Oregon bill seeks to increase transparency of college boards, say campus voices
Some Oregon lawmakers are working to change the way the state’s public universities are governed – by increasing transparency and increasing the power of students, staff, and faculty in decision-making.
Senate Bill 854 would make a number of changes to the governance structure of public higher education in Oregon. It would prohibit board secretaries from also being members of a university administration, require board members to have publicly available official email addresses, and allow university employees and students to appeal decisions. advice to the State Higher Education Coordination Commission, among other changes.
“I am delighted to present Senate Bill 854 to you today,” Oregon Senator Lew Frederick, D-Portland, told the Legislative Assembly Senate Rules Committee on Thursday at a public audience. “However, I am disappointed that it is necessary, and it really is.”
Frederick, who is one of the main sponsors of the bill, continued, “Recently we have seen trust between administrations and academic communities erode dangerously in universities across the state. Senate Bill 854 helps solve this problem.
Frederick acknowledged that the bill is important and that its first public hearing came quite late in the current legislative session. He said he tabled several amendments reducing the bill to its “bare bones”, giving the legislature the opportunity to pass a more streamlined bill.
A college council has many tasks that affect the entire campus community, including setting tuition fees and hiring college presidents.
Currently, university boards must have one student, one staff member, and one faculty member. If passed in its entirety, the bill would increase this requirement to two members from each group.
More than 20 people testified in favor of the bill Thursday, including Mark Perlman, professor of philosophy at Western Oregon University.
“The universities in Oregon have a lot of problems, and it’s not just because of the pandemic,” Perlman said. “A lot of them stem from structural issues within boards. Boards of directors lack independence from university presidents and the administrations they are supposed to oversee.
Perlman said he has seen students, staff and faculty go unnoticed or even silenced when it comes to board decisions. That’s why, he says, it’s important to increase student and employee representation.
“It gives more voice to faculty, staff and students on the board,” he said.
As it stands, the governor appoints members of the board of directors of public universities to their posts.
SB 854 would also change the way these appointments are made by requiring the governor to collect recommendations from each school’s student, faculty and staff organizations.
“Not only will this bill give a voice to students, faculty and campus staff, but I firmly believe it will promote healthier decision-making on our board of directors,” said Makana Waikiki, student in Western Oregon.
Waikiki, who was part of the student government at WOU this year, said she had found herself in several situations where she felt “guarded” from accessing members of her school’s board.
“Right now, at WOU, students have no guaranteed right to speak to our administrators, one-to-one or in meetings,” Waikiki said.
She mentioned the difficulties she encountered when she tried to make a presentation to WOU administrators about a proposed center for students of color earlier this year.
Another part of the bill would require all board members to have individual, publicly accessible, official email addresses. Currently, some boards only provide access to directors through a secretary of the board.
“Because the secretary of our board of directors works for the administration, I have often been subjected to a lot of scrutiny,” Waikiki said. “Senate Bill 854 matters to me because it ensures that students, faculty and staff have access to our primary decision-making body. “
Some current secretaries of the university’s board of directors also testified against the bill on Thursday.
Angela Wilhelms, secretary of the University of Oregon board of trustees, called the bill “unnecessary.”
“I am continually impressed with the commitment to students and to public higher education demonstrated by the volunteers who come forward to serve as trustees,” said Wilhelms. “In any community as large and as complex as a university, there will be decisions that some will disagree with and practices that some will conceive of differently.
Wilhelms said discussions of specific issues can be best resolved with conversations rather than statuses.
Wilhelms admitted she was in a conflict of interest – she’s a secretary to the board who also works with the administration, which the bill seeks to ban.
“I just want to stress that my broad and substantial knowledge of the university gained by working with the board is a benefit, not only for the administrators, but also for the institution,” she said. “This clause seems to assume that we will somehow violate our duty of care and loyalty to the institution. … I have an obligation to serve the university as a whole, and that is what my colleagues and I do.
Margaret Kirkpatrick, vice-chair of the Portland State Board of Trustees, also said she found the bill unnecessary due to the work already done by trustees.
“I really appreciate the motivations behind Senate Bill 854, but I think we can do what we need to do through collaboration and conversation rather than through these dramatic statutory changes,” she said.
Several Oregon universities have had very public disputes over the past year over their university boards and administrations.
Brie Landis is a graduate student at the Oregon Institute of Technology, and they are the new student body president for the upcoming school year.
Landis told the ILO that the university has experienced “imbalanced power”, with the governing body transferring authority to the president of the university and increasing salaries for administrators in recent years.
Earlier this year, the Oregon Tech Faculty Senate said it had “no confidence” in the current president, Nagi Naganathan, and called on him to step down. The ILO recently had the first strike by professors at public universities in Oregon.
“If this bill were in place before now, I’m sure the strike could have been avoided,” Landis said. “The board is a governing body that is supposed to balance the power of our chairman, and it fails miserably.”
Kathleen Stanley, professor of sociology at Oregon State, reflected on the problems of her school.
“Recent events at OSU have made it clear what happens when boards of directors are disconnected from the university community,” said Stanley, referring to former OSU president F. King Alexander, who resigned earlier this year after pressure from the university community. Alexander was previously president of Louisiana State University, where it was revealed that many cases of sexual misconduct had been mistreated.
“Our ousted former president was hired through a top secret process with minimal faculty, staff or student involvement,” Stanley said.
SB 854 would also change the requirements of university presidential hiring committees, requiring them to include at least one faculty member, one staff member, and one enrolled student.
She said that although OSU’s faculty senate and many members of the campus community had called for Alexander’s resignation, “the board’s initial response was to delay and postpone – a clear sign that administrators had little understanding of faculty values. “
Along with greater transparency on the part of university councils, the bill would also seek to give all university students and employees more voice in council decisions, even after they have been made.
He would direct the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission to establish a process that would allow any employee or student to appeal to the commission any decision made by the university’s governing board.
SB 854 would also affect the structure of HECC, which oversees Oregon’s higher education institutions and distributes state funding, among other functions.
The Commission is currently composed of nine voting members. SB 854 would expand that number to 16 voting members, including students, faculty, and staff at universities and community colleges.
Much of this change is already addressed in a recently passed bill.
Senate Bill 712, which was signed Thursday by Governor Kate Brown, is expected to add six new voting members to the HECC. The main difference between this bill and SB 854 is that SB 854 adds an additional faculty member from a public university – specifying that a faculty member must be from one of the major universities in the Oregon: State of Oregon, University of Oregon or State of Portland the second should be from a smaller university.
If adopted, SB 854 would effectively replace SB 712.
HECC executive director Ben Cannon said the ongoing university governance conversations are important, but he had some concerns about the proposed changes affecting his agency.
Senate Bill 854 includes an emergency clause, which would require Governor Brown to appoint new HECC members to the committee before the end of the year.
“I’m concerned that adding seven new members to the board through an appointment process, which I think is really good, will take time and consideration by both the governor’s office and by the Senate. I’m concerned about this timeline, ”Cannon said.
Senator Frederick said there was an urgent need to pass the bill. He initially introduced the bill in March, saying the issues he was addressing were important. “Now, three months later, they are only getting more urgent. “
“I believe it is our duty as a legislature to develop good policy for the state, and we cannot and should not rely on others to fill in the gaps for us,” Frederick said. “This bill is a law of good governance of bread and butter, and it is a representation of our commitment to the higher education community to support them.”