Former Oregon State University President F. King Alexander resigned on March 23 after the law firm Husch Blackwell found that sexual misconduct reports were routinely mishandled at Louisiana State University under Alexander’s presidency from 2013 to 2019. Less than a month after Alexander’s resignation, OSU-Cascades Vice President Becky Johnson was confirmed by OSU’s Board of Trustees as the new Interim President of the University System. Johnson started at OSU-Cascades when it was small enough to still be housed in Central Oregon Community College, up to the present where it’s the fastest-growing college in Oregon. OSU-Cascades' Dean of Academic Affairs Andrew Ketsdever was appointed the Interim VP of the Cascades campus in her stead. The Q&A below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Source Weekly: What are your goals going to be as the interim president of OSU, and how did your tenure as the Vice President of OSU-Cascades inform those goals?
Dr. Becky Johnson: My first goal is to just restore trust and confidence in the administration here at OSU, because we've gone through some turbulent times with the presidential transition, and do that by getting out and listening to people, establishing relationships, understanding what their issues are, seeing what we can do to address those issues. And then the second goal is to make sure that we are prepared for coming back to in-person activities in the fall. During COVID, we've been mostly remote for about a year and a half now almost. So there's a lot of planning that's going into coming back in the fall. And in terms of OSU-Cascades, obviously, it was a smaller institution but we face all the same issues. Our COVID situation was exactly the same as it was here, we had a little bit more face-to-face than we have had in Corvallis in terms of our instruction, but most of it was remote. So it's how do we, again, maintain relationships. One of the things I learned while I was at OSU-Cascades was the importance of community relationships, and that goes for the entire Central Oregon community, the businesses, the organizations, COCC, K-12, and really getting to know those people and working with them on our common goals. I think that's something that I can bring to this new position and try to make sure that we have those same strong relationships.
- Courtesy of Oregon State University — Cascades
- Dr. Becky Johnson sits at her desk for a photo taken for Oregon State University’s College of Business Magazine.
SW: And in the process of restoring trust in the university system, who are the stakeholders you'll need to address and changes that will have to happen to accomplish that goal?
BJ: Stakeholders include just about everybody because it's certainly the students and student government, it's the faculty and the Faculty Senate, which is kind of a governing body, the staff that worked at the university. We have extension offices and all 36 counties. So really, the entire state of Oregon are some of our stakeholders. We do a lot of research across the state, we have Agricultural Experiment stations located around the state, we have college forests around the state. So being the state's land grant institution, all of the state comprises our stakeholders… I've already had a conversation with the president of the Faculty Senate. I'm going to meet with the student government leaders tomorrow. And so there's just gonna be a number of meetings set up to hear personally one on one, what people are concerned about, what they’re facing ,what they're worried about for the fall term coming back in person. But I think a lot of it is establishing that I am willing to listen and I'm willing to try to address the issues that people are facing, we can't, of course, always make everybody happy and address every issue that people have, but at least if they know they've been heard, and that their issues have been looked in to, that can go a long way.
SW: With moving toward in-person learning in the fall semester, over the past few weeks, we've seen how quickly risk statuses can change. So does the University have a plan B, a plan C, plan D, that it can implement without significantly interrupting instruction?
BJ: You know, we were fortunate that we already did this once, right. So last—I guess we were just starting winter term—we're just going into finals week, they were ending winter term going into finals week. And we had to completely shift to remote instruction for spring term. So that meant faculty had two weeks, that finals week and spring break, to try to completely shift their courses from being face-to-face to being remote. So the good part about that is that faculty have done that once. We really hope we're not, of course, going to have to be in that situation. We're hoping that the vaccines and the number of people that are getting vaccinated will help bring these numbers back down so that we're not in that situation. But we understand that things could change, right, the variants could somehow end up being a concern for people even who are vaccinated.
