Way back in March of last year, when Ed Ray announced he would be stepping down as president of Oregon State University at the end of June 2020, he seemed to have set himself on a glide path into retirement.
What a difference 15 months makes.
In December, when the OSU Board of Trustees announced the hiring of F. King Alexander to be Ray’s successor, it appeared that everything was in place for a smooth transition.
But then the ride got bumpy.
First came COVID-19, which forced the university to largely shut down its Corvallis campus, shift from classroom teaching to distance education and indefinitely postpone commencement as it tried to plan for an uncertain future.
Then came the death of George Floyd and a national outcry for racial justice and police reform at a time when OSU is in the process of forming its own police force.
“One of my objectives this year was to make the transition to the new president as seamless and uneventful as possible,” Ray said during a wide-ranging interview this month in the Memorial Union Lounge on campus. “Well, I got that half right.”
But while the last few months have been undeniably turbulent, Ray says the runway is still clear for Alexander’s tenure to get off to a good start when he begins his tenure as OSU’s 15th president on Wednesday.
Ray’s optimism comes in part from his confidence in Alexander’s leadership abilities, developed during stints as president of Murray State University, Cal State-Long Beach and, most recently, Louisiana State University, and from the frequent conversations Ray and other OSU leaders have been having with Alexander via phone and Zoom.
“It’s been very intense for me, but we’ve really been working to keep him up to speed,” Ray said.
Plus, Ray said, he believes Oregon State is better-positioned than many other schools to weather the twin storms of coronavirus and anti-law enforcement sentiment because it’s already worked through some of the challenges involved.
The creation of a campus police force has its origins in an October 2019 incident in which an Oregon State Police trooper assigned to patrol the campus stopped Genesis Hansen, an African-American student who was riding her bicycle on the wrong side of a residential street. After she refused to show identification, the trooper called in backup from the Corvallis Police Department, and ultimately Hansen was arrested.
“How the hell does that turn into being thrown to the ground, handcuffed and taken off to jail? Talk about stupidity,” Ray said.
Although Hansen was quickly released and was never prosecuted, the incident raised questions about racial profiling and police use of force, prompting a chorus of criticism from members of the community – including Ray.
A rift quickly grew between OSU and the state police, and within days OSP announced it was terminating its law enforcement contract with the university. After holding a series of listening sessions with the campus community and evaluating its options, OSU decided to stand up its own armed police force, which will come into being on Wednesday, the same day Alexander takes office.
Some people are starting to push back against the idea, including a recently formed group called Disarm OSU, but Ray believes the university will be able to navigate the tricky terrain in part because of the lessons it learned in the aftermath of Hansen’s arrest.
“There was no way to know from our incident that this was going to be a national priority, but we got a head start,” he said. “On that I think we’re in a good place.”
Amid the virus
Likewise, Ray thinks Oregon State is in relatively good shape to continue educating students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic because, unlike most universities around the country, its academic calendar is based on quarters rather than semesters. In March, when an emergency was declared and in-person instruction halted, the majority of semester-based schools simply canceled classes for the rest of the year, but OSU scrambled to help students wrap up the almost-finished winter term.
“With two weeks’ notice, we knew we had to bring 4,000 classes up remotely. We kept going, we made it through the quarter and students took their exams.” Ray said.
“Now we’re coming up on fall, and what’s the worst thing that could happen? The worst thing that could happen is everything will still have to be remote. Everybody else has no idea how to do that, but we’ve dealt with COVID-19 – we had a dress rehearsal in the spring for the fall.”
Ray’s 17-year tenure as Oregon State University president has been marked by some notable achievements, including the Campaign for OSU, a fundraising push that concluded in 2014 and brought in more than $1 billion while expanding the university’s donor base.
In 2006, OSU brought home its first national athletic championship when the Beaver baseball team won the College World Series. Two more CWS titles followed in 2007 and 2018. In addition, Beaver athletes have claimed 17 Pac-12 Conference championships during Ray’s time as president: five in baseball, three in women’s basketball (two regular-season titles plus the 2017 conference tournament crown), two in gymnastics and seven in wrestling.
