About two dozen current employees will lose their jobs, others to be phased out
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Cutting more than 80 positions is needed as part of a “realignment” that will reduce costs by $3.6 million in Southern Oregon University’s approximately $66 million budget this year, SOU President Rick Bailey told a hall packed with concerned faculty, staff and students Thursday morning.
Twenty-seven faculty, 30 classified, and 25 unclassified positions will likely be eliminated, pending approval of the Board of Trustees. About 24 of the 83 positions will result in current employees losing their jobs, according to a university release. Other positions will be phased out by leaving open current job vacancies and through retirements, voluntary departures, and “non-renewable contracts,” according to a university news release.
This year’s proposed cuts will save another $9 million in “recurring cost reductions” in coming years, according to university officials.
Bailey emphasized that all cuts proposed are currently a draft recommendation, meaning they are unofficial pending review by the board on March 17, and then a final vote by the board on April 21. The timing of reductions will vary, according to the university, with most changes being implemented by June 2024.
As part of the cuts, Bailey announced the university will discontinue the Master’s Degree in Environmental Education, but not until all current students are able to finish their degrees.
“Anyone who is currently in that program, we feel like we have a contract with you,” Bailey said. “So we are going to get you to the finish line. We’re going to get you to the graduation stage.”
Two current intercollegiate sports — cheer and dance, which is one sport, and cycling, which has both mens and womens teams — will go back to being club sports. Both just started at the intercollegiate level at SOU in the 2022-23 academic year.
“I want to be very clear, especially for the students who are here, and let me focus on cheer and dance, for both of these groups of students, this is heartbreaking,” Bailey said. “These students are student-athletes, even though we talk about it moving to a club sport, they need to be recognized and respected as student-athletes moving forward.”
The SOU Theatre Program, part of the Oregon Center for the Arts at SOU, will see cuts, including at least one full-time instructor position.
Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Neil Woolf’s position will also be cut. Bailey praised Woolf’s innovation in the role, adding he is the “reason why we are not where everyone else is right now in terms of (declining) enrollment. I think it’s a tribute to him and his leadership here.”
“SOU is like a patient and it needs care,” Bailey said, “and, as I look back as an amateur historian, opportunities that we’ve had maybe in the past — and this is not an indictment — but we’ve done temporary solutions to those problems and I equate that to putting a Band-Aid on something when, in reality, what really we need to do is diagnose the patient and heal the patient. Then we set the university up for long-term success …..
“I see it as, how does SOU thrive long-term?” he said, “and one of the ways we thrive is, we stop the cycle of every couple of years having this conversation. Now I will say, because of where we’re at, the challenges of where we’re at are greater than they’ve ever been, partly because those Band-Aids, over and over again, only kick the can down the road and actually make the problem more challenging.”
Rather than increase tuition by 15% each year, he said, he opted for the proposed cuts.
Details still being worked out
Bailey said details to proposed changes to the university’s academic divisions are still being worked out, including calling them “schools” or “colleges” within the university.
“We’re looking at the possibility of programs that have very low numbers of faculty, whether or not we can combine under a single chair,” Bailey said.
“This plan, it’s changed a couple of times this week,” Bailey said. “So it’s still evolving.”
Bailey said the release of the realignment draft plan on Thursday was moved up from March because he’d been urged to move up the date.
“That’s why we’re here now and this is not a final product,” Bailey said. “It’s what we have now
and right now I will say, and you can critique the heck out of it, right now it’s the best thing that I have in terms of a plan for us moving forward, as hard as that is, as painful as that is.”
The painful reaction to the news was palpable throughout the in-person town hall meeting on Thursday morning. Faculty, staff, alumni and students filled seats, stood along walls and sat on the floor of the Rogue River Room at Stevenson Union.
Eric Levin, professor of Theatre Production at SOU, called the plan “speculative” and talked about its impact on SOU’s Theatre Program, which has long been highly regarded at the university.
“With all due respect, this is no different a plan than I’ve heard from the past two retrenchments,” Levin said.
“You said that we know, too, that ‘everything’s going to be fine’ and I don’t know that because I’ve been through two retrenchments,” he added. “I don’t see a change over in high administration, some of whom … this is their third time doing this. I don’t see really anything taking care of the top heavy administrative staff we have and administrators.”
“I appreciate your exuberance but those aren’t results and we’ve heard this exuberance before,” Levin said. “My question is, without speculation, how is this group of firings going any different than those (in previous retrenchments) and in what way are they going to help?”
“Theatre has now decimated its design program — we don’t have any designers left in the department, and it’s decimated our technology program,” Levin continued. “Our students in technology and design have a huge record of getting jobs in the profession and keeping them, and now they won’t have that opportunity unless we get more faculty to teach those things. Moreover we can’t have a full production season without faculty and students to build the set, that’s how they learn. So, what you’re with this group of firing is, you’re ruining a department that has been very successful on this campus for decades.”
