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Challenges Await New President At Eastern Oregon University

Applicants to the University of Oregon and Oregon State University who weren't granted admission this year could receive a pleasant surprise in the mail this week. At least one state-funded university wants them - Eastern Oregon University.

As Ethan Lindsey reports from La Grande, the state's rural university is trying a whole bunch of new ways to recruit  students.

The Union County Fair, in La Grande, has everything you'd expect. Country music plays from the main stage, people meander through a barn full of prize-winning animals, and kids line up at the food booths for hot dogs and cotton candy. But down the way from the makeshift food court, there's an unusual booth with an unusual sign.

EOUIt's the outreach center for Eastern Oregon University. No tweed jackets or talk of Camus — the faculty hopes this fairground presence will encourage more students to consider approaching the ivy walls.

Eastern Oregon University is the state's only four-year school east of Klamath Falls.  About 3000 students attend classes here, and its small grassy quad in the middle of campus can seem to be the only patch of green for miles. But despite its beauty, the university suffers from the painful and possibly incurable disease of dwindling enrollment.

The number of applications has dropped 40 percent in just two years. First and foremost, it's a problem of mobility - high school seniors don't stay around like they used to.

Dixie Lund: “Sometimes, the younger students - they need to see what the rest of Oregon or the rest of the World is like.”

Dixie Lund took over as the interim president of Eastern Oregon University this month.  The faculty says she's the right choice — she's an alumnus, a longtime La Grande resident, and she served as interim president three years ago. Lund says the new-slash-old job offer actually came on her 38th wedding anniversary.

Dixie Lund: “The call was actually a bolt out of the blue. And my husband and I had just exchanged anniversary cards. And the next day I was leaving for my 40th high school reunion, but Monday morning it was very clear to my husband and me that this was what I was called to do. So, right now, we're sitting in a very spacious office, with empty bookcases, a lot of them.”

The enrollment problem is one that all rural American universities face, but Eastern Oregon University's situation has been compounded by other factors.

Schools in Idaho and eastern Washington have reduced their tuition to attract Oregonians — with some success. Additionally, former E.O.U. president Khosrow Fatemi stepped down in July after a faculty vote of no confidence in 2006.

The university was named in a $100 million lawsuit against a professor whom Fatemi had promoted. The professor, Robert Davis, is accused of raping a student and a colleague.

Fatemi won't be gone altogether — his new job is special assistant to Chancellor George Pernsteiner. Fatemi will work to secure federal funding for rural colleges. Chancellor Pernsteiner has overseen the university system during some of its worst budget problems — he says that's had disastrous consequences.

George Pernsteiner: “We are one of the states that has a big disparity between the education level of our older population which is higher than the education levels of the younger workforce. It's unusual in the country. It's very unusual in the world. And it doesn't bode well for the future economic prosperity of our state.”

That's why, he says, the La Grande campus is so important. Help is on the way — Salem lawmakers increased university funding by 23-percent this year — the largest investment seen in decades.

Plus, interim president Dixie Lund's first official acts on campus was a creative bit of short-term recruiting - she sent notes and application materials to students rejected by the U of O and OSU this year. And finally, Pernsteiner says the real key for Eastern will be to focus on its distance education.  And he says that's one of the reasons Lund is a good choice to lead the university through this transition period.  She was dean of the distance-learning department for 10 years.

Dixie Lund: “We have about as many distance students at Eastern as we do residential students. Once in a while on graduation day, a graduate from pick-a-state, will come to La Grande and it may be the first time that they have set foot on the La Grande campus. Everything else has been done by phone and by email.”

Lund says she's not worried the campus will become all-virtual. She says she gets her optimism from students like Emily Booth - who'll be a senior at Eastern Oregon University in the fall.

Emily Booth: “I am actually from Portland, so this is quite a change of scenery and environment for me. My mom and I had looked at all these other schools, and all the other schools were private schools and I thought, I am going to a hoity-toity private school. And she said why don't we look at Eastern. And we came over here and I immediately fell in love with the people. I was the only one from my high school to come here.”

Eastern Oregon admits there aren't enough students like Emily out there. They don't expect to convince kids that La Grande is more cosmopolitan or hip than Portland.  But they hope a changed administration and more state funding could help turn around the enrollment death spiral.

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