Q & A with the vice president of the new OSU-Cascades campus

Becky Johnson discusses business and education partnerships, the university’s economic impact and Oregon’s de facto eighth public university.

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The first fall leaves are on the ground, and students are back in school. In Bend, autumn 2016 also marks the start of a new era in local higher ed offerings.

The OSU satellite campus first opened at Central Oregon Community College in 2001. The new campus, located in the southwest corner of Bend, held its official kickoff in September. Is the first four-year university campus in Central Oregon. 

In a phone interview, Johnson talked about the relationship between Bend and the new campus, as well a few of the themes we discussed during our higher education forum last week: e.g., state funding for higher ed and private sector partnerships. [This interview has been edited for clarity.]

OB: Oregon has seven public universities, and the state already faces tremendous challenges funding those institutions. Will the campus put additional strain on higher ed financing?

Johnson: Funding for universities is always challenging, in Oregon in particular. We are 45th or 46th in terms of state funding per student. Capital dollars are always scarce. And there are needs at every campus. The change here is Central Oregon is the fastest growing region in the state. We have more than 200,000 people here. And OSU Cascades is it (for higher education).

The state can say we’re just going to ignore the fastest growing region and make those students pay an extra $40,000 or $50,000 and make them move away. Or they’re going to say we’re going to invest in an eighth campus in Oregon.

The business side of it is you’re telling the businesses here we don’t care if you need a workforce; we don’t care if you need a university to attract new businesses, and you have to get them somewhere else. It’s very difficult to recruit top-notch employees from outside this region.

How will OSU balance the relationship between the Corvallis and Bend campuses?

One of the reasons OSU is supportive of the campus in Bend is because all over OSU wants to grow to 35,000 students. Right now OSU recruits student overall and says what campus will be the best fit for you. [Johnson said students from Corvallis are already transferring to the Bend location.] 

You want to double the number of students on campus. What are your plans to get there?

Part of it is having the capacity. Right now we have the capacity for about 2,000 students with the facilities we have right now. We are making a request to the Legislature in the upcoming session for $69 million that would pay for our next phase on campus expansion.

Part of it is having the degree programs student want. Right now we only have 18 degree programs. We have a plan to continue to add degrees over the next 10 years. That’s kind of a start-up mode. We need this investment of dollars to grow those programs before students begin paying. 

What kind of private sector partnerships are you pursuing to ensure students are workforce ready?

We have a full time internship coordinator at OSU Cascades that helps businesses line up interns and students looking for an internship. There’s a lot of legwork that goes into internships because it should be more than just going to work a job. We expect an internship to actually prepare a student for a career. So when they are working at a business they get a variety of jobs instead of being the receptionist or something like that.

We also participate in MECOP — it’s throughout Oregon. This is a program for engineering students where they have to do two internships in their undergraduate career. So their degree ends up taking an additional year, but these internships have to be paid at 70% of the wage of an engineer. So they are getting really a great experience.

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Has the business community embraced the campus?

The business community has been incredibly supportive. As a state institution, when we look for a bond they want a show of community support — we’ve raised $4.6 million and many of those donors were businesses. We have worked with the businesses around here to develop degree programs that specifically meet their needs. 

We met with local firms and asked if you could have one program what would you have. They said why not do something niche to Central Oregon and do energy systems engineering. So the students have opportunities to get exposed to a lot of different energy producers.

We did [something] similar with our computer science degree. As a result, our computer science degree has a focus on web and mobile web development. We want to make sure we offer the curriculum the industry needs. 

The university has discussed purchasing a nearby landfill to expand the campus. What is the status of those plans?

We are in a lot of conversation with the county about how we could help them basically clean it up so it could become usable. The county can’t sell the landfill that isn’t cleaned up and approved by the DEQ so we have to figure out if we want these 73 acres. I think it would be a great asset for the university to have the land for the future. So we’re studying how expensive it would be. 

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OSU has projected an annual $118 million impact on Bend by 2025. Break that down for me.

A lot of that comes from student spending. The last time OSU in Corvallis did a study on economy impact it was almost $12,000 (per student) in addition to their room and board and tuition. If we had our 5,000 students we want to get to, you’re up to $60 million in spending. Then you’ve got employees we hire, who get good family wages, and then there’s the spending the university does itself in terms of buying systems and supplies.

More difficult to estimate are things like property tax impacts — so all of our employees who buy homes here or students who rent homes, a good chunk of that is going to property tax.

Then there’s the potential students who come with their parents to visit, the parents who come 2-3 times a year to visit their children. And then us supplying the work force has a very large economic impact. 

Sustainability on campus is becoming more important.  Describe a few of the green features on campus.

Our first effort was on our main academic building. We’re actually about to raise an additional $725,000 from the supporters of the campus to make that building net zero ready. It allowed us to do thicker walls, thicker installation, triple glaze windows, a hydraulic cooling system. Basically the building is ready to be hooked up to another power or heat source.

We’re trying very hard to keep our student and faculty away from single occupancy vehicles. We have a bike share on campus, we have incentives for carpooling and we’re trying very hard to change the culture around commuting. We’ve invested in our locate transit system so it will be easier for our students and faculty to take the bus.

We also had our faculty and students in our Natural Resource degree program harvest about 1,200 plants from the site before we started development and stored them at a local nursery for the last 10 months. Right before the campus opened those same students and faculty replanted the plants on site.