AUDIO: The Barometer interviews OSU President Ed Ray

Oregon State University President Emeritus Ed Ray smiles in his office. Ray became the 19th president of OSU in 2003. 

Oregon State University President Ed Ray discussed with The Barometer his plans for the annual State of the University Address, as well as what he is most excited for in the next few years for OSU. President Ed Ray delivered the State of the University Address today in Portland, Ore.

 

Tiffani Smith, News Editor: President Ed Ray, if you could just begin what exactly is the State of the University Address and its importance.

President Ed Ray: “Well, it has grown in importance. About a dozen years ago, I was asked to talked to the OSU Business Roundtable at the Mac Club in Portland, and I think there were probably 35 people there in attendance. They ate their lunch while I talked about the economy and the economic forecast. I joke and tell people I had to bring my own brown bag lunch. They actually provided me with a cold lunch after I was done talking, but every year it’s grown since then. The Alumni Association now sponsors it. It’s grown and grown. We expect close to 800 people.

It really is just to show a little Beaver pride, mainly because there is a lot to be proud of. The intent is to talk about the state of the university, but as you know there is so much going on here, and so much to brag about and talk about and explain to people that it’s turned into an incredibly positive event. This, and the last number of years, is a speech that really could deliver itself. I just happen to be the vehicle. But it’s all about talking about students and their accomplishments, faculty, staff, some of the projects we’re engaged in, plans for the future. People I think come away feeling very proud of their university and those who are learning about us are appropriately impressed. It’s all very positive.”

 

Joe Wolf, ASOSU Beat Reporter: What aspect of the speech are you most excited about sharing with the OSU community and really the public at large?

President Ed Ray: “Partly it’s the passion thing. There are a lot of particulars, I know you have access to the information on the nuts and bolts of the speech, but to me it’s just to keep coming back to the issue of student success and some of the things we’re trying to do. We belong to this University Innovation Alliance, I’ll mention that briefly. It’s a collaboration with ten other major public research universities. Among us, we have 400,000 students. What we’re able to accomplish together has impact in the broader higher education sector. I’ll share some of the early results that we’re getting. We’ve only been doing this for three years really. But, for example last June we had 400 more Pell eligible, basically low income students, graduate than we did three years before. That represented a 25 percent increase. You know about the campaign for OSU; some of the consequences of that and our continued success in raising money for scholarships and emergency grants and so forth is that in fact out of our graduating class last tune, 43 percent of our graduates had no debt. That compares with the national average of about 32 percent. The average debt, for those who did graduate with debt, was just under $25,000. Nationally, the figure is $30,100. I know you have many listeners who are thinking, ‘Great, I don’t have two dimes to rub together,’ and it certainly isn’t to be insensitive to their need, it’s just simply to make it clear that we’re not just talking about trying to help students succeed through to graduation, we’re making progress. We’re not anywhere near where we need to be, but we are making progress.

I’ll talk about the fact that we had a 4 percent resident undergraduate tuition increase for this year, and that one percent of that, 25 percent of it, went to need-based aid for students to help compensate for the difficulties associated with cost of attendance. That was the lowest in the state among public universities. I understand people’s frustration and challenges, but we’re really doing everything we can to try to help everybody be as successful as possible.

I’m going to spend time on that and talk about achievement gaps and the difference between haves and have-nots. I don’t know how interested you are in this, but if you look at 1970 to today, and you are in the highest income bracket, your likelihood of graduating from college went from 44 percent to 85 percent. If you’re among the poorest among us, the least well-resourced, it went from six percent to nine percent, which is pathetic. Higher education actually is contributing to income inequality in America, the difference between the haves and have-nots, and that’s just a terrible place to be. So, we’re going to continue doing everything we can to change that. I’ll talk about a lot of the other really wonderful things that are going on here. The projects that we’re undertaking, the 441 million that we raised for research grants and contracts last year, the new research regional ocean going research vessel that we’re on point to have built for the National Science Foundation. We’ll have two more. You know, you’ve reported it that we’ve had a 25 million dollar gift from an anonymous donor last year to build out an arts and education complex. I’m very excited about that. I think we need to elevate the arts here at Oregon State.