“We’re going to be losing revenue because many of the students, half the students, are not going to have a place to finish their education,” he added. “And new students, based on a decades-long, nationwide reputation, are not going to have a chance to go through those programs anymore.
“I’m not hearing anything different, it’s the same ideas,” he concluded, drawing applause from the crowd.
Bailey responded that there was no program that was specifically targeted and he believes cuts are being recommended across the board.
“We’ve given a draft,” Bailey said. “If there is something that we’ve missed that you think addresses it better, send it to us. There is no pride of authorship here. But here’s what I won’t do — I’m not going to just say, ‘well, let’s fall back on the thing that we always do and just make it a massive tuition increase.’ No, and I will tell you something else. Advocacy is powerful but it is even more powerful if it comes with ideas.
“If the suggestion is, ‘Rick, just don’t do that,’ that doesn’t get us to where we need to be,” Bailey said.
Bailey said he would like to discuss issues that anyone has with a suggested recommendation to the board, including regarding the Theatre Program.
Evan Carbone, a 2016 SOU alum who is an employee of SOU, pushed for more answers.
“Besides ‘Trust me, bro,’ what are you offering as accountability if this doesn’t work?”
“What happens if we’re back here another two, five or 10 years and we’re just reducing more faculty?
“It sort of poisons the well against you because if I’m a faculty member here, why would I want to continue working here when it’s always on the chopping block … or as a prospective faculty member — why would I come here when I know that my department is potentially unsafe?”
Bailey, as president, said he reports to the Board of Trustees but serves at the pleasure of the students, faculty and staff.
“If this doesn’t work and if students, faculty, and staff see it not working, I should be held accountable, and there are avenues to do that,” Bailey said. “I wouldn’t want to serve a university that doesn’t want me to be the leader of the university, so you have that power.”
Theatre Technical Direction Instructor Jesse Purkerson pushed back tears talking about the support from his students who attended the town hall, as he processes learning his position will likely be eliminated.
“I am moved to no end that you’re all here,” Purkerson said to the students, calling them “family.”
Purkerson said he was told by Bailey, accompanied by a representative of Human Resources, that he would hear a plan on Thursday morning.
“I did not hear a plan this morning, Rick,” Bailey said. “I saw numbers on a spreadsheet, Rick.
“The other thing that just reeks here is that you are going to exploit the teacher’s love of their students to give you time to figure it out. If I walk away right now, you have less time to figure it out, but then I’m the villain because I’m not here.”
“Where’s the plan?” he added. “What is Theatre going to do? What are any of these departments going to do?”
Purkerson said that during a conversation with Provost Susan Walsh that students will “get a degree, but not an education.”
He acknowledged his Theatre students seated at the side of the Rogue River Room on Thursday, embracing a friend as he left the gathering.
Brent Florendo, longtime Native American Studies faculty member, has been with the university more than 25 years. He shared concerns about the Native American people and their representation in the town hall.
“I have not seen us visible in this conversation,” Florendo said, noting he has been through two retrenchments and six presidents.
Florendo is concerned about sustaining continued partnerships with tribal nations in the region.
He said he would pray for Bailey as he has to make these decisions.
“But I also want to represent our Indian people in the academic world,” he added. “I worked hard to be able to teach at this university. It’s the most exciting thing that I do here.
“I want to know: What’s the strategy down the road? And ‘down the road’ means tomorrow.”
Bailey said he values and sees the importance of the Native American Studies program.
“Everything was done to try and respect that,” Bailey said.
Bailey stresses need to make tough calls
Bailey emphasized he believes the university demonstrated that “everything was on the table” in terms of cuts.
He stressed continually that the plan wouldn’t find any fans in the audience or outside the room.
“Nobody at this university wants to do this — nobody,” Bailey said. “These aren’t easy
decisions, they’re not even hard decisions … They’re impossible decisions. Impossible
decisions. If they were hard, someone else would have made them by now. But the challenge for us is, we have to have a university here 20 years from now, 50 years from now and beyond. And more importantly, it needs to be affordable and it needs to be accessible. And if
we’re not careful, we as an institution will stop being able to serve the students for whom we were built to serve. And I think everyone agrees with that. The question is, how to do it, and clearly that’s where things get really complicated.”
Without changing its fiscal model, Bailey said tuition levels will grow higher each year moving forward for students to bear.
“If we do nothing, then the only thing left to us is to charge about 15% of an increase in tuition every year for the next several years,” Bailey said. “I could probably take a poll of students and ask, how many of you would start looking at other schools if we did that. So we have to be thinking about who we’re here to serve and why.”
Bailey has said in previous town hall meetings that a tuition increase of some kind, in addition to the proposed cuts, is likely, though no information on that was available Thursday.
Bailey said he understands that the numbers shared on the screen describe people’s livelihoods.
“Right now, it’s the best thing I have to give to the board,” Bailey said. “I will say this, that fiscal structural problem, this solves it. That’s a bold statement. This heals the patient.”
