The worst of times

Southern Oregon University is embarking on a series of changes that should leave it leaner but stronger, more independent and better positioned to meet the higher education needs of its students. But a great deal depends on how those changes are accomplished and how they are received by students and by the community.

The "retrenchment" process now under way is the most visible and most dramatic of the changes, involving the elimination of some majors and more than 80 faculty and staff positions. Many of those will be planned retirements that will not be replaced, but nearly 30 permanent and adjunct faculty will be laid off.

The most dramatic academic change is the elimination of the physics major, although SOU administrators will study the possibility of bringing back physics in a different configuration that better meets the needs of regional employers.

The elimination of physics drew criticism from the community, but it's important to note that only 31 students declared a physics major last fall, and last year the department graduated no physics majors at all. In comparison, a handful of the most popular majors total thousands of students.

Despite a faculty vote of no confidence in SOU president Mary Cullinan and two senior administrators, SOU is not the only campus undergoing a retrenchment process — which allows the university to cut programs and faculty without breaching its contract with the faculty union. Eastern Oregon University is going through a similar process, and Portland State University is in negotiations with its faculty, who may stage Oregon's first university strike next month if no settlement is reached.

It's also worth noting that the votes of no confidence came on the heels of tough bargaining over a new contract under which SOU faculty will see no cost-of-living increases.

At the same time that retrenchment moves forward, SOU is undergoing a separate academic reorganization that will eliminate traditional dean and department chairman positions and replace them with "division directors" responsible for several departments at once. And SOU is applying to the state Department of Higher Education for permission to create its own board of directors.

Those changes should give the university greater control of its own destiny. But they won't replace the dramatic loss of state funding that has hammered all of Oregon's universities over the past decade and a half.

The result has been that student tuition now covers 85 percent of SOU's costs. In 1999, direct support from the state budget provided 85 percent.

That means SOU must redouble its efforts to attract students, including out-of-state and foreign students who pay a greater amount, and administrators must mend relations with faculty if the campus is to work together effectively.

Prospective students and their parents cannot be unaware that SOU is going through tough times. How well the university is perceived to be handling those challenges will play a large role in future recruitment efforts.

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