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As I See It: Ray valued growth over affordability

As I See It: Ray valued growth over affordability


I was recently asked to offer comments on Ed Ray’s tenure as president of Oregon State University. In the article I was identified as a critic of his which, while accurate, is a limited perspective. I’d much prefer to be identified for what I stand for, but that's received little press or attention.

So what do I stand for? When Ray decided to pursue a donation drive for the broken economy of growth, I presented an alternate idea: to raise monies for student housing instead. Across our nation universities are competing for students, be they out-of-state or international, who are willing to pay higher tuition rates. In this competition the focus has become sports and amenities rather than academic prowess and affordability.

Consider the $1.14 billion raised by Ray’s donor campaign. Based on the cost of OSU’s most recent dorm (Tebeau), which cost $27 million to build and houses 324 students, the cost comes to $84,000 per student. Had Ray been equally successful in a campaign for housing, that $1.14 billion would have housed 13,860 students ... at no cost. This translates to free housing for all freshmen, sophomores and juniors at the time he took office, appropriately leaving off-campus housing for seniors and graduate students who are transitioning out of academia. According to OSU, dorm-living students are much more likely to graduate than those who live off campus, so an added benefit is increased retention and student success.

At the time of his growth mandate, the cost of tuition and housing were roughly equal, so the cost of an OSU degree would have been cut roughly in half. A staggering thought (conversely, as a result of his no-housing approach, rent now far outstrips tuition costs, ballooning the cost of a degree). And then there's the environmental impact of placing students on campus and the communitywide impact of freeing up housing.

When I presented this idea to Ray, he dismissed it with a simple “students don’t want to live on campus,” which was demonstrably wrong as, at the same time, students were actively protesting his decision to close down OSU's co-op housing. This was by far the most popular on-campus housing, not because students want to live on campus, but because it was by far the most affordable. That’s what Ray, from his removed position of wealth, misses.

Students want affordable education foremost, but when on-campus costs just as much as off-campus does, yeah, most choose to live off campus. I imagine he's right about many students, though. Those whose families can afford high tuition in particular (the same students he's focused recruiting efforts towards). But the students whom free housing would serve are the exact ones our state schools are designed for: those who aspire to lift themselves up through higher education.

How does one effect change in a public institution? I've written Ray ("I can assure you most people don't know what they're talking about..."), testified before the Board of Trustees ("We have observed under President Ray’s leadership a continued and meaningful commitment to address housing needs for students..."), driven up to Salem to testify before the State Board of Higher Education (no response), and written our state representatives Rayfield and Gelser (no responses). And so we wait for a profitable (magic) way to address climate change, affordable housing and student debt. We missed an incredible opportunity to forge a progressive path, choosing instead to follow the vanilla recipe of other universities in a never-ending competition of capitalism.

Today there are an unprecedented number of OSU students living in their cars, and as a result of Ray's tenure, students pay more for housing now than they ever have and OSU continues to be among the bottom of all land grant universities in terms of providing housing.

Jeff Hess lives in Corvallis.


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