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Self-governing plan for SOU is endorsed, but 'with conditions'

The Oregon Board of Higher Education Friday voted to "endorse with conditions" the formation of a self-governing board at Southern Oregon University.

The board asked SOU to focus on stabilizing its budget through retrenchment before moving forward with independent governance, according to an Oregon University System spokeswoman.

A similar endorsement-with-conditions was given to Eastern Oregon University, which also is going through financial straits. Full endorsements to move forward with self-governance were given to the Oregon Institute of Technology and Western Oregon University.

SOU will prepare to roll out its self-governing board on pace with WOU and OIT, said university President Mary Cullinan.

"We're going to proceed. We are already working on the issues about bylaws and policy changes," she said. "We can't wait another month. We're going to move ahead with the understanding that we will be negotiating reasonable conditions."

Cullinan said SOU's financial state is one of a "wide range" of conditions that will be discussed over a 45-day negotiating period between her and the OBHE, but would not elaborate on what else is on the table for discussion.

Cullinan and the OBHE are required to prepare and submit a recommendation on SOU's future governance to Gov. John Kitzhaber for approval within 45 days.

Each of the Oregon University System's four regional institutions put forth proposals to move out from under the governance of the OBHE during its March 31 special meeting, OUS records show.

"Basically, because Southern is in retrenchment and Eastern is going through a similar process, it (OBHE) was wanting some stability in the finances from them, and that lack of balance is why 'with conditions' was attached ... that was really the difference," said Di Saunders, OUS communications director. "It was really wanting them (SOU) to be able to have a chance to continue with the retrenchment process."

Saunders described SOU's retrenchment plan as an "excellent" one to achieve financial stability.

Cullinan said she is confident SOU's current retrenchment plan will result in financial balance at the university and contribute to an endorsement from the OBHE.

The regional institutions' move away from the state board's governance authority is made possible through the Oregon Legislature's passage of House Bill 4018-B and Senate Bill 207.

Lawmakers passed the House bill during the 2014 session, changing the date by which the four regional public institutions could request OBHE endorsement of self-governing institutional boards. Senate Bill 207 was passed in 2013 to establish governing boards at the University of Oregon and Portland State University and a means for Oregon State University to form a board if it so chose. The Senate bill was amended the same year to allow the four regional institutions a path to self-governance as well.

UO, OSU and PSU voted last year to establish institutional boards, which take effect July 1 of this year.

Each university board will seat between 11 and 15 members — including an enrolled student, faculty member and non-faculty staff member — who will be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Oregon Senate.

University boards also can include out-of-state residents, school alumni and community and business leaders, Sauders said. Each university president will be a non-voting board member, and the governor will have the authority to dismiss any member, excluding the university president, at any time, but can dismiss no more than three in a four-year period unless for corrupt conduct.

The term length of each member, excluding the university president, students, faculty and non-faculty staff, is four years, and each member can serve no more than two consecutive full terms.

The term length of students, faculty and non-faculty staff is two years.

Cullinan said university presidents will have the ability to submit to the governor a list of individuals the university would like to see on the board, and the selection of members will be a "consultative process."

The boards of each university are required to meet at least once quarterly.

WOU's and OIT's institutional boards will take effect July 1, 2015, with the SOU and EOU boards taking effect on a date to be determined over the next 45 days, Saunders said.

Cullinan said she fully expects SOU to be prepared and formally endorsed for self-governance by July 1, 2015.

Cullinan said the OBHE also is considering supporting a Presidents' Council, which would be made up of the seven public university presidents and each school's chancellor. The nongoverning board would meet once a year to promote a collaborative relationship between Oregon's public universities, she said.

If all goes according to law laid out in SB 207 and HB 4018-B, the OBHE will sunset on June 30, 2014, handing over the majority of its power to the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Answering primarily to the governor, the commission will provide oversight for the institutional boards and develop budget recommendations and allocate funds to community colleges and public universities, among other responsibilities.

The overhaul of higher education in Oregon provides an exciting opportunity for SOU, Cullinan said.

"We have an incredibly capable, well-educated, thoughtful citizenry in Southern Oregon. ... There is a tremendous amount of excitement about this opportunity for SOU," she said. "I think it's a really wonderful opportunity for the university to have this on-the-ground governance."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.