In his 10 months as the University of Oregon’s president, Michael H. Schill has been a stalwart proponent of raising the academic profile of an institution that trails its peers in some important areas, including graduation rates and research dollars. To reverse that trend, Mr. Schill says, the university needs to raise $2 billion, replace adjunct professors with tenure-track faculty members, and focus its marketing more on academics and less on athletics.
In our brief conversation with Mr. Schill, the president managed to sneak in a quick reference to eating chocolate malt balls. His penchant for the candy was mentioned by The Chronicle back in September, and since then, he says, visitors to his office expect to find them on hand.
JACK STRIPLING: Hi, I'm here with Michael Schill. The president of the University of Oregon is here to talk to us about his first, is it nine months, at the university?
MICHAEL SCHILL: 10 months.
JACK STRIPLING: 10 months. So last we spoke it was late summer and you had just gotten into the job and you were, I guess, an optimistic realist. You were talking about the challenges that Oregon has faced in terms of keeping up with its peer group and surpassing that group in some ways. But at the same time, you're really optimistic about a $2-billion capital campaign, and faculty hiring, and all this. How has your outlook changed at all in the last 10 months?
MICHAEL SCHILL: Well, if anything I'm even more optimistic. Essentially we're about halfway through the campaign. We're going to hit a billion dollars this coming year, probably before June. And in addition, what we're doing terms of building our academic program, we have 40 searches for faculty right now. We're hoping to hire 20 new – incrementally new – faculty. So not only keep our current numbers, but growing.
About This Series
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JACK STRIPLING: So you've been busy?
MICHAEL SCHILL: It's been busy. It's been great.
JACK STRIPLING: So the campaign is a big part of – all of your goals are hinged to this. And I was struck when something popped up on my Twitter the other day saying Phil Knight – who's a big donor to the university and co-founder of Nike – had given $400 million not to you but to Stanford. And I wonder if people should be worried about that. Does this mean that his loyalties lie elsewhere?
MICHAEL SCHILL: I can't communicate individual communications with donors. I wouldn't worry about that.
JACK STRIPLING: OK, fair enough. Fair answer.
So I wanted to ask you as well about some of the moves you've made that are both substantive and symbolic. And Oregon is a place that a lot of people know about in part because there is this big brand associated with it that is considered a cool brand in a lot of ways. You made an interesting decision recently – you decided to drop a contract with a branding and advertising agency called 160over90. I think it was three and a half million over some years. Talk to me about that decision and whether you were trying to send a message to the campus. Or was it a purely substantive decision?
MICHAEL SCHILL: I mean, it was a substantive decision. Number one, I didn't think that the money we were investing at that point was going to generate the returns. I think it had been a successful marketing strategy. It had gotten our name out. It had created a lot of buzz around the school.
But what we really needed to do was reorient our public relations towards academics. And that was a little bit skewed towards athletics. And our athletic program is so great, it doesn't need additional boosts from marketing that we pay for. Instead, what we need to do is get out to the world information about our research and about our faculty.
JACK STRIPLING: But was the faculty perception, hey, great, we're not worried as much about branding, we're really hiring people. Do you think that was the reaction you got?
MICHAEL SCHILL: There was a lot of public – I was surprised. I didn't make it for this decision, but there was a lot of reaction, very grateful reaction, for saying let's put the money where it will have its highest utility, which is funding research, and funding faculty, and student success.
And the interesting thing was it wasn't just among our faculty. I walk down the street and people would come up to me and congratulate me.
JACK STRIPLING: About your branding decisions?
MICHAEL SCHILL: About the branding decision.
JACK STRIPLING: Only in Oregon.
MICHAEL SCHILL: Indeed.
JACK STRIPLING: So another thing that Oregon has done – when I wrote about you, I think we described you as a canary in the coal mine, a place that was disinvested by the state probably earlier than a lot of other public research universities in this country and has dealt with that issue in a lot of different ways. One thing was a big increase in enrollment. And you had to hire a lot of non-tenure-track faculty to teach those students.
You made another interesting decision recently where you're not going to renew the contracts of, I think, about 80 nontenured faculty. Can you talk about that decision –
MICHAEL SCHILL: Sure.
JACK STRIPLING: – in the broader context of what Oregon is trying to do? Is it in any way a course correction? How would you characterize it?
MICHAEL SCHILL: So there's two things. What we're trying to do we call budget realignment. We're trying to use our resources to really put them where we need them, and that is with research and it's with faculty hiring. And by faculty hiring, I mean research faculty. We're really grateful to our nontenured or untenured faculty who are doing a lot of our teaching. But what we really need to focus on in the future is research and tenure-track faculty.
So in some ways, I feel like we're almost on a highway where we're going one direction and all the other universities in the country are going the other direction in the sense they're hiring more and more untenured faculty or nontenured faculty. We're going the opposite direction – we're trying to actually increase our proportion of tenured faculty.
JACK STRIPLING: Is there a near-term risk at all, though? Because I would think that this would mean, at least in the near term, that your full professors are having to be spending more time in the classroom. It might take away from their research productivity, at least for a period of time. Is that a concern at all for you, that you're making some trade-off?
MICHAEL SCHILL: No, and here's why. Where we didn't renew the nontenured faculty are in areas where students stopped taking classes. So what we did is we were looking very strategically – and this was done not by me but by the provost and the dean of the college. And what they did is they looked at, well, where had enrollments gone down. And it turned out enrollments had gone down in precisely the disciplines where they kept hiring nontenured faculty. And so we were able to really just turn things back to where they should be, which is a supply-and-demand equilibrium.
JACK STRIPLING: So last I left you, you were stocking your entire office with books from professors at Oregon. Do any of them stand out to you at this point? Have you read any of them?
MICHAEL SCHILL: I have read several of them, but we keep doing it. So every two or three months people are bringing me books. And they are so proud. We sit and we talk about the books and we eat food – sometimes even malted milk balls. And we have a great time. And the faculty are just amazingly excited that the president cares about their research, and is willing to engage in it, is interested in it. And we want more and more books. We want more articles.
One of the things you'll see, my bookshelves are predominately humanities and social sciences, because scientists don't write books. So I think what we're going to have to do is start an article shelf next to it –
JACK STRIPLING: You don't want that, trust me.
MICHAEL SCHILL: Well, we anticipate hiring a lot more scientists.
JACK STRIPLING: All right. Fair enough. Well, Michael Schill, thanks for visiting The Chronicle.
MICHAEL SCHILL: Thank you.
JACK STRIPLING: Appreciate it.