Western Oregon University is planning to eliminate a number of degree programs following years of declining enrollment, which has only been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. Some in the campus community said the decision is happening under a rushed timeline, especially as the university’s president is set to retire next year.
In a finalized plan, released last week by a task force that included WOU President Rex Fuller, the university said it will eliminate majors including anthropology, philosophy and geography, as well as its master’s programs in information systems and in music. The plan said the cuts were necessary because of low or declining enrollment.
From 2011 to 2020, the regional university’s enrollment has decreased by more than 25%, according to WOU.
Those program curtailments, as well as the additional elimination of some minors and certificate programs, will cut about 30 full-time faculty positions through both layoffs and expired contracts, according to WOU.
The breakdown of how tenure-track, tenured and non-tenured faculty will be affected won’t be determined until deans and division heads make those decisions — a process that’s taking place until the end of January.
Fuller wrote in a letter to the campus community last month that students in affected majors or minors will still be able to finish their degrees or certificates.
“[A]cademic advisors will work with students in affected programs to find pathways to graduation,” Fuller said. “Students will continue to receive the personalized support they have come to expect at WOU. And, we will be as flexible as we can in supporting students and their educational goals.”
Both the university’s faculty union — the WOU Federation of Teachers — and its Faculty Senate Executive council have pushed back on the plan to some degree.
Both groups agreed the timeline for making such cuts was too short, that more data was needed on specific departments, and campus outreach about the plan has not been sufficiently inclusive.
The plan was created by a task force including Fuller, deans of various colleges within WOU and cabinet members.
“[W]e believe these changes will enable the university to continue to offer an appropriate array of undergraduate and graduate programs that serve the needs of Oregon,” the task force wrote in its final plan. “Furthermore, these budget cuts are part of a comprehensive approach to the university’s budget reality — that is aligning our workforce to a campus enrollment of 4,500 students.”
As of this fall term, WOU has the fewest enrolled students among Oregon public universities other than Eastern Oregon University, which has 2,853 students, according to the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission. EOU is located in La Grande, a much less densely populated area than WOU’s main campus in Monmouth, southwest of Salem, and much farther away from large population centers
“Quite frankly, our options for achieving a balanced budget are limited, given that more than 85% of our expenses are salary and benefits,” Fuller said in a letter to the campus community. “With limited options for tuition increases, declining enrollment, and likely cuts to state funding, we must act decisively to align our budget with our fiscal reality.”
Attempts to address budget shortfalls, and effects of the pandemic, have already led to the layoffs and reduced hours of about 50 classified and unclassified employees earlier this year.
The planning for these additional major program cuts comes amid Fuller’s last year at the university. He announced his retirement in October.
Both the teachers union and the university’s staff union, SEIU Sub-local 082, initiated a “no confidence” vote against Fuller. It resulted in more than 85% of voting members last month expressing a lack of confidence in Fuller’s leadership.
That was the first time in memory that a vote of no confidence had been conducted at WOU, according to the faculty union.
Though the union didn’t take a position on whether these decisions should be made under Fuller or the next university president, the group said more time should be taken on this plan, in general.
The faculty union provided comment on the initial draft plan last month, stating it is not persuaded that such drastic cuts are required.
“The WOUFT Executive Council recognizes that WOU faces significant financial challenges,” the faculty union wrote. “However, we strongly object to the proposed elimination of majors and upper-division course offerings that unnecessarily limit student learning and career pathways.”
The Faculty Senate Executive Council also recommended that the university create a committee to develop strategies to address long-term declining enrollment. Fuller’s taskforce accepted that recommendation and stated it will be developed next year.
According to the finalized plan, the university must begin making layoff decisions, with layoff notices to be given no later than the end of January.
Affected tenure-track or tenured faculty will be given up to one-year layoff notice before their positions would end, at the latest by the end of January 2022, WOU said.
WOU is also giving incentives to faculty members who choose to retire and relinquish their tenure.