Energy production, senior housing, university business district, software training all up for discussion
By Bert Etling, Ashland.news
The need for rethinking higher education, particularly how it’s funded, revenue and enrollment challenges and the area’s natural beauty and culture of collaborative discussions of issues were all touched on in a talk by Southern Oregon University President Rick Bailey Jr. before the Rotary Club of Ashland on Thursday.
Speaking before about 40 members and guests in Wesley Hall at the First United Methodist Church, Bailey touched briefly on a wide range of issues in the 25-minute talk, which was billed as, “A New ‘U’: Envisioning an Entrepreneurial Future for SOU.”
He floated four ideas to expand the university’s revenue stream beyond the historic base of tuition and state funding. “If we get any one of these,” he said, “it’ll be huge for us in terms of the way we think about finance; if we get all four, it’ll be transformational.”
“All of this is about changing paradigms,” Bailey said. “Changing the way we think, not just about SOU, but changing how we think about higher education.”
Bailey, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel after a 24-year career, came to SOU in January after five years as president of Northern New Mexico College in Espanola, New Mexico.
Bailey spoke enthusiastically about his first months at SOU. “We live in one of the most beautiful valleys on the planet, there’s no question,” he said. “But if I have to pinpoint one thing that sets us apart, as an institution, it’s the caliber of the team and the quality of the education that students get. …
“I brag about this university for a living, but when it comes to the caliber of the team, I am not embellishing.”
Bailey noted that, despite views in some quarters about liberal arts universities, SOU doesn’t hew to any particularly political viewpoint. “We have students, faculty and staff who sit across the political spectrum,” he said. “We are a marketplace of ideas, and it’s important for us to celebrate diversity of thought, so that we actually get to the better solutions down the road.”
Evolving funding landscape
Where the university gets its money has evolved and will some more, Bailey said.
“Higher education is traditionally funded by two things, primarily two things: one is state funding, which goes like this over time,” he said, making a waving, up and down contour with his hand. “As a chief executive officer, I can’t fully count on that, since it’s going to change over time. The other is tuition.
“Institutions that are going to succeed in the future are going to be the ones that stop relying solely on those two things and start to think differently about how the institution is resourced.”
Showing a chart of SOU’s enrollment decline over the last 10 years, he said, “We can spend time looking for excuses for why that is, or we can look for opportunities.
“Where does Oregon rank in the percentage of high school graduates who go right into college?” he asked. “We’re 43rd. If we were first, I’d be more worried. When we’re 43rd, it means there are a lot of high school students who could go into college who aren’t …
It’s not rocket science, it’s legit: higher ed is good for people … we have to share that story, there’s an opportunity for us.”
Bailey went on from suggesting there’s ample opportunity for the university to boost tuition revenue by boosting enrollment to briefly outline other prospective income streams.
“I’ve been here for four months,” he said. “There are already four really interesting ideas that we’re starting to put details on that could change the revenue picture and diversify the revenue portfolio for the institution.
“One has to do with energy and how we think about energy, and producing energy on our own campus, and partnering with other entities outside to produce energy on a community scale.
“One has to do with an old residence hall …. Cascade Hall, and we’re exploring options for senior housing attached to it, very similar to what Arizona State did a few years ago.
“We’re looking at the creation of a university business district in south Ashland … I’ve talked to the mayor about it, I’ve talked to the new city manager about it … there’s a lot of interest in that … this is about sparking businesses in south Ashland around the campus that start to cater more to the university and its students, and that could be an economic development issue for that part of the city.
“Lastly is a work-day training center. SOU is going to be the first institution in the state to transform its digital platform, and what I mean — everything from human resources to accounts at the business office to student services. All of it uses this very antiquated system … we’ve selected a vendor, we’re going to be the first in the state to do it; University of Oregon is watching us, Oregon State is watching us; they all want to do it, but they are very happy to have SOU go first. …
“We chose a company called Workday to do it, it’s going to be much more streamlined, we’re going to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year … We know everyone else is going to come after us, so why not train everyone else on how to do it, and create a corporation and do it, so that we provide that information, because nobody else is doing it, nobody.”
A culture of gathering for discussion
In closing, Bailey offered his take on how people in his new home approach issues.
“I’ve been to more than 40 countries, all 50 states,” he said. “I’ve never lived in a place, ever, where people are so intentional about gathering together.”
He asked who in the audience was familiar with Alexis De Tocqueville, the 19th century French author of “Democracy in America” who extensively toured the new United States. Most raised their hands.
“The strength of the American democracy,” Bailey said of De Tocqueville’s conclusions, “is based on people’s willingness to get together, to come together in community, to talk about things, especially things about which we might not always agree, right? The marketplace of ideas.
“Here’s the beautiful thing about Southern Oregon … we are more intentional about meeting than any place I’ve ever lived. As someone who, for most of my adult life, wore a uniform that symbolized my willingness to put my life at risk for the principles of democracy, and even sacrifice it, then to see people gathering, knowing that’s important, means a lot to me, personally. And so I know that I am home here, I know it. And what you do should be celebrated. And Rotary is the perfect example of that. … So celebrate yourself for what you’re doing, because it matters.”
Email Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text him at 541-631-1313.