House Bill proposed to establish OSU-Cascades as separate public university; OSU-Cascades leadership say OSU connection ‘benefits students’

Oregon State University-Cascades is a branch campus of OSU located in Bend, Ore. This photo illustration symbolizes the separation of the OSU campuses; with the proposed House Bill 2888, OSU-Cascades would become ‘Central Oregon University’, and not be a part of OSU.

Sukhjot Sal, News Contributor

House Bill 2888, drafted by Oregon Rep. Paul Evans, proposes separating the Oregon State University-Cascades branch from OSU to create ‘Central Oregon University’. 

With HB 2888, OSU-Cascades would become COU, a technical and regional university, or TRU, and therefore unable to offer doctoral degrees like the four other regional universities. Essentially, this would put OSU-Cascades on equal footing with the four TRUs in Oregon.

The four TRUs are the Oregon Institute of Technology, Western Oregon University, Eastern Oregon University and Southern Oregon University. 

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Evans said in an email that he drafted the bill after several legislative sessions failed to slow the disastrous outcomes associated with the expansion of scale, scope and size of the OSU branch campus in central Oregon.

“Over the past decade, the concept of the ‘2+2’ program has morphed into a ‘super regional university’ with unfair advantages that are now undeniably manifest[ed] in enrollment numbers, aging infrastructure stability throughout the public universities and most importantly – Cascades has now begun to openly thwart traditional areas of educational expertise throughout the TRUs: technical and regional universities,” Evans explained.

A 2+2 program refers to the students who study for two years at a community college and then transfer to a four-year program to complete their education. 

Back in 2001, before it was established as OSU’s fully-fledged branch campus in Bend, OSU-Cascades was established as a 2+2 program on the Central Oregon Community College campus.

OSU-Cascades Vice President Becky Johnson said OSU-Cascades is proud to be a part of OSU, a research intensive land grant institution.

“Connections to our colleagues throughout OSU strengthen the teaching, research and outreach occurring at OSU-Cascades,” Johnson said. “Students benefit from those connections as cutting-edge research is brought into the classroom. Meanwhile, administrative support from OSU leads to more efficiencies and reduced costs of program and educational delivery.”

Johnson said OSU-Cascades has leveraged the strengths of OSU and partnerships with regional industries to develop degree programs that are responsive to the needs in central Oregon, such as energy systems engineering, hospitality management, education, kinesiology, computer science, outdoor products and their new doctorate of physical therapy.

“Central Oregon is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country and benefits from a growing campus that is part of a major research university,” Johnson said. “There is no reason to change OSU-Cascades’ successful higher education model.”

OSU Provost and Executive Vice President Ed Feser struck a similar tone to Johnson.

“We were not aware of this legislative concept or any discussions about separating the OSU-Cascades campus from Oregon State University,” Feser noted. “As a branch campus, OSU-Cascades is an essential part of OSU’s land grant mission where student learning and discovery are at the heart of faculty research inquiry into real-world challenges and opportunities.”

According to Feser, OSU-Cascades drives innovation in a number of ways, including offering students specialized degree programs through multiple learning modes and courses available through OSU’s Ecampus, and by creating partnerships with Bend-area businesses seeking access to the research and innovation that OSU-Cascades faculty produce.

“OSU-Cascades is a unique model for making education available in a cost-effective way,” Feser said. 

As a branch campus, Feser said OSU-Cascades creates pathways to degrees and lifelong learning for central Oregonians without requiring expenditures and the creation of infrastructure as an independent regional university would need.

“In a time when more innovative and cost-effective models are needed in higher education, students are facing rising debt, resources are scarce and Oregon’s overall enrollments are not growing, it makes no sense to establish an eighth independent public university in the state of Oregon,” Feser said.

However, Evans elaborated on the motivation and reasoning behind HB 2888.

First, Evans noted that OSU-Cascades can offer nearly any program – with few limits – that OSU Corvallis can as a land grant, sea grant and space grant research university, but without the infrastructure needed to support a program independently.

“This translates into access to federal dollars for research and programming that is not available to institutions without the ‘land grant, sea grant, space grant’ status,” Evans said. “OSU-Cascades can offer these same opportunities to students that are not available anywhere else – except Corvallis, and now Bend.”

