Last Tuesday, over 950 people gathered in the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., meeting and greeting one another, while visiting the wide array of organizational displays. In the ballroom, caterers clad in black juggled dishes back and forth, setting the black and orange-sheeted tables.
Sometime after noon, the ballroom lights dimmed, and the stage lights sharpened. People began to cheer and applaud as Edward J. Ray took the stage for his last State of the University Address as the president of Oregon State University.
Ray has served as president for 17 years, and the event drew many people, including students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters of OSU.
Ray’s roughly 40-minute speech highlighted various university achievements, and a 32-page booklet, IMPACT 2020, was handed out at the end of the event. The booklet featured many involved OSU community members and their contributions to the university. In his speech, Ray highlighted numerous OSU achievements this year, including the topic of the university’s increases in enrollment this year and diversity.
In an interview prior to his speech, Ray provided an in-depth explanation of the increases in enrollment and diversity at OSU. By working to create a more supportive and inclusive environment, Ray said the university hopes to eliminate achievement gaps.
“You just look at the figures for First Peoples, Asian-Pacific Islanders, African-Americans or Hispanics—there are gaps in terms of graduation rates and retention success,” Ray said. “We really need to eliminate those.”
In the fall of 2019, OSU totaled an enrollment of 32,774 students across its Corvallis, Ore. campus, OSU-Cascades campus and Ecampus. Of that number, 5,978 were first-generation students, 8,327 were students of color and 3,492 were international students.
Ray also shared a memory of his early days at OSU in the interview. He said when he first came here, he was asked, “Why do you care about diversity? Oregon isn’t very diverse.”
“And I said, you know what, if people know that regardless of who they are or where they are from, they could come here and realize their aspirations by coming here to get an education, then it doesn’t matter what Oregon looks like,” Ray responded. “Because they will come from everywhere.”
Another topic Ray mentioned in his speech was OSU’s satellite locations in Portland, Bend and Newport, Ore. More specifically, Ray said he found personal pride in the development of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. The building is not just a distinguished marine laboratory, but was constructed to also be a safe haven for community members in case of a tsunami, Ray said in the interview.
“It has a vertical evacuation site—there’s a ramp that goes up two stories—and everyone who's there, including federal agencies, will be safer the day after it opens then they were the day before,” Ray said.
Further along into his speech, Ray mentioned one university accomplishment he was very fond of. Recently, the Popular Mechanics magazine ranked a small modular nuclear power reactor developed by the College of Engineering in its “Top 20 coolest machine innovations of the last decade.” The reactor is now being advanced by NuScale Power.
“The one I really get a kick out of is the popular mechanics one. We were ranked No. 6 with the small-scale nuclear power reactor,” Ray said in his interview.
Alongside recognizing numerous university achievements in his speech, Ray also placed a call to action for various issues he believes still need to be advanced. These include addressing concerns related to student mental health and well-being, as well as combating the anxiety crisis “growing among young adults.”
“It’s really tough being a young person in an overwhelming social media world,” Ray said in his interview. “The stuff which people pay attention to on social media, half of which is probably not true, is beating them down. It’s just terrible.”
Ray also said in his speech that he wants to increase understanding of the value of a college degree and support for public higher education. He said he wants to reduce the cost of a college degree and hopes that Oregonians follow in the example of the state of Washington, where major business, community and media leaders convinced the state to greatly increase funding for higher education.
“The future is in each of our hands, and we need champions outside of higher education,” Ray said in his speech.
Vice President for University Relations and Marketing Steve Clark explained how Ray and the OSU community as a whole have contributed to some of these accomplishments.
“I think President Ray set a course for Oregon State that allowed many things to happen,” Clark said. “It isn’t just the numbers of students—it's the caliber of the students, it's the diversity of the students, it’s the exceptional nature of their interests. [They want] to help Oregon, the nation and the world excel. President Ray set a course, and the university overall has achieved that, not solely by his actions, but by many people.”
Callie Kennel, OSU Alumni Association regional director for the Pacific Northwest, said the State of the University Address was produced in partnership with University Relations and Marketing, the OSU Alumni Association and the OSU Foundation. Kennel said Ray did an exceptional job during his past 17 years, and in Ray’s words, “the best is yet to come.”
In his hopes for the future, Ray wants to “continue the university’s momentum,” with OSU’s roadmap for the future, Strategic Plan 4.0. Ray also said he felt very enthusiastic about OSU’s future with its next president, F. King Alexander.
“We have a new president coming in who cares passionately about inclusion and social justice,” Ray said in his interview. “Part of why he wants to be here is because he sees what we have here, and this where he wants to be. He’s young, so he could be here for the next 10-15 years. You need time to have a continuing impact that’s sustainable into the future.”
Ray’s contract ends on Jun. 30, and for all his praise, his response in the interview was, “You learn in life you don’t accomplish anything by yourself. This is not about my accomplishments, but the things we have accomplished.”