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Students question need for proposed SOU cuts

About 50 Southern Oregon University students who gathered Thursday to discuss President Mary Cullinan's announcement of "retrenchment" and $4 million in cuts said they are worried they might not be able to finish their majors.

"The university is in a pretty tough financial situation right now," SOU student government President Tommy Letchworth told the students. "Our university and administration, at this point, kind of have a gun put to their heads by the Oregon University System and the Legislature."

Cullinan said Tuesday during her State of the University address that retrenchment was necessary to shore up a $4 million shortfall in the current biennium and to keep SOU financially and academically viable.

Retrenchment would give the administration the authority to reduce, reconfigure or eliminate academic programs and faculty members as it sees fit without a breach of contract.

Public meetings in which SOU administrators will lay out a budget analysis before moving forward with retrenchment begin Monday.

Greg Pleva, chairman of the Computer Science Department and president of the Association of Professors faculty union, said though the cuts seemed inevitable, given SOU's prioritization process earlier this year, "there are a lot of people that are kind of surprised by the shortfall."

"Some feel that they've been misled a little bit ... the numbers that they were hearing about the shortfall were not as big as the ones that they are hearing now," Pleva said.

Cullinan said Tuesday that despite what administrators thought was "very conservative" budgeting, the shortfall emerged after two years of declining enrollment, disappointing student retention rates and a decade of divestment in higher education by the state.

Associate Provost Susan Walsh and Chief of Staff Liz Shelby met with the students during Thursday's forum. The students' primary concerns were which programs would be cut and whether they would be allowed to continue their current academic pursuits if their major was eliminated.

"We have an obligation to teach out any majors that have already been declared," Walsh told the students. Concerning whether any program would be cut, "I cannot tell you whether it is vulnerable or whether it is even under consideration," she said.

Andrew Mount, 44, an environmental science and business major at SOU, said he hopes the university will pursue public-private partnerships and research grant opportunities to generate and free up existing funding at SOU.

"Most of what I've been seeing up here doesn't seem to me like forward-thinking development," he said. "I think we need to avoid cut, cut, cut."

Former SOU student government Vice President Curtis Bartlett, 34, a junior economics major, said reducing the school's academic programs is nothing he wants to see.

"If we start to lose classes and increase class sizes, we're going to have a real problem," he said. "I was here during the last time we had our retrenchment process ... it would be a shame if we had to lose any more of our programs based simply on their popularity."

In 2006-2007, the first time SOU went through retrenchment, 24 academic programs and 22 faculty members were eliminated, according to information provided by the school.

In May, after a yearlong self-analysis, the university released its prioritization rankings for 185 academic programs and 160 support programs in five categories, from the highest 20 percent to the lowest 20 percent.

The quintiles were labeled as Enhance, Maintain and Possibly Enhance, Maintain, Review and Restructure.

The first category includes programs deemed a priority for investment. The fifth category lists programs for "restructuring, consolidating, or eliminating," according to the university's prioritization report (available at www.mailtribune.com).

"I think we have to honor this process that we have finished," Walsh said. "... We need to take those results and recommendations and do something with those."

The university is also in the midst of developing a request for proposals to outsource and eventually sell off its bookstore for an estimated $1 million, which could be put toward balancing its current deficit, Walsh said.

"A number of our academic programs that are in the fourth and fifth quintiles ... those are the ones that can be looked at for sun-setting," Pleva said.

Faculty Senate Chair David Carter, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, said, "It (retrenchment) is certainly not the end of world, and it's not the best-case scenario — it falls somewhere in between.

"Personally, I wasn't that surprised by the announcement ... something has to change. Us just generating programs without any regard for what it cost, those days are over. We need to be getting in tune with what the student population wants to see."

The university is asking the public to provide input surrounding the possibility of retrenchment. Comments can be submitted at http://stateoftheuniversity.sou.edu/ or by emailing them directly to declarecomments@sou.edu.

The first of three public forums concerning the retrenchment will be held from 3 to 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11, inside the Meese Room on the third floor of the Hannon Library. Others are scheduled for 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19, and 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, in the Meese Room.

In accordance with the bargaining agreement, Cullinan will accept public comments until Nov. 26, but the decision is ultimately hers.

Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at samuelcwheeler@gmail.com.

Students attend an open forum Thursday regarding Southern Oregon University’s announcement that $4 million must be cut from academic programs and other areas this year. - Julia Moore