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SOU president stays upbeat on uncertain future

More jobs may be lost at Southern Oregon University, but President Mary Cullinan says school officials won't know the size of the budget reductions until early October.

Following a Friday meeting in Portland of the board of the Oregon University System, Cullinan held a Monday news conference and expressed confidence that, despite an overall 5.4 percent tuition hike announced Friday, the university would continue to see enrollment increases. She predicted that because of the school's intense recruitment and retention efforts, as well as its financial support and emphasis on diversity, enrollment would be up 2 percent in the fall.

While the Oregon Legislature finished its budgeting work and adjourned in late June, the state's schools still do not know precisely how much they will receive. SOU's budget status is further complicated because it must finish salary negotiations with the unions for faculty and staff.

Then there is the general uncertainty of the economy and its effects on families' education budgets.

"We don't know what the economic climate is going to be in September and how that will affect enrollment," said Cullinan. "We've got more variables than certainties. No one has a crystal ball but there was a sense (at the state board) that it's not going to get better till after the '09-10 school year."

Annual tuition and fees this fall for resident undergraduates at SOU with 15 credits will increase 9.3 percent, costing $6,252 compared with $5,718 last year. That remains the lowest of the seven OUS schools.

"With all my heart, I wish we didn't have to increase tuition," said Cullinan. "I believe in affordable, accessible higher education, but it's still a pretty good deal for students. The disinvestments by states in higher education is happening nationally and this isn't too bad compared to what's happening."

Cullinan, whose contract was renewed for the maximum three-year period at the board meeting, said school administrators "are doing everything in our power to maintain financial support for the students."

"I hope we can weather this storm so it's as little visible to students as possible," she said.

Officials have already closed the campus on Fridays this summer to cut costs and announced last month they will trim costs by giving unpaid furlough days to some staff and faculty.

SOU administrators are modeling scenarios for reductions of 15 to 20 percent, "even up to 30 percent," in state funding compared with a year earlier, said Cullinan.

"There could be cuts," she said. "We don't know. We're waiting for many shoes to drop and creating plans as best we can.

"Service, supplies and travel will be at their lowest level ever. A computer lab may be closed. We try to do those steps before laying off people."

The higher education budget will benefit from the Friday veto by Gov. Ted Kulongoski of the Legislature's reduction in the Oregon Opportunity Grant program by $13.4 million. The funds also were reduced last spring, triggering SOU to make up the difference with its own sources.

The grants go to low-income students, including many on Pell grants and the governor said he would find the money for it from a just-passed tax amnesty bill.

Cullinan said the veto will bring "significant" funds back into the university system and was much needed to provide accessibility for less affluent students. Tuition increases would have been more than a full percentage point higher at SOU without the veto, according to a university system news release.

Cullinan said many SOU students are "price sensitive" and administrators know the tuition hike will cause hardships in some families.

E-mail John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

SOU president stays upbeat on uncertain future