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Neoliberalism at the UO

An open letter to Oregonians

I’m writing this letter because I feel I need to talk about what is going on at the University of Oregon right now, perhaps echoing other people’s concerns. 

1. The University of Oregon is a public institution oriented toward research and teaching as a public institution. Its mission is to provide a higher education to Oregon residents first, although many out-of-state residents and international individuals are also part of the university student body. 

2. The university is organized in eight colleges and schools — Honors College, Architecture, Business, Law, Education, Journalism, Music and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), which is, according to the CAS webpage, “the academic and intellectual hub of the University of Oregon, providing a core liberal arts curriculum.” The university also provides graduate certification through its Graduate School. 

3. The University of Oregon is currently governed by an administrative body of 15 people comprising the Board of Trustees. This new governance model took effect July 1, 2014. The governor of Oregon appoints all the members on the Board of Trustees. 

4. Last year, the Board of Trustees hired Michael Schill as the new UO president. Professor Schill is a recognized lawyer whose expertise includes property, real estate, and housing law and policy. Before joining the UO, Professor Schill served as dean of the University of Chicago Law School. 

5. The UO administration recently decided to lay off 79 non-tenure track faculty members. Approximately 60 percent of the faculty members laid off teach in the humanities. The other 40 percent are split evenly between natural and social sciences. These 79 faculty members have been active educators in the College of Arts and Sciences, “the academic and intellectual hub of the University of Oregon.” No other faculty cuts have occurred in other colleges yet. 

6. The UO administration is justifying these layoffs based on the so-called budget deficit of the College of Arts and Sciences. 

7. A memorandum finally made available through a public record request revealed the transfer of $10 million from the College of Arts and Sciences to the School of Law. The memorandum, titled “Transitional Budget Support for Law,” outlined a plan to mitigate the deficit in the School of Law through this redirection of funds, leading to the so-called deficit of the College of Arts and Sciences. The memorandum was signed by Senior Vice President and Provost Scott Coltrane on August 6, 2014, the day Professor Coltrane became the interim president of the UO after the Board of Trustees accepted then-President Michael Gottfredson’s resignation.

8. The Board of Trustees has broad authority over all aspects and affairs of the university. Its function is to guarantee the proper funding of all colleges and schools. 

9. The chair of the Board of Trustees is Dr. Chuck Lillis, who received his Ph.D. in business from the UO in 1972. With the exception of two board members whose fields of expertise are education and journalism, all the other members have degrees in business, marketing, commerce and law. Board members also have close connection to the timber industry, financial investment, real estate business, sports and public relations. The appointed student representative studies accounting, Chinese and business.

10. In March 2016, the Board of Trustees approved an increase in student tuition by 4.8 percent for Oregon residents and 4.5 percent for out-of-state residents. This brings in-state tuition to $8,910 and out-of-state to $31,590 annually. Three members of the board voted against this measure. 

11. When public institutions, which have a social mission to educate, are administered like businesses and corporations, and the criteria to make decisions are primarily and increasingly economic, we are facing a neoliberal model.

12. The neoliberal model was first applied in Chile in the 1970s during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. This model intentionally produced deficits in public institutions in order to claim that they were inefficient and that it was necessary to privatize them. Instead of fostering humanities, critical thinking and liberal arts, this neoliberal model both in Chile and now here at the UO focuses on sports and business. 

13. Neoliberal ideology transforms education into a commodity. Under this ideology, education is no longer a human right; it is instead a privilege for those who can afford it. 

14. After the privatization of the educational system in Chile, it took almost 40 years for Chilean society to grant free higher education to 60 percent of low-income families. This happened after six years of mass demonstrations and social pressure. 

However, the effect of neoliberalism is still noticeable in Chile, which ranks fourth in the world in terms of social and economic inequality, according to this year’s report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

15. Currently at the UO there is fear that we are experiencing another manifestation of neoliberal ideology that would destroy the capacity of our public university to provide a strong education in the liberal arts. 

16. It is vital that the UO remain a public institution oriented toward research and teaching, and that it support all areas of knowledge regardless of whether they are profitable or not, in order to benefit the whole society and all of its communities. 

17. It is vital that the Board of Trustees be established and structured democratically. For the sake of the future of our university, there needs to be guaranteed faculty representation and voice in all of the board’s decisions. 

Let’s reorient our university toward access to quality education, student success and satisfaction, and faculty excellence in research, creativity and teaching instead of investing in cell phone towers, sports competitions and business deals.