Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan is concerned that a restructuring of the state's higher education system being debated in the Oregon Legislature could harm SOU.

Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan is concerned that a restructuring of the state's higher education system being debated in the Oregon Legislature could harm SOU.

"We do not want to be at a financial disadvantage, and we need to have a level playing field with the other universities in the state," she said.

Others at the school call the legislation, Senate Bill 270 and its companion House Bill 3120, an inequitable change to a system that's been in place for more than eight decades.

"It's a really clumsy and unfair model," said Kemble Yates, a math professor who has been at the school for 26 years.

The legislation, expected to be debated until the session concludes at the end of the month, would allow for the state's three large universities to break from the Oregon University System, and create their own institutional governing boards as a way to raise more money, which they say is vital because of a sharp decrease in state funding.

In the university system, costs and services are shared among its members, which include all seven public universities. Funding is also allocated to the universities through the university system.

The push for the bill came from the University of Oregon. If that school broke from the university system to form its own governing board, along with Portland State University and possibly Oregon State University, then providing services currently shared by all could become more difficult — and expensive — for regional universities.

That's a major concern, Cullinan said, especially when no plan for a new system has been shared with the presidents of the regional universities — SOU, Western Oregon, Eastern Oregon and Oregon Institute of Technology. She also said lawmakers are considering the proposal before a financial analysis of its possible effects has been conducted.

"It makes no sense to me to make an organizational change and then go back and figure out the cost," she said. "They're pushing the legislation so quickly that they're going to come back and say, 'Oops.' "

of O officials say there are several reasons why they are pushing for a governing board. It would allow the university and the two other big universities to go directly to the Legislature when asking for funding. It would also make it easier for universities to collect more donations and would allow for a university to issue revenue bonds, said Di Saunders, spokeswoman for the Oregon University System.

The U of O push began in earnest during the tenure of former university President Richard Lariviere, who was fired by the state Board of Higher Education in 2011 after he ignored Gov. John Kitzhaber's demand for a statewide salary freeze. The firing provoked an outcry on the Eugene campus and intensified the push by the school for more independence.

It appears that U of O will get its wish — its own governing board — according to Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, where the proposal is being debated.

Buckley said the likelihood of U of O getting its own governing board is a "slam dunk." He said decisions for the other two big universities will probably come later.

He said officials for regional universities, meanwhile, will be able to study the impacts of the bill's passage on their schools and determine by next year's short legislative session if they must form a regional university system or form individual institutional governing boards.

Cullinan said the proposal being batted around offers little explanation for how SOU is to proceed. She said the legislation includes "vague wording" that apparently would allow for the regional universities to set up their own governing boards — as it has for U of O — but does not guarantee SOU and other regional schools will be afforded the opportunity.

The legislation, Cullinan said, provides "one set of rules for these folks and another set of rules for other folks."

She said she favors the university system currently in place, but if changes are made, she wants the same opportunities as the big universities.

"I don't want to be told 'No, you can't because you're small,' " she said.

Buckley said there is broad support in the Legislature for protecting the regional schools, adding that legislators are working to make the bills more specific in allowing the regionals the opportunity to create governing boards, if need be.

"I want to make sure SOU and other regional universities are not hurt," he said.

But, Buckley said, figuring the best way to move forward has proved tricky in this complex issue. One issue stemming from the break-up of the university system is how will the services currently shared by all the universities, such as payroll and legal representation, continue in a new system.

All the universities in the system now share those services from a centralized office. But if the university system is broken up, a plan would have to be devised for how the schools will handle the functions.

Buckley said that there are a number of possibilities. One, the services remain shared among all universities. Two, each university sets up its own procedures for handling the services. Three, the regional universities remain a cooperative that shares the services. Four, the regionals and Oregon State University — which is less enthusiastic about forming an independent board — remain together and share the services.

It's the ambiguity of the plan that most irks Cullinan, who said the Legislature should have presented a clear proposal to university officials before piecing it together on the fly.

"The hurry to get this done has really led to a lot of confusion of how we're going to function in the future," she said.

Thomas Letchworth, SOU student body president, said breaking up the university system will most likely cause increased costs at regional universities, "which wouldn't be good for anybody."

"Usually, where those funds come from is students' wallets," said Letchworth, who has spent time at the Legislature this spring lobbying against the bill. "We cannot continue to put more and more of the costs of higher education on the students. At some point, we will be pricing the students out of an education."

Both Buckley and Saunders agreed the proposal is confusing right now.

"There's kind of a skeletal structure, but the details have not been finalized," Saunders said. "There are a lot of unknowns."

One of those details is the financial impact statement, which Buckley said is "very rough" right now. Buckley said if the shared services stay as they are, the financial impact would be "very, very small." But if the big universities decide not to share services, he said, then "a financial burden will fall on the regional universities."

Yates, the SOU math professor, said that's one of the most frustrating aspects of the legislation.

"When we're making changes of this magnitude in higher education in the state of Oregon, the very least we should do is be honest about what it's going to cost," Yates said. "It feels like it's all being done behind the scenes, winking and nodding."

SOU representatives want the Legislature to table the bill until the short session in February, allowing for a more thorough understanding of its impacts.

"It's not been as consultative a process as we would like to see," Cullinan said. "They really did not do this in an organized way."

Vince Tweddell is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at