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That sound you heard last week from Monmouth was the sound of another shoe dropping in the continuing saga over governing boards at Oregon public universities.

Western Oregon University in Monmouth announced last week that it was following in the footsteps of the state’s three largest universities by setting up an independent governing board of its own.

It’s the latest domino to fall in a process that will result in a significantly different landscape for the state’s public universities, including a substantially diminished role for the state Board of Higher Education — if, in fact, there’s a role at all for that state board once the dust settles.

Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and Portland State University already have taken steps to set up their own governing boards. In fact, the members of OSU’s governing board met for the first time earlier this month for a meet-and-greet, although the boards don’t have official status until July 1.

The governing boards have the authority to hire and fire presidents, set tuition and fees, and oversee university operations – matters that formerly were the province of the Board of Higher Education.

The Legislature, in clearing the way for OSU, Oregon and PSU to form their own independent boards, also gave the state’s four smaller public universities the opportunity to do the same, or to pursue options such as becoming a branch of a larger school or forming a consortium.

In making its announcement last week, Western Oregon University President Mark Weiss said his university is in a stronger financial position than some of the other potential partners in a consortium — and the university wants a board that puts a priority on its own initiatives.

Decisions are expected in March from the three remaining smaller schools: Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Southern Oregon in Ashland and the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls.

Those decisions should clarify questions about what role, if any, remains for the Board of Higher Education. In theory, the role the board played in coordinating Oregon’s system of public higher education will flow to the new state Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

We’re still not sold on what the state of Oregon gains by this rush to independent governing boards for its universities. We worry that the coordinating commission will have a difficult time in riding herd on newly independent public universities and that the final result will be essentially gutting the “system” part of the Oregon University System.

We hope these worries turn out to be unfounded. In the meantime, though, this much is certain:

These are fundamental changes in our system of higher education. They’re worth careful attention as they take shape over the next few years.

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