Southern Oregon University's administration will start cutting faculty and programs next year under a process known as retrenchment, President Mary Cullinan announced Thursday.
Retrenchment gives the administration the ability to cut staff without breaching its contract with the faculty union under Oregon University System rules.
"Losing valued colleagues will be a very hard process," Cullinan said to about 160 people packed into SOU's Meese Auditorium.
She said SOU will trim $3 million to $5 million over the next three years. If the university does not cut about $4 million before the end of the biennium in 2015, Cullinan said, it will be out of compliance with OUS's policy that each university keep at least a 5 percent fund balance on hand at all times.
"All our very conservative assumptions and the recommendation of the Budget Committee leads me to declare that we do, indeed, have a condition requiring reduction or elimination of academic programs," Cullinan said.
"This is the best option for SOU. It's the only way we can sustain and advance our university, to serve students and our mission. ... Cutting some programs is a necessary process, we have seen data through a number of lenses. We know that we need resources to support and enhance programs that students are asking for."
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.
"People whose programs face reduction or elimination will know well in advance and have preparation time," Cullinan said. "... Program elimination and reduction is in no way a reflection on dedicated people teaching in these programs."
Many of those who attended the campus forum were faculty and staff members at SOU.
Although students who are currently signed up for a major at SOU will be able to finish their degrees regardless of whether their program is cut, Cullinan said, it is still unclear whether their courses will be taught at SOU, online or at nearby Rogue Community College, who would teach them and how long those students would have to complete their degrees.
"You keep repeating what we're going through is not a crisis, but this feels like a crisis to me," said Carol Ferguson, a biology professor at SOU who teaches 11 courses. "It feels very much like a crisis."
Cullinan acknowledged that it is understandable many faculty members may be experiencing a "personal crisis" as the university goes through the painful process of making cuts.
"While the word 'retrenchment' sounds severe ... it is not a crisis," she said. "It is a positive response to forestall a crisis. This university is going to be here for another 140 years."
Erik Palmer, assistant professor of convergent media at SOU, expressed his disappointment in the Oregon Legislature for setting goals such as the 2011-passed "40-40-20" initiative.
This goal states that by the year 2025, 40 percent of adult Oregonians will hold at least a bachelor's degree, 40 percent will hold an associate degree or postsecondary certificate, and the remaining 20 percent will hold a high school diploma or equivalent.
"In order to make this achievable, it seems like they need to be giving us more money," said Palmer, who teaches four courses at SOU.
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 it did in 1999.
"The thing that has exposed us to these kinds of financial adversities is really the statewide divestment in higher education over the past few decades," said Tommy Letchworth, SOU student government president. "Until we as the citizens of Oregon stand up and tell our legislators that enough is enough and that public, higher education and public education as a whole is important enough to us that it deserves to be funded, that it deserves to be supported at a sustainable level, they will not support us.
"It takes all of us as citizens, as faculty, as students, as administrators to stand up and make our voices heard, because the squeaky wheel is the one that gets the oil, and if we remain complacent and inactive we will continue to be stepped on. If we don't ... this will happen again and we will need to enter into retrenchment again."
The audience broke into applause after Letchworth stepped away from the microphone.
The university has been working through a comprehensive self-analysis known as "prioritization" over the last year, ranking its academic programs based on number of majors and graduates, finances, and importance within the community, region, state and nation, among other qualities.
In May, the university released its prioritization rankings for 185 academic programs and 160 support programs in five categories, from the highest 20 percent to the lowest 20 percent.
The rankings ranged from those programs deemed a priority for investment to those bound for "restructuring, consolidating or eliminating," according to the university's prioritization report.
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.
"We can't be all things to all people .. we've got to prioritize. We have to decide what we're really going to focus on," Cullinan said. "The state has stepped away and we have to make choices. ... We can't do across-the-board cuts. I'm not going to get up here and say 'all right everybody, it's 10 percent for everybody'... that's not the way to do it."
In the collective bargaining agreement between the university and its Association of Professors union, Cullinan's announcement sets off a comment period allowing input on retrenchment plans that ends Jan. 16. Comments may be made at http://stateoftheuniversity.sou.edu/.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MTwriter_swhlr.