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SOU president gets feedback on realignment plan

Southern Oregon University President Rick Bailey speaks to faculty and staff during a town hall meeting Jan. 12, in Stevenson Union. [Kevin Opsahl/Mail Tribune]

During a campus town hall meeting Thursday, Southern Oregon University President Rick Bailey heard comments from constituents about a coming strategic realignment plan ahead of the institution’s own board hosting “listening sessions” on the matter next week.

Bailey spoke in the Stevenson Union in his third town hall of the academic year prior to submitting the recommended plan to the SOU Board of Trustees this spring.

“I told this to (board) chairman Santos: I know that since we don’t have the plan yet, it’s probably hard to make specific comments to the board,” Bailey said. “However, I think it shows good faith on the board that they’re willing to listen no matter what the issue is, including, ‘Hey, this is not as transparent as we wanted.’”

The board is scheduled to meet from noon to 5 p.m. Jan. 20 in the DeBoer Room of the Hannon Library. Bailey confirmed the board’s listening session during this meeting even though the agenda has not yet been posted.

SOU Board of Trustees Chairman Danny Santos watched Thursday’s town hall remotely and spoke about the importance of the listening sessions in an interview.

“One of the things about board meetings is that we have public comment, but the board felt a desire and a need to have a much more dedicated period of comments and questions ... dedicated to the realignment,” Santos said.

At the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year, Bailey announced SOU would draft a strategic plan, which would require board approval with the stipulation savings to be fully implemented by mid-2024.

“I think we will continue to be the resilient institution that we are in the region and in our city,” Santos said. “I am confident that SOU will come out of these financial difficulties with a much more stable and sustainable revenue and budget, and not on the backs of student tuition.”

One of the things Bailey made clear in announcing the plan is the Ashland institution can no longer rely on state funding and tuition increases to stay operational.

During Thursday’s town hall, Bailey made clear the implementation of a strategic realignment plan would not mean implementing a tuition freeze.

“But it does mean we’re going to fight back against skyrocketing tuition,” Bailey said. “What I would like us to try to be is that institution that is routinely raising tuition the least, compared to our counterparts.”

The latest SOU town hall came not only ahead of a board meeting, but as the president’s office has asked constituents to weigh in on existing programs and changes.

To that end, the website for the office of the presidents lists a comprehensive analysis done by officials in five major units of SOU and also provides a space for constituents to provide feedback anonymously.

“I feel like every part of this university is contributing to this,” Bailey said. “Not everyone’s going to be happy with (the plan) — actually, no one is going to be happy with it.”

Bailey read many of the comments submitted anonymously, which ranged from whether administrators would be considered as part of reductions to the suggestion that SOU no longer use the word “division” for certain sectors of the university.

Bailey answered that yes, administrators were being looked at as part of the plan — something Bailey discussed at an SOU cabinet meeting recently.

“I will tell you that I can’t present a draft because I don’t know yet, and I am really struggling with it,” he said. “But I also said universality meant everything. So ‘yes’ is my answer.”

A faculty member asked Bailey during the meeting what kinds of cost-savings would be realized other than salaries.

“In my opinion, that was the driver, (to) reduce the administrative footprint,” Bailey said. “I will also say — this is putting cards on the table — we have some rock star directors who are retiring, so there was an opportunity there, as well. There are other things in that reorganization, but I’m not sure yet.”

Bailey’s plan also calls on new and innovative ways to get SOU’s coffers flowing. These include an affordable housing complex, a business incubator and — the crown jewel — a senior living facility. In an interview, Santos noted those proposals, saying it shows how “innovative” SOU is.

“I just think it’s going to be a much more sustainable university that will continue to grow in so many ways,” he said. “I certainly am hopeful that will mean more students.”

Whatever happens with the strategic realignment plan, Bailey told participants in Thursday’s town hall they would have to figure out a way to work without every employee who is left taking on more work for themselves.

“I am the worst violator,” Bailey said. “There are people who have gotten emails from me at 2 a.m. That’s a failure on my part. The last time I did that routinely, I was in Afghanistan. This is not Afghanistan.”

Faculty Senate President Brian Fedorek said he feels Bailey and the administration have been respectful in most aspects of the plan, including by hosting town halls. But he still has questions.

“I would like the question to be answered: ‘How did SOU get into this situation?’ and I’ve been here since 2009,” Fedorek said. “As many of us who have been here that long or even longer, we see some of those structural deficits rearing their head every so often.”

As a professor in criminology, Fedorek wants to know from SOU: “Are we addressing the cause of these issues, or are we just slapping Band-Aids on the symptoms to make them go away?”

Soon, Fedorek and others will meet with campus union and student body leaders on the matter.

“We don’t know what other people are doing. The right hand is not talking to the left hand,” he said. “It’s just kind of our way of getting together and seeing if there are shared concerns and if we can work together. President Bailey calls that a ‘strategic opportunity.’”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.