Legislators in Salem have told Oregon's four regional university presidents that budget concerns could force their campuses to be merged into the University of Oregon.

Legislators in Salem have told Oregon's four regional university presidents that budget concerns could force their campuses to be merged into the University of Oregon.

Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan went to Salem Monday to testify against such a proposal. Cullinan said the regional universities in Ashland, Monmouth, La Grande and Klamath Falls each have their own character. She said combining administrative and other services would cost the state much more in the long run.

The presidents of Western Oregon University, Eastern Oregon University and Oregon Institute of Technology joined Cullinan in opposing the proposal.

Senate Bill 442 calls for a study on the benefits and drawbacks of consolidating the state's regional universities, in a process similar to an analysis already completed by the Oregon University System in July.

Jay Kenton, vice chancellor for finance and administration for OUS, said that report concluded that consolidation would be impractical, citing each university's specific culture and resistance from local governments and employee unions.

Cullinan described SOU's personalized undergraduate approach to the liberal arts, which allows students more access to programs such as theater than they would have if they were competing with graduate students.

Cullinan told legislators that SOU worked through a $4 million budget shortfall two years ago and has forged a partnership with Rogue Community College in Medford. Enrollments are up at both schools, and they are serving the region in a way that larger schools cannot.

"I certainly at first blush don't think that's the most effective way to go," she said of consolidation. "I do feel that one thing that we've done is create this tremendous partnership between Ashland and Medford with our community college, and for me, that serves the region in a way that partnering with U of O would not."

The other university presidents noted the wide range of students their campuses attract. Eastern Oregon University serves primarily rural students, Oregon Institute of Technology provides specialized technical education, and Western Oregon University emphasizes rigorous academics to compete with two large universities and several private colleges that are all less than an hour's drive from Monmouth.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and General Government, said looming deficits may ultimately force major changes in the higher-education system.

"I'm not sure with a $3 billion deficit coming up in a few months that we can afford to tolerate those kinds of difficult circumstances, because it's going to be difficult in every corner of this state," Hass said. "I don't think it's a matter of if there will be consolidation. It's a matter of how thoughtful we can approach this."

Kenton, of the OUS, said the university system has implemented some cost-saving measures, such as combining enrollment services. It is also considering converting from a quarterly calendar to a semester system and using a common application across all universities, but more drastic changes would be detrimental in the future.

Some students at SOU who oppose consolidation have said they plan to travel to Salem Thursday to lobby against the proposal, said Kelli Horvath, student government president.

Horvath, a senior, said she considered the University of Oregon when applying for college, but didn't bother to apply at the U of O after she realized she preferred smaller schools.

"I just knew that I didn't want to go to a larger school," she said. "I have a few friends at U of O who are transferring down to Southern next term because they are so tired of the huge classes and really want that one-on-one attention that we get here."

Julie French is a reporer for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.