After 17 years of service, Oregon State University President Edward Ray stepped down from his position in June 2020, passing on the job to the experienced southern native F. King Alexander. Alexander accepted the post in the midst of a pandemic, intense discussions on racial injustice, and great uncertainty. The Advocate sat down with him (virtually, of course) to reflect on his work so far and his hopes for the future.
Alexander was born in Louisville, Kentucky and grew up in Gainesville, Florida with his mother, father, and brothers. His father served as president for two universities and is now a Professor of Excellence at the University of Illinois – perhaps this is what led Alexander to pursue the same career after earning his PhD in higher education administration from the University of Wisconsin—Madison.
Preceded by his father, Alexander served as president of Murray State University in Kentucky from 2001 to 2005 before moving on to take on the same position at California State University, Long Beach in 2006, where he was awarded the Humanitarian Award by the California Conference for Equality and Justice.
In 2013, Alexander became president of Louisiana State University and stayed in the position until 2020, when he succeeded Ed Ray at Oregon State University on July 1.
Alexander said that though everywhere he’s worked has looked different, one thing has always stayed the same.
“At the heart and core of all four states, of all four presidencies, students don’t change,” he said. “Students are students in Kentucky, they’re students in Southern California, they’re students in Louisiana. Our students are just looking for a better standard of life, and our job is to make sure that they’re doing better than their parents did.”
“That’s sort of the nucleus of my job,” he continued, “to make sure that our students have a better opportunity, they have a better economic and educational opportunity than we had.”
“The only real difference is an accent,” he said with a laugh.
Universities around the country have been struggling economically as a result of the COVID pandemic, and OSU has felt its own effects of the crisis. However, Alexander said, “We don’t even know the economic toll of all this.”
According to him, a risk assessment was done before he took office. The three least riskiest areas at that time have now become the three riskiest as a result of the pandemic.
This includes auxiliaries – due to the pandemic, 2,500 students did not return to live on-campus, which had a significant impact on OSU’s finances. International students were also lost because visas were shut down. Auxiliaries became one of the costliest issues in 2020, causing upwards of $170 million in shortfall for the university.
Although many students did not return to campus for classes, enrollment at OSU actually increased.
“All these things are so unpredictable because of the pandemic that resulted in a recession, but quite honestly, the folks that were here before me were positioned so well, we’re the only university in the state that had an enrollment increase,” Alexander said.
Both Ecampus and Cascades enrollment increased, but the Corvallis’ campus’ decreased, mostly due to international students not having access to visas.
When asked what his economic goals are for 2021, Alexander replied, “To stabilize the university, make sure that we continue to be in better shape than the rest of the universities around the country, and let’s get through the pandemic and build on the momentum that we had going into the pandemic…”
Alexander, despite these tumultuous times, is confident in the university’s ability to bounce back economically. In fact, OSU is up 25% in applications for next school year.
“We’re in so much better shape than so many other universities around the country,” he said.
OSU has been in the spotlight this year as a result of its TRACE COVID-19 program, which was “designed to gather information about the presence of the novel coronavirus in communities and at Oregon State University,” according to the program’s website.
For 2021, Alexander plans to continue employing this program at full capacity.
“We’re going to test as many people as possible,” he said. “We’re going to test students, faculty, staff. We’re going to continue testing the community.”
TRACE, due to its success, has not been limited to OSU. In November, the university helped the University of Oregon test Eugene and Springfield. Also in November, OSU received a $2 million grant from the Packard Foundation to expand the TRACE program nationally.
“Thanks to the School of Veterinary Medicine, the School of Public Health, I mean, just the combination of our extension offices around the state, we’ve been doing things that our state couldn’t do,” Alexander said.
He continued, “We’re doing things in Corvallis and because of OSU that, I hope, people understand is unique, because all the counties in the state only test people when they’re symptomatic. We’re testing people randomly, and we’re finding out that three out of the four positives are asymptomatic.”
In fact, before Thanksgiving, TRACE tested 5,675 students. 34 tested positive, and of those cases, 31 were asymptomatic. These students were quarantined following their results.
“Most universities around the country are asking students to get tested, and students don’t know where to get tested,” Alexander said. “Most universities aren’t providing the testing for them — we are.”
Campus Police and Safety
COVID is not the only safety concern OSU has faced this year. A big topic of discussion has been the university’s police force, which is set to take over on Jan. 1, 2021.
After it was announced in the fall of 2019 that the Oregon State Police and Oregon State University would be cutting ties, the university decided to create its own police force for its campus. Use of state troopers will officially end on Dec. 31, 2020.
Of the new campus police force, Alexander said, “I think we have a unique opportunity to create a university police that is about health and safety.”
Alexander expressed one of his main concerns – campus shootings, which, before the pandemic, were unnervingly consistent across the country.
