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Retrenchment proposal cuts SOU programs, staff

Southern Oregon University may scrap its physics department and eliminate its art history, international studies and fine arts majors, among other cuts, President Mary Cullinan announced Thursday.

The proposed cuts, which include about a dozen majors, a dozen minors and a handful of certificates and concentrations, are part of the university's retrenchment plan.

"I wish it didn't have to happen," Cullinan said. "It's very sad."

Cullinan said the plan is only a proposal and will be subject to a 20-university-day feedback period, allowing staff to suggest alternative cuts.

Five full-time professors would be cut and two vacant positions left unfilled in the first year of the plan, and another 5.5 professor positions would be eliminated the following year.

Students with declared majors and minors in the programs slated for elimination would be grandfathered in, but in some cases they might be forced to take classes online or through independent study, Cullinan said.

Cullinan announced in December that SOU administration would enter retrenchment, a process that allows the school to cut programs and faculty without breaching the faculty union contract.

The Oregon University System allows retrenchment when it's necessary to achieve a financially stable university.

SOU needs to make between $3.3 million and $5 million in cuts over the next three years, Cullinan said.

"If they make too many big cuts, they're going to lose potential students," said Katherine Pruyn, a senior majoring in theater, after hearing about the proposal Thursday.

Pruyn said she's noticed numerous academic cuts since she was a freshman, including a decline in the number of guest professors and class offerings in her department.

She thinks a better tactic for the administration to save money would be to curb the colorful banners and art pieces that decorate the campus, reduce funding for sports, and consider renovating existing dorms instead of building new ones.

"We could put that money toward a professor's salary or saving a program," said Pruyn.

The proposed cuts include majors and minors with the fewest number of students, and those that faculty previously ranked as being of lower priority or in need of review and restructuring.

The plan includes the elimination of nine majors and three co-majors, including virtually the entire physics department, and 12 minors, including French, musical theater, professional writing, photography, German and land-use planning.

"We're still digesting it," said professor Jim Ribble, a systems and science librarian and president of SOU's faculty union.

Ribble said he had only a couple of hours to look over the retrenchment plan Thursday and wasn't prepared to discuss the specifics of the proposal.

He said the union would meet today to discuss it.

"We're going to be talking about this a lot," he said.

Cutting adjunct professors and increasing class sizes from an average of 17 to 21-22 per class will also happen, Cullinan said, but are not part of the retrenchment process.

Cullinan sent an announcement to faculty Thursday about the proposed cuts, and she said she believes staff will quickly figure out, based on seniority, which of their colleagues are likely to be on the chopping block.

"People are going to figure it out," said Cullinan. "I think they already have, frankly."

If enrollment continues to decline and the state's allocation to SOU declines as well, Cullinan said, retrenchment could become more severe, and in a worst-case scenario the number of faculty and adjunct staff let go could triple.

Cullinan said she was forced by the Oregon University System to create a hypothetical "very worst case" scenario in which cuts were more dramatic.

She said that while SOU had to plan for a worst-case scenario, she believes it is unlikely to be implemented.

Senior Matt Libant said he was aware of the cuts because of emails sent by the student government, but he was still surprised to hear which programs were chosen, including the physics department.

"Physics — I thought that was more popular," said Libant. "This is pretty crazy."

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.