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SOU under state scrutiny as governing board forms

The Oregon State Board of Higher Education will closely monitor the financial stability of Southern Oregon University as the school forms a self-governing board.

SOU will be expected to strengthen the school's mission, remain competitive and set long- term goals in order for the board to remain in place, according to a set of conditions outlined by the OSBHE last week. SOU's governing board will assume authority on July 1, 2015.

"The idea is that as we move forward, we are showing faculty progress," President Mary Cullinan told members of the Faculty Senate.

Within 18 months of forming SOU's institutional board, the university will be assessed three times on its progress towards financial stability, including the amount of money in reserves, enrollment analysis and the institution's debt burden ratio.

"This is a huge change for higher education in Oregon," said Di Saunders, communication director for the Oregon University System. "But the board (of higher education) has confidence that it can be done."

In April, the state board voted to "endorse with conditions" self-governing boards at SOU and Eastern Oregon University, both of which are facing financial difficulty.

"It's really an accountability piece," said Saunders. "We needed to put some conditions on them."

Oregon's two other public regional and technical institutions, Western Oregon University and the Oregon Institute of Technology, as well as Oregon State University, Portland State University and the University of Oregon received endorsements for intuitional boards without conditions.

All are currently operating under the authority of the state higher education board, with the latter three universities rolling out their governing boards on July 1 of this year and the four smaller institutions on July 1, 2015.

Saunders said that the OSBHE was under a time constraint to make its decision on whether to allow institutional governing boards and while they did endorse the boards, extra conditions were imposed on SOU and EOU, both of which are undergoing cutbacks.

The board asked SOU in April to focus on stabilizing its budget through an in-progress retrenchment plan before moving forward with the institutional board.

SOU won't begin governing its own campus until next July, but the first phase of the conditions process begin immediately, according to Saunders.

The state board and the chancellor's office will begin working with SOU administration and soon-to-be appointed board trustees to start the university on a pathway to meeting each condition.

Final board trustee appointments will be made by Gov. John Kitzhaber and confirmed by the Oregon Senate, likely sometime later this year, Saunders said.

Boards will be made up of 11 to 15 members, including a student, faculty member and non-faculty staff member from the university. Other members can be community members, business leaders or people from out of the area with a connection to SOU.

"It should be someone that can help the institution with a particular expertise," said Saunders. "And you really want a diverse group of people."

The Faculty Senate voted last week to begin an election process to identify which three faculty members they would recommend for consideration for the faculty position on the board.

Next June, the university will have an initial review, followed by a review in December 2015 and again by the end of 2017.

The university will be assessed on whether it is progressing towards financial stability, contributing towards the 40-40-20 state graduation goals and making other progress.

By 2017, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which is assuming most of the duties of the OSBHE, will decide whether the conditions have been met and can be discontinued.

At any point during the process, the HECC has the authority to recommend that the governor alter SOU's governance model if it appears that the university is failing to make progress towards plans or is no longer fiscally viable.

"If we don't meet the conditions, we don't know what would happen," said Cullinan. "It would be a major thing for (the governor) to take away our board when we just got it started."

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