Judith Ramaley

by Joel Sawyer

Judith Ramaley is widely regarded as a national leader in higher education reform. As president of Portland State University, she transformed a financially ailing school into a national success story as a model urban university.
But Portland State is not the University of Minnesota. With fewer than 15,000 students and an annual budget of about $120 million, the school has only one-third the enrollment and only one-tenth the budget of the University, which ranks among the largest and most complex institutions in the country.
The challenges at the University dwarf those at Portland State, a fact Ramaley (pronounced Ra-MAY-lee) readily admits. But it is those challenges — the administration of a complex university system anchored by a major research university — that attract Ramaley to the job.
“I’m not making a leap, I’m going back home,” Ramaley said. “My whole background prior to Portland State was at institutions the size and complexity of the University of Minnesota.”
Before Ramaley, 55, took the top post at Portland State in 1990, she was an executive vice president at the University of Kansas and a vice president at the University of New York at Albany. Ramaley, a professor of biology, also held faculty and administrative positions at Indiana University and the University of Nebraska.
Ramaley’s ability to lead such a large university is unknown, but her desire to accept such a demanding position is not.
“It is a very difficult presidency, but the opportunity is very attractive,” Ramaley said. “The opportunity is high risk, high gain. I kind of like that.”
What attracts Ramaley to the job is the enormous scholarly and research capacity at the University that, she said, could position the school to be one of the top higher learning institutions of the 21st century.
“Whether it will or can is another matter,” she said, “but it’s worth taking a run at.”
Last year, Ramaley was a finalist for the chancellorship of Maine’s university system but withdrew, citing an uncomfortable political situation in the state. She was also a finalist for the top post in Nevada, but also withdrew late in that search process.
When Ramaley came to Portland State, the school was often ridiculed for its poor academic reputation, low graduation rates and lackluster image as Oregon State’s ugly stepsister.
“There was a tendency among many students to think of (the school) as a large community college,” said Joe Schaeffer, vice president of student government at the school.
Ramaley helped change that perception by giving a much-needed confidence boost to sagging school morale.
“The most important quality she has is her ability to envision a future for the university and making people envision that future as a reality,” said George Pernsteiner, associate vice president for finance and administration at Portland State.
Her first task as president was to meet with faculty, students and Portland business and community leaders to help shape discussion on how the university and the city could create an integrated community of learning.
“I see large pictures. I see things interacting with each other to create a system of interactions,” Ramaley said. “That’s probably what makes me a visionary.”
Under her leadership, Portland State overhauled its undergraduate education program, pulled itself out of financial difficulty and, working in conjunction with the community, came up with a plan to redevelop the 56-acre University District of downtown Portland.
Many of her colleagues say Ramaley’s crowning achievement at Portland State is an innovative undergraduate education program called University Studies.
The program “redefines what it means to be an undergraduate and what the undergraduate experience is all about,” Pernsteiner said.
University Studies, initiated in 1994 by the university’s provost and a team of faculty members and championed by Ramaley, brings together faculty and students from various backgrounds and engages them in community-based research and service projects throughout the Portland area.
“There’s nothing quite like focusing the mind then by knowing that the results will be viewed not by your instructor or fellow students, but by people whose livelihood or quality of life or options will be reshaped by what you do,” Ramaley said.
This fall, Portland State received a national leadership award from the Pew Charitable Trusts and a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for University Studies.
The University District reclamation project was another of Ramaley’s key initiatives.
The plan calls for a close partnership between city government, business leaders and Portland State to develop the area’s housing and create new retail centers. The plan also calls for the construction of an elementary school, private and university buildings and a possible light rail system to the school. The goal is to reclaim the decaying area and renew it.
“The vision for the University District was President Ramaley’s,” Pernsteiner said. “It got the city, the university and the local development community working together to achieve some things that usually don’t happen.”
Ramaley’s tenure at Portland State has also seen controversy. Budget problems caused her to slash several programs during her first two years at the school, including the School of Health and Human Performance and degree programs in philosophy, physics and ceramics. Many faculty and staff got the axe as well, but funding has increased in recent years as university enrollment has grown.
Ramaley also has a reputation for tenacity, which she backed up last week by fending off a takeover attempt of Portland State’s engineering programs by Oregon State. The takeover attempt was led by her boss, higher education Chancellor Joseph Cox.
“Not everybody agrees with me, but if that were true, you’d wonder if I said anything interesting,” Ramaley said.
Everyone may not agree with what Ramaley says, but few at Portland State can say anything negative about her accomplishments.
“That’s kind of one of the weird things (about Ramaley),” Schaeffer said. “I never talk to any students or other student governments that only have positive things to say about their university president, and that’s all we have.
“She’s wonderful. She’s always stood by us, always backed us, it’s been pretty incredible. You couldn’t ask for anyone better,” Schaeffer said.