Building the war chest

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Higher education political action committee features a who’s who of Oregon’s business elite

Any organization that can count Nike Chairman Phil Knight and Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle among its donors is a force to be reckoned with in Oregon.

With the support of other generous checkbooks, like those of of Edward L. Maletis of Columbia Distributing Company and John von Schlegell of Endeavour Capital, Oregon’s biggest business names are forging a strong lobbying force to address the state of Oregon’s higher education.

Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence, under the direction of Boyle and von Schlegell, has collected over $9 million to put behind lobbying efforts for more independence amongst the seven state universities in the Oregon University System. Knight is one of several donors to contribute over $625,000 to the political action committee. Knight has historically been a key contributor to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, which has spearheaded lobbying efforts to pull away from the OUS.

According to Boyle, the main issue for the PAC has been greater independence from the state for the universities—through the formation of local institution committee boards that would have the authority to oversee aspects of university administration independent from the OUS. Boyle said the PAC would like to see legislation that would these committees legal. If not, the PAC would consider going directly to the voters, using its donations for an initiative petition campaign.

“We would never recommend that the institutions not be part of the state—they have to continue to remain part of the state and supply the citizens with a dividend for all the money they’ve invested over the years—but we think that could be more efficiently done in an independent manner,” Boyle said.

With funds for higher education diminishing, Boyle argued that further independence from the state is necessary to develop the strengths of the institutions to effectively compete with universities in other states and countries. In Boyle’s view, increased funding from the state belongs to a bygone age.

“If I thought that was going to happen, we’d have a much different discussion. I don’t think it’s possible that there’d be more money allocated from the state budget to higher education,” Boyle said.
Boyle argued that a state without a strong higher education system cannot produce a highly trained domestic workforce. Boyle cited his own company, Columbia Sportswear: “Speaking selfishly, we’d prefer to hire students that are from here.”

Political action committees such as Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence often have a profound effect on the decisions of the legislature, said Debbie Koreski, Portland State’s director of state government relations. This is especially true if the group has the resources to launch its own petition, which seems likely in this case. Koreski explained that the legislature may write their own version of an interest group’s initiative to compete, simply because in most cases interest group initiatives are written to gain votes and are difficult to enact into law.

“It’s not like this is some kind of grassroots movement,” Koreski said. “Political action and initiative totally influence [legislators’] behavior.”

“There’s a lot of research that suggests that in inititiative campaigns you can spend more money and defeat legislation, but there’s no evidence that spending more money causes an initiative to be enacted into law,” PSU Professor of Political Science Richard Clucas said.

Interest groups usually have an easier time influencing the legislature, and turning to the voters with an initiative is a gamble, Clucas explained.

“The threat of having something on the ballot is one thing, but whether or not it’s the real threat that they can get their way with the voters is questionable,” he said.

In spite of the theme of independence for all universities, this PAC has the characteristics of an extension of the University of Oregon Foundation’s lobby for greater autonomy, Koreski said. “Lawmakers are skeptical that this is big money trying to privatize UO, and they’re definitely trying to fight that perception.”

Boyle called this a common misconception and maintained that the PAC stood for greater autonomy for all the institutions that wanted it. Boyle pointed out that other institutions had testified in favor of local boards, including PSU President Wim Wiewel.

Though PSU has voiced interest in having an institutional board and could benefit from greater independence, Koreski explained that the difference in approach lies in the degree to which UO wants to pull away from the OUS.

Clucas added that the formation of a PAC such as Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence is an important indicator of future political activity regarding the state of higher education in Oregon.

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