We just recently got a 50 million dollar gift for our College of Veterinary Medicine. As life would have it, my dog died five days before that and I told people there that obviously we have incredible scholars and students in the school of veterinary medicine, but when we had to put Gus to sleep, I cried, the attending doctor cried, the dean of the college cried. So they’re great people. They really care about companion animals and working animals. And so that was one of the high points of just the last month that I’ll be sharing with people tomorrow.

Again, along with the many other things. We have a number of programs that are kind of top of the world. Our forestry college has been rated number two in the world, ocean studies number three in the world. Our online programs, undergraduate programs in general are ranked number six in U.S. News and World report. Our online liberal arts degree programs were recently ranked number one. We started a robotics program about seven years ago; it’s not ranked fourth in the nation. I’m pretty impressed with what Beavers do and I get to talk about it, so I am passionate, but I realize I’m very lucky to be in the position to just trumpet these things to the world because they deserve to be out there.”

  

Tiffani Smith, News Editor: Are there any accomplishments from OSU that you believe students or the public would be surprised of, or what they’re least aware of that you’ll be talking about tomorrow?

President Ed Ray: “Well I think these figures that I gave you about the extent to which students graduate with debt. The fact that we’re making progress and graduating more Pell-eligible students. That the debt that students do graduate with is well below the national average. I think that would surprise most students. I hope they’d excited to know that we’re continuing to push forward.

I mentioned forestry being number two in the world. We’re building this state of the art incredible forest science complex using cross-laminated timber structural supports instead of steel and concrete. It’s actually more energy efficient and helps more with our carbon footprint than our traditional ways of building things. We’re going to go forward with construction of the marine science building on the Hatfield Marine Science Center campus and that’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for students all across the campus to have an opportunity to take advantage of ocean studies here and maybe take that into their public and career efforts going forward. One of the things I think we need to have to bridge the gap between those who are sort of anti-science and don’t want to talk about the realities that we face is we need to have more educated people from other fields—creative writing and so forth who understand the basics of oceans and acidification and intercostal problems and tsunamis and earthquakes, who can help provide narratives and clear explanations to other citizens about what the issues are and the kinds of things we need to do to address them.

I’ve always been impressed by the success of our graduates. And we just want to do anything we can to help them going forward to be even more successful than they have been. Historically, I think another thing that would surprise students and others and will when I tell them, is that our economic footprint in the state and across the nation is now about 2.7 billion dollars per year, and that that’s up about $343 million from three years ago. So talk about impact and expanding, a deepening impact. This university is certainly having that. We’re very proud of our, obviously our women’s basketball team last year, our men’s baseball team won 56 games. The women’s basketball season’s still going strong; we’ll see how that ends up. Baseball is going to start in a couple of weeks. And the weather has been pretty good. If this holds up, this is going to be a great year to get outside, participate in activities. It’s a good time to be a Beaver and it’s a good place.”

 

Joe Wolf, ASOSU Beat Reporter: Absolutely. What is maybe one goal that the university has not been able to achieve yet or through the last year that you really want to focus on and continue to work towards going forward?

President Ed Ray: “Well, we need to, and I’ve said it a number of times, we need to build the community we want here, a more inclusive, more supportive environment where everyone feels welcomed and valued. We’ve done some recent surveys of faculty, staff and students. There are still, you know, not large percentages, but the fact that there’s any percentage of students who don’t feel safe or don’t feel people here care about them, those are just unacceptable things. So we need to do a lot of work on climate. I try to explain to people when they talk about achievement gaps in terms of educational attainment for different sub-groups of students that we all know that there are a number of our students here who have to carry extra baggage because of the climate that we live in nationally, locally, the way they perceive the way they are being treated by fellow students, faculty and staff. And we’ve got to do our best to eliminate those differences, try to equalize first year retention rates.

I set a goal a couple of years ago of 90 percent first year retention rates, where the last figures from last year were about 84 percent. We want a six year graduation rate by 2020 of 70 percent. We’re at about 64 percent. Those numbers have not moved dramatically in all the time I’ve been here. And the achievement gaps have persisted. If there’s anything that I feel in particular that I have not been successful at it, it’s really moving those numbers. You’ve probably heard me say it before, our graduates are the most important contribution we make to the future. Well, they’ve got to graduate. And to have 36 percent of your students who start, not leave with their degrees is just not acceptable. I know people focus on the student debt issue, but I remind people that the worst thing for a student who has debt, is to leave the institution with nothing but the promissory note they signed and no degree because the likelihood they’re going to have the earning capability to ever get out from under that debt is pretty high. We want to make sure that students are investing in their education. It is the surest path to transforming one’s life that we know of, regardless of some of the nonsense that is out there, but it really is contingent on getting that degree. So, that’s the area. And the climate and the environment that we create here is part of that more holistic story for why we are not having the success that we want here. So it all goes hand in hand.”

