Questions raised about another budget crisis, increase in administrative positions
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Instructor Sara Adams and many of her colleagues at Southern Oregon University understand financial issues, but Adams and others have questions about how the institution is handling the current “realignment” process — changing the budget so expenditures don’t so far exceed income.
Adams is a senior instructor of accounting at SOU, president of the faculty union APSOU, and a SOU alum. SOU President Rick Bailey is the fourth president during Adams’ 10 years at SOU, which included a “retrenchment” in 2014. She was among several speakers during a series of public listening sessions hosted by the SOU Board of Trustees at Hannon Library on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 19 and 20.
The institution faces a $10 million to $13 million structural deficit and is required to cut about 20% of its $66 million budget by summer 2024. Bailey has said that faculty already considering retirement could impact the final recommendation numbers, as 80% of the university’s costs include medical and retirement benefits for employees.
Adams questioned the recurring nature of SOU’s continual budget woes during the listening session on Thursday.
“Faculty members appreciate the challenge facing them,” Adams, saying many of her colleagues share similar concerns, told trustees gathered in the DeBoer Room on the third floor of the Hannon Library. “We care deeply for the university and our students. Unfortunately, our campus has a long history of restructuring to address dire financial situations, yet here we are in the worst crisis yet. My constituents ask, what is it about our institutional culture and leadership that continues to produce the same results and how is this realignment different from those before?”
Adams said faculty last week were faced with yet another restructuring proposal for Academic Affairs, which she says was “formed behind closed doors,” and “without faculty involvement.”
“We ask the board to press the administration for the rationale behind the new structure and for a detailed accounting of the cost savings,” Adams said. “Are proposed cuts to Academic Affairs strategic? Or convenient? We are concerned that this restructuring will leave us in the same place as all the others have: crisis mode. When starving programs and diminished class offerings drive students away, which is inevitable, we not only lose tuition but also revenue contribution campus wide to recreation, housing, food services.
“Do academic cuts really then save money?” Adams asked. “Can we sustain an academic institution with a bare-bones faculty? If our goal is to increase enrollment, how will faculty serve students when we cannot offer anything other than the essentials? Please explore the long-term consequences of these cuts and challenge the administration to articulate the strategy used to select them.
“The faculty ask, ‘Are we right-sizing the university for the long-term or just for now?” she added. “Are we putting a Band-Aid on the problem as we have done so many times before, or are we achieving a sustainable model for the future?”
Adams said even before COVID-19 and Southern Oregon wildfires in 2020, the institution was bound to face financial difficulties. She believes the faculty weren’t prepared for it.
“The demographics have been clear: The number of college-aged Oregonians has been shrinking,” Adams said. “Why haven’t our well-paid money managers prepared us for this predictable reality? Where is the accountability for how we got here?”
Adams alleges that following the retrenchment of 2014, the administration “furiously” hired administrative positions.
“In the end, we will end up with more (vice presidents) than leaders of academic divisions,” she said, of the proposal as drafted.
Currently, there are six vice presidents in SOU’s executive leadership team.
Board chair discusses recurring crisis, transparency
In a separate interview with Ashland.news, Daniel Santos, chair of the SOU Board of Trustees, addressed the recurrent nature of financial cuts at the university.
“The current situation does beg for a right-sizing,” Santos said. “We have to right-size a budget that was based on past numbers and it causes us … to constantly see us having to readjust our budgets.”
Santos said his and the Board of Trustees’ desire is to get to a point where they have a “stable, sustainable budget.”
“Whatever we do, however limited or reduced or whatever it is, that we don’t find ourselves in a position the year after doing all this, or after we complete the process, saying, ‘Now we’re back in the complete same place we were … that is our desire, to not continue to do this. Is that a promise that SOU will never have financial issues in the future? We can’t predict that, but we want to go with what we know and try to do the best for the institution.”
Brian Fedorek, chair of SOU’s Faculty Senate, who also shared concerns with Trustees, had pointed questions for trustees gathered in the DeBoer Room.
Fedorek said the Faculty Senate met last week in a gathering of what he called “the five families” with Bailey, APSOU, SEIU, ASSOU and the Staff Assembly.
At that meeting, he alleged that a “misinterpretation of transparency” has been made about the current process.
“Putting things out on the public website are as transparent as they come, but not transparent when some of those groups aren’t being invited to the table to discuss and debate the ideas,” Fedorek said. “So, generally because of that, there was a lot of angst, uneasy anxiety that all of the members had.
“At least speaking for Faculty Senate and other faculty members, one of the criticisms of this approach is, it seems very top-down,” Fedorek added.
Fedorek encouraged Bailey and the Board of Trustees to “invite us to the table” when it comes to formulating the proposed recommendation.
