially, that’s important — for them to have a meaningful role. Nimbleness is really essential. A closely held board can understand the nature of the challenges that affect the organization and the changing environment.
Q: Would the UO get more revenue if it had a local governing board?
A: I don’t think that necessarily follows. No. That depends on the kind of board an organization has. And it depends on the connectivity that can be created between the board and the institution. There’s a likely prospect of that.
But I tie the two together: Intellectual and financial investment is what we’re after.
We need expertise. We would look to our board to provide that kind of expertise: business expertise, global expertise and the like.
Q: How would you like a local board to govern? Would it be like a city manager form of government, in which the board hires the president and then all the employees work for the president? Or should all the employees work for the board?
A: Both need to be true. The board hires the president and evaluates the president, and then, like a CEO model, you run the university according to the mission and principles of our institution. But I would say in a public organization like ours, everybody ends up working for the board, but they do it via (the president) — delegated authority to the president.
Q: Would having statewide leaders on the board change the conversation in Salem and lead to more state revenue for the UO?
A: We would like to change the conversation. We will continue to make our case. We’re mindful of the fact we’re in a highly unusual economic circumstance. Oregon is. The nation is. The university is. There are things that the state would like to do that the state is unable to do now. We appreciate that fully, and we do get a lot of good support from the state. We need to continue to make our case that public higher education is in the state’s interest.
It’s undeniably true that all education and higher education is an individual good, an individual benefit. People should pursue it for that reason. The data are clear. The evidence is in. It’s been known for a long time.
It’s also true that higher education, an educated citizenry, is in the state’s interest. It’s a public good. One of the unfortunate things that’s happened over the last 15 years or more — incrementally now, everywhere in the country — is the states have not been investing in the collective good as well as they have in the past and as well as they need to.
The state’s interest in having an educated citizenry is in part financial. We use the term the “engine of the economy." It’s one of the engines of the economy. That’s one of the reasons that, all over the world, countries are emulating the great successes of the United States in higher education.
All over the world, people are recognizing that one of the reasons the United States has been so successful is the great proportion of the population that is educated by public higher education. Employers seek university graduates. Companies look to the education levels of the population in locating. Universities help create companies. (Nike) is an outstanding example of how a university — and the intellectual activity around a university — generates economic wealth.
But I would go back to the other truth, and that is what Thomas Jefferson said about an educated citizenry being necessary for democracy. I believe, and very fundamentally so, that one of the great public goods out of an educated citizenry is greater public support for democracy.
Q: Is it possible to get donors as excited about contributing to academic buildings as they are sports facilities?
A: They’ll get excited about our projects. We will approach this part of our obligation in a portfolio way. We won’t look for a single source to resolve all of our difficulties. One of the reasons we’re interested in these conversations about institutional boards has to do with financing, bonding authority and the like. Very likely we will be engaged in debt financing. Very, very likely we will do that. And we would like to have a lot of flexibility and freedom to pursue that, as would be prudent using business objectives. Sometimes that’s state-backed bonding authority for some projects. Sometimes it will mean institutional-backed debt financing. We’d like our board, who is looking after the interests of this institution, to advise us about which route to go for which projects.
Q: In 2011, the Oregon Legislature adopted the “40-40-20" goal, which is for 40 percent of the population to have bachelor’s degrees, 40 percent to have associates or technical degrees and 20 percent to have finished high school — all by 2025. Today, 29 percent have a bachelor’s degree and 27 percent hold an associates or technical degree. And, 11 percent of Oregonians don’t hold a high school diploma. The requirement could add an estimated 5,000 students to the UO.
A: That obviously has to be contingent on what kind of financing is involved. We’re committed to the idea; it’s a very animated idea. That the governor talks so much about the importance of education is really worth celebrating. That’s a great attribute for us. We’re going to work with our colleagues to manage that as best we can.
There’s a lot of planning and a lot of learning that has to take place. And, of course, there’s changes taking place in all of education about how people are taught, how they learn.