Letters to the Editor Winter 2010

January 1, 2010 - 9:24am

Bold Plan and Risks

While I was unable to connect with the optimism underlying President Lariviere’s plan to change both the governance and the budgeting for the University of Oregon [“Tough Times, Bold Plan,” Autumn 2010], I do think the plan has considerable creativity. Establishing local governing boards for each state institution would, indeed, create more time for the local boards to deal with the unique issues of each institution. The downside, of course, is that local boards would also have more time to pester, cajole, demand reports of one kind or another on an already fully engaged administrative staff. Boards take on lives of their own. They can vary from being rubber stamps for administration to opposing and being obstructive in its relationship with administration. So, I say to the president, be careful what you wish for!

But, with respect to the budgeting ideas: when the general obligation bonds come due in thirty years, who repays the $800 million principal?

Some discussion of how the University intends to manage its costs going forward would have been reassuring. There is an impression abroad that American colleges and universities care little about cost containment. A Goldwater Institute study of public colleges and universities found that tuition has been rising much faster than prices in general—even faster than the rise in the unsustainable, bubble-bursting home prices. During the 1993–2007 period, enrollments increased by 15 percent. This increase should have improved scale and thus lowered costs. It did not. The number of administrative staff per 100 students during the same period increased by 39 percent and inflation adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent. By contrast, instructional staff increased by only 18 percent and instructional spending by just 39 percent. Arizona State University (somebody has to be an outlier) increased its administrators by 94 percent during the same period while actually reducing instructional staff by 2 percent! Private colleges and universities had administrative growth averaging only 9.8 percent.

There is much to be done. I wish President Lariviere success.

Joseph E. Murray
Salem

Editor’s note: Joseph Murray is the father of three UO graduates.

I took the advice in Guy Maynard’s “Editor’s Note” and read both “Tough Times, Bold Plan” and “A Risk Worth Taking” [Autumn 2010]. I agree with him. The greatest risk is to do nothing and continue to saddle Oregon’s best and brightest with ever-increasing debt loads some say the legislature is unable to mitigate. Unwilling works better for me, but is an easier observation to make living in a state with a huge and growing budget surplus.

I was fortunate to attended Oregon in the mid ’60s. Tuition was $110 a quarter, room and board about $1,000 per year, and books and fees maybe another $500. My degree cost about $7,500 and I walked through commencement at Hayward Field without a nickel of debt. I worked my rear end off in summers, took a few part time jobs, and had some help from my folks. I started my adult life even. I shudder when I see the debt loads young graduates are forced to take on at a time of life they are least able to deal with it. We, as a country, have to do better. Oregon has a golden opportunity to do so now.

Lariviere’s idea is, at a minimum, audacious. The legislature has, for various reasons—some outside its control and some from a lack of will power, which is within its control—eroded the commitment to young Oregonians for an affordable public higher education. Something this bold just might work and deserves serious consideration by everyone from loyal alumni to the governor and the legislature. Just imagine the future for kids from McMinnville, Sherwood, Newberg, and countless other towns having predictable college costs and the legislature not having to pretend it supports public higher education.

I am reminded of a quote attributed to Einstein, which, if accurate, appropriately closes out my thoughts just as a one from him opened President Lariviere’s essay. Einstein reportedly said the definition of insanity is to keep doing things the same way and expect different results. The way Oregon funds Higher Education fits that definition. Lariviere used a more polite version of the definition in his closing remarks. His plan shatters the old way and gives Oregon and its young people a great shot at something better.

For me, the answer to Walth’s rhetorical question is an emphatic YES ! It is worth the risk.

Keep up the high quality journalism. I look forward to and read every issue cover to cover.

Evan Mandigo ’67
Bismarck, North Dakota

Thanks to Brent Walth for the excellent piece [“A Risk Worth Taking?”] on the proposed “bold plan” to develop “stable financing” for the UO using a state guarantee for University investments. This financing scheme raises a basic question: Who does the University serve? As an alumnus and faculty member (1969–71), I have watched the University move away from its primary mission—educating a diverse population of Oregon undergraduates—to the pursuit of administration, faculty, and alumni goals—research grants, graduate programs, and athletics.

Due to the uncertainty of markets and non-student interests involved, this proposal will most likely result in more expensive in-state tuition, a less diverse undergraduate student body, and fewer resources for undergraduate education. If the UO wants to become a private university, then raise donor money and go, and free up public funding for OSU and PSU.  

Lawrence (Larry) Shadbolt ’64
Portland

I don’t blame President Lariviere for wanting to untie his wagon from the State of Oregon. The article “Tough Times, Bold Plan” clearly documents the state’s failure to adequately fund higher education over the last twenty years—and in particular the University of Oregon. The fact that the University continues to thrive given such relatively poor state support is a tribute to the sacrifices and ingenuity of former and current staff, students, and donors.