Ray also presided over a $1 billion building spree that has physically transformed the campus. Finished projects include the renovation of iconic Weatherford Hall, a major expansion of the football stadium, four student cultural centers, a veterinary hospital, several new classroom buildings, the new Student Experience Center and the recently completed Forest Science Complex.
Major expansions are underway at the university’s Marine Studies campus in Newport and OSU-Cascades in Bend, and there’s also a growing presence in Portland.
But one of the most impressive metrics associated with Ray’s stint at Oregon State is also one of the most controversial: enrollment growth.
On Oct. 8, 2009, Ray delivered an address to the Faculty Senate outlining a bold plan to make OSU one of the country’s top land grant institutions. At the time enrollment was around 21,000, up from a little under 19,000 when Ray took office, but in his speech he envisioned a future in which the student body would grow to as many as 35,000 by 2025.
While some embraced Ray’s ambitious vision, it set off alarm bells among many Corvallis residents, igniting a debate over the school’s growth and its impact on the community that continues to this day. As town-and-gown conflicts heated up, OSU and city officials launched a massive community engagement effort dubbed Collaboration Corvallis that held regular meetings from 2011 to 2014.
Meanwhile, Ray walked back his student body growth projections, saying the 35,000 figure was never intended as a target to be aimed at, and pledged to keep the number of students on the Corvallis campus under 28,000.
Although OSU’s overall enrollment stood at 32,774 last fall, only 24,039 of those students were in Corvallis; most of the rest – 6,578 – were online-only students enrolled through the Ecampus program.
Asked how he sees his personal legacy, Ray dismisses the question.
“I actually have no interest in that, even speculating. If you have to announce what your impact is, your legacy, you’ve already lost the game,” he said.
“Twenty years from now … wherever I am, heaven or hell or someplace in between, it’s not going to make a dime’s worth of difference to me. What’s your legacy? Who cares!”
But he’s happy to talk about some of the things that have been accomplished as a group effort on his watch: four new student cultural centers; the developing satellite campuses in Bend and Newport; the Campaign for OSU; awarding diplomas to more than 7,000 students at commencement ceremonies.
“We did a lot of great things together – I don’t think I did them,” Ray said.
He’s pleased with the increased diversity he sees on campus – students of color made up 26.3% of enrollment last fall, up from 13.7% in fall 2003, and international students accounted for 11% of the student body, up from 5.6% when he took over.
There’s also been progress on important student success metrics. The university’s first-year retention rate has improved from 80.7% to 85.4%, and the six-year graduation rate has risen from 60.5% to 67.1%.
Yet those numbers are still below targeted levels, and stubborn achievement gaps persist among non-white, first-generation, rural and low-income students.
“There’s been a lot of progress, but we’re not where we need to be,” Ray said.
“King understands that and knows what needs to be done,” he added, but then acknowledged the new president will face significant financial challenges in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic: “I think it’s going to be a long time before we get past COVID-19.”
At the same time, Ray insisted he remains optimistic about the university’s future.
“You’ve heard me say this many times, but I honestly believe the best is yet to come for Oregon State University. And it’s not a declaration, it’s not hubris – it’s a mandate. It’s your job to make sure the best is yet to come or you’ve failed. So I did what I could. Could I have done more? How the hell do I know? I always tried to do what I though was the right thing in a given situation. … That’s all you can do, I think.”
“We’re in a good place going forward,” he added. “We have a strategic plan, we have Vision 2030 (the university’s vision statement), we have a terrific leader coming in, I have a great leadership team – there’s no reason why the best shouldn’t come.”
As his term in office winds down, Ray – who will turn 76 in September – is getting ready to do something he has never done in his long academic career: take a sabbatical.
He refused to be pinned down on how long he might be away from campus but said he’ll use the time to explore some book possibilities and prepare for his eventual return to the classroom as a professor in OSU’s economics department.
“I was a teacher for 22 years,” Ray said. “I love teaching; I love being with kids.”
In fact, he said, his ideal vision of “retirement” is to go on teaching and being an active participant in Oregon State University’s academic life for as long as he’s physically able – rather like the beloved headmaster in James Hilton’s 1934 novel “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”
“To me, that’s as good as it gets … to be the old guy that young colleagues come to,” Ray said.
“It’s not going to happen, but that’s the aspiration – to be relevant in young people’s lives, help them get a good start in life. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my career.”
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