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MailTribune.com
  • SOU's leaders must decide what they want it to be

  • Several years ago I served as an evaluator on the Northwest Accreditation Team for Eagle Point High School. At the exit interview I introduced myself as a professor from the University of Ashland.
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  • Several years ago I served as an evaluator on the Northwest Accreditation Team for Eagle Point High School. At the exit interview I introduced myself as a professor from the University of Ashland.
    The audience laughed appropriately and then I explained that Eagle Point High School has done something Southern Oregon University has not yet learned. Eagle Point High School is the high school of Eagle Point but SOU is not yet the university of Southern Oregon. This is also why the SOU faculty is uncharitably characterized as the "Monks of Lithia Park."
    The catastrophic meltdown SOU is now facing is a clear failure of leadership — not just from the current administration but from previous ones, as well. The critical mistake of SOU's contemporary leaders has been an inability to distinguish what they want SOU to be versus what it is in the face of an unsustainable funding model.
    SOU is a regional university whose mission grew out of a need to educate teachers and provide the local community with business, social service, environmental professionals, and a few actors and musicians. The liberal arts has always been a valued component of SOU, but not significant enough to fund or save the university.
    Herein lies the considerable risk SOU leaders are taking. SOU is in danger of eating its seed corn; that is, those students who are the reason for SOU's existence. While it is nice to lust after out-of-state students and think of SOU as a destination university, the purpose and core of the university is to serve the more than 60 percent of SOU's students who live within 50 miles. Many of these students are first-generation college attenders and, not surprisingly, come from places like Eagle Point High School.
    This is where previous and current leaders have sadly misunderstood the purpose of a university for Southern Oregon. Having a local board may help correct this misconception, but only if the board understands what SOU is, rather than what misguided leaders want it to be. SOU's programs, research, fund-raising, recruitment, athletics should be focused on what a university for Southern Oregon should be. Unfortunately, local education and research at SOU has been on the periphery rather than at the forefront.
    A university for Southern Oregon should have a sufficient number of academic programs and research centers focused on regional issues: rural women and children in poverty, children's health care, multicultural education, regional business development and recreation. SOU would even be better served as X-Games University rather than chasing unrealistic dreams of SOU's place in the food chain of universities.
    If SOU continues as the University of Ashland, its future is in great jeopardy. Given the recent vote of "no confidence" in the current leadership, a cease-and-desist order seems warranted. This was not a vote of petulant monks, but faculty who are community members themselves, who are deeply committed to the university that is disintegrating around them.
    The risk is too great to leave the future of the university in the hands of the current leadership or to wait for a savior board to appear on the horizon. This is our university for Southern Oregon and its fate should not be left to the whims of transitory administrators focused on their next position.
    We are the ones left behind in the wake of this cultural upheaval and must salvage what we can of our university. I urge community leaders and legislators to intercede and join faculty and staff in determining what a university for Southern Oregon should be before the seed corn is all gone — or devoured by OSU.
    Ken Kempner, PhD, is professor emeritus and former dean of social sciences, education, and health and PE at SOU. He was previously a faculty member at the University of Oregon and Portland State. His area of research is international development, and he has just returned from a visit to Vietnam National University, where he was invited to lecture on the future of universities.
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