Expressed concerns at final town hall before plan goes to Board of Trustees on Friday
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Helen Eckard, who teaches the Visiting High Schools Shakespeare program at Southern Oregon University, tried hard to rein in her emotions as she expressed her concerns to SOU President Rick Bailey last Thursday during the last town hall before he delivers his budget plan to the SOU Board of Trustees on Friday, March 17.
The Shakespeare workshop program is set to be eliminated as part of budget cutting to fix a multimillion structural budget deficit. It’s just one of many is one of many parts of the university that will be affected in whole or in part.
Bailey’s 41-page realignment plan will cut the equivalent of nearly 83 full-time positions, or 13% of SOU’s workforce. About two dozen of the cuts will result in current employees losing their jobs. The realignment cuts are expected to reduce costs by $3.6 million this year, and yield $9 million in recurring cost reductions.
The cuts will impact three employee groups: faculty (27 positions cut), classified (30), and unclassified (almost 25 positions).
Going with a status quo budget would mean the university would have significant deficits in each of the coming four fiscal years, the plan says, climbing to a deficit of $14.6 million by fiscal year 2026-27 (each fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30), when the projection shows revenue would be about $70.1 million and expenditures nearly $85 million. With the plan, the university would have a $1.4 million surplus, according to its projections.
But the impacts of the cuts are weighing just as heavy for faculty as the risks associated with keeping the status quo, as was evident at the roughly two-hour meeting Thursday in Stevenson Union. Though well attended, the meeting drew in visibly fewer faculty and staff than the Feb. 16 meeting.
Theatre Department cuts
The Theatre Department will have 3.25 positions of 10 eliminated, on top of the workshop program. One Theatre position is pending elimination, according to the realignment plan.
Eckard believes that cutting the Shakespeare workshop in particular will have a detrimental impact on area high schools who attend each year.
“I’m hearing from teachers at high schools all over who bring their students to Ashland every year to go to the Shakespeare Festival,” she said. “They stay on campus, they do campus
tours, they eat at the Hawk (campus dining hall), and they take Shakespeare workshops and now they don’t have anything for their students. The workshops are really important for us recruitment-wise. A number of teachers have told me that they have students who come to SOU because they came … and took those workshops and they’re not just applying for Theatre. They’re applying for all sorts of things.”
Eckard is really concerned about the impact of losing the workshop, especially when the conversation has circled around recruitment, retention, and enrollment.
“I think that’s something that is a mistake to have that program canceled,” Eckard said. “So that’s my concern about that.
Eckard also noted that with all the “chaos” within the Theatre program, “There’s not one day where I have wanted to come to work since this all came down. The only reason I come to work quite frankly are for my plants in my office … I don’t feel like we’ve gotten any leadership reach out … from within the department.”
“I am really, really, really sad and disappointed about how things have been handled,” Eckard added, her voice breaking with emotion.
“I have students that have come to my office and have cried because all they’re hearing is part of our program is just being eliminated, and I can’t get any answers ….
“I think every day about just giving my notice and leaving now,” she added.
Bailey told Eckard he believes there are many on campus who feel similarly.
“I think that sentiment is across the university right now,” he said.
“I think I’m feeling that,” he added.
Anna Oliveri, a faculty member in the Chemistry Department, commented that Eckard wasn’t alone in her feelings surrounding the aftermath of learning of the realignment.
“You’re not the only department that is experiencing a lot of emotional turmoil and you’re not the only department that has students cry in their offices and we are the frontlines,” Oliveri said, “And a lot of people don’t have to deal with that part.
“I’ve also had many days where I have meetings that I can’t sleep before I come here because I can’t stop thinking about what I need to say,” she added. “Just to let you know, you’re not alone.”
Bailey hinted that the reactions to his realignment plan have been far more intense, even.
“The people who have screamed at me and others, I will say, unequivocally, I don’t harbor any ill will,” he said. “I completely understand how people have reacted. We need to give space for that.
“But what we all need to do a better job of is understanding where they’re at and, at the same time, pay tribute to the service that they’ve given to us.”
Bailey emphasized kindness and support are paramount to this process moving forward, at every level.
“That’s a work in progress because we’re all fallible,” he said. “We all approach conflict in different ways.”
Bailey said he first saw the projected financial numbers that spelled a multi-million-dollar deficit during his first board meeting on his third day on the job in January 2022.
“The entirety of my service to this institution has happened while we’ve been dealing with this and it’s awful,” Bailey said. “I wouldn’t wish this on any other school.”
Retrenchment, realignment: What’s in a name?
Bailey asked for a show of hands from those attending the town hall: Who had experienced the previous two retrenchments at the university?
Hands shot up throughout the Rogue River room.
“A show of hands, how many people think this is the third retrenchment?”
Anna Oliveri, assistant professor of Chemistry at SOU, raised her hand, denoting the intensity of the current realignment.
Bailey said he believes it’s a fair critique to ask how this scenario differs from retrenchments in 2007 and 2014.
“A retrenchment is a very specific term that involves our union partnership,” Bailey said. “This is not that and there are some wonderful people in this room … who helped us not go through that, or exigency, or worse.”
Wes Brain, who was an employee at SOU for 16 years, including during at least one of the previous retrenchments, isn’t much for semantics. He weighed in on the differences, which for him, aren’t especially important when it comes to impact to employees.
“Retrenchment, yeah, I was there through that,” Brain said. “It means ‘Don’t let it hit you on the way out the door’ … It was very painful.
