My previous guest opinion last year laid out how the perennial fiscal crisis at Southern Oregon University is structural in nature. It is the result of a funding mechanism that is the wrong tool for the job because of the ephemeral nature of SOU's student body. They too often use SOU as a revolving door between community college and a degree at a flagship university.
It is no coincidence that SOU's recruitment and retention woes were compounded at the same time that RCC moved to Medford undercutting the entry of freshmen and compounding the preexisting condition of clever and thrifty upperclassmen transferring to the flagship universities for a more prestigious degree. According to American School Search (http://www.american-school-search.com/review/southern-oregon-university), SOU's retention rate is 69 percent, deemed close to the Oregon average, but nearly 20 percent of its students transfer to other colleges and its overall graduation rate is low at 31 percent. The idea that SOU is a university where freshmen enter and matriculate 4 years or so later is thus not based on reality.
In light of this it is not at all surprising then that the crisis has continued and has reached the inevitable stage of eating of the seed corn in the form of further personnel and program cuts. The final cohort of tenured faculty count the days to their retirement and the cheap-to-maintain part-timers come to teach, but rightly do virtually nothing else to advance the university in service or scholarship. As one who was an early casualty of the first round of cuts in 2006 and also has a literally global view on the issue, it is hard to watch a campus turn into an intellectual death camp.
The problem of recruitment and retention of talented students at SOU can be resolved by making good on the claim that it is Oregon's public liberal arts university. In the case of SOU, it would mean the last best rebranding to become The University of Oregon at Ashland.
In consulting with some in direct contact with the administrations of both universities, there is little interest in moving toward any kind of consolidation. Trusting in the beneficiaries of the system's status quo to respond affirmatively to this slow institutional disaster is like asking executives at Sears in 1990 about Amazon.com and expecting an intelligent reply. Sears, the Amazon.com of the previous century, forgot what its real business was, and so it is with those who are stuck in the paradigm of autonomous regional universities having any future.
A transformative strategy thus requires going both over and under their heads. State involvement, while generally not a good thing in higher education policy, must provide necessary leadership. Both the executive and legislative branches will have to intervene as a matter of public interest over provincial campus turf defense. This should be a priority for our local state legislative delegation.
Of equal importance is to work with SOU and U. of O. arts, humanities and social sciences faculty in dialogue to move the process forward. This dialogue should be premised on assurance that no program or faculty member would be involuntarily transferred to SOU or vice versa. What would be offered is a setting and lifestyle that should literally move them and possibly entire programs as well to a new preferred environment.
A third and utterly critical stakeholder to creating the University of Oregon at Ashland are, of course, the students. They must be informed, organized and mobilized to assert their interests in the future of their degrees. The cache of a U. of O. moniker on their parchment should be an easy sell, but they must be consulted and involved in the process.
Finally, there is the community itself that certainly includes the city of Ashland, but extends to the Rogue Valley and the entire Southern Oregon region that the campus serves. Their involvement in perpetuating a center of excellence in higher education is in everyone's interest, and their support must be beyond the rhetorical. It is why this appeal is going out directly to the public, who will at some point (and sooner than we think) be impacted adversely if we do nothing.
This is not to be taken as a nostalgic rant by one supposedly a generation removed from the virtual classroom that some see as the future of universities. The new quad may be the portable tablet device, but the university experience ultimately needs to be located in a place, and by place I don't mean a coffee shop or in a bedroom at home. Learning communities are not discussion boards. It is the authentic experience of higher education as much as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the authentic experience of performing arts. Thank God for our local economy that so many prefer it to Netflix. If the university experience was only about taking courses, then turn SOU into a corporate retreat center and be done with it. If you agree with that future for SOU then feel free to do nothing.
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.