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Retrenchment brings tough but necessary choices for SOU

As a business owner in the valley, I'm frequently asked, "What makes this region a good place to live and work?"

My answer has a lot in common with what makes any community successful: hard-working people, a diverse mix of companies and jobs, a beautiful environment and quality education opportunities. In fact, the last element is probably the most important. Oregon's top economists agree, concluding that the fastest, most effective way to increase the state's economic stability is higher education.

As a community, we are fortunate to have a high quality institution, Southern Oregon University, in place to educate our local population, as well as to attract bright, motivated students (and potential future employees) from around the country. SOU graduates provide talent that helps make this a great area to live and work. SOU is also important to the reputation of our region, as well as offering important cultural assets in many areas: sports, music, theater, continuing education, public radio and the visual arts.

Right now SOU is going through cost cutting, similar to the process most business owners in the valley undertook as the recession took its toll. In fact, to survive in economically remote areas such as Southern Oregon, most businesses here must constantly look at ways to cut expenses and maximize productivity. The academic term "retrenchment" is what business calls this necessary, though typically unpleasant, process.

In higher education, enrollment actually goes up during a recession as the unemployed return to school to skill up while the market is down. As the market once again turns and students choose employment rather than higher education, SOU's enrollment and hence revenues have fallen, forcing academic program cuts that unfortunately must come with layoff notices for some faculty members.

This immediate challenge simply adds to the pressures of greatly reduced state funding over many years, combined with rising personnel costs. All point to SOU's need to "retrench." It's a step the campus must take to align costs with resources. As good stewards of state resources — and students' tuition dollars — SOU must ensure that funding is available to invest in degree programs most important to students, employers, and the state. Students in our region simply can no longer be expected to take up the slack in the form of higher tuition.

As a community, SOU needs our support as it reduces low-enrollment and low-demand programs. Nobody denies the value and importance of these programs to the students enrolled in them and the faculty teaching them. However, there simply aren't the financial resources available to provide them without threatening the viability of the entire university. Moreover, students already in affected programs will be able to complete their degrees, and faculty will be provided with a much longer notice period than I have ever seen in the private sector.

I urge the SOU community to be decisive, and to make the difficult decisions that will enable the university to thrive in the future. As a business community, we feel your pain, but we also know that, without some pain, you cannot make the gains so necessary in the new environment for public higher education. Let's support the university as it gets its financial house in order.

Dan Thorndike is president of the SOU Foundation board and an owner of Medford Fabrication.