Additionally, Evans said that OSU-Cascades can offer advanced doctoral degrees that TRUs, by statute, are prohibited from offering. 

According to Evans, Oregon Revised Statutes – the codified laws of Oregon – prohibit TRUs from offering doctoral degrees that OSU-Cascades can offer as a non-TRU university. 

Evans also added that OSU-Cascades courses are inherently subsidized by staffing strategies at OSU Corvallis, which he said has been long known for over-dependence on graduate teaching assistants and “an army of nearly permanent adjunct instructors,” which creates liquidity in funding to ease the price points at OSU-Cascades for the near future.

Evans explained that the price for teaching a course is relatively fixed for instruction, materials, and space. This means that when an institution can subsidize the relative cost of instruction, it becomes cheaper to pay adjuncts—professors who are working on a temporary basis and unable to achieve tenure status—and far cheaper to pay GTAs and research assistants because of the off-set of the cost for their program. That extra money is absorbed and the institution makes ‘money’.

“When the workforce is predominantly GTAs and research assistants, there [are] savings that can be either returned to students—[which] never happens—or spread among the programs to artificially lower the cost to profit margins,” Evans said. 

This is why Evans believes TRUs cannot compete in the marketplace with OSU-Cascades.

“OSU-Cascades has undeniably recruited and stolen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students from other in-state public universities with a heavy amount from the TRUs,” Evans said.

“OSU-Cascades enrollment is up 4% while every other institution, especially the TRUs, are down in enrollment,” Evans said. “OSU-Cascades was supposed to be focused upon meeting the needs of central Oregon only, but it is actively recruiting statewide and winning students that might otherwise be attending one of the four TRUs.”  

Evans said the 2019 Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission Strategic Capital Development Plan demonstrated that enrollment at OSU-Cascades is increasing at a time or relatively flat-growth systemwide.

“This means [that] other [universities] are declining at the same time OSU-Cascades is increasing – without any increase in overall system enrollments,” Evans said.

Establishing OSU-Cascades as COU will admittedly have near-term impacts, Evans said, but overall, it could well open the pathway to a distinct education experience for central Oregon. 

“Once a stand-alone university is established—with a Board of Trustees provided the singular responsibility for the benefit of COU—the university will develop its own character, sense of community, and get out of the shadow of the OSU Corvallis narrative,” Evans said.

Evans said COU would quickly become a major player in small public university education and believes it would enhance the experience for the student body, as well as force better collaboration, cooperation and coordination among the TRUs throughout Oregon.

“In the end, I believe House Bill 2888 has about as much of a possibility of passage in 2021 as a popsicle in Hades,” Evans said. “However, the purpose of this bill in 2021 is not passage – it is to incentivize a thoughtful discussion about the now-undeniable impacts caused by the special relationship of our emergent super-regional university and the full spectrum research university programming of OSU upon all other public universities.”

Evans listed a few reasons why he thinks the bill will not pass; the first being that the Higher Education Coordinating Commission has allowed OSU-Cascades to continue as it is and proven incapable of facilitating rational policies, in terms of balancing degree availability.

Evans said Bend wants OSU-Cascades to remain as it is because it can provide added economic development opportunities – and prestige. 

Additionally, Evans said most political leaders in Oregon want the residents of Bend to be happy because it is a ‘swing district’—competitive for both Democrats and Republicans—and because Bend has been sold as a branch campus, instead of an independent institution.

Evans noted that large universities like OSU, University of Oregon and Portland State University also want to maintain the status quo of unchecked growth in Bend for several reasons. 

According to Evans, it allows UO to grow in other areas without conflict, benefits OSU and its long-term goals of additional ‘branch campuses’ and suits PSU as it wants support among the large universities for continued expansion within the Portland Metro area. 

“The bottom line is this: nearly everyone thinks the status quo benefits them, and nearly nobody cares about the long-term impacts or cascading effects upon the TRUs, because they really don’t matter to most of the folks who govern our state,” Evans said.

As a graduate of OSU Corvallis, Evans said he maintains a great affinity for the school, the mission and the people. As a career college and university educator, Evans said he understands the potential implications involved with his proposal.

“However, it is precisely because of my life experience—especially within higher education—that I know we will lose precious capacities throughout the public universities in Oregon unless or until we figure out how to define the scale, scope and size of OSU-Cascades,” Evans said.