“Unfortunately, that’s the environment that we live in, and for our students to actually live and learn together, we have to provide a safe environment for them, and our police are going to work carefully with our Corvallis police force, that could not actually cover our campus anyway, and we will work carefully [with] them on a number of fronts,” he said.
One of these fronts is mental health. A CAHOOTS program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), which has already been employed in Eugene and Springfield, is being worked on by the university, city, and county.
Alexander also wants the new police force to be focused on public health and education as well as general safety.
“They [the officers] have a responsibility to have a safe environment, but they’re also going to be educators for our students,” he explained. “We want our students to know the officers, we want our officers to know our students. That’s the kind of police force we’re creating, a collaborative police operation that falls within the whole safety environment, which includes COVID and health.”
Public health and safety include issues surrounding sexual assault and misconduct on the OSU campus. In November, Alexander expressed his concerns with such crimes in an email sent to students and staff after it was revealed by USA Today that Louisiana State University ignored complaints regarding sexual assault and members of the school’s football team when Alexander served there as president.
In regard to reporting sexual misconduct and discrimination, Alexander wrote in his statement, “This is not a request, it is your responsibility and mine, and aligns with federal and state law, and is driven by Oregon State University’s values.”
He shared that he has been engaged in discussions with President-elect Biden’s transition team about issues in higher education and the changes to Title IX that went into effect in August, which created barriers to reporting.
When asked about his concerns regarding sexual assault and misconduct, Alexander again stressed the importance of reporting sexual misconduct incidents as he did in his statement. He urged that members of the OSU community report instances and asked them to not assume something is being investigated just because they have heard a rumor or allegation around campus.
“This is an important issue, especially right now, because there’s going to be a change in the Department of Education in Washington [D.C.] that is going to go more back to what the Obama administration had and less about what Secretary DeVos has put forward,” Alexander said.
As the country has faced big questions about racial injustice, some community members have been urging OSU to adopt curriculum that focuses on teaching students about racism and how to be anti-racist, even starting a petition to require such a course.
Currently, according to Alexander, OSU’s faculty senate is looking at the university’s core curriculum and making decisions about what courses need to be dropped and which ones need to be added.
“I think it’s a good time to review our curriculum,” Alexander said.
As for the curriculum concerning racism, Alexander said, “The racial injustice issue is a national issue, and what courses might be a part of that new core that we would look for, that really is a campus-wide discussion, that’s not a presidential discussion.”
Due to the pandemic, arts across the country have been struggling. Nationally, Broadway is shut down, and locally, many theaters are relying on relief funds to get by. For OSU, however, the future of the arts is looking bright.
The university recently received $70 million in funding for an arts and education complex on campus. This building will be open to everyone, not just OSU students.
“It will be open for schools, for classes, for performing arts…” Alexander said. “It’s a collaborative opportunity for Corvallis and Oregon State to have a facility that both of us use together.”
Connecting Corvallis and OSU
The arts and education complex is one way that Alexander hopes to bridge the gap between Corvallis and OSU. Though the university lives within the city, the two areas seem to be separate from each other, with 14th St. sometimes being referred to as a wall between them.
When asked how he plans to better connect the city and university, Alexander laughed. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
He continued, “This is a college town and a great community. I’m trying to figure out why that invisible wall exists. It shouldn’t exist, because the economics of Corvallis certainly hinges around the success of Oregon State. The community is just such a wonderful community, and I think it’s a self-created wall that needs to come down.”
Alexander said he wants to work with the mayor and city council, especially after the pandemic, to brainstorm more ways that Corvallis and OSU can better connect and make the area a better place to live.
Alexander actually gives credit to the city for so many students coming back to campus despite the pandemic. Every student was given an option to stay home or come back, and 2,500 decided to stay on-campus, while around 9,000 came back to live in Corvallis near the university.
“I think it’s a real credit that they wanted to come back,” Alexander said. “They feel better about living and learning around Corvallis.”
A More Equitable Community
Alexander is also proud of OSU’s decision this year to eliminate the requirement for standardized testing scores when applying to the university. The reasoning behind this decision was due to the unequal nature of the tests.
As Alexander explained, wealthy students are benefitted by standardized testing, while poor students, from both urban and rural areas and many students of color are put at a disadvantage. Wealthy students are more likely to have access to preparatory materials such as study groups, tutors, and courses specifically designed for standardized test-taking, while poor students are not.
“What we’re starting to find out is that these standardized tests were a barrier to students that needed access to public higher education the most,” Alexander said, “but were limited from attending because they didn’t have access to the preparatory standards and practices that rich people did.”
He seems to be looking positively toward the future, though the university will need to work hard as the pandemic and other issues persist.
“I think we’re going to be a more open institution, and I welcome that,” Alexander said. “This is not about ranking well in U.S. News and World Report or some private school ranking in the Northeast — this is about serving the state and serving the next generation of students to make them better than we are.”
Article was originally published by The Corvallis Advocate.