BJ: [laughs] It's a little different. Certainly, we had different challenges. So our goal when I got there was to try to grow enrollment and grow programs at OSU-Cascades. And enrollment is certainly a concern here at the bigger university as well. We’re not trying to grow as fast as we were trying to grow at OSU-Cascades, but we certainly want to maintain our enrollment and grow a little bit each year if we can. So those efforts are similar, but growing academic programs is much less of an issue here at the bigger University; we have something like 220 academic degree programs already, so students can find the majors that they want at the larger OSU, whereas OSU-Cascades we had, when I got there, probably 10 or less majors. So you can imagine that a lot of students weren't coming to OSU-Cascades because they couldn't find the major they needed. When you have an established, huge university, changes are more incremental. It's like steering a big ship; it doesn't move on a dime. When I was at OSU-Cascades we could be more nimble, we could be a little more entrepreneurial. But even at the big university, we have to figure out how to be entrepreneurial and how to react to some of the global changes that are going on right now and make sure that we, you know, the degree programs, are addressing what students are going to need going forward and not necessarily what we've done for years and years.
SW: And, again, on Cascades. They're currently I believe in Phase 1A of the campus expansion project. When they've gone through all five phases, how will that benefit the students there and also what's the benefit for the community partners that involve themselves in it?
BJ: We're hoping to get to somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 students by full buildout of the campus, and we're at about 1,400 students now, I believe. You can see that that's a much, much larger student body. Along with that there will probably be about 50 degree programs; I think we have 18 right now. So there'll be a lot more opportunities for students. That means students in our region, I think about 60% of our students right now come from Central Oregon, so a lot more of them will be able to find the majors that they're looking for and a lot more students from outside the region will be finding OSU as an attractive alternative. We will be responding more to our business and industry needs. Again, as we add academic programs, so for example, if we could have a mechanical engineering degree or electrical engineering degree, that would help serve our advanced manufacturing sector in Central Oregon. And there's a number of additional degrees and one of the things we try to do at OSU-Cascades is really listen to our business community in our industries about what they need for a skilled workforce. I'm sure you've heard that people are having a hard time getting the employees that they need right now.
SW: And building off that, what do you feel a college’s role is in the communities they exist in?
BJ: Well, first and foremost, it's making sure there's access to affordable higher education. And in Central Oregon, as you know, we're geographically isolated. Right now OSU-Cascades is the only four-year university that is within commuting distance, so if we're not there to serve that need, place-bound students would just not be able to get a degree unless they did an online degree. So first of all, it's access to higher education, and it's the workforce I was just talking about, as well. It's making sure that in Central Oregon in particular, housing prices are really high, it's expensive to try to recruit people to come there and work because they can't find housing that's affordable. If they could find somebody who already lives in Central Oregon, got their degrees there at OSU-Cascades, and are now ready to go to work in their business. It's just easier way to transition somebody into the Central Oregon workforce. We can also devise our degrees to be what the region needs. For example, our computer science degree has worked closely with a lot of our tech firms to make sure that they're giving students the skills that they need to move directly into our tech workforce in Central Oregon. Then it's just a source of vibrancy and culture. Obviously, we are attracting a lot of really bright young people, as students and really bright people as faculty and staff. I think when you bring those people into a community it adds a level of energy, those people get involved in nonprofit organizations, they volunteer in their schools. I just think there's a lot of kind of spillover effects to the community, from the kinds of people that you bring into a university. And hopefully, as we expand, we can do a lot more on arts and culture. We're so small right now, we don't have a lot of those programs. But at a typical university there would be theater, there'd be music, there'd be choir, there'd be symphonies, there would be other kinds of art, museums, and art galleries, that people would look to the university for, maybe a performing arts center. So those things are long, long in the future for OSU-Cascades, we're not there. And then the last thing is athletics. And again, we don't have that at OSU-Cascades yet. But you know, a university like Oregon State University in Corvallis, a big way that we're connected to the community is when we have football games and basketball games, you can get 10s of 1000s of people to come to a game and get that kind of school spirit.
SW: Is there anything you'd want our readers to know that I didn't ask about?
BJ: I'm sad to be leaving Cascades just because it was such a part of my life. It was a very rewarding experience for me to lead that campus and I found that Central Oregon community to be so supportive that they made the job not easy, but it really helped us to be successful. So sad to be leaving, but this is an interim position here. I'll be moving back to Central Oregon when this is over.