For the last 17 years, as University of Oregon and Portland State have churned through a number of leaders, Oregon’s largest college — Oregon State University — has had the same president: Ed Ray.
Long before the coronavirus shut down colleges across the country, Ray
. Ray has been the university’s president since 2003, and he is Oregon’s longest-serving current public university president. Following a sabbatical, Ray will return to teach as an economics professor.
Ray joined OPB “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller to talk about leading the university during a pandemic and what the future of the institution looks like.
Here are the highlights from their conversation:
Dave Miller: Let’s go back one year. You announced more than a year ago that you were going to step down this week. So this is not a COVID-related retirement — how did you know 15 months ago or so that you were done?
Ed Ray: Well, that was actually pretty easy. I agreed in 2015 to a five-year contract from our new Board of Trustees. I was 70 years old at the time — it seemed to me 75, almost 76 is probably time to hang it up. So assuming I could make it to the end, I agreed to stay on as president, and I don't like to agree to do things and not finish them. Last year, it became clear to me, as my responsibility as a leader, to prepare the way for the institution to maintain its momentum and keep going forward. So succession is something that every leader ought to be thinking about ... part of what I'm supposed to do is try to make the transition as seamless and undramatic as possible. I think we're pretty close on the seamless part; the drama part kind of got away from me with COVID-19 and everything else that's going on.
Miller: Obviously 15 months ago, nobody could have predicted the world that we’re living in right now. What is it like to step down at this particular moment in history?
Ray: All of us like to think that we can contribute to whatever situation we're in, and when you've been responsible for leading an organization for a long time, you really do want to walk away when it's just a personal choice and there's nothing at stake. Part of what helps a lot is we have a new president, F. King Alexander, recently president and chancellor at [Lousiana State University].
He’s ready to hit the ground running ... King is just a wonderful leader — good values — is meeting the institution where we are. I don’t think people will notice a dramatic difference or falling off of any kind going forward. I think he’s ready, and he’s going to do a great job.
Miller: What’s your best guess as to what the university is going to look like in September?
Ray: We're on [a quarter system], so we figured out how to do instruction in remote fashion through Ecampus [for spring term.]
We think there may be some opportunity to do in-person instruction too, in smaller classes [in the fall]. We’ve talked about hybrid instruction, where people would go to campus part of the time. Those conversations are continuing.
Worst case scenario is that we would start up in the fall with everything remote — well, we’ve done that already [for spring term]. Most other schools are on semesters, and semester schools haven’t done that.
When COVID-19 struck, basically they all shut down. We’re going to have an opportunity to see what the semester schools do a good month ahead of us [in August], and will ultimately inform the decision we make.
Miller: How worried are you that even if you decide that you can reopen classes, that a significant number of students will decide to wait it out?
Ray: We don't have a crystal ball, we're in the same place everybody else is — but we are tracking students who have applied, and the numbers suggest it's going to be very similar to last fall. Not as rapid growth on the Cascades campus, but more rapid growth for our Ecampus online program.
How much we can do in person, how people will react to that — I think our greatest concern is probably with regard to international students, whether they can get here to do their studies. There’s always the issue of non-resident students, whether they’ll decide to stay closer to home.
Miller: In the big picture, what is the financial picture for Oregon State University in the next year or two?
Ray: Our budget ... forecasts a shortfall, if we're talking about education in general, just instructional; that could be off as much as $49 million dollars over the course of the next academic year. I think if you throw in the auxiliaries — you imagine housing and dining — we could be looking at something on the order of $100 million dollars.
Our budget is probably about $1.4 billion if you consider everything put together. It’s not a trivial amount of money: 7 or 8 % of our overall budget, and it’s going to hit particular parts: housing, dining ... athletics could be adversely affected. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen there.
We’re making plans to meet that kind of budget reduction. We’re hoping, as others are, [that] the federal government will do another CARES Act allocation to the states, maybe money to all of education, in particular for higher education. We just have to see.
Miller: What would you say to a potential incoming student who’s considering a gap year instead of going to school this year?
Ray: If I had a child going off to college, I'd say if you've got dreams and aspirations for what you want to do, the most important thing you can do is get your education. I would really encourage them to go to school, get their core courses, some basics behind you.
Is it going to be the experience that we would have had last year, or what I had umpteen years ago? No. But part of what you have to do if you’re going to be successful in life is to not walk away from challenges or take a time out. You’ve got to figure out how to persist, and continue to go after what your goals in life are.
Miller: I’m curious how the global Black Lives Matter uprising, how [protests] have affected you personally: what you see as a white man, and a high level academic leader, what you see in these protests.
Ray: My heart goes out to all of our Black students, all of our students of color, staff, faculty. We are in a horrible place, and I think one of the interesting characteristics of this time with COVID-19 is it's really made us stop and take a hard look at ourselves, a look at our society. To have a clearer, in-your-face understanding of who is disadvantaged ... and what we've got to fix moving forward. My hat's off to those who stand up for what they believe and fight for it. I'm going to do anything I can do to be helpful going forward.
To listen to the entire conversation, use the audio player at the top of this story.