"It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it."
— Upton Sinclair
The chronic underfunding of SOU is structural in nature; a matter of being in an awkward tier between a community college and flagship university with a constituency insufficient to generate the political will to credibly assert its claim as Oregon's public liberal arts university and properly support it as such. It would be unfair and wrong to blame its administration for its fiscal woes and conversely utter hubris for the administration to claim that it can blaze a path out of the wilderness it finds itself in.
Regional public institutions of higher learning are, by their nature, largely at the mercy of the fiscal climate and political landscapes where they are situated. This author's experience at regional universities in Hawaii and Texas found similar problems. What compounds the challenges facing SOU over the past decade has been the aggressive expansion of Rogue Community College coupled with an ongoing and now acute squeeze on place-bound Southern Oregon households' ability to afford sending their offspring out for an ever more expensive four-year degree. Clever and thrifty students can strategically take their general education course requirements at RCC. They can then transfer to SOU with these courses when they are ready to move into upper-division degree programs. If they are especially clever and talented they can then transfer after a year or so to a flagship university, taking the course credits earned at SOU with them. They can then receive a University of Oregon, Oregon State University or Portland State degree without undergoing the full expense of taking all of their coursework at those schools. This is why SOU's retention rates, while recently touted as rising, still are significantly low by national norms (70 percent first-year student retention with a transfer-out rate of 23 percent and a four-year graduation rate of 13 percent according to the National Center for Educational Statistics). Compare this with the University of Oregon's first-year student retention rate of 86 percent, transfer-out rate of 6 percent and four-year graduation rate of 44 percent. The result is that what most people might assume is a four-year university with a few professional graduate programs actually is more of a one- or two-year way station of sorts, or a place they can go to take courses on a part-time basis while working to pay the bills.
The problem is compounded by rampant grade inflation at RCC that floods SOU with underprepared students without the basic skills needed to perform at the undergraduate level. Plagiarism is up, and the need for remediation reflected in the amount of resources allocated to student support services (tutoring) is way up.
To make matters worse, we lie at the state's political margins with a legislative delegation unwilling or unable to champion SOU in any credible way. We no longer have a Lenn Hannon to advocate effectively for SOU in Salem.
The bottom line is that U of O is just at the upper third of American public universities in student investment and SOU is right at the bottom third. (http://bit.ly/UzGPXS)
Among those inside there is recognition that SOU is now under stresses that have been at least two generations in the making. Because of this, faculty and staff adapt to the fact that yet another shoe will drop or ax fall in the next budget cycle. A kind of crisis fatigue is firmly set in with employees at all levels immersed in a kind of bunker mentality to hold onto whatever turf they can in the face of consolidation, downsizing or whatever the master plan du jour holds.
One should not ask this administration for guidance out of this mess for the same reason one should not ask locals for directions. Their cognitive maps are constructed around their experience. They will invariably tell you to turn left at the laundromat oblivious to the fact that it is behind a 7-Eleven that they never go to and thus literally don't see. It is beyond them the same way the Phyrigians could not untie the Gordian Knot, leaving it to an outsider (Alexander the Great) to provide his radical solution. This also would be a good time to reread the quote at the top of this piece.
This is the diagnosis. To cut now to prescription would take another article to effectively describe.
There is a way and it will not be easy, but playing musical chairs with existing schools, programs and departments is not going to resolve the problem. Expanding residential student capacity is especially ill-advised, as they are the most expensive segment to educate. The last thing we want is for SOU alumni to echo a comment made at another regional university: "It's a beautiful campus ... . Too bad there isn't a university there."
Timothy E. Dolan of Ashland was associate professor of political science and director of the SOU Master in Management Program from its inception in 1998 to 2005. He was most recently professor of public policy and administration in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He has written and presented research on higher education policy including at the Global Higher Education Forum in Penang Malaysia last December. He is an active member of the World Futures Studies Federation and sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Futures Studies.