“Obviously hearing from vice presidents is important, but also hear from us,” he said. “And make decisions based on hearing both sides and both ideas.”
Santos said the Board of Trustees will continue to encourage President Bailey to have ongoing conversations.
“From the reports I’m getting, he’s out there, doing a lot of meetings, and will continue to do that even more so as this comes closer and closer to some kind of a draft plan,” Santos told Ashland.news following the listening session.
Timeline calls for decisions made in April to be finalized in June
Fedorek said he would appreciate it if there was more time for a decision to be made than by April.
Santos told Ashland.news following the listening session that more time isn’t available.
“The difficulties we have is we have to have a budget for the next school year,” Santos told Ashland.news.
Tuition decisions are made in April, which Santos said will be a major part of budget discussions.
A plan for realignment will be incorporated into the June budget-making decisions.
“It would be very difficult to come to the June board meeting not having made some of these decisions already,” Santos said.
“I don’t think we’re going to change our schedule,” he added.
Santos also commented about the transparency of the university during the process.
“It’s a difficult challenge not just for the administration but for the board,” Santos said.
“For advocates who aren’t sure because of the lack of concrete steps, it can be seen as not totally transparent.”
He said he’s glad to have a chance to hear firsthand from individuals via the listening sessions held Thursday and public comment during Friday’s board meeting, in addition to upcoming town halls on Feb. 2 and 16.
“In the eyes of some, it won’t be enough,” Santos said.
Education Department key, but SOU unlikely to go back to being a ‘teacher’s school’
Jesse Longhurst, associate professor of education at SOU and the Graduate Chair of Education Programs, also advocated for the Education Department and faculty with the Board of Trustees during the listening session. Longhurst is a SOU alum and a former high school teacher.
“Possibly the most visible graduates of SOU are teachers, and our teachers grow SOU students,” Longhurst said. “SOU started as a Normal School when teachers were scarce in Southern Oregon and that need for teachers has never gone away, and it’s never been more acute than it is today. There is a nationwide — and, frankly, worldwide — teacher shortage and there are a variety of reasons for that.”
“The number of our applicants in education is down and that’s not great news,” she said.
She noted that numbers are much the same across the nation for every other education program in the country
“We’re right in line with the trends,” Longhurst said. “We’re not any better, but we’re not any worse.
“But the silver lining is that nearly 100% of the graduates from our licensure programs are employed when they leave the program that SOU trained them to do.
“This year alone, 80% of our licensure students are employed on temporary licenses before they’ve even left the program and it’s only January,” she added. “So districts are desperate for our graduates. Our local districts need us to send them educators. And it’s not just classroom teachers, it’s autism specialists, it’s counselors, it’s principals, it’s even superintendents — There’s superintendent shortages.”
Longhurst said the program will be made even more accessible by fall with a Masters of Arts in Teaching in a hybrid format.
She emphasized that it’s not only the Education Department that is a vital component to SOU, but all of the departments.
“We rely on our colleagues who teach in the Gen Ed (General Education) program,” Longhurst said.
“We rely on programs from English, Math, to P.E. to make our undergraduates subject area specialists, before they come into our master’s program and we teach them how to teach,” she added. “We can’t do that without the rest of our campus, so I hope that the board considers any unintended consequences of hollowing out any program because it doesn’t just affect those programs, it affects graduate programs, it affects our educated workforce, and it affects our future students who are taught by that workforce.”
Santos acknowledged that SOU has many strengths, citing its Education Department as one of them. He doesn’t see the university being reduced to one service, such as when the university started as a teaching college in the 1900s.
“We have so many new, diverse needs academically,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to continue to focus on, how do we best serve students here, in a liberal arts setting, at the same time taking on new topics, new agendas, partnering up with … our business colleagues in developing a workforce from a higher ed standpoint.”
Not speaking in terms specific to one program over another, Santos addressed whether SOU would consider certain programs more highly than others when reviewing possible cuts and whether advocacy could help.
“Some cuts are going to be made … and it won’t be for lack of advocacy for that program,”
Santos said. “It’ll just be one of those tough decisions we’ll have to make. I don’t think anybody sees this as a winning combination … it’s a tough decision.
“My sense of it … as a SOU family, even those programs that are kept intact or as intact as possible, are going to be legitimately concerned about losing their colleagues’ programs and positions and staff and services,” Santos added.
“It’s … when you get to a reduction budget, it’s impossible to reach perfection as far as for everybody and that’s understandable.
“Even in the best of times, we can’t reach 100% concurrence to how we spend those resources, but it’s much more difficult in the cut budget situation.”
“I think everyone comes with a passion for what’s best for SOU, whether it’s their own position or their own department, their staffing, but I think at the end of the day, we all tend to be student-focused about what’s best for students,” he added.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com.