Bailey’s goal is to position the university in a way that its revenues are equal to or greater than its costs in an effort to avoid “exigency” — essentially, bankruptcy.
“From day one, the goal was, how do we not do that,” Bailey said. “Because, I was thinking about it from the perspective of a student who might be thinking of coming to SOU, and if that person looked and did a Google search and the first thing they saw was, ‘SOU declares financial exigency,’ how likely are they to send their students here? The results would be catastrophic. I talked with other presidents who have gone through this and it took them 10 years to climb out. Because of how challenging the situation was, I was really emotionally prepared that we were going to have to do that.”
Bailey credits those who were creative in helping formulate a plan to help “save the university” from such a direction.
“I’m not saying that as an overly dramatic statement,” he said. “I think there are people in this room who have helped save this university long-term. And, it might not be the headline story and it might not be the thing that people remember from now, but I will. I’ll go to my grave with it, in gratitude.”
The realignment plan emerged following an extensive process that began with a September breakfast meeting on campus, culminating in a four-month collaborative process to do what
the university calls “realigning” SOU’s programs and operations, create a sustainable fiscal model, and position itself for fiscal growth.
“The solution is not that now, we reduce our footprint and we become a smaller institution and the expectation is that everyone else who’s left now has to do more work,” Bailey said. “I
know that’s not sustainable. So all of us are going to have to figure out … what are things that we can stop doing so that we keep each other healthy?”
‘This heals the patient’
Early on in the meeting, Bailey asked faculty and staff how many have been at SOU through a similar cut-back situation.
Hands shot up across the room, and again when he asked if it had happened to them more than once.
“You see the trend here, right?” Bailey said. “I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault and I certainly don’t want to spend time trying to blame someone for that.”
Bailey said he believes the university has been good at trying new things, but has struggled stopping them if needed.
He said every time a new program goes before the Board of Trustees, he’ll need answers to
long-term questions, such as cost, projected return on investment, a plan for how the project or program will work, etc.
“We have to be willing to let go if it doesn’t work,” Bailey said.
Moving forward, Bailey said the university has to create an “engine” that brings revenue into the institution, so the university doesn’t fully rely on state funding and tuition longterm.
“We’re talking about philanthropy,” Bailey said. “The two, single biggest gifts in the 150-year history of the institution have happened in the last 12 months. So we’re breaking all kinds of records in terms of funding. And by the way, there are funders who know we’re going through this right now and are stepping up because they know that we’re taking responsibility for our own fiscal health.”
The university is also looking at federal and state grant funding to aid their fiscal woes.
“This isn’t just grant money for faculty research,” he said. “It’s also for things like solar, and student food pantries and all the other things … that we really want to do here at this university.”
Threats made this week
Bailey addressed another issue right at the start of the gathering, saying that threats had been made to himself and to Associated Students of Southern Oregon University President Alicia Gerrity.
Bailey brought up a consortium of individuals up front to stand with Gerrity in her support, including faculty union President Sara Adams and Faculty Senate Chair Brian Fedorek.
“I understand the emotion, I understand the passion, I understand the anxiety, I do … and it’s heavy,” Bailey said. “And I’m the president and it’s my responsibility. I’m the one who’s going to have to hand this recommendation to the Board of Trustees. But over the last few days, what has spun out is a movement that has not just targeted me but targeted student leadership, and to make it a little more challenging, there may be faculty and staff members among us who helped to incite that fervor that led to targeting of students. That’s reprehensible.”
“We have to do better than that,” Bailey said. “We are better than that.”
“Alicia deserves better than that,” he added, drawing applause from the audience.
Sage TeBeest, president of SEIU and Classified staff, encouraged harnessing fervor properly. TeBeest said she cried after learning about a threat made to Gerrity, adding that her emotions were “boiling” in response.
“We should be fostering a compassionate, safe environment for everyone,” TeBeest said.
“We all know tensions are high … my tensions are high at the moment. But we have to filter
that a little bit and understand how to process it and how to utilize it properly.”
Gerrity, who is in her second year of a three-year Baccalaureate Program at SOU, declined to share details of the threat with Ashland.news. She is a first-generation college student, identifies as Queer, and is Asian American.
“Walking away from this, I hope you can find the light in one another and know that we’re all here for a great college experience,” Gerrity said. “I would like us to remember that we’re a team.”
A recording of the town hall meeting is available at sou.edu, which will include the slides of the presentation by Bailey.
Those with questions, comments, and thoughts on Bailey’s proposed realignment can email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you affected by these proposed cuts? Ashland.news wasn’t able to include all comments in the story but would like to hear from you. Reach out to Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com.
Feb. 17 update: Headline updated to reflect that cutback plan is not final until approved by SOU Board of Trustees in April.
Feb. 18 update: Ashley King’s title corrected in the final photo’s caption.
Feb. 22 update: Story updated to clarify that proposed cuts planned for this year will save $9 million in recurring cost reductions in coming years; the $9 million in savings will come from continuation of proposed initial cuts, not additional cuts later.