University of Oregon announces executive director for Ballmer Institute

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Jan. 31, 2023 6:06 p.m. Updated: Jan. 31, 2023 9:14 p.m.

Harvard psychologist Katie McLaughlin will lead the new institute focused on children’s behavioral health

An institute promising to transform higher education’s impact on a major challenge facing the state and the country has taken a key step toward that goal.

The University of Oregon announced Tuesday the first executive director for its new Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health.

Katie McLaughlin is the UO Ballmer Institute's new executive director.

Katie McLaughlin is the UO Ballmer Institute's new executive director.

University of Oregon / OPB

Katie McLaughlin, a Harvard University professor and clinical psychologist, will take the helm of the institute in August. UO expects to welcome its first undergraduate students to a new Portland campus this fall.

“One of the central goals of the Ballmer Institute is to train the next generation workforce in child mental health,” McLaughlin told OPB.

McLaughlin is currently Director of the Stress and Development Laboratory at Harvard. She said rates of mental health issues among children and teenagers across the country have been steadily increasing over the past decade, only further exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Even before this sort of recent increase in mental health problems started, we had a child mental health system that was unprepared to deal with the amount of need for services that existed,” McLaughlin said. “The situation now is at a crisis point for that reason. Where the Ballmer Institute comes in is thinking about a workforce solution to this problem.”

The new institute was made possible by a more than $425 million donation last year from Steve and Connie Ballmer of Ballmer Group Philanthropy. Steve Ballmer is a former CEO of Microsoft, and Connie Ballmer is a UO alumna and former trustee.

Oregon and the country as a whole are suffering from an acute shortage of services and providers in mental and behavioral health. The Ballmer Institute’s hiring of McLaughlin comes as leaders across law enforcement, education and housing are calling for increased focus on improving behavioral healthcare in the state. Gov. Tina Kotek and Oregon legislators have made the issue one of a few key priorities this legislative session.

The institute will feature a new undergraduate child behavioral health major which the university expects to graduate more than 200 students annually, once it’s fully up and running.

“Fundamentally, the vision of the Ballmer Institute is to make access to high quality behavioral health interventions a fundamental right for all children and families and no longer something that is just a privilege for the few that can access those resources currently,” McLaughlin said.

According to UO, the program will be the first of its kind at the bachelor’s level.

Institute aims for hundreds of behavioral health graduates, eventual master’s program

The university expects program graduates to complement existing behavioral health professionals, such as psychologists and social workers, by filling jobs such as behavioral health aides and case managers. The degree can also be a stepping stone for graduate programs in areas such as school counseling and nursing, according to UO.


The new undergraduate degree program promises to include partnerships with Portland Public Schools and other school districts as well as health care providers. University officials want those settings to help give students more than 700 hours of in-the-field experience as part of their training.

McLaughlin said the type of work students will do in K-12 schools will depend on individual school needs, but some examples might include services like “universal interventions” — teaching young students coping skills that could help prevent behavioral challenges down the line.

“Not only will graduates be learning the skills in terms of how to deliver these interventions, but they’ll be working in school settings right from the beginning — partnering with other mental health professionals who already exist in school settings to figure out where they can provide the most value within the school system in terms of promoting wellness,” McLaughlin said.

The institute is technically up and running already, under an interim director. It began this fall offering a remote, three-course, graduate-level certification for K-12 educators on children’s behavioral health.

McLaughlin said in the long term, she hopes the institute can build out a full master’s program.

The institute has begun the process of hiring instructors. According to the university, it plans to hire 25 faculty members — some focused on clinical work with students in community settings and others focused on classroom instruction and research.

McLaughlin said there’s been “enormous” interest in the faculty positions so far. In the same vein, UO Interim President Patrick Phillips said there’s also been great interest in the institute from both current students and prospective ones.

“The number one major at the U of O is psychology,” Phillips told OPB. “So we already have a wide variety of really excellent students that are thinking about what their futures can look like, and this is one possible future.”

Changes underway at new Portland campus ahead of fall opening

The institute will be housed primarily at a new UO Portland campus, located at the former Concordia University campus in Northeast Portland.

Along with the Ballmer Institute, the new campus will also be home to programs that are currently in Portland’s Old Town, including some of UO’s master’s programs in journalism, business and architecture.

Phillips said not all of those Portland-based programs will be ready to operate at the new campus by this fall, and they could take another year to fully migrate. But, he expects there to be new life on the campus come September with whichever programs are operating alongside the new Ballmer Institute.

The university has contracted with four architecture firms to make renovations to the Portland campus. Phillips estimates it will take “tens of millions of dollars of additional investment in order to fully upgrade things.” Much of the work is still currently in the design phase.

Phillips said the campus will maintain the openness that many neighbors appreciated about the former Concordia campus.

“One of my commitments has been to try and get a coffee shop open as soon as possible. That’s the heart of any university, but I also want it to be a place that neighborhood members who are walking their dogs can stop in and get a cup of coffee and get a sense of the excitement,” he said.

That excitement throughout the neighborhood has also extended across the state, Phillips said, with state and federal lawmakers showing their support for the Ballmer Institute. Phillips called former Gov. Kate Brown a “great champion” for the institute, and he said democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has also been particularly engaged.

“This is not just an impact on Portland,” Phillips said. “We want to see it put its influence out throughout the state, but ideally, if everything works well, it will be a model for the country.”