PORTLAND — Oregon State University President Ed Ray used his annual State of the University address to highlight OSU's growing presence in Portland and around the state while urging his audience to help address the "crisis of inequity" that keeps low-income students from obtaining a college diploma.

Speaking to an estimated 800 people at the Oregon Convention Center, Ray talked up OSU's plans to take over the second floor of the Meier & Frank Building, a historic landmark overlooking Pioneer Courthouse Square in the heart of downtown Portland.

Set to open in August, Ray said the university's new Portland headquarters "will serve as the centerpiece for a regional hub-and-spoke system" that includes the Food Innovation Center in the Pearl District; College of Pharmacy programs that partner with Oregon Health & Science University on the South Waterfront; Extension Service offerings in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties; and a College of Veterinary Medicine collaboration with the Oregon Humane Society, among other initiatives.

In addition, he said the university plans to unveil some new hybrid graduate and undergraduate online programs in business, cybersecurity, and human development and family sciences, starting this fall.

Ray also touted the university's capital construction plans.

At OSU's main campus in Corvallis, work has begun on the $79.5 million Forest Science Complex, an anonymous $25 million donation is fueling the push for a $60 million arts and education complex and a $50 million gift from an alumnus — the largest donation in university history — is bankrolling an expansion and upgrade of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

The university recently reached a deal to expand the OSU-Cascades campus in Bend from 46 acres to 128 acres, and it also has solidified its plans to build a new classroom and laboratory building at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport (although the building's location in a tsunami zone remains controversial).

Ray talked about OSU's Student Success Initiative, which aims to raise first-year retention rates to 90 percent and six-year graduation rates to 70 percent.

He said the OSU Foundation has raised $79 million toward a $150 million goal for scholarships and programs to support the effort, doubling the university's resources in this area.

As a sign of progress, he noted that OSU increased its graduates with financial need by 400 last year and that 43 percent of degree-earners graduated with no debt, well above the national average of 32 percent. Those who took out loans to finance their education had an average debt load of about $25,000, compared with the national average of $30,100.

Ray touched on a number of highlights from the past year, including successful seasons for the baseball and women's basketball teams, the return of Jonathan Smith to lead the football program and the addition of an OSU-created pigment to the Crayola crayon pantheon: bluetiful.

"You had to see the look on my 10-year-old granddaughter's face when I told her that was an Oregon State University crayon in her crayon box," Ray told the audience.

He also bragged a bit about the high marks given OSU programs such as the College of Forestry and the marine studies program, ranked No. 2 and 3 in the world; the College of Agricultural Sciences, rated No. 10 in the country; the robotics program, ranked fourth nationally; and the university's online undergraduate offerings, ranked No. 6 in the U.S.

Ray wrapped up by returning to a theme that has become a regular feature of his annual State of the University address: the widening gulf in higher education between the haves and have-nots in this country.

Since 1970, Ray noted, the number of people from the highest income bracket graduating from college has jumped from 44 percent to 85 percent. For Americans in the lowest bracket, the numbers have risen from 6 percent to just 9 percent in that same span.

"That is absolutely shameful," Ray said. "We have literally doubled the educational attainment gap based solely on income distribution, and higher education institutions are complicit in the worsening income inequality across America."

Noting that tuition now accounts for two-thirds of the cost of a college education, he called on the Legislature to reverse years-long declines in state funding for higher ed.

"We must work with state leaders to make college students and their future a priority," he said.

During a brief question-and-answer session following his speech, Ray addressed a concern raised by a student about white nationalist activity on the Corvallis campus. Andrew Joseph Oswalt, a doctoral candidate and student government representative at OSU, is facing hate crime charges in connection with an off-campus incident last June in which racist bumper stickers were pasted on a number of cars.

"It's ignorant, stupid stuff, and we need to push back," Ray said.

But he also cautioned against any sort of reaction that would stifle freedom of expression on campus.

"The way you deal with hateful, vile speech is not to intrude on freedom of speech. A lot of people died to preserve this right ... but you have free speech, too," Ray said.

"I would much rather have an alternative event than to have students shouting down or engaging in violence with some dope who wandered onto campus."

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt. 

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