The University of Oregon’s Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health is gearing up to open its doors this fall.
The institute has a lofty goal — to transform the impact higher education has on mental and behavioral healthcare for younger generations.
The founders of the Ballmer Institute hope that in a few years, 200 students per year will be graduating and will help fill gaps in mental and behavioral health services in the state and the country.
Incoming executive director Katie McLaughlin said the institute plans to go about that in a number of ways, including by creating a brand new degree program that will place undergraduate students at area schools where they will focus on identifying and preventing mental health problems.
“The vision of the Ballmer Institute is that access to high quality mental health supports should be a fundamental right for all children and families, and this vision contrasts pretty sharply with our current child mental health system in the U.S.,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said the new undergraduate program will be the first of its kind in the country.
Students will start in the program by taking prerequisite and general education courses for the first two years of their studies, either at UO’s main campus in Eugene or at a partner community college. They would then continue on to the Ballmer Institute in Portland for their third and fourth years.
UO has already enrolled “several dozen” students into the new undergraduate children’s behavioral health program, McLaughlin said, though the first official cohort of students in the program won’t study at the Ballmer Institute until fall of 2024.
In the meantime, those newly enrolled students — incoming first- and second-year students — will be studying in Eugene ahead of their transition to Portland.
Still, the former campus of Concordia University will see more activity this fall than it has in years.
McLaughlin said the Ballmer Institute has already hired a handful of tenure-track and clinical faculty, but she hopes over the next five years to hire 25 faculty members total.
The goal is for Ballmer Institute students to be able to eventually work with children from Portland-area school districts, such as Portland Public Schools and the Parkrose School District.
Over this next school year, McLaughlin said incoming clinical faculty members will integrate themselves into those local schools.
“What they’ll be doing is learning about the existing behavioral health services that exist within the schools, sorting out how we can be most effective in expanding access to behavioral health services within each of the schools,” McLaughlin said. “So before we bring students into these settings … We’re bringing experts, our clinical faculty experts, into these settings to learn and listen to feedback from the school.”
Some undergraduate students will get a chance to study at the institute this coming school year, including students from adjacent majors at UO’s main campus in Eugene, such as family and human services and psychology. McLaughlin said those students will be able to help faculty members try out classes they’re working on.
The Ballmer Institute already last fall began offering a remote, three-course, graduate-level certification for K-12 educators on children’s behavioral health that it will continue offering this upcoming academic year.
UO announced the creation of the institute last year, funded by a more than $425 million donation from Steve and Connie Ballmer. Steve Ballmer is a former CEO of Microsoft and Connie Ballmer is a UO alumna and former trustee.
If all goes to plan, the first cohort of undergraduate students in the children’s behavioral health program will graduate in the spring of 2026.
McLaughlin said the state will have to change certain policies to ensure that students can actually be licensed to practice when they graduate, and that’s something the institute will be working on in the coming years.
Even without specific licensure McLaughlin said there’s “a wide range of positions” students could fill if they were to graduate today.
“There are roles within schools, potentially roles within community mental health settings or after-school programs where our students could engage in the kinds of services they’ll be trained to deliver,” McLaughlin said. “Our goal however is that before our first student graduates, we’ve established a licensure pathway.”
While the Ballmer Institute will be the crown jewel of the new UO Portland campus, the university also plans to move some of its current Portland programs to the new campus. It’s not clear yet when all of those programs will be officially moved in.
McLaughlin said the Ballmer Institute will be housed in Concordia’s former Library and Learning Center, which will include renovations that are mostly just cosmetic.
University officials are planning a community event next month at the new campus to share updates on the Ballmer Institute and the new UO Portland campus in general.