Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski spoke Friday at a meeting of the State Board of Higher Education, addressing issues he brought up a week earlier when he asked for the resignations of four board members, including current board president Jim Lussier.
Kulongoski thanked the outgoing members for their work and dedication, but stressed the importance of addressing issues of access and affordability at Oregon’s universities.
“The future of this state,” the governor said, “is all about intellectual capital. It’s an investment in young people. It’s an investment in education.”
He emphasized the importance of this issue and added that the community colleges were a “critical piece” of the work he wants to do with higher education.
In Oregon, Kulongoski continued, it is necessary to look at issues on a broader spectrum. He illustrated, saying, “Growing the economy is always an integral piece to what I’m doing.”
The governor also addressed his reasons for dismissing members of the higher-ed board last week, saying he wants the opportunity to work with a board that shares his vision for postsecondary education.
“I wanted to start over with a clear board, and that’s why I did it,” he said.
Even outgoing board president Lussier, who will soon be replaced by former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, felt that Kulongoski made the right decision. He commented that he felt the media made the governor’s request for board resignations out to be a negative thing, “but really,” he said, “it’s a good thing.”
Kulongoski said he felt part of the problem was that he never sat down with the outgoing board and added, “This is my vision and this is where I want it to go.” And he doesn’t know of any governor who has. He hopes that with a new board, their vision and his will be more unified.
He admitted the process of accomplishing things on the higher-ed board was slow, and said, “Some of the issues that I’ve seen on the state board are the same issues that have been there for years and years.”
Kulongoski continued to stress the importance of access and affordability, but said, “The issue is always how do you do it.”
He said he knows none of the specifics about creating more revenue for the higher-education system, but admitted that it does need some “generating mechanism.”
“You have to be something of a physicist to figure out the funding for this (higher education system),” he said. “It is very, very difficult to understand.”
The governor said he wants to bring certainty to the issues surrounding postsecondary education and that access for Oregon students should be the primary goal of institutions in the Oregon University System.
He also stated that the Legislature does not want to let tuition rise, but that universities need more money to continue operating, since their budgets were severely slashed this year due to a statewide budget crisis.
When you artificially suppress tuition, Kulongoski continued, “you basically tell the universities to eat that cost.”
“That philosophy drives a policy of mediocrity,” he said.
The governor stated that the universities need to have enough money to continue to operate, even if they have to raise tuition in order to do so, but also said,”The students have a right to say, ‘You can’t put this cost out of our reach.'”
He said that he wants to “provide opportunity to students in this state” and that he is “concerned with their ability to pay to get in.” He does not want students to leave school with thousands of dollars in debt from student loans.
He said he is focused on trying to find a remedy to that issue, hoping that higher education does not “revert back to how it was before 1940,” when only the privileged could go to college.
The governor feels a college education is important for Oregon’s youth, adding, “A liberal arts degree is furniture for the mind.”