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Southern Oregon University

Mary Cullinan

March 4, 2010

 

I want to thank Chair Yaden and the Reset Committee for the invitation to speak. I appreciate that the committee is looking thoughtfully at the role and value of higher education in Oregon and the possibility of improving the educational opportunities for residents of the state.

 

Value to the Region and the State

 

Southern Oregon University was founded as Ashland Academy in 1872 to serve as a normal school for the southern part of the state. We became a university in 1997. The primary region we serve covers over 40,000 square miles in southern Oregon and northern California. 

  • SOU is the largest employer in Ashland with 775 employees and a payroll of approximately $48,000,000.
  • For winter 2010 our enrollment of 5,670 students is the second largest in the school's history.
  • In 2009-2010, almost 13% of our enrollment are students of color.
  • Approximately 27% of our enrolled students who filled out financial aid information are the first students in their families to go to college. 70% of our students receive some sort of financial aid.
  • 55% of our students are from the seven southwest counties of Oregon, with almost 42% from Jackson County.
  • Approximately 83% of our graduates remain in Oregon. 

Our graduates are impressive. They include:

 

-The Honorable Virginia Linder, the first woman on Oregon's Supreme Court.

 

-Michael Geisen, last year's National Teacher of the Year;

 

-Suzanne Chanti who was sworn in two weeks ago to serve on the Lane County Circuit Court bench;

 

-Dan Henderson who has been granted over 25 U.S. patents and founded one of the nation's largest telecommunications companies, PhoneTel Communications of Fort Worth, Texas;

 

-Tyler Burrell, a star of the comedy series Modern Family who has appeared in films such as Black Hawk Down and In Good Company and television shows such as Law and Order and West Wing; and

 

-Joel David Moore who has appeared on CSI, was in the film Dodgeball, and is currently starring as Dr. Norm Spellman in Avatar.

 

Southern Oregon University contributes significantly to the economic vitality and the vibrant cultural life of our region.  The University has been designated an OUS Center for Fine and Performing Arts. Central to the founding of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Britt Music Festival, SOU continues to bring people to the Rogue Valley, both as tourists and as permanent residents. Our Elderhostel, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and other programs bring in thousands of visitors every year. We are the only Oregon university member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.

 

SOU's recently approved strategic plan lists four major goals.  One of those goals is further refining and expanding key academic programs that reflect our emphasis on the region and on the arts. We are expanding our programming in Environmental Studies, developing curricula in digital media, and planning a program in musical theatre to enrich our already strong offerings in performing arts.

 

All SOU's undergraduate programs connect students with the region and with an applied focus that complements classroom and laboratory work. Our students provide service in the form of internships, practica, capstones, volunteer work. Over the last three years, 4,500 SOU students participated in community-based learning activities in agencies, small businesses, and arts organizations. 

 

SOU's primary focus is on a high quality undergraduate education. However, with a mission to serve professional workforce needs, we develop applied Master's degrees and certificate programs in response to regional needs. We now offer a Saturday MBA program as well as a full-time MBA and Master in Management program. We offer a Masters in Mental Health Counseling and a Master in Education. We offer certificates in areas such as Non-Profit Management, Sustainability Leadership, and Management of Aging Services. This last is offered in partnership with Pacific Retirement Services, a major employer in our region.

 

Another of the four goals of our strategic plan focuses on expanding our already strong role as a community partner and catalyst.

 

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SOU (OLLI) has over 1200 members. Last year OLLI received a million dollar endowment from the Osher Foundation. OLLI is now eligible to apply for a second million dollars.

 

Over the last two years, SOU's Small Business Development Center offered free business counseling to over 600 business clients. 

 

Jefferson Public Radio on our campus hosts a network of National Public Radio stations that serves over a million residents in its 60,000 square mile coverage area.

 

SOU hosts Rogue Valley Television, providing public, education and government access TV services to the citizens and governments of southern Oregon.

 

We have many meaningful collaborations-with high schools, OHSU, the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, the Crater Lake Science and Learning Center, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Ashland and Medford Chambers of Commerce. We have an enrollment program with the University of Oregon; we collaborate with PSU on contracting services; we are working on curricular partnerships with OIT.

 

Our closest partner historically has been Rogue Community College. Beginning in 1997, RCC and SOU received Regional Access funding from the legislature that made it possible to launch new degree completion programs in Medford and create articulated degree programs in areas such as Criminal Justice and Early Childhood Development.

 

The SOU-RCC partnership resulted in our jointly planned Higher Education Center in Medford, which is a model of partnership in the state and beyond. This collaboration provides easy access for students, streamlines financial aid processes, facilitates degree completion, and integrates academic and professional programs. The first LEED certified project in southern Oregon, the building serves local businesses with testing services, video conferencing capabilities, and a myriad of support and educational activities.

 

Dilemmas and Challenges

 

When I arrived in Oregon as president of SOU in 2006, I was incredibly impressed by the contributions of SOU to the region and the quality of our academic programs and students.

 

I also saw much to appreciate in the higher education system here. Although considerably smaller than the two states, California and Texas, that I had worked in over the past decades, Oregon had a valuable array of higher education options: two research universities with quite different missions; an urban university in our largest population area; and four smaller institutions set strategically around the state, each with a different portfolio of offerings, each serving different regions in its own way.

 

I was pleased to be again in a university system with a statewide Board and a Chancellor's Office to provide much-needed services and to help strengthen our case with the state legislature. In Texas, where I worked at a public university that was not in a system and had its own Board, we had tremendous freedom in terms of curriculum and planning. However, we did everything as a campus ourselves-and lacked the clout that came with being in a system. In the large California State University system, on the other hand, we had more funding security but worked more in lock-step and were not encouraged to establish our own institutional identities.

