Signs are posted at Portland State University. One sign reads, "Disarm PSU." Another reads: Tuition Hike? Hell No."

Signs are posted at Portland State University in the windows opposite the room where the university's Board of Trustees meets. Students and other members of university campus communities have been pushing for more transparency in how public university governing boards operate in Oregon.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

An Oregon bill focused on increasing transparency and accountability within university governing boards will not continue through the legislative process. Instead, university leaders have agreed to implement some of the bill’s proposed changes on their own.

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Senate Bill 854 would have made a number of major changes to the way public universities in the state are governed. If passed in its entirety, the bill would have prohibited board secretaries from also being members of a university’s administration, increased the number of student and employee representatives on boards and allowed campus members to appeal decisions by boards of trustees to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, among other changes.

It would have also enacted a more limited set of requirements such as providing board members with official email addresses and making those available to the public, setting aside time during regularly scheduled board meetings for live comments, and dedicating time for student governments and official campus labor organizations and employee groups to give reports or comments during those meetings.

Chief sponsor of the bill, Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said during a legislative work session on Thursday that those more limited changes have now been accepted by the universities, in lieu of a new statute.

“I want to again thank you for your consideration of SB 854,” Frederick said to the Senate Committee on Rules. “After significant and meaningful conversations with university administrations, we will be going another route to accomplish these reforms.”

In a letter to Frederick, the board chairs and secretaries of Oregon’s seven public universities committed to implementing or continuing, the core reforms laid out in the bill immediately.

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Along with dedicating time for comment from the public and campus groups, as well as requiring public email addresses for trustees, the universities stated they would include at least one faculty member, one staff member and one student on presidential search committees.

“The boards and institutions welcome opportunities to collaborate with the legislature on best practices over the coming months,” the university board representatives wrote to Frederick.

The universities said along with those immediate revisions, they will begin a review of best practices with a focus on transparency and access, including a look at all of the provisions included in Frederick’s original bill. That collaborative review will include representatives from the universities — including employees and students — as well as designees from the legislature and the HECC.

That review will be completed no later than January, the universities wrote.

During a public hearing on SB 854 earlier this month, more than 20 people testified in its favor.

“SB 854 continued a very important conversation at the legislature about accessibility and accountability of university boards and we thank legislators for engaging in this conversation,” the Oregon Student Association, a nonprofit focused on student advocacy, said in a statement on Thursday. “Students and our faculty and staff allies will continue asking legislators to make strides towards more accountable Boards of Trustees in future sessions.”

During his testimony on Thursday, Sen. Frederick thanked the students, staff and faculty members who had worked hard advocating for the various reforms. He sounded assured that the most pressing issues would be addressed immediately through the universities’ agreement.

“I have made it clear that my sincere expectation is that these are permanent institutional changes,” Frederick said of the agreed-upon reforms.

“Because of SB 854, the legislature has forced open and genuine conversations to occur about this crucial issue of higher education governance,” Frederick said on Thursday. “And the agreement that we have reached is an important immediate first step. But that’s all it is — a first step. And the next step is not one that can wait, nor will it be the final one, but it is one that we can all work towards and take together.”

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