Spending cuts take effect sooner; plan calls for further development of revenue enhancements in coming years
Southern Oregon University President Rick Bailey told members of the institution’s Board of Trustees, staff and faculty Friday that it was “almost an out-of-body experience” hearing public comments from the campus community on how they would be impacted by the “SOU Forward” plan.
“It made me think about the journey we’ve been on for the last 15 months,” said Bailey, referring to the amount of time he has led the institution.
Bailey began serving as president Jan. 15, 2022, and for all but two of those days since, Bailey said SOU has “had this ominous challenge in front of us.”
On Friday, the SOU Board of Trustees dealt with that challenge and unanimously approved “Securing SOU’s Future by Embracing a New Fiscal Paradigm,” also known as the Strategic Realignment Plan. It involves four planks of implementation.
The first plank — cost management — will reduce expenses by $3.6 million this year and identify another $9 million in recurring cost reductions. The plan will eliminate the equivalent of almost 82 full-time positions, about 24 of which will result in current employees losing their jobs. Those who will be eliminated are being given notice ranging from 120 days to 15 months, depending on the job.
The plan projects revenue of $64.4 million and costs of $63.3 million for fiscal year 2023-24, which runs from July 1, 2023, to June 30, 2024.
The plan is not only about reductions but, over time, finding new ways for SOU to make money and rely less on state funding and tuition. Those initiatives include obtaining more grant funding, finding even greater donor support and investing in new projects.
But on Friday, the cost management plank of the plan was front and center. Bailey explained at the meeting — held in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library — “SOU Forward” is the best solution compared to the university’s other options, including multiple 15% tuition increases, across-the-board pay cuts for faculty and staff or doing nothing.
“The gravity of the decision that you have, and you’re considering, I sympathize with,” Bailey said. “But I do want to make a very passionate plea that the other options are worse, far worse, than this.”
A public comment period preceded Bailey’s presentation.
Sarah Adams, a senior instructor in the School of Business and the faculty union president, said she was “disappointed the plan involves the loss of our valued colleagues.” She said she believes cuts would hurt programs, students and faculty, leading to an increased workload for them.
“Just because this plan is tough doesn’t mean there aren’t still hoops to jump through. That is not to say we don’t support many of the items in the plan. We should just be aware of how they impact the collective bargaining agreement,” Adams said.
Sage TeBeest, a creative arts program assistant in SOU’s Art Department, said the board members had a “monumental task” and she “does not envy” anyone having to make these decisions.
While she acknowledged the plan would not be favorable to many SOU employees, TeBeest said, “I’ve looked at the numbers, and I know what is necessary to keep us moving forward.”
“If we don’t make these changes currently, I’m going to see a whole lot more of my staff members losing their jobs,” TeBeest said. “That’s hard for me to swallow. I’m terrified for my school, but I also have to be pragmatic.”
Bailey’s presentation to the board detailed some of the program reductions proposed. They include eliminating the assistant director of student life for equity and access position, a decrease in theater faculty and staff, and discontinuing the Environmental Education Master’s Program. He noted that a task force would be created to plan for the future of the theater program and that officials would “explore a reimagined environmentally oriented master’s program.”
Bailey concluded his presentation by asking board members to think about ways SOU could avoid being in the same position five years from now.
“Anytime we invest in something, I think the board should be required to ask us these five questions,” said Bailey. “You are absolutely justified to tell us to go back to the drawing board.”
Board member Sheila Clough agreed.
“How do we hardwire that into our board culture, so that, as we transition members out, we remain diligent?” Clough said. “If we walk away from this conversation today and we don’t do anything to hardwire into the practices — very quickly that will fall by the wayside, and it will be pretty detrimental.”
Board member Brent Barry, superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District, called the “SOU Forward” plan remarkable, while acknowledging “we’re not done” making difficult decisions for the university.
Board member Andrew Gay, who was the only trustee who issued a prepared statement during the meeting, got a little emotional as he spoke.
“Today is a painful day for SOU,” Gay said. “But I agree with the necessity of that charge. Our revenues must be greater than or equal to our costs, and President Bailey has delivered a plan that will realize that necessity.”
Gay said he does not agree with every recommendation of the plan, but it is up to Bailey and SOU administrators to decide what those are. To that end, Gay thought it would be inappropriate to use his role as a board member to advocate for anything different.
“(Or else), what is to prevent some future trustee from using their position and power to target specific programs and employees in service of some ideological agenda?” Gay said. “The day this board crosses that Rubicon is the day we can no longer trust our university board.”
Board Chairman Daniel Santos remarked during the meeting, “It’s been a long process, but I think it’s been a good process. We have a really bright future ahead of us.”
In an interview after the meeting, Santos said even before Bailey’s appointment to the SOU presidency, the board was deeply concerned about “right-sizing the budget.”
Asked whether he was expecting a unanimous vote, Santos said before the meeting he was “hopeful” because he understood some trustees had “concerns” about “certain aspects” of the plan.
“I think it was part of our due deliberations that we get a ‘yes’ vote from each of those trustees. I’m pleased we were able to do that,” Santos said. “It wasn’t a forgone conclusion.”
Bailey said in an interview after the meeting that, despite the unanimous vote, he may hear from stakeholders who still don’t like the plan.
“This is a bittersweet day,” Bailey said. “What the trustees voted on today was a plan that will fix the structural imbalance that has haunted us as an institution for a long time — and that’s sobering. We have to take a moment to understand, pay tribute and respect that.”
Bailey said he understands the plan impacts many good SOU employees.
“But we are all committed to making sure this beautiful institution remains affordable and accessible to students now and well into the future,” Bailey said.
Sarah Adams said after the meeting she was not surprised by the board’s unanimous vote for the plan.
“I don’t think faculty were expecting to vote this down,” Adams said. “While we don’t agree with everything in the plan, we are encouraged by our relationships with President Bailey that we feel is being built in the right direction. I think the faculty looks forward to moving ahead with a stronger, more fiscally sound university.”