The Guaranteed Crisis of UO’s Board of Trustees

One year ago, a member of the UO’s Board of Trustees assaulted a student who was protesting an in-person board meeting one week into the pandemic closing campus. Students were dressed in biohazard gear in front of the main entrance to the Ford Alumni center and were hoping the weight of the crisis would change the Board of Trustee’s decision to hold a meeting and move forward on key decisions. The Chairman of the Board, Chuck Lillis, barreled through the protesters blocking the door and dismissively barked, “I’m not afraid,” in response to the looming pandemic. One year later, we truly assess how detrimental such brazen and boastful attitudes have been for our society, and even for the health of our institution at UO.

    The Board of Trustees went ahead with their meeting that day and its effects on the health of UO will be felt for many years to come. While also taking time to frivolously spend millions on a second Jumbo-Tron at Autzen Stadium, the Board executed a tuition plan that would leave the UO in a precarious financial position in the face of any form of economic downturn. This was known as the Guaranteed Tuition plan, and over the course of the next few weeks as enrollment went into freefall it was clear that their plan had blown up in their faces. For people that consider the protection of a public institution a solemn duty, this might be horrifying. But for the majority of the Neo-liberals that control the board and choose its President, it is becoming clear that this is all part of the plan.

    Guaranteed Tuition is a scheme whereby the tuition rates for incoming students are locked in place for five years. President Schill has admitted that by separating tuition increases into yearly cohorts instead of increasing tuition for the whole student body, the administration does not need to go before the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) if it wants to raise tuition above 4%. Indeed, tuition increased 11% for incoming freshmen this year, and with enrollment plummeting in the middle of a recession it appears that there is no limit to how high tuition increases will go for incoming classes. Furthermore, student resistance against tuition increases is essentially neutered through this divide and conquer strategy.

    The largest problem with Guaranteed Tuition is that if there is any economic downturn or drop in enrollment, the entire university is contractually hamstrung for funding. Oops! With no way to disperse expenses across the entire student body the university enters a death spiral of skyrocketing tuition for incoming students and decreasing enrollment due to those very same increases.

    Now there is no option but to restructure the entire university… but of course that was the plan all along. What we need to realize as a community is that Neo-liberal “Chicago Boys” like President Schill and Chuck Lillis are toxic caretakers of public institutions. Their interests continually bend towards privatization and profitability. They will raid public institutions for capital to finance private interests. If they encounter resistance, they will create precarious financial circumstances that undermine the stability of the established institutions they are caretakers of.

    We are now in a position at the UO where departments have no control over whether they can maintain an established number of tenured positions because of this administration’s policies. We are also walking into a financial disaster and radical tuition increases for incoming students. This does not bode well for the value of a public education at the University of Oregon.

    ASUO senators and student activists directly confronted the Board of Trustees one year ago and continually voiced dissent  for many months before the Guaranteed Tuition decision. They were very clear in their opposition and were quoted repeatedly saying, “this is going to put UO in a tough spot if something happens.” The horrible circumstances of the last year of this pandemic have completely vindicated those activists and senators. It is time that the UO takes a different path as a public institution providing a service to the citizens of Oregon. It is time for President Schill to resign, the Board of Trustees to be democratically restructured, and the HECC to take over the management of UO in the interim.

-Eric Howanietz, consensus editor of the Insurgent

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