We're willing to bet that among the folks who have been closely following recent events at Portland State University are members of the committee charged with selecting the next president of Oregon State University.

The drama at PSU serves as a reminder of how high the stakes are when the time comes to find a new university president — and what can go wrong when a selection doesn't pan out.

It also should serve as a reminder to members of the committee that they should work hard to include a very public component as part of the OSU search — and to make the search process itself as transparent as possible.

If you haven't been paying attention to the recent events at PSU, here's a summary: The university's president, Rahmat Shoureshi, recently resigned under pressure from the PSU Board of Trustees. He had been president of the university for just 21 months. Most of the trustees wanted Shoureshi gone after repeated complaints about his management practices and his treatment of employees. 

The trustees agreed to give Shoureshi a settlement package valued at more than $855,000. The amount includes another year of his base salary, two years of health insurance and $35,000 to cover his legal fees. 

At about the same time that the trustees were working out the details of the settlement deal, they voted to raise tuition at the school more than 11 percent.

As it turns out, the boards that govern Oregon's public colleges and universities can't unilaterally increase tuition by that amount: Tuition increases above 5 percent need approval from the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Ben Cannon, the head of the commission, last week expressed his unhappiness at the severance package — and told The Oregonian that the settlement "will weigh heavily on the commissioners if Portland State sticks with its proposal."

It's not an idle threat: In the past, the commission has vetoed tuition increases sought by Oregon universities. (This partially explains why OSU's board has taken pains to keep its tuition increases below 5 percent.)

Now, the reasons why some of Oregon's public universities believe they need double-digit tuition increases go well beyond a severance settlement to a former president, and as the Legislature grapples with higher education funding, there will be other opportunities to examine those reasons. But suffice it to say that it doesn't look good to offer a six-figure severance deal to an administrator at the same time that you're increasing your tuition rates by 11 percent.

And we're suspecting that some of PSU's trustees are having a bad case of buyer's remorse about hiring Shoureshi in the first place. 

Which highlights, again, the importance of these presidential searches — arguably the most important function these university governing bodies perform.

This is the first presidential search that the OSU Board of Trustees has overseen, and it has the luxury of time: President Ed Ray has announced his plans to retire on June 30, 2020. 

The board has selected a 15-person search committee to help choose Ray's successor. The committee includes OSU trustees, faculty, students, administrators, staff and alumni, as well as representatives of higher education and community members. Darry Callahan, an OSU alumnus and member of the Board of Trustees, will chair the committee.

At this point, the board is talking a good game about soliciting public input, including launching a website to collect input on the search process. (You can access that website at https://leadership.oregonstate.edu/presidentialsearch/searchprocess.) Here's hoping that the board follows through on those plans, including offering a chance for members of the public to meet with its second-round candidates.

In a search where the stakes are this high, it only makes sense to cast the nets as wide as possible. And doing so now could save some money in the long run. (mm)

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