“You mentioned a process,” he added. “It smells exactly the same to me.”
Brain said he felt there was a lack of transparency from previous administrations and wanted reassurance that the university is keeping critical positions in health and safety on campus.
Bailey said he hopes if nothing else, the administration is being up front about everything when it comes to the realignment process.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction that way,” Bailey said, in the university’s defense.
“There are some things that no matter what, we have to do. So there’s compliance with federal and state law … then there are things that we just should do, because it’s a smart thing to do: Health, safety, security.
“As you look at this plan, the things that rise to the level of, ‘Hey, this is a risk that you shouldn’t be taking,’ I want to know what those are.”
Bailey emphasized he wants to make sure this process doesn’t include searching for “villians” in this issue.
He said students, led by ASSOU President Alicia Gerrity, may be mobilizing to go to Salem during this session to speak up for higher education funding. Another group of faculty members may do the same to speak out on behalf of SOU.
“Although there are no villains, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fighting to change the status quo,” Bailey said.
Bailey said in reviewing what occurred in previous retrenchments, he asked how many of those were accompanied by times where the university drew in major philanthropic gifts, such as it has this year, noting a $12 million donation from Lithia Motors over a period of years.
“It’s not a panacea,” he said, of proposed revenue building ideas.
“We’re talking about some really bold moves,” he said of entrepreneurial ideas to boost revenue.
Bailey is referencing the other three “planks” of his four-plank realignment plan, which include:
- Reimagine support for projects funded by external granting agencies and organizations
- Leverage ongoing philanthropic support
- Diversify revenue sources by pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, including replacing Cascade Hall with a senior living community that “creates a unique synergy between its residents, SOU students, and the university.”
“These last three planks — focusing on revenue diversification — are what makes SOU FORWARD fundamentally different from the cost reduction exercises conducted during two previous retrenchments,” states the realignment plan. “Further, SOU FORWARD seeks to change our institutional culture to include the time value of decision-making and setting clear expectations with included metrics, milestones, and actions as new projects are brought forward. When fully realized, these new revenue streams and cultural changes will enable us to avoid large, year-after-year tuition increases, grow strategically, meet future needs of the region and state, and potentially serve as a national model for public higher education funding.”
Bailey said it will be OK if some of the revenue diversification projects fail.
“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying,” he said.
Concerns about declining enrollment
Andrew Gay, associate professor of Digital Cinema, chair of Communication, Media and Cinema at SOU, and an SOU Trustee, commented that he is hearing that faculty are inspired by Bailey’s vision around revenue diversification, but not as much when it comes to his vision around enrollment.
“We would love, as faculty, to see more about what is the vision for SOU’s enrollment future,” Gay said, “especially as our VP of enrollment steps out, and thinking about how that’s going to live in a new way.
“How many students do we see coming to SOU in the future?” he asked. “What is the right size for the university? What is the right size for our classes? And how do we really set a moon shot vision for what we can do differently in enrollment?”
Bailey credited Woolf, whose position is being eliminated, with helping direct outreach efforts toward sophomores and juniors at the high school level who are looking ahead at colleges and universities.
“It should not be a presidential thought experiment,” Bailey said. “This should be a SOU family discussion. What are the things that we can do differently to really make that pipeline healthier?”
President shares in realignment process woes
Bailey shared anecdotally that he joins those who are feeling frustrated in the realignment
process, which from what he described, has taken a toll on him, too.
“After our last town hall, I have to confess that I don’t know that I did a great day of emotionally processing everything that happened in our last discussion,” Bailey said. “Some of you who are close to me know that I struggle with it, I’m still struggling with it. By the way, not asking for sympathy. There are members of our community who are suffering far more than me because of these challenges and it’s important that we come together and take the time and give the space to allow people to share their thoughts and their ideas and their frustrations.”
As sobering as the cuts proposed in the realignment plan are, Bailey added that some at SOU have seen other universities shuttered.
“There are people in this room, who in the course of their service, watched that institute close its doors – forever,” Bailey said. “That should be sobering and, unfortunately, because SOU is not the only school dealing with these challenges, it’s happening all over the country. So it’s forced us to think differently about how we do what we do.”
Bailey said he believes many were on board with his approach to, “get off the hamster wheel” after attending a September 2022 meeting, where he shared the financial forecast in more broad terms.
“Then, we have the unenviable task of figuring how we do it, and that’s where things get crazy,” he said, “because there is no way for everyone to agree on that and we knew that going in.”
“We are not going to allow this institution to be one that down the road, they talk about us having 150 great years and then that was it,” he added. “We’re not going to let that happen, so it means we have to make these impossible decisions.”
Noting he is not a perfect leader, thinker, or strategist, even though he taught strategy at one point in his career, Bailey emphasized humility.
“We’re still approaching this with humility, which is why we give this space,” Bailey said.
Bailey said the university is open to better ways to approach the realignment and encourages
feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He will present the SOU realignment plan to members of the SOU Board of Trustees on March 17. There will be no final action taken, but the board will give individuals an opportunity to weigh in on the plan as it stands and to request revisions.
“If you can help us make it better, please help us make it better,” Bailey said. “We are going to heal this patient together. And when we do, we’ll get on the other side of this and we will then start to continue to do all the things that we love to make sure that this institution thrives well into the future.”
The Board of Trustees is expected to take final action on April 21.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com.