SOU's proper financial approach

The headline was a grabber: "SOU plans to become financially independent." However, it was mistaken. While Southern Oregon University and other schools in Oregon's system of higher education might well wish they could be independent of the vicissitudes of state funding, the reality is they are stuck with it.

The overly ambitious headline accompanied a story in the Sept. 18 Mail Tribune, detailing a talk SOU President Mary Cullinan gave to faculty and staff as the new college year approaches. Her basic message was that the university needs to expand its sources of revenue, so that it is not so dependent on any one source, such as the state. She did not announce a secession from the higher ed ranks, although she did express her frustration with the state's failure to provide the level of funding needed to make an Oregon college education both affordable and excellent.

There is no question that the state has failed higher education and the students of Oregon. When the boomer generation attended college, Oregon paid for up to half the cost of that education. The boomers filled the university system to the bursting point, much as the so-called Greatest Generation did before them had, in the latter case fueled by a G.I. Bill that put millions through school.

The successes and wealth-building of those two generations were not coincidental. They were the outcomes you would expect from a well-educated populace that was exposed to ideas and possibilities. Sadly, there are too many young Oregonians who will not get that exposure.

Cullinan is spot on when she says SOU must diversify its sources of revenue. While the university will remain part of the state system, it has learned the bitter lesson that it cannot count on the state to provide adequate support. That 50 percent once paid for by the state now has dwindled to less than 20 percent. Much of the difference has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the students and their families, who will be asked to pay more than $5,700 in tuition and fees this year at SOU.

Cullinan, who has earned kudos for putting SOU on a more stable financial footing, made it clear to the assembled faculty and staff that they own a share of the problem when it comes to improving the school's revenues. There will be higher expectations for fundraising; a push to deliver classes to nontraditional students in nontraditional ways and an emphasis on retaining students who too often drop out of college without finishing a degree,

The state of Oregon did make some progress in the last legislative session, providing additional funding for the regional universities like SOU, increasing financial aid and covering the bulk of the expense of the new SOU/Rogue Community College building in downtown Medford. Those are positives for SOU and the region, although we can look across the street from the SOU/RCC building and see a partially open library building, reminding us that we need money not just to construct buildings, but also to operate them.

Unlike our headline, Cullinan is right: The university must do everything in its power to be less dependent on the state. With economic uncertainty all around, there is no time like the present to diversify SOU's revenue "portfolio."

Maybe one day the legislators and people of this state will emerge from the short-term-fix approach to governing and give the university system enough support to help it rebuild its schools. They should. A generation of Oregon students is a terrible thing to waste.

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