Progress: Not on My Watch

John Costa, editor-in-chief of the Bend Bulletin, published an interesting column this past weekend dealing with the Oregon University System. I don’t know John Costa personally; however, based on the editorial policies of the Bend Bulletin, I doubt that anyone would mistake him as a conservative.

And yet there he was, decrying the decay of the government run university system and promoting the idea of competitive, private universities — including (gasp) those that have religious affiliations. His concluding paragraph told it all:

“Two very different estimations of higher education. One [state owned] based on obstacles, the other [private owned] on opportunities.” [Bracketed words inserted]

Costa’s frustrations spring from 1) the inability of the state university system, the governor or the legislature to provide a definitive answer as to whether the state should locate a unit of the higher education system in Central Oregon, and 2) the stunning lack of progress by Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s blue ribbon state higher education board to provide any meaningful reforms to reverse the university systems slide into academic mediocrity. The trigger, apparently, for Mr. Costa’s editorial was the resignation letter by former State Board of Higher Education member John von Schlegell in which von Schlegell castigated the university system in general and Gov. Kulongoski in particular for the stagnation we know as Oregon’s university system.

But the bigger question is why is anyone surprised?

First, when confronted with difficult problems or controversial programs, Gov. Kulongoski routinely appoints blue ribbon commissions and high profile boards and thereafter ignores both them and their reports. Politics dominates the Kulongoski administration and change rarely occurs if one of Oregon’s entrenched bureaucracies objects. While Gov. Kulongoski is hopeful that his legacy will be something to do with the “greening” of Oregon, the more likely scenario will be a legacy of doing nothing during a period of significant economic chaos. Given the governor’s lack of accomplishments, it is not surprising that he used feckless commissions to smother opportunities for change and reform.

And second, the lack of reform in the state’s university system can be laid almost singularly on the public employees who, in fact, run the institutions of the university system in Oregon. Like their comrades in state and local governments, the employees of the university system enjoy the rich benefits of a gold plated healthcare insurance program and a generous PERS or PERS-like retirement program. Like their comrades in state and local governments, they enjoy virtually lifetime guaranteed employment — made even more certain in the university system through tenure and academic seniority. Like their counterparts in state and local governments, their relative importance is judged primarily on the size of the budget and the number of employees they control rather than the quality or importance of their work.

But, unlike their counterparts in state and local government, the public employees who run the university system have raised the concept of inertia to a high form of art. Leave aside the members of the State Board of Higher Education, the university chancellor, and the presidents of the various university units — all mere figure heads when it comes to the actual running of the universities. In their place are academic departments, chaired by tenured professors who resist change through a series of committees, each in turn chaired by another tenured professor.

These academic departments are treated much like ancient fiefdoms whose recognition and independence are jealously guarded. Some departments are governed by tyrants who see change as a threat to their authority. The remaining departments are governed as if they were cells where unanimous agreement is a prerequisite to change and any fool can block an idea no matter how meritorious. These academic principalities come together in some form of university senate where petty jealousy, self-importance and political correctness trump budget, collective direction and reform each and every time.

In the end, the university system, like state government, is run for the benefit of its employees, not the students and, most certainly, not the taxpayers who fund its operations. Neither the governor nor the legislature has demonstrated the will power necessary to challenge this entrenched bureaucracy. Mr. Costa said it best,

“To call progress during his (Kulongoski’s) regime slow sucks the very meaning out of the word glacial.”

Mr. Costa then went on to contrast the state university system to private colleges by quoting from a letter from Dr. Gary Andeen, president of the Oregon Independent Colleges Association:

“[I came to Bend to] discuss why the Bend community would want to saddle itself with bureaucratic and funding dilemmas associated with a state institution when the Central Oregon community probably has the resources to launch a fine locally governed nonprofit independent institution offering upper division and graduate programs in tandem with COCC (Central Oregon Community College).” [Bracketed words inserted]

* * *

“I’m still convinced that such an undertaking is eminently doable in Central Oregon and only makes more and more sense as the state higher education budget continues to evaporate and years of experimentation with OUS (Oregon University System) tick by.”

I have no idea whether a new university (state or private) is a viable proposition in Central Oregon or not. But that is not the point. In Oregon, the university system is simply another example of a government institution being run for the benefit of its employees rather than its citizens. And as Mr. Costa noted:

“Two very different estimations of higher education. One [state owned] based on obstacles, the other [private owned] on opportunities.” [Bracketed words inserted]