- Associated Press - Friday, April 18, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The state Board of Higher Education on Friday named Jay Kenton the interim president of financially challenged Eastern Oregon University.

Kenton, 56, had recently announced his retirement as vice chancellor of finance and administration for the Oregon University System. He succeeds Robert Davies, who was hired last month to lead Murray State University in Kentucky.

Kenton began his higher education career at the La Grande campus in 1983. He started his three-year stint as an accountant and then became assistant business manager. Those business skills should come in handy at the smallest of Oregon’s seven public universities, which is projected to end the fiscal year with a net loss of $1.2 million in operating funds.

Following a period of steady growth, Eastern Oregon has seen its enrollment fall by more than 3 percent since 2011, from 4,298 students to 4,157.

Reversing the tide is a challenge because the university is far from Oregon’s population center and faces increased competition at a time when reduced state support has led to program cuts and escalating tuition.

“I think Eastern needs to do something to distinguish itself in the marketplace,” Kenton said Friday.

Kenton said he would be open to Eastern Oregon serving as a testing ground for the “Pay It Forward” pilot project being developed by the state’s Higher Education Coordination Commission. The concept calls for students to attend public universities tuition free and loan free. In exchange, students would have money deducted from their post-graduation paychecks. The dollars would go into a fund to pay for future students.

He said another possible way to stabilize or boost enrollment would be to match what Western Oregon University has done and promise that incoming freshman will pay the same tuition rate for four academic years.

“But that’s a real rough notion, and I haven’t talked to anybody out there about that,” Kenton said. “I don’t know yet if it’s a good idea or a bad idea.”

While enrollment is needed for more revenue, Kenton and the university must also focus on expenses. The current administration has been grappling with decisions about which academic programs are important to regional students - and need investment - and those that might need to be trimmed.

Kenton also comes aboard at a time when Eastern Oregon and other regional universities are trying to gain independence from the State Board of Higher Education by establishing their own governing boards.

Davies, the outgoing president, said in a phone interview that Kenton’s got a “very sharp mind” and is an excellent pick to lead the university during this period of change. He said Kenton’s knows the business side of the equation and has also been a professor and “understands the academic side of the house.”

Also Friday, the higher education board gave university system Chancellor Melody Rose the go-ahead to start the search for Eastern Oregon’s permanent president. Kenton’s appointment does not come with an end date, but he’s likely to be president for the entire 2014-15 academic year.

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Follow Steven DuBois at https://twitter.com/pdxdub

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