Southern Oregon University's financial difficulties are not insurmountable, although the remedy will not be pleasant. They also are not entirely of the university's own making. Still, SOU's administrators and faculty should use the reorganization process now beginning to go beyond just balancing the budget for the short term.
As President Mary Cullinan has explained, the numbers are clear. Enrollment declines for two straight years coupled with declining support in the state budget have left SOU $4 million in the red for the two-year budget period ending in 2015. The university must make up that shortfall and restore its fund balance to 5 percent to be in compliance with state requirements.
To be fair, SOU's enrollment remains well above what it was during the 2000s, but the trend is moving in the wrong direction. At the same time, dwindling state support for higher education has placed an ever greater burden on students as tuition has climbed to replace the loss of state dollars.
The state university system as a whole saw a strong increase in enrollment during the recession, as students who couldn't find jobs returned to school to enhance their employability. Now that the economy is slowly recovering, more students are leaving to re-enter the workforce.
Although fall enrollment has declined for two straight years, that coincided with the two largest graduating classes in SOU history. Nevertheless, SOU has posted the largest percentage enrollment decline of any of the state's seven campuses from last fall to this fall.
In response to the dsappointing trends, Cullinan has announced the university will begin "retrenchment," a formal process that allows the president to reduce or eliminate academic programs and faculty without violating the university's contract with its faculty union. The process provides for a great deal of participation by the university community to determine what programs will be affected and how, but the final decision is Cullinan's.
From its beginnings as a college to train schoolteachers, SOU has evolved over the decades into a regional liberal arts university situated in a largely rural area that attempts to compete for students with bigger, more urban campuses. Given the rising cost — tuition has doubled since 1999 — prospective students and their parents may well be questioning the value of a liberal arts degree from a less prestigious school and looking elsewhere.
Under the circumstances, Cullinan's decision to begin the retrenchment process appears to be a sound one. But the university — students, faculty and administrators — should look beyond the cuts that need to be made in the short term and decide what kind of university SOU is and what kind it needs to be for the long term.