Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan announced Tuesday that in order to achieve a financially and academically viable institution, the administration needs the authority to reduce, reconfigure or eliminate SOU's academic programs and faculty members as it sees fit.
Her announcement, made during her State of the University speech, is the initial step of a formal process known as "retrenchment" that grants SOU's administration the ability to cut ties from or reassign its faculty members without breaching contract.
The process is addressed in the collective bargaining agreement between the university and the Association of Professors faculty union.
Cullinan said the move is necessary after back-to-back years of declining enrollment, this year's disappointing student retention rates and shrinking state funds left the university $4 million in the red this biennium.
Official enrollment figures will not be released by the Oregon University System until mid-November.
Cullinan said the university must cut $4 million before the end of the biennium in 2015, or it will be out of compliance with the Oregon University System's policy that each university keep at least a 5 percent fund balance on hand at all times.
"We budgeted in a way that we thought was very conservative last year — but our numbers are clearly lower than we anticipated," she said in her speech, a copy of which was provided to the newspaper.
According to the bargaining agreement between SOU and its faculty, Cullinan can declare retrenchment if "the current or projected budget of the University has insufficient funds" to maintain all essential programs and services and fully finance employee contracts.
Cullinan described today's environment surrounding higher education in Oregon as "volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous." Between 1999 and 2011, Cullinan said, SOU's state funding allocation declined by about $13 million, not adjusting for inflation, while the university now serves about 800 more students than in 1999.
"To succeed, universities along with businesses, non-profits, and every sector of our economy, have had to reevaluate their strategic plans, their structures — every aspect of their organizations," she said.
In an interview before her speech, Cullinan said, "We have to keep SOU affordable. We can't pay for everything, and the state won't pay for everything by a long shot.
"I think it is deeply disappointing how Oregon has stepped away from higher education. The state is simply shifting the cost to the students. ... It not only disappoints me, it outrages me. They are saying to the student, 'this is your burden,'" she said. "We have to do everything we can to keep costs down for students. ... We have to go into retrenchment."
In accordance with the bargaining agreement, Cullinan will accept public comments until Nov. 26, but the decision is ultimately hers.
"This is a time for people to be reflective about SOU and its future," she said in the interview. "We have to combine cutting programs with retaining a higher amount of students and attracting new ones. ... It will be challenging."
When Cullinan announced the retrenchment during her speech, audible gasps came from an audience that packed the Rogue River Room inside the Stevenson Union building at SOU.
The university has been working through a comprehensive self-analysis over the last year, which it refers to as "prioritization," ranking its academic programs based on number of majors and graduates, finances, importance within the community, region, state and nation, among other qualities.
In May, the university released the rankings for each of the 185 academic programs and each of the 160 support programs in five categories, from the highest 20 percent to the lowest 20 percent.
From that data, it plans to begin reconfiguring, reducing and cutting programs, including the faculty members within each of them, Cullinan said.
In 2006-2007, the first time SOU went through retrenchment, 24 academic programs and 22 faculty members were eliminated, according to information provided by SOU.
"I think the entire campus is ready to see what the next step is going to be concerning both the prioritization process and other academic reorganization discussions," said Chris Stanek, director of institutional research at SOU and one of two chairmen of the prioritization process.
"We worked pretty diligently at making sure that the process was fair and equitable and we made data sets with all available info as best we could."
Before ranking programs, two prioritization teams of about 20 faculty and staff members analyzed about 350 program viability reports turned in by the coordinators and directors of each program and department at SOU, Stanek said.
Co-chair and SOU psychology professor Dan DeNeui said he is "confident the work that we did and process we used is about as tight as we can get it."
"You can't have the amount of time we spent and amount of resources we used to complete this and not act on it," DeNeui said. "And in a budget environment where you're facing a pretty severe shortfall, you have to free up some of the money to support these types of things."
Following Cullinan's speech, Larry Shrewsbury, SOU math professor for more than 20 years, said he thought entering retrenchment and acting on the prioritization data was necessary, and he saw it coming.
"I know some of the faculty's spirits are down, but I think it's something that has to be done. I am optimistic," he said. "Money is hemorrhaging away from us through some programs."
Another longtime SOU professor, who would only comment anonymously, said the prioritization process was not fair nor comprehensive.
"We're using the wrong model. ... They look at the university as if it were a private, profit-seeking corporation. ... We're not an office, we're not a factory," the professor said. "I absolutely despise this approach.
"We are a public university ... if the public doesn't want to support universities, then we will have an ignorant public."
Melody Rose, interim chancellor of the Oregon University System, the governing body of Oregon's seven public universities, said no school wants to find itself in SOU's shoes, adding retrenchment is the right move and should create a "leaner, more tightly focused university."
"I think this is good leadership from the campus. I think it will yield very positive results for Southern Oregon and the students at the campus," Rose said. "It's a very positive thing for any university community to engage in."
Two additional public comment periods will take place before the retrenchment plan is finalized, Cullinan said, and SOU is creating a webpage through its website to host information about the process and receive comments.
"Whatever we do, we must ensure that our students are held harmless to the greatest extent possible," Cullinan said in her speech. "We're all stressed, and we're all stretched, but I'm confident that this process will actually reduce some of that stress. We'll feel better as we identify clearly the paths we need to take."
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.