Not so many years ago, there was a suggestion that Oregon consider selling one of its seven universities in order to be able to more adequately fund the remaining six.
While the idea was considered preposterous, it did illustrate the dire straits into which the university system had fallen.
The last session of the Legislature took a step toward righting the ship of higher education. But that being said, three of the regional universities have experienced a particularly acute struggle.
Both Southern Oregon University and Western Oregon University have had serious funding problems from which they now are starting to emerge. Eastern Oregon University, on the other hand, remains mired in a series of problems - fiscal shortfalls, declining enrollment and related ills.
Earlier this month, EOU officials appeared before the State Board of Higher Education in Portland. John Miller, EOU's Provost, talked about students who are leaving because of costs and others who are being lured to universities in other states. EOU's enrollment dropped by 3.1 percent this year and is expected to drop by another 200 students next year. And even with a 23 percent increase in funding for the university system, EOU's budget plan for the next three years calls for $3 million in cuts.
Add to that the recent announcement that the university's president, Khosrow Fatemi, who has been beleaguered by numerous problems during his three-year run, including a no- confidence vote from the faculty, will be leaving La Grande on July 31 for a new assignment within the system.
Despite the setbacks, Chairman Henry Lorenzen of Pendleton says the state board remains committed to EOU and its survival. That commitment recognizes that EOU is a regional university that provides critical access to rural students. Students in Grant County and elsewhere in Eastern Oregon have found a foothold in academia that might not be possible without a university-level institution in close proximity. It is important this half of the state have at least one university to provide the educational, economic and quality-of-life benefits that such an institution offers.
However, it may be time to think outside the box when searching for solutions to EOU's troubles. One possibility that could help the university, while still serving the needs of this region's students, would be to have EOU affiliate with Oregon State University.
There is precedent for such an alliance, which could allow some sharing of resources and an expansion of academic programs to enhance our area. EOU, which is now hovering around 3,000 students, no doubt enjoys a great deal of autonomy, something faculty members, in particular, heartily embrace. And, historically, academic institutions have been slow to accept change.
However, nowhere is the mission of a land grant institution more compatible than in Eastern Oregon. Land grant institutions such as OSU originally were designed for advanced training in agriculture and the mechanical arts. That mission has since been expanded to include other tangible trades and professions but the concept remains the same - a higher education program that includes practical skills. Eastern Oregon is the kind of place that appreciates such a concept.
A larger presence for OSU in Eastern Oregon makes a great deal of sense. OSU has become a research powerhouse in addition to its long-time reputation for academic excellence. A marriage with EOU and a major presence in Eastern Oregon could provide enormous benefits for OSU, and for our region.