PORTLAND — In his final State of the University speech, retiring Oregon State University President called for more support for economically struggling students — and underscored the need by announcing a $1 million endowment to provide assistance for food and housing costs.
Speaking to an estimated 900-plus people at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland on Tuesday, Ray highlighted some of the achievements of his presidency, which began in 2003 and will come to an end when he steps down on June 30.
But he also called out some of the challenges facing the university — in particular, the need to do more to help students succeed.
In recent years OSU has launched a number of programs to address what Ray called “the crisis of anxiety and despair that is growing among young adults,” from expanding counseling services to implementing mental health wellness training for faculty, staff and students in how to recognize the signs of distress and offer help to those who need it.
OSU also has a number of programs aimed at addressing student poverty, including a textbook lending library, short-term emergency housing and an on-campus food pantry.
Those efforts got a major boost with Ray’s announcement of a $1 million endowed fund established by Thomas Toomey, the president and CEO of UDR Inc., a Colorado-based real estate investment trust. The 1982 OSU grad, who sits on the board of the OSU Foundation, made a previous $1 million donation in 2010 to endow a faculty position in the College of Business and help pay for the construction of Austin Hall.
Toomey, who was in attendance on Tuesday, got a standing ovation when Ray introduced him to the audience.
Sounding a familiar theme, Ray lamented steadily shrinking levels of state and federal support for higher education that has saddled a generation of students with crushing loan debt.
“Going forward, we must reduce the cost of a college degree for learners across the nation,” he said. “We must reverse a trend where public higher education nationally has literally abandoned people at the lower end of the economic spectrum and, soon, in the middle class.”
Looking back on his 17 years at the helm of Oregon State, Ray noted that the proportion of historically underrepresented students has nearly doubled from 13.5% to 26.3%, international student enrollment has tripled to 3,492 and the six-year graduation rate has risen from 60.5% to 67.1%.
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Also on his watch, Oregon State has built up satellite campuses in Newport and Bend, established a presence in Portland and significantly increased its research funding, which totaled $439.7 million last year.
The university’s fundraising ability took a huge step forward with the Campaign for OSU, which brought in more than $1.1 billion and broadened Oregon State’s donor base.
Over the past two decades, OSU has completed $1.1 billion worth of capital improvements — 96 major renovation and new construction projects in all, adding 2.6 million square feet of space. And more is on the way. A new laboratory and classroom building for the Marine Studies Initiative is scheduled to open in Newport this June, and the university is currently seeking state bonding authority to help build a new arts and education complex on the Corvallis campus and an academic building and student success center at OSU-Cascades in Bend.
“As OSU’s president since 2003, I’ve had the good fortune of being in the catbird seat to see all that occurs within the university,” Ray said. “And I can assure you it’s been quite a view.”
Ray thanked some of the many collaborators he said have helped the university succeed during his tenure, including former Provost Sabah Randhawa, late Finance and Administration Vice President Mark McCambridge and recently retired OSU Foundation President Mike Goodwin.
He also expressed confidence that Oregon State would be in good hands under the leadership of incoming President F. King Alexander and new OSU Foundation President Shawn Scoville.
“We are on the right path, with the right people,” Ray said.
“I am very enthusiastic about OSU’s future with its next president,” he added, calling Alexander “the right person at the right time for OSU and for our state.”
Finally, Ray expressed his gratitude to the Oregon State University community for the “warm welcome and embrace” it showed to him and his late wife, Beth, when they arrived in Corvallis in 2003. When people asked her if she thought she and her husband would stick around, Ray recalled, she would tell them yes, because OSU was “it” for them.
“I am a very lucky man. And let me confirm that after I step down as OSU’s president on June 30, I am staying here, because this place remains ‘it’ for me. And this is where I need to be,” Ray said.
“Meanwhile, the momentum enjoyed within Oregon State University and the university’s impact will continue to grow far into the future,” he added.
“And I guarantee you — and I cannot say this often enough or loudly enough — that the best is yet to come for OSU, the students we serve, and the people we serve in Oregon and the nation and across the world. Thank you and God bless you — and go, Beavs!”