 

Joe Wolf, ASOSU Beat Reporter: You talk a lot about the climate of this university and how there are some students who don’t feel safe. And I think one of the things that has contributed to that, at least very recently, has been the very large and controversial story around a member of our Associated Students of Oregon State University Andrew Oswalt, and the sorts of views, exclusionary, racist, white nationalist, that he has expressed and that he has continued to express. I would just like to hear, obviously you have affirmed your and the university’s firm commitment against these sorts of beliefs on many occasions, but is there anything that you think you, as our university president, can do to combat these sorts of ideas, or to make OSU a more inclusive place present in our society.

President Ed Ray: “I don’t how many of your listening audience know who Andy Young is, but Andrew Young was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants in the 1960’s. Very dynamic, articulate man himself. He served as mayor of Atlanta. He was a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. They asked him recently about the climate that we’re in and what his take on it was, and it was wonderful. He said that Dr. King used to say that there are few things more dangerous than sincere ignorance and enthusiastic stupidity.

So what I think of our friend in ASOSU is that he no doubt is sincere, he’s not doubt enthusiastic; he is ignorant, and the things he said are incredibly stupid. I will continue to speak out and continue to do everything I can to let people know here that that’s not us. That’s not who we are  We all have concerns and positions regarding the media. I think a free press and free media is absolutely essential to democracy, but sometimes the media makes me crazy just like everybody else, and one of the places they make me crazy is giving people like that a platform. I don’t think that’s news, that there are people that are ignorant and stupid. So I’m not sure why it gets the kind of play it does, except to sell newspapers.

There’s nothing this fellow has to say that I would care to hear, or I would think most of your listeners would care to hear. So the fact that he gets an audience is unfortunate. And let me try not to sound condescending. I grew up in a world in which we were really encouraged to speak out and stand up for ourselves. Somebody yells at you, and you yell back. Well maybe that’s my New York City background, I don’t know. I would really encourage our students, all of you have grown up in a world that just seems everyday less safe and less reliable than the world I grew up in. So it’s hard for you to find, many of your colleague students, to find firm footing, to take a stand on issues and be declarative. That’s the answer.  

When you get someone who gets up and says things that are hateful and vile, somebody needs to take them on and challenge them, and dare them to share facts. Somebody needs to take the affirmative position, not just react to negative commentary. If you want to know the best free speech way to deal with people who deal with free speech to be abusive and hateful, it’s for others to stand up and say ‘No, this shall not pass, that is not acceptable, here are the real facts.’

I know it’s very hard, but I would encourage you, I would encourage our media on campus, I would encourage all of our students to be strong and speak up and I would specifically talk to students who do come from privilege, who are better advantaged than others.

You have an obligation to your fellow students and to human kind, if you have the position and the capacity to speak with authority about what shall not pass, what is wrong, what is ignorant and stupid, you have an opportunity to step up and do it and I wish you.”

 

Tiffani Smith, News Editor: Referring to the question you just answered, as well as the previous one about goals that you’d like to see OSU achieve pushing forward, keeping all that in mind, where would you like to see OSU come 2019 or even further in the future.

President Ed Ray: “Well, you know we have an immediate agenda. We are going to work forward on completing obviously the forest science complex, we hope to introduce a request for the 19/21 session to get matching funds to do the $60 million arts and education complex. This month, this next month, starting tomorrow, we’re working to get funding for the second academic building at our Bend campus. You know, we’re requesting $39 million. We’ve actually raised $10 million in private money to build that building, so that’s going to be one of our immediate tasks in the next session.

I’ve mentioned that our online education program in CLA, number one in the nation, more generally that our undergraduate program is ranked sixth in U.S. News and World Report. We want to build on that, so we talk about our new location and the old Meier and Frank building across from Pioneer Square where we’re going to try and provide support services for some of our online students. We’re going to be exploring the possibility of providing hybrid courses, half in person, half online, there as well. And pursuing other activities from that central location to really enhance our ability to have a positive impact on Portland metro. So in the pretty immediate term, we have some pretty ambitious goals that we’re really exciting about.

