Trustees okay purchase of Ballmer Institute site in Portland

The Board of Trustees of the University of Oregon has unanimously approved a purchase agreement for the campus of the former Concordia University in Portland to house the groundbreaking Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health.

The purchase price for the 19-acre campus is $60.5 million and the agreement includes a due diligence period for the UO, as well as several legal contingencies to protect the university’s interests. The cost of the purchase would be fully funded through the $425 million lead gift from Connie and Steve Ballmer.

During the board’s two-day March quarterly meeting, trustees also approved student tuition and fees for the 2022-23 academic year, approved two capital projects, and received an update on the UO’s student success and diversity initiatives, including an upcoming climate survey of UO employees.

UO President Michael H. Schill told trustees that the planning for the Ballmer Institute had made for a “busy and productive period” for the university and that he was delighted with the “outpouring of support, enthusiasm and excitement” the UO has received from across the state since the institute was announced.

Schill also noted that, with the omicron surge abating in Oregon and the UO community, COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to loosen. While the pandemic has repeatedly shown that institutions should be prepared to be “nimble” and the UO will “need to stay vigilant” against other variants, Schill said the drop in cases is “very good news.”

Trustees received a detailed briefing on the Ballmer Institute, which will establish a new national model for providing mental and behavioral health care to schoolchildren, through a partnership that brings together the UO’s researchers, Oregon K-12 public schools and community support groups.

Provost Patrick Phillips said the institute will build on the UO’s highly ranked education, special education and psychology programs to tackle a significant national crisis in children’s behavioral and mental health “at the front edge,” by working directly with school leaders, teachers and community members, among others.   

“We will never do anything that more exemplifies what we can be as a university,” Phillips said.

Goals for the institute include graduating at least 200 behavioral health practitioners annually from the proposed bachelor’s degree program, starting in fall 2023, as well as offering a certificate program to current K-12 educators and other current school employees later this year.

The institute plans to hire more than 25 new faculty members to deliver the curriculum, provide clinical education experiences, expand the body of research, and develop new, innovative programs to help children at various intervention stages, including early childhood and adolescence.

Randy Kamphaus, acting executive director of the Ballmer Institute, told trustees that only 20 percent of children with an anxiety or depression problem currently receive care from a specialized mental health care provider.

“The pandemic highlighted a situation that was already there: The existing system and workforce has not been able to meet the need,” he said. “Our intent is to add to that workforce and to extend the capabilities of the individuals already in that workforce both in and out of K-12 schools.”

Trustees asked about the challenge of integrating specialized mental health educators into the existing culture and systems of Oregon K-12 schools, how the institute might partner with early education programs around the state, and how to address the stigma some people associate with the term “behavioral health.”  

Trustee Toya Fick was one of several trustees to applaud the initiative.

“I’m super excited about this work,” she said. “As a mom of two public school kids and (someone) who works with public schools all the time, this is sorely needed.”

Trustees also received a briefing on some legal considerations surrounding the purchase of the campus that formerly housed Concordia University in Northeast Portland. UO General Counsel Kevin Reed and outside counsel Kelly Walsh, of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, explained that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod holds a “right of reentry” to the property and that the purchase by UO is contingent on the current owner, the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, obtaining a formal extinguishment of that right.

“I think we all feel very strongly that it will happen,” Walsh said. “The Lutheran Church Extension Fund would not have been spending the money it's spent to get to this point if they didn't believe that they could get that extinguished.”

The property is also subject to a notice of legal dispute between the former university and a key vendor. The UO’s purchase agreement contains a robust indemnity clause from the seller that seeks to ensure that the property would not be impacted by any potential judgement against the Lutheran Church, Reed said.

Prompted by a trustee’s question, UO leaders stressed that the Ballmer Institute will move forward even if the deal to purchase the former Concordia campus is not completed.

“I don’t believe the Ballmer Institute relies on this particular piece of ground in order to be successful,” Reed said.

On March 15, the board unanimously approved Schill’s recommendations on student tuition and fees for the upcoming academic year, following a public comment opportunity.

Tuition rates for next year’s incoming class of undergraduate students will be set at a level that is higher than current year’s first-year students by 4.5 percent for Oregon resident students and 3 percent for nonresident students. Those rates will be locked in for those students for five years.

Adjusted, administratively controlled mandatory fees for all incoming undergraduate students will be 3.74 percent higher than for the previous class.

The increased tuition and fees only apply to the incoming class of first-year and transfer undergraduate students this fall because, under the UO’s guaranteed tuition program, tuition rates and mandatory fees for all returning undergraduate students are already set. The board also approved graduate tuition rates that vary from no increase to a 5 percent increase, depending on the program.

The tuition and fee proposal were reviewed and recommended by the Tuition and Fee Advisory Board — made up of students, staff and faculty members — which held nine public meetings during fall and winter terms.

The approved fees also include adjustments to reflect funding for the Erb Memorial Union moving from the incidental fee to the student union fee, following a joint proposal put forward by the Associated Students of the University of Oregon and the UO Division of Student Life.

Trustees discussed how UO tuition rates compare to other public universities in the Association of American Universities around the country for both resident and nonresident students, the UO’s lack of state funding versus most of those comparator schools, and the university’s cost drivers. They also reviewed the details of the guaranteed tuition program. 

Board Chair Chuck Lillis noted that the UO is at a disadvantage compared to other public AAU schools that have larger endowments that can help cover some of their regular operating costs.  

“In the increasingly competitive environment in which we operate (on tuition rates), that data point is going to be more and more important,” he said.

Trustees were also briefed on an upcoming climate survey, open to UO employees, that will gauge the campus culture and how the administration can best support employees in inclusive and equitable ways.

The survey will be conducted by Gallup and begin in April. All employee reporting will be anonymized.

“Climate data will allow us to understand how our employees are experiencing the work life here,” said UO Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Yvette Alex-Assensoh.

Another important initiative in that area is an ongoing project to create a detailed and interactive institutional data dashboard that will allow users to study the demographic makeup of the UO and broad outcomes for students and employees and how those evolve over time.

The first set of dashboards is now online and publicly available and more data will be added to it in coming months, with the goal of using more data analysis in university decision-making and prioritization.

“It’s super exciting that we have this data and ability to access it,” said trustee Marcia Aaron. “I know it’s been a long time coming and it’s great to see.”

One area where the dashboards are expected to help UO leaders see trends and identify problems is in student graduation and retention, said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Student Success Kimberly Johnson.

The detailed data will allow UO stakeholders to focus on different student populations, determine how outcomes differ for specific groups, and monitor whether outcome gaps are increasing or decreasing over time.

“This newly developed dashboard will allow us to go a little bit deeper,” Johnson said. “We can be more nuanced with our interventions and practices” to boost student graduation and retention rates.

In other business:

  • The board approved two capital projects, a $15 million restoration of the Knight Library’s exterior, roof and foundations funded by the state; and an expanded version of a proposed Oregon Acoustics Research Lab, for which the UO is seeking a $15 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration.
  • Astronomy lecturer and outreach director Scott Fisher briefed the trustees on the UO-owned Pine Mountain Observatory, located in Central Oregon, and the program’s efforts to engage with UO students, including those not majoring in science. The five-telescope facility is located under the largest stretch of “dark sky” in the contiguous 48 states, Fisher said, and the program is creating a remote observatory control room that would allow students on the Eugene campus to connect remotely to Pine Mountain.
  • Trustees reviewed the university’s new student basic needs program, which includes three full-time staff positions. The program will assist students dealing with food and housing insecurity and help them navigate potential support programs that are available to them

By Saul Hubbard, University Communications