During a campus town hall on Thursday morning, Southern Oregon University President Rick Bailey announced significant proposed staffing cuts and program reductions in the face of a structural deficit.
SOU faces a $1.3 million deficit this year that is forecast to grow to $14.6 million in the 2026/27 academic year. The university is attempting to reduce costs by $3.6 million this year.
“The challenge for us is also an opportunity. And that is, what can we do structurally to actually fix the problem so that we’re not here two years from now having this same conversation,” Bailey said before an auditorium of faculty, staff and students.
The plan to address the structural deficit involves a total reduction of nearly 83 full time equivalent positions, or 13% of the university workforce. Twenty-four of those reductions will take place by employees losing their jobs. The rest are a combination of current vacancies going unfilled, early retirements, voluntary departures and nonrenewable contracts.
“I think there are people in this room who have helped save this university long-term,” Bailey said, addressing staff members who chose to leave voluntarily.
Since the plan is not final, cuts to specific departments and individual staff have not been made public, according to SOU spokesperson Joe Mosley. However, changes include eliminating the portions of the theater arts program, discontinuation of the master’s degree in environmental education, and the departure of Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Neil Woolf. SOU’s current seven academic divisions will be shrunk to four, which will reduce administrative support, according to Mosley.
One SOU student at the town hall expressed concern about the proposal to merge departments, which could translate to unrelated small disciplines like the Gender Sexuality and Women’s Studies Department, Native American Studies, and the Ethnic and Racial Studies Department being lumped together for programmatic efficiency.
“I know that right now we’re not looking at consolidating those degrees, but down the future, if they’re already in the same department, then we’re already going to be looking at ‘Well, we could just make it the minority studies degree.’ And so, there’s a huge fear of that,” they said.
The theater arts program is facing significant cuts. Theater faculty member Eric Levin said the university has hired more administrators in recent years, while his department has had empty theater tech positions while faculty members are being moved to other departments, despite his program’s strong graduation rate and success in placing students in theater jobs.
“You can’t do productions with just actors unless you want to have crayon-colored sets,” Levin said.
“What we want to hear as faculty are specifically what his plans are that are going to raise revenue,” he said.
Specific positions being eliminated will be shared prior to a March 17 SOU board of trustees meeting, Bailey said. The proposed cuts will be approved by the board on April 21.
SOU has gone into retrenchment twice before when university employees, including tenured faculty, can be fired. However, Bailey said he was not announcing that the university was going into exigency, the process by which retrenchment is declared.
According to Bailey, state funding for SOU has remained stable while student enrollment has dropped by 30% over the past decade. Tuition accounts for 50% of the university’s revenue. The university is facing additional staff retirement obligations and health care costs in the coming five years.
Full time enrollment of students at SOU dropped from 4,350 in 2013 to 3,264 in 2022, according to the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission. The most dramatic losses came in 2019 during the onset of the COVID pandemic. Full time attendance dropped from 4,030 in 2019 to 3,512 students in 2020.
SOU is not alone in facing stiff headwinds related to enrollment. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, while national undergraduate enrollment in fall 2022 was better than in previous years, it has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“Post secondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, down about 1.23 million undergraduates and 1.11 million total enrollment, both undergraduate and graduate, compared to fall 2019,” the organization wrote in a February, 2023 report.
The current financial management plan is the first of four steps in the SOU administration’s proposal to close the structural deficit and improve the university’s financial position. The others include “reimagining grants, leveraging philanthropy, and diversifying revenue,” according to the university plan.