Trust Issues: OSU’s Self-Governance Plans for the Elliott State Forest

During the Sept. 28th meeting of the Elliott Advisory Committee, OSU staff presented a governance proposal for the Elliott State Research Forest (ESRF) that raised a lot of concerns – which I articulated in my email below. Veteran observers of OSU’s forest management and politics wondered how the Department of State Lands (DSL) and the Oregon Land Board could possibly consider handing over the keys to an ~93,000-acre forest to an institution dominated by timber industry funding and influence. It’s one thing to have OSU researchers help define the research mission of the ESRF, but quite another to give them total control over the implementation.

To fully appreciate why OSU’s self-governance plan is so problematic, one must first understand some basic facts and history about the OSU Board of Trustees – which did not exist prior to 2013. The Oregon State Board of Higher Education was the primary governing body for our state universities from 1929 to 2015. The eleven members (including two student representatives) were appointed by the Governor to provide independent oversight of Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, and Portland State University. All of this changed in 2013, when the Oregon Legislature created independent boards for each university.* The members of the OSU Board of Trustees were chosen by former OSU President, Ed Ray. This was a key departure from the past, as the relatively independent state Board of Higher Education was replaced by a group of folks hand-picked by the OSU President.

What this meant in practical terms was that the OSU administration was no longer constrained by the Board of Higher Education. As one would expect, a group of people picked by the President have been decidedly deferential to the OSU administration. This became clear to me when I contacted them about some controversial OSU forestry issues and ethics violations of key OSU leaders earlier this year. The Board of Trustees was very slow to respond and had little to say – despite the national condemnation of OSU’s cutting of old growth. The Board also refused to provide a substantive reply to the well-documented ethics complaints. When the highest governing body of the University effectively gives their blessing to the misdeeds of OSU leaders, it sends a chilling message throughout our community. You can learn more about the OSU Board of Trustees here:

Note that one of the members of the Board’s Executive Committee, Patricia Bedient, is a former chief financial officer and executive vice president of Weyerhaeuser Company. As a former high-powered timber industry executive and key member of the Board, I imagine Ms. Bedient has a great deal of influence when it comes to the Board’s consideration of forestry issues.

As I explain below, all Oregonians should be concerned when the highest governing body of our public university ignores core principles to protect misdeeds of its leaders. We should be doubly-concerned when OSU proposes a governance model for the Elliott that has the Board of Trustees as the highest governing body!

(* Info. courtesy of Wikipedia:

—————-(copy of my letter sent to the EAC by email on 9/29/20)—————-

To: Elliott Advisory Committee Members
Governor – Kate Brown
Secretary of State – Bev Clarno
Treasurer – Tobias Read
Department of State Lands Director – Vicki Walker
OSU College of Forestry Dean – Thomas DeLuca
OSU Elliott Team Members
DSL Communications Manager – Ali Ryan Hansen
Oregon Consensus Director- Peter Harkema

From: Doug Pollock – Founder, Friends of OSU Old Growth

Subject: Concerns about OSU’s Proposed Governance Plan for the Elliott State Research Forest (ESRF)

Dear Elliott Advisory Committee Members,

Yesterday’s Elliott Advisory Committee meeting was the first time many members of the public learned of Oregon State University’s proposed plans for governance of the Elliott State Research Forest (ESRF). It came as quite a surprise to hear DSL Director Walker declare, “We’re almost there on the governance!” (meaning the work is almost complete). As one of you noted, the preliminary version of the proposal had only been presented to you a week and a half earlier. With the official public engagement phase still weeks away (and consisting of less than a month of outreach), it seems hugely premature to declare the work nearly complete. Given the long and contentious history of the Elliott (and your two years of hard work), the lack of public input and rush for completion seems particularly misguided.

As presented yesterday, OSU’s proposed governance model would rely on several oversight entities – all of them controlled or chosen by OSU. An “Advisory Committee” appointed by the Dean would be the primary oversight body. The Dean and the “Executive Director” (whom he hires) would play a direct role in the management of the ESRF. The “OSU Leadership Team” empowered by the Board of Trustees (BoT) would periodically assess issues related to the governance, while the Board itself would provide the highest level of oversight.

In commenting about the proposed structure and the public’s need for transparency and accountability, OSU’s Randy Rosenberger said,

The reality is that OSU is not a State agency and a lot of those rules do not apply to us, and I can’t imagine that the ESRF would be a place that OSU would be entering into different relationships with the public than they already have…. I just don’t know that we’re willing to give up some of our independence over this issue…

For those of us working to reform OSU’s forestry practices and prioritize conservation in the ESF, Mr. Rosenberger’s comments were a disappointing reminder of the College’s long-standing reluctance to accept public input. Rather than talk about the value of public collaboration, he stressed their need to maintain control. The underlying message seemed to be, “Don’t expect us to do anything differently than we already do.” He seems to be forgetting this is a public resource that OSU may be fortunate enough to assume stewardship of – but only if they change their approach from the past. One wonders whether they have the creative thinking and flexibility to make this work.

OSU’s governance proposal is a decidedly disappointing start at this late stage in the ESRF planning process. An already-skeptical public will tear it to shreds at the Land Board Meeting in ten weeks’ time. What I find most disturbing is the glaring lack of awareness of the College’s failings in their own Research Forest management – and the failings of the OSU administration and Board of Trustees in their past oversight roles. Without independent oversight, accountability, and protections against conflicts of interest, the governance plan is doomed to fail.

