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Originally published November 11, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified November 12, 2010 at 12:01 PM

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Truth Needle | Half true: Woodward's remarks on Oregon off mark

The claim: University of Washington Athletic Director Scott Woodward told a radio reporter last weekend that the University of Oregon's academics have become "an embarrassment."

Seattle Times staff reporters

The Truth Needle is back

At the request of readers, we're continuing The Truth Needle, a fact-checking feature that started as a way to check claims during the election season. We'll be investigating the claims of politicians, public officials and other newsmakers.

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The claim: University of Washington Athletic Director Scott Woodward told a radio reporter last weekend that the University of Oregon's academics have become "an embarrassment." Specifically, he said: "It's an embarrassment what their academic institution is and what has happened to them as far as their state funding has gone. ... Any of the [academic] rankings you look at, you watched how far they've dropped because of their state funding."

What we found: Woodward's comments, made before the UW-UO football game last Saturday, caused a stir, and UW's interim president, Phyllis Wise, asked him to apologize to the UO. But were Woodward's assertions true?

State funding for Oregon's flagship university has bounced up and down over the past 20 years, but the trend has been downward. Academically, at least in recent years, the school seems to be holding its own — if anything, its rank has risen in the last five years.

So we rate Woodward's comments as half true.

According to the university, Oregon's support of the UO in per-student spending is almost 42 percent below the level of 20 years ago, in inflation-adjusted dollars. The state contributed about $6,000 per student in inflation-adjusted dollars in the early 1990s. In 2008-09, that figure was closer to $3,500 per student.

Among the 30 public universities that are members of the Association of American Universities, Oregon was at the bottom of the list in public funding per student in 2008. (The UW was 23rd.)

A steady erosion of public dollars has been the case at most publicly funded universities during the current economic downturn. It's been a source of angst at the UW and throughout the state's four-year university system, and leaders have warned that quality will take a hit if state funding declines any further.

After his initial comments, Woodward wrote: "My remarks were intended as a commentary on the powerful impact that a state can have on an institution's academic standing. The University of Oregon is a great example of the struggles which can accompany a university when state funding decreases, but UO is certainly not the only institution suffering."

In fact, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the UW's support in state funding per student has declined by about 35 percent since 1990.

Amid UO's decline in state funding, the university has sought out private money, increased tuition and continued to benefit from Phil Knight, Nike's founder and a University of Oregon graduate who has been a major donor. Knight's status was noted by Woodward, who said that Ducks fans "should get down on their hands and knees at night to Phil Knight and pray to him."

Knight has contributed money and facilities to the university worth more than $240 million, according to The Oregonian newspaper. Most of that money went to sports programs, including $100 million to a fund to support athletics and $41.7 million for an academic center that is largely focused on helping athletes with their studies, The Oregonian has reported.

Knight's contributions to Oregon academic programs include $27.4 million to expand and renovate a library and $25 million toward building a law-school building and helping endow 30 teaching positions.

But his spending on athletics has been controversial. In January 2007, 92 university faculty members cosigned an opinion piece that was published in The Eugene Register-Guard. "As professors at the university, we find it increasingly hard to tell whether UO is a research and teaching institution devoted to the education of our state's students, or a minor league training ground for elite athletes," they wrote.

Wise, UW's interim president, serves on Nike's board but has said her position played no role in her request for Woodward to apologize.

Does all this add up to UO becoming an academic "embarrassment," as Woodward initially said? No, it's clear the university is not, although it's difficult to quantify a school's academic standing.

There are dozens of different rankings of quality, and many change their criteria every few years. That makes assessing a college's long-term academic standing tricky.

Oregon's flagship generally falls lower than the UW on lists of college rankings, and that's been true for many years. Simply put, it's in a different category — a smaller school that doesn't get as much federal research money and is less selective in admissions.

The UO is ranked 111th out of 191 national public and private universities in U.S. News & World Report's 2011 overall college-rankings survey. It was tied for that spot with five other universities, including Washington State University.

The UW is tied for 41st place with three other universities, including Case Western Reserve University and the University of California, Irvine.

As with any big university, UO has a few programs that are national standouts; for example, its College of Education was ranked the top public graduate program for education by U.S. News. The school's Lundquist College of Business was named by The Princeton Review as one of the top 15 business schools for graduate students with an interest in marketing in 2009.

Forbes Magazine's list of the nation's best colleges, which ranks schools from the students' point of view and includes all public and private schools, puts UO at 259. Kiplinger Magazine, which rates schools in terms of whether they are a good value, puts UO at number 85 on its list of 100 best values in public colleges.

In the U.S. News report — the ranking with the longest history — neither university's ranking has changed much in the last five years. In 2006, the UW was ranked 42nd, and UO was ranked 120th — so, both schools have risen in the rankings, although not by much.

Woodward is a 1985 graduate of Louisiana State University, where he earned his degree in political science. In the U.S. News rankings, LSU is 124th.

Seattle Times Researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

Hal Bernton: 503-292-1016 or hbernton@seattletimes.com


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