The western United States is known for its wide open spaces and rustic towns, but virtually all of the major rural studies programs are located in universities east of the Mississippi River.
Bruce Weber would like to change that. And he's looking for a few more passionately committed OSU faculty members to help.
Weber is the coordinator for OSU's Sustainable Rural Communities Initiative, a group of faculty from five colleges seeking to redefine the relationship between Oregon State University and Oregon's rural communities. It is one of six initiatives singled out by the university as priorities for investment.
"Social science researchers tend to view the world beyond our campus as a big laboratory," Weber said, "and so our relationship with these communities is often academy-driven. Historically, university interest in rural communities is learning about them so our knowledge base grows.
"What we're trying to do with this initiative will require a different way of thinking," he added. "It's not just about increasing social science knowledge; it's learning at the same time as the community, in partnership with the community. And, frankly, we're not very good at this. As a university, we have learned how to partner with businesses, but not with communities."
Weber said there are teaching, research and outreach programs in the West that deal with rural issues and policy, but no major programs that envelop all three in a cross-disciplinary, cross-function manner.
Even OSU's efforts to date have been program-specific, said Weber, who is a professor of agricultural and resource economics, and an economist with the OSU Extension Service.
"We have anthropologists working on food insecurity in Alsea, human development faculty working on housing issues in Sweet Home, and natural resource educators working on conservation issues in Enterprise," said Weber, ticking off just a few examples of OSU's involvement with rural communities.
"What we'd like to see is a full spectrum of our faculty working in targeted communities looking at all manners of issues, from the economy, to the roles of school and church, to problems of methamphetamines and crime."
Weber said the group of principal investigators who developed the Rural Communities Initiative envisions OSU working with three communities over the next five years in a collaborative partnership. Many communities face some of the same issues, he said, that can threaten their economic, environmental, social and cultural well-being. They include:
Issues involving economic development and natural resource management have clearly affected numerous Oregon communities, from coastal fishing towns to timber-dependents towns in every region of the state, Weber said. Changes in environmental regulations, technology, urbanization and globalization have created new opportunities for some, and new barriers for others.
"With these changes, rural Oregon has progressively lost ground economically over the last 20 years in comparison to urban Oregon," Weber said. "Rural unemployment rates run 25 percent higher than urban rates, and the poverty rate is 18 percent higher. These are real concerns."
Those societal changes create individual and family economic stress that can have widespread implications, from rising divorce rates to an exodus of young adults from the community. The need for social science research in rural communities is profound, Weber said.
The economic and social changes have brought new identity to rural communities.
"Many Americans imagine rural communities as culturally homogenous and unchanging," Weber said, "but with recent patterns of migration and immigration, the social fabric of rural communities is changing faster than in urban areas. In the 1990s, Oregon's Hispanic population grew more than 70 percent and rural Oregon still harbors spiritual centers for many indigenous groups including Paiutes, Warm Springs, Klamaths, Umatillas and the many peoples associated with the Coquille, Coos, Grande Ronde and Siletz communities."
Finally, small rural governments are much more likely to need training and expertise in all aspects of public management, from policy research to strategic planning to resource management. One facet of OSU's new initiative includes developing new training for rural community leaders, as well as a new master's and doctoral emphases in rural policy so that the university can play a role in training future rural leaders.
"Our next step is to identify faculty and students who want to join the emerging cadre of OSU faculty members who are passionate about wanting to make a difference for rural communities," Weber said. "We want to find people who are at the point in their career where they want to get involved in something critical outside the university and are willing to break new ground to get that accomplished.
"I'm under no illusions that this will be easy," Weber added. "These are some serious issues that rural communities are dealing with, but what better way for Oregon's land grant university to be engaged with its constituents?"
Faculty interested in learning more should contact Weber at Bruce.Weber@oregonstate.edu.
"…Rural Oregon has progressively lost ground economically over the last 20 years in comparison to urban Oregon. Rural unemployment rates run 25 percent higher than urban rates, and the poverty rate is 18 percent higher. These are real concerns."
— Bruce Weber, Extension economist