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Retrenchment Means Upheaval at Southern Oregon University

Liam Moriarty/JPR

“Retrenchment” isn’t a word you normally hear in everyday conversation. But it has a very specific meaning in the context of Oregon’s state universities. And if a proposed retrenchment plan is adopted at Southern Oregon University, it’ll mean fewer programs – and fewer teachers.

Recently, on the campus of Southern Oregon University in Ashland, a small group of mourners, dressed in black and carrying a plywood coffin, approached the steps of the administration building. Standing near a banner declaring “We mourn the programs lost to retrenchment,” student Jamie Thoma made a solemn announcement …

Jamie Thoma: “Here is a list of those terminated. Let us remember them … Art History Major … Art BFA … Business/Chemistry co-major …” (fade under)  

After tolling the list of the “deceased,” Thoma and other “mourners” hoisted the coffin on their shoulders and the mock funeral proceeded around campus. Thoma said the proposed program cuts would impact him directly.

Jamie Thoma: “I’m an art history major and a creative writing major and a French minor, all of which are proposed to be cut in this retrenchment.”

Which has him looking at his options.

Jamie Thoma: “It’s made me realize the institution doesn’t support what I want to study. And honestly it means that I’m considering transferring to a different institution that will support what I want to study.”

SOU President Mary Cullinan triggered anxiety all across the campus last November when she announced the start of the retrenchment process. Cullinan said declining state support and sagging student enrollment made it necessary for the university to fall back and regroup.

Cullinan says that over the past two decades, the state has dramatically stepped away from funding for higher education.

Mary Cullinan: “We get millions of dollars less than we did only a few years ago. And we have a thousand students more than we had a few years ago.”

Cullinan says previous rounds of belt-tightening leave SOU with no choice but to cut programs and faculty. Under the terms of the faculty’s union contract, that kind of academic restructuring can only be done once “retrenchment” is declared. After making the declaration last fall, the administration developed a draft plan that recommends dropping programs that attract few students.

Cullinan says most SOU students graduate in one of only five majors.

Mary Cullinan: “And so you have these really large programs. And then you have these really tiny programs that are graduating one or two people a year. And truly, to be good stewards of the students’ money we have to be able to put our resources into the big programs.”

Under the retrenchment proposal, majors in physics, art history, international studies and more would be eliminated, as well as more than a dozen minors and other programs. Over three years, as many as 45 full-time faculty positions could be cut.

Not surprisingly, students, community members and especially faculty are alarmed at the proposal.

David Carter: “They’ve certainly expressed they’re not happy about the situation.”

Professor David Carter is chair of the Faculty Senate at SOU. He says his colleagues are concerned for more than just their own jobs.

David Carter: “And I hear that from other faculty as well saying, we definitely want to save this department because of the value that it adds to a liberal arts education.”

That concern led the Faculty Senate to vote recently to authorize a vote of no confidence in President Mary Cullinan and two other top SOU leaders. Carter stresses that the move is not meant as retaliation for the retrenchment plan. But, he says …

David Carter: “There have been quite a few faculty members who have expressed concern for quite a while about the continual state of affairs that we are in at the university.”

A “no-confidence” vote by the faculty would have no legal effect; Cullinan and other top university officials aren’t subject to faculty recall. But Carter notes that in the several dozen cases he’s aware of where similar votes were taken at other American universities and colleges, more than half the time a no-confidence vote resulted in a leadership change.

While SOU is the only public university in Oregon that’s in retrenchment, similar budget strains are making themselves felt around the state. Diane Saunders, with the Oregon University System, says these crises can be traced to a dramatic shift in government support for higher education.

Diane Saunders: “Twenty years ago, the state covered more than 70 percent of the cost of educating a student within the Oregon University System. Now, the student pays more than 70 and the state is the one paying a much lower percentage of those costs.”

Saunders says the state put $755 million into the system in 1999. Now, 15 years later, the funding is at the same level, but with 34,000 more students in the state’s public universities. Saunders says that trend got a big boost from two events in the 1990s.  

The first was when the state took on major funding responsibilities for local public schools. Previously, local property taxes shouldered most of the costs of kindergarten through high school.

Then in 1994, voters passed the Measure 11 mandatory sentencing law, which caused prison costs to skyrocket.

Diane Saunders:” And that’s when we saw funding for higher education being less and less available and really having to compete with some very important other funding priorities for the state.”

Saunders says there’s reason for optimism; the legislature is increasing funding for Oregon’s state universities, and the painful rounds of belt-tightening are making the system more efficient.

But at SOU -- where the conversation is about which degrees will no longer be available and which faculty members will no longer have jobs – a lot of people are having a hard time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.


Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.