And as I said, we are going to start building the marine sciences building. What most people don’t realize is that $68 million building is taking longer to initiate and complete because I put down very strong stipulations that this building needs to be able to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and the associated tsunami, and to have a vertical evacuation site. So the design is very much about, in the worst possible circumstances, how do we make sure that the people who are there are safe or safer than they would be even today? And so it turns out that the evacuation site would support about 900 people when and if a tsunami hits. That’s about double the number of people who are there now. So people literally, if this works, will be safer when this building is completed than they are today, if this were to happen, god forbid, today or tomorrow. And there are people all over the world watching what we are doing because we are trying to engineer the structures of the future that can be in ocean danger areas, that can withstand the worst that mother nature throws at us and preserve lives. And there are countries around the world that want to know, are we one to something? So how can they replicate that and learn from it? So that’s very exciting. And then all these other things that I’ve mentioned have secondary, tertiary effects, again that are really important for us going forward. But that’s just the agenda for the next couple of years.”

 

Joe Wolf, ASOSU Beat Reporter: Absolutely, and kind of taking that global perspective and really focusing it in almost microscopically. One of the things in your speech is you’re going to be able to highlight one of OSU’s own, actually an Ecampus student named Orman Morton. And you talk about his story how an education has transformed his life. How did you become aware of this student, and why do you think it’s important to kind of showcase him and students individually in this way?

President Ed Ray: “Well, the way we were able to identify him is obviously through Ecampus and through the Alumni Association. And he’s a wonderful example of what’s possible and the power of access to higher education. You know, as I’ll say in this speech, he worked in a steel mill in Maryland until it closed down. It went bankrupt. And he spent the next several years unemployed as a single parent of three children. And he decided to turn his life around so he got on Ecampus, he’s gotten his degree and now he’s working as an analyst for the state of Maryland dealing with issues of I think wastewater management and environmental clean up and so forth. We’re very proud of him.

And the way we find out about students like that, and I think some of your audience will appreciate hearing this, about three years ago, Kathy Bickel, the director of our Alumni Association, because we have so many students that we’re taking all their course work and completing their degrees online, started having a reception for Ecampus graduates at commencement. So we have students who show up who have never seen this campus. The first thing they do is they head to the book store and they load up with orange and black, and then they come together and they tell their stories. And they’re just incredibly moving. It’s just a wonderful wonderful story. I want to share that with people to help them understand. When you’d sort of give the numbers and talk about ratings, those things are fine, but it really is about the human condition, and about individual lives and how they can be transformed through the work we do here. And I think for our students who are able to be here, for them to know that there are students out there who’ve for circumstances maybe beyond their control, don’t have that privilege and opportunity to be here. That we’re actually helping people who can’t even come here, and they can have a transformational experience as well because of things like Ecampus, that sounds very techy and clinical, but really is very meaningful as a tool for them to advance their careers and lives.”

 

Tiffani Smith, News Editor: Because the State of the University Address is taking place in Portland, I’d assume that there are quite a few people that will not be able to attend or hear this message. So in what ways are you portraying the information from tomorrow to the rest of campus, to the rest of the OSU community and just to the general public that won’t be able to attend the event?

President Ed Ray: “Well actually, being here, you all have, whether you’ve paid attention or not, you had the advantage of hearing some of the facts and figures I’m going to talk about when I spoke to the university Senate back in October. I give sort of a State of the University address at the first Senate meeting, and we post that online. I expect this to be video taped, to be posted online and made available. People certainly from my website, people will be able to certainly read this speech, and I’m talking to a number of editorial boards today, tomorrow. And so hopefully we’ll get some media coverage as well. You all are kind enough to take time to be talking to me today. I mean, I assume there are students who will be able to hear this, maybe hear it on rebroadcast, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get a sense of what this is about. It’s not only that it’s important, it’s that you all have very busy lives just like the rest of us, and it’s not like you got time to go two hours one way and two hours the other for an hour and a half lunch. So we need to be thoughtful about making sure that the speech and the video, to the extent that’s done, are available for those who are interested.

