Universities went where welcome
Published in the Eugene Register Guard, Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Commenting on the suggestion that the Legislature sell off one of Oregon's universities, a reader writes, "Why do we have two flagship institutions within 50 miles of each other and an underfunded commuter school in our largest metropolitan area?"

The answer is Harvey Scott, editor of The Oregonian from 1865 to 1870 and from 1877 until his death in 1910. Scott opposed public high schools, he called them schools for drones, as well as public colleges and universities.

Scott believed most people needed no more than an eighth-grade education. An aristocracy of "natural leaders" would emerge and get further education at private colleges that offered a "classical" education.

This educated elite would govern civic life. Scott believed he was a self-made man - he came out on the Oregon Trail in 1852 with nothing - and felt any man should succeed as he had.

Scott's Victorian elitism was out of step with most of the Legislature's egalitarians, who felt that private colleges were too few and too sectarian. When the Legislature finally decided to charter a public, secular university, it had to do so over the considerable opposition of Scott's newspaper. They succeeded by simply avoiding Portland and Scott's opposition.

It proved a durable strategy.

Matthew Deady, Oregon's first U.S. district judge, led the effort to establish Oregon's first public university, despite Scott's opposition. Lawmakers eventually chose Eugene, Oregon's other population center, where the idea of a public university was more welcome. It opened in 1873.

Oregon State University's origins also were influenced by Portland's preference for commerce over education.

After the South seceded and the Civil War began, Congress passed legislation encouraging westward expansion. The Morrill Act granted states 30,000 acres of federal land for each member of their congressional delegation. The land was to be sold, and the cash used to finance a state university specializing in engineering, agriculture and military science.

In the 1860s, Marion, Benton and Linn counties were the heart of Oregon agriculture. In 1868, the Legislature named a teacher training academy in Corvallis as Oregon's land grant institution and renamed it Corvallis State Agricultural College.

Private colleges, which were the first Oregon institutions to train teachers, suffered from a high rate of financial failure. The Legislature responded by founding the state's first public normal school in Monmouth in 1882: Oregon Normal School.

Those three institutions served the state until the population boom after World War I. In 1926, the Legislature created Southern Oregon Normal School in Ashland to train teachers, and added Eastern Oregon Normal School in La Grande in 1929.

World War II and its aftermath industrialized the American West. Oregon's population grew 50 percent during the 1950s.

The GI bill paid for college for all who served. The Legislature turned the normal schools in Monmouth, Ashland and LaGrande into liberal arts colleges to meet the demands of veterans. In Portland, the crush of veterans was handled by private colleges and the Vanport Extension of the State System of Higher Education.

The Vanport Extension was wiped out by a flood in 1948 and relocated in an abandoned high school in downtown Portland. It was renamed Portland State College in 1955 and authorized to offer four-year degrees.

Through the wheeling and dealing of State Sen. Don Willner, D-Portland, the Legislature grudgingly gave in to Portland's postwar entreaties and named Portland State a university in 1969. Portland's modern boosters finally expunged the legacy of Harvey Scott, whose stubborn elitism had cost them a university 100 years earlier.

This tale is not an argument to keep all the state's universities open just because we always have. It is an argument for Abraham Lincoln's dictum, "We cannot escape history."

Each of the state's universities is deeply woven into the fabric of its community. To close any one of them will tear the fabric of that community, adversely affecting the economy, property values and culture.

That is a terrible price to pay for the legislative leaders' neglect of the carefully nurtured public patrimony it has inherited from the generations of Oregonians who preceded them.

Political commentator Russell Sadler lives in Eugene.