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Oregon bill aims to increase university board transparency, campus voices

Some Oregon legislators are working to change the way public universities in the state are governed — by increasing transparency and increasing student, staff and faculty power in decision-making.

Senate Bill 854 would make a number of changes to the governing structure of Oregon public higher education. It would prohibit board secretaries from also being members of a university’s administration, require board members to have publicly accessible official email addresses, and allow university employees and students to appeal board decisions to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, among other changes.

“I’m excited to bring you Senate Bill 854 today,” Oregon Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said to the legislature’s Senate Rules Committee Thursday during a public hearing. “Though, I’m disappointed that it’s necessary, and it very much is.”

Frederick, who is a chief sponsor of the bill, continued: “Recently, we’ve seen trust between administrations and campus communities dangerously erode at universities across the state. Senate Bill 854 helps fix that.”

Frederick acknowledged the bill is a large one, and its first public hearing came pretty late in the current legislative session. He said he filed multiple amendments narrowing the bill down to its “bare bones,” giving the legislature an opportunity to pass a more streamlined bill.

A university board has many duties that affect an entire campus community, including setting tuition and hiring university presidents.

Currently, university boards are required to have one student, staff and faculty member. If passed in full, the bill would increase that requirement to two members from each group.

More than 20 people testified in favor of the bill Thursday, including Mark Perlman, a philosophy professor at Western Oregon University.

“Oregon’s universities are having a lot of problems, and this is not just because of the pandemic,” Perlman said. “A lot of them stem from structural problems on the boards of trustees. The boards lack independence from the university presidents and administrations that they’re supposed to oversee.”

Perlman said he has seen students, staff and faculty go unheard or even be silenced when it comes to board decisions. That’s why, he said, increasing student and employee representation is important.

“It puts more voices from faculty, staff and students on the board,” he said.

As it now stands, the governor appoints public university board members to their positions.

SB 854 would also change the way those appointments are made by requiring the governor to gather recommendations from student, faculty and staff organizations at each school.

“Not only will this bill give much needed voices to students, faculty and staff on campus, but I firmly believe it will foster healthier decision making on our board of trustees,” Makana Waikiki, a student at Western Oregon, said.

Waikiki, who was in student government at WOU this year, said she has been in multiple situations where she felt “gatekept” from accessing board members at her school.

“Right now at WOU, students have no guaranteed right to address our trustees either one-on-one or in meetings,” Waikiki said.

She mentioned difficulties she had when she tried to give a presentation to the WOU trustees about a proposed center for students of color earlier this year.

Another portion of the bill would require all board members to have individual, publicly available official email addresses. Currently, some boards only offer access to trustees through a board secretary.

“Because our board’s secretary works for administration, I was often subjected to much gatekeeping,” Waikiki said. “Senate Bill 854 matters to me because it ensures that students, faculty and staff have access to our chief decision-making body.”

Some current university board secretaries also testified Thursday, against the bill.

Angela Wilhelms, a board secretary at the University of Oregon, called the bill “unnecessary.”

“I’m continuously impressed with the commitment to students and to public higher education demonstrated by the volunteers who step up to serve as trustees,” Wilhelms said. “In any community as large and as complex as a university, there will be decisions some don’t agree with, and practices some would design differently.”

Wilhelms said that discussions about specific issues may be better solved with conversations rather than statutes.

Wilhelms acknowledged that some might say her testimony is “self-serving,” because she’s a board secretary who also works with administration, something the bill is looking to prohibit.

“I just want to point out that my wide and substantial knowledge of the university gained by working with the board is a benefit, not just to the trustees, but also to the institution,” she said. “This clause seems to assume that we will somehow breach the duty of care and loyalty we have to the institution. … I have an obligation to serve the university as a whole, and that’s what me and my colleagues do.”

Margaret Kirkpatrick, vice chair of Portland State’s Board of Trustees, also said she found the bill unnecessary due to the work that trustees already do.

“I really appreciate the motivations for Senate Bill 854, but I do believe we can do what we need to do through collaboration and conversation rather than these dramatic statutory changes,” she said.

Multiple universities in Oregon have had very public conflicts this past year regarding their boards and university administrations.

Brie Landis is a graduate student at the Oregon Institute of Technology, and they’re the incoming student body president for the upcoming school year.

Landis said at OIT, the university has seen “unbalanced power,” with the board deferring authority to the university’s president and increasing salaries for administrators in past years.

Earlier this year, Oregon Tech’s faculty senate stated that it had “no confidence” in the current president, Nagi Naganathan, and called on him to resign. OIT recently had Oregon’s first public university faculty strike.

“If this proposed bill were in place before now, I am certain that the strike could have been avoided,” Landis said. “The Board of Trustees is a governing body that is supposed to balance the power of our president, and it is failing miserably.”

Kathleen Stanley, a sociology instructor at Oregon State, reflected on issues at her school.

“Recent events at OSU made clear what happens when boards of trustees are out of touch with the university community,” Stanley said, referring to former OSU President F. King Alexander who resigned earlier this year after pressure from the campus community. Alexander was formerly president of Louisiana State University, where it was revealed many instances of sexual misconduct were mishandled.

“Our ousted former president was hired through a highly secretive process with minimal involvement from faculty, staff or students,” Stanley said.

SB 854 would also change requirements for university presidential hiring committees, requiring them to include at least one faculty member, one staff member and one enrolled student.

She said even though OSU’s faculty senate, and many campus community members, called for Alexander’s resignation, “the board’s initial response was to delay and postpone — a clear sign that trustees had little understanding of faculty values.”

Along with more transparency on the part of university boards, the bill would also aim to give all university students and employees more say in board decisions, even after they’ve been made.

It would direct the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission to establish a process that would permit any employee or student to appeal to the commission any decision made by the governing board of the university.

SB 854 would also affect the structure of the HECC, which oversees Oregon’s institutions of higher ed and distributes state funding, among other duties.

The Commission is currently made up of nine voting members. SB 854 would expand that to 16 voting members, including students, faculty and staff members from universities and community colleges.

That change is already mostly addressed in a recently passed bill.

Senate Bill 712, which was signed by Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday, is slated to add six new voting members to the HECC. The main difference between that bill and SB 854, is that SB 854 adds an extra faculty member from a public university — specifying that one faculty member should come from one of Oregon’s large universities: Oregon State, University of Oregon or Portland State, and the second should come from a smaller university.

If passed, SB 854 would effectively take the place of SB 712.

HECC Executive Director Ben Cannon said the conversations around university governance taking place are important, but he did have some concerns about the proposed changes that affect his agency.

Senate Bill 854 has an emergency clause, which would require Gov. Brown to appoint new HECC members to the commission before the end of the year.

“I’m concerned that adding seven new members to the board through an appointments process, that I think to be a really good one, requires some time and consideration both by the governor’s office and by the senate. I’m concerned about that timeline,” Cannon said.

Sen. Frederick said there is a need for urgency in passing the bill. He initially introduced the bill in March, stating that the issues it was addressing were important. “Now, three months later, they’re only becoming more urgent.”

“I believe it is our duty as the legislature to make good policy for the state, and we can’t, and shouldn’t, rely on others to fill the gaps for us,” Frederick said. “This bill is bread and butter good governance legislation, and it’s a representation of our commitment to the higher education community to support them.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell