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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

OSU risks growth to compensate for Oregon Legislature decisions

Below is my response to a letter by Therese Waterhous, "Letter: Speculation on OSU's student population could be a losing game," Gazette-Times posted Sept. 17, 2012:

The Sept. 17 letter by Therese Waterhous cautions Oregon State University stakeholders to beware about counting on Oregon State University's enrollment to stay up at 34,000 students indefinitely. ("Speculation on OSU's student population could be a losing game").

She did not mention the historical precedent, supporting her case, of how much Corvallis suffered economically when OSU enrollment started dropping during the Reagan recession as the baby boom enrollment bulge waned.

However, back then, the Oregon Legislature heavily subsidized OSU and capped enrollment at 15,000 students to benefit mostly children of Oregon residents. As a result, out-of-state and foreign students made up a small percentage of the student body.

Today, the Oregon Legislature has greatly defunded education, and OSU President Ed Ray is rationally compensating with a growth strategy that admits many more profitable out-of-state students. Ray's strategy will keep enrollment high unless competing universities steal market share by copying his strategy or the value of the OSU brand name is diminished from a lower quality of education or lower admission standards that leads to less profitable alumni supporters.
(Quoted from Thomas Kraemer, "Letter: Courting out-of-state students will keep OSU enrollment high," Gazette-Times, posted Sep. 24, 2012)

All successful universities depend on alumni to send them their own kids and to hire graduates of the university. If this breaks down, a university can fail if the alumni don't want recommend the college or donate to its mission, either through being a booster or by giving actual money to support research and education programs. My personal interest in the success of OSU is two-fold: First, I live in Corvallis and care about the City. Second, I am the founding benefactor of the OSU Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld Fund at Oregon State University for research on humans or animals with a minority sexual orientation or gender identity. One hundred percent of my estate will be used to endow this fund after my death. (See my previous post OSU Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld Fund Agreement (1/4/12))

What I will say next is truly not meant to be a threat, but I think it is a fact of life: If OSU is trashed by the defunding of it by the Oregon Legislature and OSU President Ed Ray's compensatory growth strategy, then employers will be less likely to recruit on campus and hire OSU students. Also, large donors will be less likely to risk supporting OSU in the long term. In my personal opinion, Ray is doing the most rational thing he can do, given the situation, but his strategy has a very high risk of failing because it depends on every OSU professor and staff member working even harder to succeed. I think his is within reason, but my past experience has taught me that college campuses are harder to manage than a profit and loss business. Academics are smart enough to understand the problem and solution, but then also be obstreperous in a manner that stalls the successful implementation of any plan. Private businesses don't have to deal with the concept of lifetime tenure, which was originally instituted to laudably promote the academic freedom to take big risks without having to worry about the politics of being censured for your pioneering or controversial research.