State commission approves tuition increase

The Oregon State Capitol building in Salem. (Creative Commons)

It's no secret that the University of Oregon is in the midst of a construction boom, both creating new structures and refurbishing the old, and as a plan revealed by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission suggests, the work could be for the better.

HECC, a state administrative agency responsible for higher education, announced the plan on Oct. 9 in a press release, noting that it is the first 10-year comprehensive strategic capital plan concerning public universities in Oregon. According to the statement, the plan “provides strategic guidance for maintaining and upgrading the public university capital portfolio through 2029.”

The 290-page plan provides an in-depth graphic analysis for each of the state's seven public institutions and summarizes a number of key findings about the status of higher education in Oregon, especially related to enrollment and the utilization of space at establishments. 

Four major recommendations for Oregon public universities conveyed in the report emphasize improving capital assets. The recommendations include:

  • Investing in improvement or replacement of outdated capital features, especially in regards to facilities
  • Sharpening institutional missions to tailor capital construction to specific needs
  • Improving how state and institutional levels approach capital planning
  • Increasing collaboration between universities, or emphasizing online programming to lessen the need for space

“We spent about $840,000, so it was a big contract and it was a big commitment,” said Jim Pinkard, director of postsecondary finance and capital with HECC. Contractor SmithGroup were responsible for developing the plan, as hired by HECC. 

With a great deal of the plan focused on meliorating existing facilities, Pinkard said that aging spaces are an extensive issue with Oregon's public higher ed. Of the 647 buildings across the state for which ages are reported, Pinkard stated that 78% were 30 years or older, with around 55% 50 years or older.

For UO specifically, the report highlights that the institution has only an 8% surplus for academic space (which includes classrooms, teaching labs and open labs), compared to the high 53% surplus at Eastern Oregon University. Many entering students are coming from Lane County Community College, and like most of the seven universities, the institutional projections for enrollment diverge in an upward manner from independent projections, completed by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a higher education research nonprofit that was partnered with SmithGroup.

While not as optimistic as those made by Oregon State University, UO campus targets for full time undergraduate enrollment are creeping towards 25,000 by 2029, while NCHEMS numbers suggest that enrollment would decline by over 500 undergraduate FTEs nearing 2029. The plan states that similar situations across the state are indicative of “a broad disconnect between institutional optimism and demographic realities.”

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Pinkard explained that work on the project began in February 2019 and was based on the visitation and inspection of the seven universities. “We went out to each institution twice,” Pinkard said. “We did one round of visits that was focused on facilities: 'What is your existing facility space? What are the conditions?' We did another round of visits in the summer to talk to stakeholders, so we talked to faculty, staff, groups of students, local businesses."

Pinkard said that such a project is actually rare on a national level. “Most of the time, state-funding for university capital projects can be somewhat political and contentious, but it can be random,” he said. “There's not necessarily a lack of organization, but there's a lack of planning. When you put a building over here while you're renovating a building over there, why did you make that decision?”

With a great deal of the plan focused on meliorating existing facilities, Pinkard said that aging spaces are an extensive issue with Oregon's public higher ed. Of the 647 buildings across the state for which ages are reported, Pinkard stated that 78% were 30 years or older, with around 55% 50 years or older.

Pinkard said that overall, working with the different universities was a positive experience. “The institutions themselves at the beginning were very hesitant,” Pinkard said, “because they have us coming to their campus, asking a lot of questions and for a lot of data, but through the process, all seven of them were very willing to participate by providing data."

A statement provided to the Emerald by UO spokesperson Kay Jarvis said,“The University appreciates the work done by the HECC and this project to tackle the very complicated and pressing issue of capital investment across campuses in Oregon.”

With the plan released, Pinkard said that the universities have by October 21 to submit their capital project requests. “We at HECC then have about a month to score all those projects, and then December 11, we will be presenting to the commission what we the staff thing are the best things to prioritize,” he said.

Pinkard expects that HECC will be looking over 20 to 25 project requests, which will be ranked based on commitment to sustainability and renewal, as judged by a rubric derived from the 10-year plan. HECC will then present them to the legislature by December 13. 

“They can make whatever decision they want,” Pinkard said. “To their credit, the state legislature really wants to be fair and equitable. The UO community is probably pretty interested in the projects they need for their campus, and we won’t know if they are funded or not until February or March.”