Supporters of legislation to overhaul how higher education is overseen in Oregon describe the measures as a way to streamline the process and provide better coordination between public colleges and elementary and secondary schools.
The bills before the legislature would give greater authority to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which would become responsible for distributing all appropriations from the state to student-financial-aid programs as well as to two- and four-year colleges.
The commission, its members appointed by the governor, would also assume authority for approving academic programs at public colleges in addition to advising them on policies, such as how to improve completion rates, transfers of credit, and work-force training.
The State Board of Higher Education is now responsible for approving academic program changes at public four-year universities, while the State Board of Education oversees academic programs for the community colleges.
"This bill is designed to enable the university to operate more flexibly, ... to generate greater financial resources to support education, research, and public service, and to maintain the essential public nature of the university," Michael R. Gottfredson, president of the University of Oregon, told lawmakers during a hearing on the legislation this month.
But where supporters see efficiency, critics see a larger bureaucracy, one that would result in less accountability for the state's public colleges, less control of expenditures by the legislature, and greater costs for students.
In addition to the powerful new coordinating commission, the legislation would create new governing boards for the University of Oregon, Portland State University, and possibly Oregon State University. The boards would have the power to hire and fire the presidents of those institutions and set operating policies for individual campuses, authority that now rests with the State Board of Higher Education.
Local governing boards can be "meddlesome and inconsistent," Edward J. Ray, president of Oregon State University, told lawmakers in his testimony.
"Local governing boards at universities will not reverse the 15-year history of declining per-student investments, will not make it any easier for universities to raise philanthropic funds, will not address statewide goals, ... and may not result in any better decision-making at the university level," he wrote, arguing against the proposal.

Consolidation of Power

Debates about governance have been going on in many state capitals in the years since the economic downturn, as lawmakers consider how to provide the right amount of oversight for the tax dollars they give to higher education.
The bills under consideration in Oregon are essentially a stew of governance reforms proposed by Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, a Democrat, and a special committee appointed during the legislature's 2012 session. The coordinating commission would be given most of the authority of the State Board of Higher Education, which oversees the seven universities in the state system, as well as the powers of the Oregon Student Access Commission and the State Board of Education, which governs the state's 17 community colleges.
Consolidating the powers of those three agencies into a single commission will be a better way to coordinate the state's efforts to increase the proportion of Oregonians who have college degrees, said State Rep. Mark Johnson, a Republican. All of the policy direction would come from one entity rather than three groups, which typically compete with one another for state money.
Benjamin E. Cannon, education adviser to the governor, says the coordinating commission would be responsive to the state's needs as it allocated money to the public colleges. But there is a trade-off, he acknowledged: "What the state gives up is direct financial oversight and administration of the universities."
The main dispute about the proposed coordinating commission is its membership. Students, faculty, and staff of the state's public colleges have argued for representation. But Rep. Johnson said some lawmakers are concerned that the commission will be dominated by the opinion of such groups, who, he argues, have their own interests at heart rather than those of the public at large.
The addition of individual governing boards results, in part, from the University of Oregon's longtime efforts to gain financial and regulatory autonomy as taxpayer support has dwindled during the past three decades. Less than 10 percent of the University of Oregon's budget now comes from state appropriations.
In 2010, Richard W. Lariviere, then president of the university, proposed a $1.6-billion plan to replace state appropriations with proceeds from a 30-year bond and matching dollars from donors to the university.
Mr. Lariviere was fired in 2011 over his lobbying for his ideas against the direction of the State Board of Higher Education. But last year the legislature considered a bill to give the University of Oregon and Portland State their own governing boards.
Local boards would be more in tune with the higher-education and economic needs of the region and be better able to build connections with potential donors to the university, Mr. Gottfredson has argued in support of the current legislation. And less-centralized control reflects the reality that students, and not the state, pay for most of their education, he said.
Students, however, have reservations about the bills being considered because of the possibility of increased costs for the governance and administrative services that are now provided by the State Board of Higher Education.
"It doesn't appear that you have asked yourselves what the benefits are and, more important, the risks of adding ... layers of bureaucracy at the local level," said the written testimony from the Oregon Student Association to a gubernatorial panel considering the governance changes late last year.
Presidents of four regional campuses of the Oregon University System also have concerns about increasing costs and losing political clout if the proposed legislation passes. Those institutions would continue to be governed by the State Board of Higher Education, which may have to compete for state money against the coordinating commission.
"We would like to be on an equal footing, even though we might not choose to go the route of separate governance," said Mark D. Weiss, president of Western Oregon University.