Given past experience, one can only assume the proposed ESRF Advisory Committee members would be carefully chosen to reflect the agenda and values of the Dean and OSU administration – which have often been at odds with those of the public OSU serves. With timber industry donors providing a significant portion of the College’s funding, endowment, and infrastructure (including the $5 million Dean’s endowment and a reported $30-40 million of OSU’s new forestry building), we must acknowledge the significant financial influence that has no sign of abating. With deep historic ties to the timber industry, it is exceptionally difficult for the College to separate the interests of the industry from those of its leaders and staff. Any governance plan for the ESRF must be designed to prevent those with vested financial interests having undue influence – whether they be members of the Board of Trustees, Advisory Committee, or OSU staff who receive industry funding. The separation from financial influence is a fundamental principle of integrity and legality. The only way to guarantee the integrity and objectivity of the ESRF governance structure is to make it independent of the University hierarchy and influence.

The deference to the Board of Trustees (as the highest oversight body) in the proposed governance plan is especially concerning – and warrants further discussion. Many of you may not realize that the OSU BoT is not an independent body, but a political entity. The current Board was selected by former OSU President Ed Ray, and has consistently served to support and advance the agenda of the OSU administration. When it comes to forestry issues, it has shown itself to be remarkably ill-equipped and unwilling to question actions of former Deans and Research Forest staff (more on that below). Expecting the Board to provide any sort of leadership or oversight role for an Elliott State Research Forest is unrealistic and inconsistent with the Board’s current mission and capabilities.

The failure of the OSU Board of Trustees and Administration to deal with problems relating to the management of their own Research Forests was put in the spotlight after last summer’s infamous cutting of old growth. A long history of mismanagement of the Research Forests was exposed, including operating in violation of the Research Forest Plan (and without an accurate forest inventory) for roughly a decade, conducting more than a dozen large clearcuts in a zone with a 4-acre cut limit, and cutting ~166 acres of nesting/roosting/foraging (NRF) habitat for northern spotted owls (habitat that the Plan had promised to protect). Despite assurances from the Research Forest Director (and members of OSU’s Elliott team), the cutting of old growth clearly violated their 2005 Plan (as detailed in the technical report by Debra and K. Norman Johnson which I submitted to you last year).

The Board of Trustee’s response to these and other revelations was minimal. No Research Forest staff were fired or reassigned for their misdeeds. Emails sent to the Board expressing concerns went unanswered for months. The responses eventually received were largely dismissive, and showed great deference to the Interim Dean and the Research Forest Director. From all external signs, the Board fully supported the actions (or inactions) of the OSU administration, Interim Dean, and his staff.

One particularly egregious failure of the Board of Trustees concerns their handling of an ethics complaint dealing with restraint of information by key OSU leaders. During a discussion with the public representative serving on an OSU forest planning committee last summer, I learned that the Research Forest Director (Stephen Fitzgerald) had directed him not to disclose names of committee members to me. The committee in question was tasked with developing the mission and goals for OSU’s next Research Forest plan. It had met for nearly two years, without any apparent notification or sharing of information with the public.

Seeking the names of the committee members, I emailed the Interim Dean (Anthony Davis). After a number of requests, he reluctantly released the names, but would not provide further information about the committee’s work. In the following days, the Interim Dean and OSU’s Communications Director (Steve Clark) used my email complaints as a justification to no longer respond to my inquiries (thus contributing to a further restraint of information on their part). The Interim Dean also directed his staff not to respond to my messages. For the next nine months, I was essentially blacklisted. The OSU administration and Interim Dean no longer responded to (or even acknowledged receipt of) my email messages. Despite numerous requests, they would not provide any justification for their lack of response. I was appalled that leaders of our public institution could act with such blatant disregard for OSU’s core principles.

In January of this year, I submitted an ethics complaint to OSU concerning the restraint of information and ethical violations by the Research Forest Director, Interim Dean, and Communications Director. My (10-page) complaint was meticulously documented, with more than a dozen supporting emails. The response I received seemed like a joke. There was no mention of the substance of my complaint and no follow-up information. It was unclear whether my complaint had even been considered or shared with those in charge. The only response was a short reference to OSU’s public records request process (as if that would solve the ethical violations). When I followed up with OSU’s chief ethics compliance officer, she adamantly refused to provide any additional information. I turned to the Board of Trustees as a last resort. As the highest governing body of the University, I hoped they would take my complaint seriously. Unfortunately, both the Board and their Executive Committee also refused to provide a substantive reply. One thing was clear: they expressed unequivocal support for the OSU staff who had actively restrained information and violated OSU’s core principles. In essence, they gave the transgressions their blessing.

How the OSU Board of Trustees failed to respond to these misdeeds by key OSU leaders is highly relevant to the current governance proposal for the ESRF. It shows that when University and College leaders come under criticism (as they are bound to do), they tend to react defensively and may even violate the fundamental ethical principles of their institution. Even though OSU has an official ethics process and a compliance officer, there is no assurance of impartiality or justice in practice. When tested, even the highest governing body of the University will abandon core principles to protect what it perceives to be in its own best interest.

In the end, the best predictor of future behavior is to look to the past. As we’ve seen with OSU’s management of their existing Research Forests and University governance, they are highly resistant to change and external critique. Despite promises of transparency and objectivity, we often see self-serving bureaucracy. If OSU’s proposal for the Elliott State Research Forest is to gain public trust, it must have an independent governing body – one appointed not by the Dean, but by our democratically-elected leaders. I urge you to reject the OSU governance proposal in favor of an independent oversight structure.

Thanks for your service – and for considering my input.


Doug Pollock