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Bernstine, OUS presidents testify

Calling for reform of the costly state pension plan and support for delaying basic maintenance, Portland State University President Daniel Bernstine testified before the Education Subcommittee of the Oregon state government with other Oregon University presidents on Monday.

The testimony came as the State Legislature examines how to fund higher education in the midst of revenue shortfalls statewide. Hearings, which began April 1, are scheduled to run through the end of this week, ending with a public hearing April 14.

“The governor made some very optimistic projections about how much revenue we’re going to get,” said Education Subcommittee Chair Susan Morgan (R-Myrtle Creek).

As the economy has continued to bottom out and available funding has diminished, Morgan said, the committee must now decide what further reductions to make to cope with reality.

Already PSU has seen its $144 million two-year budget cut $15 million to just $129 million since the beginning of the year. Because 2002 is the last year of the budget, these cuts must all be absorbed this year, which has already forced education officials to add a $125 tuition surcharge to cover costs.

Things will probably get worse for the Oregon higher education before they get better.

University presidents repeatedly testified that growing class size, reduced class availability and much smaller fee reduction programs are a virtual certainty in years to come.

The testimony came in response to a number of envisioned budget-cut scenarios representing reductions of 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 percent to each institution. At the high end of the range, between 6 and 8 percent, the presidents were near unanimous in their dire predictions.

“At 8 percent, we’re going to tip over,” said Martha Ann Dow, president of the Oregon Institute of Technology.

“Beyond the point of a 6 percent reduction, our numbers will start to decline,” said Richard Jarvis, chancellor of the Oregon University System.

This enrollment decline, which would further reduce tuition revenue, could send the whole system into a “downward spiral,” Jarvis added.

Although the budget could take months for the Legislature to decide on, Bernstine has already convened a committee to help shape possible cuts. The Budget and Priorities Committee has been meeting weekly since Feb. 5, and is scheduled to give its recommendations to Bernstine by June 1.

“At this university, we teach students to be critical readers and critical thinkers,” said Dave Johnson, chair of the Budget and Priorities Committee. “Our mission as a committee is, at bottom, to be critical readers and critical thinkers about all the university administrators are doing to make these cuts.”

Like the state administrators, PSU’s Budget and Priorities Committee will eventually be given several budget-cut scenarios to deal with.

Johnson, who chairs PSU’s history department, remains optimistic, stressing that PSU’s response will include creative proposals for raising revenues without raising tuition. Yet he worries that state administrators have too many things to worry about.

“The economy is in a world of hurt in this state, and it surprises me that there isn’t stronger sentiment on the part of our elected officials that higher education can be part of the road out of that,” Johnson said.

If creative fundraising isn’t enough, however, the university will consider changing the way it administers graduate tuition, said Gene Enneking, chair of the Faculty Budget Committee and a member of the Budget and Priorities Committee.

While noting that “we’re still on the ‘putting stuff on the table phase,'” Enneking asked, “If programs are very expensive, should costs be offset by higher tuition based on the fact that those students can expect higher salaries out of college?”

The idea of making some programs more expensive, called differential tuition, is fairly common at schools across the country, said Enneking, who chairs the math and statistics department said.

While no one wants to see tuition raised any more, Enneking said, “quality is going to hit a wall at some point.”

It might not happen all at once, though.

“It would be a slow erosion,” Enneking said. “Class sizes could increase to 35, to 40, to 45 over a series of years, and you wouldn’t feel it all at once.”