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As public money dries up, president seeks other ways to become world-class university

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - New University of Oregon President Michael Schill is focusing his fundraising on alumni, since the state offers such bleak prospects for funding. The University of Oregon is pivoting toward private donations in an era when the state’s public universities seem to have all but written off government funding.

President Michael Schill, who began his new post at the UO on July 1, laid out his vision of a world-class university to the editorial board meeting of the Portland Tribune Nov. 11.

The Eugene-based university, with total enrollment of around 25,000 students, has a small campus in the White Stag Block in Old Town. The University of Oregon Foundation, which receives and administers private donations, officially bought the property Nov. 4 for $42.6 million.

Schill says that with the state Legislature providing just 7 percent of the university’s operating budget, “it’s like: why do we even call ourselves the University of Oregon?”

The focus, he says, is now on alumni and other private donors.

“It’s going to be about philanthropy,” he says. “It’s all about philanthropy.”

Schill is not the only university president talking about this new model. Since the Oregon University System was dismantled over the past two years, the seven public universities have all switched to a board of trustees governance system that allows them to put more focus on garnering private donations.

“That’s my job, to tap into that,” Schill says.

The former dean of the University of Chicago Law School says he considers the University of Virginia and the University of California-Los Angeles to be his competition, not Oregon State University — though it’s likely they are going after similar pools of donors.

“We’re not in that league yet, and we need to be in that league,” he says.

PathwayOregon grants

Schill says he hopes to reduce student cost and improve performance with an expansion of a program called PathwayOregon. The program offers free college to Oregon high school graduates who are eligible for federal Pell grant funds. But Schill says these low-income students need more than just money. They need academic advising and clearer paths to graduation. Schill also wants to offer completion grants to students who run out of money before they finish their degree.

“Those kids are the worst off because what ends up happening to them is they get all of the debt and none of the degree,” he says.

Schill says that in addition to hiring 80 to 100 more faculty to offer more classes, he wants to hire a “retention czar” and three or four academic advisers to “really focus with a laser beam on getting these folks to succeed.” That includes using predictive data analytics to attempt to find students who are at risk of dropping out, so when a student fails a math class or doesn’t register for a gateway class, “We’re going to send in the advising SWAT team,” Schill says.

The new president also says he is asking all of his departments to come up with a four-year degree completion pathway for students instead of having them cobble together courses.

Getting students to graduate on time offers thousands of dollars in savings as opposed to the few hundred dollars in annual tuition hikes that spark student protests, he says. Last March, more than 100 protesters shut down a board of trustees meeting in which the board voted to increase tuition by 3.8 percent for Oregon residents.

Oregon tax structure ‘craziness’

Schill says he worries that a fear of elitism is holding Oregonians back.

“In that case, really they hired the wrong president for the University of Oregon,” Schill says. “That is Martian to me to hear that we don’t care about excellence.”

Schill says he is angry that smaller, less expensive universities get more state money per student than the UO does. He also takes aim at Oregon’s school funding structure based on property taxes.

“It’s actually craziness,” he says. “This state is uniquely ill-suited to fund anything that’s not mandatory.”

Though the Legislature boosted funding to the seven public universities by $30 million in this biennium’s budget, the UO president says it’s still “horrible.”

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful,” he says. “We just need to do a lot better this year.”

Schill acknowledges that he tends to speak bluntly.

“Obviously, if I get savaged in this next year, I might have some behavior modification,” he says.

UO in Portland

The University of Oregon hosted the grand opening of its White Stag Block in downtown Portland in 2008, but officially purchased the property Nov. 4. The campus is home to about 200 students in architecture, journalism, business and law school. There are also other research and support departments. Visit the website at

Shasta Kearns Moore
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