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SOU president discusses cuts at final fiscal realignment town hall

Jane Vaughan
About 70 people attended Thursday's town hall, the last in a series meant to help address the university's financial situation.

Southern Oregon University is facing a nearly $5 million shortfall next academic year, which is forecasted to increase to $14.6 million in the 2026-27 school year.

At Thursday's final town hall, attendees pushed back on some of the cuts that are proposed in the university’s plan.

The theater department has a proposed reduction of 6.25 full-time employees through employees retiring, eliminating vacant positions and firing at least two staff.

At the town hall, theater administrative program assistant Helen Eckard said students have cried in her office about the cuts, and the department has struggled.

"With all the chaos in our program, there’s not one day where I have wanted to come to work since this all came down," Eckard said emotionally. "The communication within our collaborative, supposedly collaborative, art has been appallingly bad. And I think every day about just giving my notice and leaving now. Because, what’s it worth, it’s not worth it."

The university’s fiscal realignment plan, which was released last week, proposes cutting the equivalent of nearly 82 full-time positions, or about 13% of SOU’s workforce. About 59 of those cuts will be achieved through leaving current vacancies unfilled, retirements, voluntary departures and non-renewable contracts. The equivalent of 23 faculty and staff will be fired, although the specifics have not been released.

“The urgency with which we crafted this plan was driven by the diverging curves between revenues and costs and a desire to take the time needed to act with compassion for those whose positions are impacted by the recommendation,” the plan reads.

Jane Vaughan
SOU President Rick Bailey answers questions at a town hall on March 9, 2023.

One of the programs proposed to be cut is the Master’s in Environmental Education. Ryan King, an alumnus of the program, said at the town hall that it fills a unique need in Southern Oregon, and he encouraged the university to reimagine it rather than discontinue the program.

"I think the void created by its continuation will be big, but I think the reimagination created could be enormous," he said.

The Oregon Center for the Arts at SOU also faces a cut of 6.25 employees. The Education, Leadership, Health, and Humanities division could lose 6.37 full-time employees, while Enrollment Management and Student Support could lose 6.45. The line item with the largest potential cut is Finance and Administration, with a proposed loss of 23.15 full-time employees in departments such as facilities, human resources and information technology.

SOU President Rick Bailey, who began his role in Jan. 2022, has stressed that cost management is only one of four “planks” in the university’s plan to improve its financial position. The other three include an emphasis on grants, philanthropy and diversifying revenue.

Proposed options for revenue diversification include producing all of the university’s daytime electricity using solar power on campus and replacing the Cascade Housing Complex with a senior living community.

Other aspects of the plan include converting the cheer/dance and cycling teams from varsity back to club sports, shrinking the number of academic divisions from seven down to four and the Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Neil Woolf departing.

At the meeting Bailey stressed the longevity of the university, saying, "We are not going to allow this institution to be one that down the road they talk about as having 150 great years, and then that was it. We're not gonna let that happen. So it means we have to make these impossible decisions."

The realignment plan will be presented to the university’s Board of Trustees on March 17, and the Board will take action on it on April 21.

Jane Vaughan began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media. Jane recently earned her Master's in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.