Heartland Educator: A conversation with the president of Eastern Oregon University

Photos by | Jason Kaplan

Tom Insko talks turnaround efforts, business partnerships and closing the urban-rural divide.

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Eastern Oregon University, the state’s smallest four-year college — enrolling 3,176 students — has had a rough decade.

In 2015, the university had the lowest graduation and retention rate of Oregon’s public universities. Rampant leadership turnover crushed morale, and at one point the state considered turning the university into a community college.

President Tom Insko, an EOU alum and former area manager of Boise Cascade’s Inland Region, was hired two years ago to staunch the bleeding. Here he talks about turnaround efforts, business partnerships and how the La Grande-based college can help close the urban-rural divide. [Interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.]

OB: You’ve been in office two years. How are you changing the narrative?
Insko: We’ve changed the story about Eastern Oregon from a university that was on the edge to a university that is financially strong and positioned to establish a new path forward. We have one of the strongest fund balances the institution has had in recent history, in excess of 17% of annual operating revenue, or about $17 million. We have kept our 2017-18 tuition impact to students lower than all but one institution [Oregon State University].Of course, we have a lot more to do.

OB: What steps have you taken to stabilize university finances?
Insko: The primary thing is establish discipline in how we manage operations of the university. What surprises me is we are a data-rich environment, but we lack systems to utilize data in an effective manner that I was familiar with from my positions in business. So we have slowly, methodically been utilizing the systems. And we are seeing the benefits.

OB: The state has asked EOU to submit a report at the end of the year outlining an institutional focus. Where are you in that process?
Insko: We’ve done a lot of work developing our strategic plan. We’ve spent a lot of time looking backward due to our financial challenges, so I wanted to set clear goals thinking now to our 100th anniversary, which is in 2029. We developed outcomes-based performance indicators to monitor programs. So five years from now, our No. 1 goal to graduate students with competencies and confidence to succeed. But underneath that goal, we have specific outcomes that are tied to metrics. We are instituting with the strategic plan an annual report similar to what you see in the private sector in publicly traded reports. It will keep us focused.

OB: Once you establish outcomes, how do you execute — on graduation rates, for example?
Insko: The retention rate of our first-year freshmen was 56%. So the first thing was to get first-time freshmen retaining from year one to year two. We put together a team with a specific outcome objective: 65% the first year. We took the number to 72% [in 2016] — as high as Eastern has ever had. Faculty and advisers worked more directly with students, and we used our tutoring services in a more intentional way.


OB: How does your private-sector experience inform your turnaround strategy?
Insko: What we in higher education are missing is making the connection that liberal arts are relevant for business. When you ask businesspeople: “What are you looking for in your employees?” they talk about core competencies that are part of a liberal arts education: critical thinking, working in teams. Businesses are also looking for skills that can be put to work. I don’t think there is any question how important and relevant liberal arts are to workforce development. What we’re missing is how we connect those dots. So I’m trying to change the way we speak about our programs.

OB: So how do you talk about your programs?
Insko: I graduated with a degree in math; a degree that uses logic, critical thinking, that can be put to use in any business. But many students don’t understand how that translates. I walk around my campus talking to seniors, asking them how they are doing in their career search. And they don’t know what they are going to do. Meanwhile, businesses say their No. 1 challenge is finding good employees. We need new approaches to managing business partnerships so that a student three months from graduation knows there are jobs in Hermiston, Bend or Prineville, and how their degree or skills apply.

OB: What academic programs have you created to strengthen ties with the business community?
Insko: We have launched a minor in global food systems. Agriculture and food are such a dominant industry in this area, and we felt we didn’t need full degree programs. We’re in the process of talking about a much more comprehensive program that is focused on rural industries that tend to be natural resource-based, one that fits the inland Northwest and is comprehensive. There is a real need for talented leaders who will fill positions in these industries. How does diversity fit into your growth strategy? We are ensuring we are the university that provides the right kind of support for the Latino community. We have an award-winning, culturally responsive teaching practices program focused on developing teachers who have experience in the cultural changes in our rural communities, so we can put those skills to work in our public schools. We are being very intentional: Our website’s programming materials are in Spanish and English. We sought out a partnership with TheDream.US, and developed privately supported scholarships for students who are undocumented, so they can be leaders. It helps that our faculty’s primary responsibility is to teach, not do research.

OB: What’s it like recruiting faculty to Eastern Oregon?
Insko: Most of my business career was managing operations in rural areas, and you have different challenges attracting people into those communities. You have to be thoughtful about how you develop internally because you don’t have as big of a pool. We do hire nationally. We faced hurdles early on because of EOU being challenged financially. We’ve hired in the past six months two new deans and a new executive director for regional outreach with a focus on online. We made three stellar hires. We have a significant number of faculty who will retire over the next five years, so we’re talking about how we attract the talent.



OB: EOU’s focus on teaching aligns the university with community colleges. What is your relationship with two-year institutions?
Insko: We want to be the best “two plus two” university in Oregon. We are aggressively and intentionally working with community college partners across the state to develop what we call “fast track,” to engage with community college students earlier on so they know how they start at community college and continue on to get a degree at EOU in an efficient manner. EOU is uniquely positioned because you don’t have to come to our campus; you can do it online. We’re one of the few universities that offer a multitude of online majors; we have 15 online degrees. The Oregon Promise incents graduates to start in community college. We need to be prepared for more community college students. Two plus two is a place where we have a competitive advantage to grow this institution.

OB: Is OSU’s Bend campus a strategic threat?
Insko: We’re looking at it closely and trying to understand how OSU could impact us as an institution. If that arm continues to grow, it will have an impact.

OB: EOU serves a large number of first generation college students, a demographic targeted by state education policy. Do legislators recognize the role EOU plays in boosting college access?
Insko: There’s not the recognition of the critical mission EOU serves to the state of Oregon that should be there. We have to demonstrate the value through our performance and actions. That’s what we are developing. I’m excited about the transition the university is going through. We have gotten on more solid financial footing, and we’re now looking at how we begin to invest in key areas.

OB: The school is also well positioned to tackle the oft-discussed urban-rural divide.
Insko: My vision is Oregon’s rural university serving as the catalyst for addressing the challenges we face in rural Oregon. This also opens up opportunity for us to impact the conversation between urban and rural Oregon. At the end of the day, what we really care about is very similar. Unfortunately, the rhetoric gets in the way of what’s important and the current political climate is exacerbating instead of helping. But one of the reasons I chose to get out of the private sector is because I believe Eastern can have a role in changing the rhetoric and developing systems to solve some of these problems.

OB: Do you support raising business taxes to address higher education funding deficits?
Insko: I support increasing state funding in higher education. Even with recent increases in state funding, Oregon continues to fall well below the national average for investment in higher education. It is not as simple as just saying we need more revenue from new and/or increased taxes on business so we can increase investments in higher education. It’s a partnership. I believe business will increase their tax contribution to the state if they see meaningful improvements in efficiencies and evidence of more effective financial management by the state.