The University of Oregon’s Board of Trustees on Monday unanimously approved a $60.5 million purchase agreement for the former Concordia University campus in Northeast Portland.
The university plans to use the property as the site for The Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health. The new institute, including the property purchase, is being funded by philanthropists Steve and Connie Ballmer as part of a more than $425 million donation.
“I am just incredibly happy and really joyful about the outpouring of support, enthusiasm and excitement for the Ballmer Institute,” UO President Michael Schill said on Monday. “[The institute] is a whole new way to think about how to address the children’s behavioral and mental health crisis that our nation is experiencing.”
Schill said the new institute is aiming to “create an entire new profession and workforce of practitioners of behavioral health.” It will do that by partnering with K-12 schools statewide, creating a new proposed undergraduate degree program and a mid-career certificate program focused on children’s behavioral health, and bringing together expertise from existing UO programs like its psychology program and College of Education.
UO Provost Patrick Phillips said on Monday that the university wanted to address a diverse population with the institute — both in the children it will serve and in its workforce. That led the university to settle on the site in Portland.
“While Eugene is great for a lot of things, I think we have discussed many times that this is not the center of diversity in the state of Oregon — Portland is,” Phillips said. “And so, it became quite clear immediately that if we were going to do something that was really going to be transformative, it had to be based in Portland.”
UO’s Board of Trustees approved the purchase agreement unanimously, but not all opinions on the institute and the Concordia site have been as unanimous.
Two people spoke on Monday about the Concordia property acquisition and the plans for the Ballmer Institute during the board’s public comment session.
One speaker spoke against the institute itself, stating that it might not be focused enough on trauma-informed support for children and too much on what they called “behaviorism,” which focuses on children’s external behaviors rather than the underlying reasons for them.
UO Board Vice Chair Ginevra Ralph said she sympathized with some of those concerns and hopes to hear about holistic approaches to children’s health.
“I think as we go forward, for you to be able to talk with us about that approach would be really helpful,” Ralph said to Randy Kamphaus, the institute’s acting executive director.
Kamphaus said the “Behavioral Health” in the institute’s title is more of an “abbreviation” of a collection of other subjects — like mental and emotional health — and that the name of the institute could change.
Kamphaus and another UO board member also mentioned an online petition signed by parents, teachers and advocates worried about a behaviorist approach. He said the institute will not limit itself to one specific model or approach.
“We want to be on the leading edge of knowledge, and we don’t want to stay there. We want to keep moving forward in a continuous improvement cycle,” he said. “And so fixing on a particular model in this point in time is terribly immature for us. It’s also the wrong thing to do as a research university, because then you lose that diversity of thought that’s needed to do really good work.”
The other speaker during the public comment session warned UO trustees to be wary of an ongoing lawsuit related to the former Concordia University and allegations of fraud within it.
The former Concordia Portland is wrapped up in a more than $300 million lawsuit, filed against it and other related entities by HotChalk — a technology company that helped manage Concordia’s online programming before it shuttered.
UO’s General Counsel Kevin Reed said the university is confident that the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, the current owner of the Concordia Portland property, has enough money to potentially settle the legal dispute with HotChalk, if necessary, without needing anything related to the property.
The university is currently doing its due diligence on the property, including inspections. It says if all goes to plan, it should close on the more than 19-acre property in June, if not earlier.
The university has big plans for the institute, including bringing on 25 faculty members focused on research and clinical practice. It plans to enroll its first class of 200 first-year students in the proposed bachelor’s degree program in fall of 2023.
“We’re starting from nothing and a decade from now, who knows what we’ll be doing and what the total size and scope of this could look like,” Provost Phillips said. “I think it could be very comprehensive.”