And then hopefully, those who do participate will talk to friends and colleagues and kind of spread the word. Because I said it’s not written as a feel good speech, but it’s hard to read it and not feel pretty good because of all there is to celebrate and be proud of about Beaver Nation. You know, this is a place, our culture is not to call attention to ourselves, just to work really hard to do good things, to be part of things that are more important than us individually and not worry about who gets the credit, that’s who Beavers are. But this actually is a chance for me to tell other people who we are because we do deserve recognition and credit. You, and all the other students and colleagues, for the amazing things that are being accomplished here. And it’s good if I do something like this that students can listen to it, or see the video, and get a sense themselves, ‘You know what, I’m pretty darn good.’ You know, this isn’t going to change, we’re not going to get full of ourselves. We’re still going to keep our heads down, work hard and focus on service and impact of what we do, but this is really good. Give ourselves a few high fives.”

 

Joe Wolf, ASOSU Beat Reporter: Absolutely. One of the things that I find very interesting, is just on Tuesday night, we saw the United States President, Donald Trump, give the State of the Union and then just tomorrow we’ll be having just the State of the University Address. And obviously the roles that you both play are very different, but I was wondering if there are any similarities between the sort of role that you think this address and the message that you’re trying to share has with that sort of a national scale.

President Ed Ray: “Well I think what we do does have an impact here in this region and in the state, more broadly, around the nation, and some of that is measured by the economic impact statements that I’ll share with people tomorrow. I was struck when Melissa Perry Harris was here, I don’t know if you had a chance to see here or hear her, but she made a very good point and that was, I think it may have been at the luncheon, that this isn’t reality. You know, this is not  the world you’re going to find when you leave the university and pursue your careers and the rest of your lives. But this is a place where we can, in some sense, create our own reality, our own community, and we can come together in positive and supportive ways and hopefully that will strengthen us for what we are going to face in our lives. And maybe provide us with habits of behavior and what not that society at large would do well to try to replicate. So it’s not just like the rest of the nation.

The State of the University is not like the State of the Union, even at its most exaggerated on the positive side. There’s a lot here that would benefit society writ large if it could be translated there. I remember years ago when the court cases on affirmative action went forward. There was a survey of African-Americans that said that they didn’t support affirmative action, which is pretty startling. You know, this group that was surveyed, and they said, ‘Well, why not?’ And they said, ‘It’s a fraud. Look around you, churches are segregated. neighborhoods are not much less segregated than they were 40 years ago, education. It’s not working.’ So they were very disappointed and cynical. And my reaction to that is you know what, this is our last best opportunity to help shape the views and passions and sense of imperative of this in future generations. And shame on us if we don’t do everything we can to help point people in more positive, more meaningful directions.

So I’m going to be talking about our world and I hope it’s going to sound positive and meaningful enough to make people feel proud, but also to make people think about, ‘How do I make this so in the community that I live in, in the organization, maybe the business that I start? How do I treat people in what I think were some of the best ways in which I was treated, or the community worked at Oregon State?’ Those were positives that people can take with them and that’s what I’m going to talk about. I’m going to talk about us, not somebody else’s view of the world. Now having said that, what happens in the outside world probably impacts us more than it ever has before. I mean, all of this social media, all of this stuff from particularly at the national level, comes at us, and we’ve got to cope with it. So it keeps us on our toes reminding people that that’s not us talking, that’s somebody else. Those are not our values, that’s not what we’re about.

So that interplay, or that interaction between the external environment, the broader national community and this community is constantly being tested and explored and that’s just the new reality.”

 

Tiffani Smith, News Editor: So I guess just to wrap up, are there any other aspects that you don’t feel we covered today about the State of the University Address you’ll be delivering tomorrow. Or anything that you would just like for our listeners or our viewers to hear?

President Ed Ray: “Well the one thing you didn’t ask me about that I hope your listeners will appreciate, if you didn’t ask me what’s my favorite thing about my job. And the answer is really three things: students, students, students. I just am constantly awed by the wonderful students that we have here and the amazing things that you all are accomplishing. And you know, sometimes you have a job, sometimes you have a passion for something, sometimes you have a sense of meaningful purpose and everyday, when I meet and interact with students, I don’t have to think about why am I here and why do I care. It’s really clear. So, I mean, I’m happy to talk to you about the State of the University Address, or on other occasions, other issues, maybe not so upbeat, but anytime you wanna have a conversation on there.”

 

Tiffani Smith, News Editor: Well thank you so much for speaking with us today. We really appreciate it and we’re definitely looking forward to the Address tomorrow.

President Ed Ray: “Well thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I appreciate that.”

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