Oregon's state per-student funding ranks 45th in the country. But as Portland State University president Wim Wiewel put it at a forum Tuesday afternoon, the state ranks #1 in another area: micromanagement of its higher education system.

Wiewel's comments came at a public forum about the impact of legislative proposals to restructure Oregon's higher education system.

"There's this incredible disjuncture between the funding and the amount of regulation, and I feel that everyday," Wiewel said. "The rules and the regulations and the layers of approval are always burdening you."

The primary higher education proposal, Senate Bill 242, would free the Oregon University System from its current state-agency status. Proponents say that would give universities more freedom to manage their operations. Oregon's 17 community colleges already enjoy such independence and flexibility.

The forum drew about 250 people to the PSU campus. And panelists generally voiced support for SB 242. Oregon University System Chancellor George Pernsteiner said this legislation presents a major opportunity to boost the education level of Oregonians above that of previous generations. State Rep. Chris Harker (D-Washington County) said he is profoundly frustrated about the state of higher education in Oregon, adding that he believes there is the momentum in Salem to pass this legislation.

But panelists and forum attendees still raised several concerns. Panelist Katie Markey, president of the Associated Students of PSU, questioned the future of tuition setting and whether students will have a voice in this process. She also worried that new accountability measures might turn Oregon institutions into degree factories.

The panel briefly addressed a separate legislative proposal by the University of Oregon, which asks legislators to finance about $800 million in state bonds that UO would invest along with privately raised money to finance the school's operations. Harker said he does not see the same chances for success with the UO bill as he does with the other proposals.

The discussion repeatedly returned to Oregon's strapped fiscal circumstances.

Current legislation addresses governance, not the equally key issue of funding, panelists stressed. Without amped-up funding for higher education, a restructuring of the system may carry limited impact. Despite this, Pernsteiner stumped for the legislation—this is part one, he said, and part two will entail a push for increased funding in the next biennium.

"This will take sustained investment over time," Pernsteiner said. "We know that in 2011 there isn't the money for an investment. There is instead the opportunity to clear away some of the impediments we have faced in the past. Discussion about investment can't occur in 2011. But I am convinced it will occur in 2013, because we will be coming out of this recession in a better position than we went in, because we are actually educating Oregonians at a rate that we've not done before."