That being said, Lariviere’s plan to address this predicament fails on two counts. One, it relies on a massive debt issuance and the unrealistic assumption that related bond proceeds will yield nine percent once invested in the stock market. This assumption is considered “reasonable” given the foundation’s investment record since 1994. Conveniently not mentioned is the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial Average was flat between 2000 and 2010—as in no growth. Also not discussed is the long-run prognosis shared by most economists of slow economic growth and low investment returns over the next decade—the painful aftermath of a housing bubble fueled by easy credit and unserviceable debt loads. Currently, the Federal Reserve is more concerned about deflation than inflation. If the stock market yields a more realistic four percent vs. nine percent, the plan loses money in that the cost of borrowing exceeds related investment returns—also known as negative arbitrage. The only winners in this scenario are bond underwriters and attorneys.

The second weakness of the plan is that it relies on a disconnect from the State of Oregon. Again, this is tempting given the state’s poor record of funding higher education and its budget forecast of future deficits. But, it’s also shortsighted and selfish. Great universities and leaders don’t turn inward when times are tough. Instead, they join others and embrace the challenges faced and work for a better future together. University officials are rightfully concerned about their financial future, but they should also be troubled by the state’s lackluster record of funding other essential services such as K–12 education and human services. Rather than taking an “everyman for himself” attitude, university officials should join legislators and other state leaders in working to put our state’s fiscal house back in order. Like it or not, the state of Oregon and the University of Oregon are joined at the hip—and one cannot prosper while the other one suffers.

Courtney Wilton ’80
Portland

I continue to be so impressed by Oregon Quarterly. I have a pile of them on my coffee table at home and sometimes at my clinic (to share with patients). You are still doing an exceptional job. This is still the best magazine published in Oregon. I read it cover to cover, just like I read Esquire.

I was so charged by the bio of Richard Lariviere in May ["An Aspirational Sort," Winter 2009] that I went to a Duck Club meeting in Bend to hear him speak, and invited both Richard and Jan on “the most beautiful horse ride in the mountains you’ll ever get to do.” (That’s because they couldn’t get to Sisters Rodeo, as it coincides with UO graduation—the ride was the secondbest offer.)

Your fabulous writing resulted in spending a delightful day on that horse ride with the Larivieres, getting to know them more and learning about them personally. Now, the Autumn 2010 issue gives such a precise explanation of the funding plan [“Tough Times, Bold Plan”]. I’m talking this up with anyone who slightly expresses interest, now that I know how to present the proposal.

Bonnie Malone ’74
Sisters


Measuring Success

I was much attracted to the Autumn article, “The Measure of Success” I particularly was impressed that UO professors of physics have discovered there are students, who despite their low high school grade point averages, attained high GPAs through “hard-working” in classes at the UO.

I experienced that phenomenon after I enrolled in the UO in January 1946. At this point in time the UO had decided that those of us who had served in World War II should be allowed a chance to prove we could master the demands of higher education, despite our lowly high school records.

I gained two degrees from the UO. The University of California at Berkeley then was enough impressed by my GPA at the UO that it allowed me to earn a doctorate there. I thus wonder, as did the UO physics professors, should not the powers to be at the UO allow the enrollment of more students such as I?

Patrick Groff ’49, MS ’51
San Diego, California


Insipid or Inspired?

Four pages in the Oregon Quarterly devoted to Ellen Waterston’s essay “Day in Court” [Summer 2010]? A distilled summation: Ellen, a serial scofflaw, rockets across the High Desert landscape, untethered children “ricocheting” about while she trolls for random connections with a notoriously lax but strangely persistent state trooper. That was then, when she still “saw only possibility” for her life. Fast forward. Ellen is back out in the Oregon desert speeding on the “ribbon of death” as she ruminates on the disappointing children and failed relationships that have dashed her “naive” hopes for her life. Reverie interrupted by karma and flashing lights, she opts for her day in court to challenge the historically shirked imposition of the People’s will on her rate of speed. While there she kills time with cliché and cynical book cover projections on her fellow defendants until arriving at the catalyst for her redemption; the long suffering, humble and meek Mexican farm worker. Undisclosed traffic citation dismissed against said Mexican. “Bravo!” Ellen’s faith restored in the order of things, and “the possibility of happy outcomes.” The end. The insipid “message” essay; what would the OQ be without one? Perhaps something I would look forward to reading.

J.D.Weeland
Palm Springs, California

I am an instructor in college reading and writing at Portland Community College. I used Ellen Waterston’s essay, “Day in Court” [Summer 2010] with my college reading class. I was beyond pleased with the student responses to this lovely essay. I really never know what will touch them, but this one certainly did. I have many students from different cultures, and as you might imagine, my two Mexican women were clear and immediate about their feelings for the Mexican man—his commitment to his family and respect for the law. I weep when I think of him all dressed up for court, and Waterston’s “bravo” when the judge ruled so fairly (in all cases, really). My students wrote their response to the writing after much discussion in small groups about the various levels of the essay, which are many. I want to share this learning experience for you never know where a piece of writing may lead. My students were not all highly successful in school, so when something speaks to me, I am never sure that it will convey a universal message to them—her essay did and all I can say is thank you to Ellen Waterston.

Sonja Grove ’67, EdD ’95
Portland