 

Naturally, I quickly learned the dilemmas facing us in the Oregon University System. One challenge is that the regional institutions are not truly acknowledged for what they contribute. The legislature and even members of our own Board focus on the larger institutions and the larger population areas of the state. They do not always recognize the significant differences among the smaller institutions or the tremendous, varied benefits we bring to the citizens of Oregon. We are referred to generically as "the regionals" as though we are very similar institutions. And at times we are thought of more as a problem than as a valuable asset to the state.

 

And, of course, upon coming to Oregon, I quickly experienced firsthand what I had known only theoretically before I arrived-that the state has chronically underfunded higher education. State funding for Oregon's universities compared poorly with that of almost every other state.

 

Unlike any other state I had experienced, Oregon did not even fully fund academic buildings but required campuses to provide matching dollars through fundraising. This policy creates tremendous challenge for smaller campuses and imperils significant growth plans for a number of institutions.

 

The legislature and the University system, I learned, had a history of creating plans and compacts-promising stable funding on the one hand and accountability on the other-that had never been fully implemented, at least on the funding side of the bargain. State funding had progressively lessened, tuition had risen, and universities continued to be held accountable for a variety of performance measures while, in every biennium, being asked to design cost-cutting scenarios of varying degrees of severity. Moreover, in almost every legislative session, it seemed one "solution" to chronic under-funding was to close a "regional."

 

The state funding situation reached one of its most dismal crises in spring 2009 when university fund balances were swept and tuition caps were enforced just as enrollments reached peak levels. Each university now lives in a state of uncertainty, wanting to increase its financial stability with a strong fund balance but afraid that looking "too rich" will make our reserves a desirable source for funding other state agencies.

 

I also saw, with the eyes of someone new to Oregon, that the dilemmas facing the Oregon University System are compounded by legislative control on a level I had never before experienced. With thousands of lines in the state budget, OUS institutions find strategic planning, even planning to meet our own accountability goals, extraordinarily difficult.

 

To my dismay, I also saw in Oregon a significant lack of trust between the legislature and the public universities. Legislators do not trust institutions to behave responsibly-to provide access to students, to create effective pathways to graduation, to develop programs that meet workforce needs, to use state and tuition funds efficiently and effectively. The universities do not trust that the legislature will sufficiently support the institutions or allow the flexibility to make strategic decisions in keeping with the state's and their own mission and goals.

 

Importance of Planning and Follow-Through

 

I do not need to stress here the incredible value of higher education in Oregon-or the sad situation we face as resources erode and enrollment pressures increase. I am delighted that a serious conversation about the future of higher education in Oregon is taking place.

 

It would appear that this is time to plan for significant change. However, it is also important to remember that plans made in former years were never fully carried out. Here the trust factor appears again. The plan to fully fund the RAM did not happen. A proposed compact with the state in 2002 called "The Deal" was not embraced. Proposals to mitigate the pressures of increased health benefits and retirement costs on OUS have not been accepted. It appears to me, as a relative newcomer, that only the performance measures and a variety of constraints have been consistently applied.

 

The one major change that did occur, of course, was the move of OHSU to public corporation status, and that move is being studied again now. The transition was carefully planned out over a number of years, yet even so it was not without considerable difficulty.

 

There are many differences between OHSU and the institutions within the Oregon University System. In light of the extraordinarily difficult biennia that lie ahead, I worry about making a dramatic move without sufficient planning or without the guarantees needed to ensure smooth and successful transition. I worry that fracturing the Oregon University System, with one or more institutions breaking away during this unstable economic time, could further harm the overall effectiveness and quality of public higher education in the state.  

 

Breaking up the system could also violate another trust: that Oregon citizens have access to partner institutions which facilitate transfer and work collaboratively to meet the state's common goals.

 

On the other hand, while breaking up the system could be damaging for Oregon, it is increasingly evident that the current status of OUS as a state agency endangers both the quality and the sustainability of public higher education in Oregon.

 

Aspects of a Plan

 

I agree with my fellow OUS presidents that the substance of a compact with the state is more important than agreement on an organizational structure. We have agreed as presidents that, if we are to meet the state's goals for an educated citizenry and contribute effectively to the health of our regions and our state, we need flexibility for our individual (and very different) institutions and for the system as a whole.

 

The fourth goal of SOU's strategic plan is financial sustainability. We have developed plans for increasing and diversifying our student body; for creating a tuition structure that maximizes access for Oregonians while increasing revenue; for developing and enhancing international partnerships; for increasing external support through fundraising and grants; for ensuring that program priorities meet regional workforce needs; and for implementing marketing strategies to support our goals.

 

We are committed to continue setting tuition rates that are market-sensitive to resident undergraduates; we will continue to confer with student leadership to set tuition rates each year. We will continue to reserve differential tuition as an option for high-demand programs and distance delivered programs. We will continue to design tuition remission and fundraising plans that ensure eligible Oregon students receive the best support packages possible. However, we need the flexibility to develop revenue plans that work for our individual institution.

 

As a smaller institution with a strong commitment to access and moderate tuition- and with limited fundraising capacity-we need a commitment from the state for stable, predictable funding at a reasonable level. As President Ray noted in his testimony, unpredictable state support promotes management by crisis and undercuts long-term planning.

 

We also need a commitment that the revenue we generate, especially as the bulk of it comes from students' tuition, cannot be swept by the state to meet other needs, however pressing.

 

As President Ray also noted, letting institutions keep interest earnings on tuition and on our fund balances will promote efficiency and stability while ensuring that tuition remains moderate enough to continue allowing us to provide access to higher education for state residents.

 

A compact with the state should also address enrollment growth across the campuses. At present, some OUS institutions can grow only by building or buying expensive new facilities; their campuses are at maximum physical capacity. Other campuses such as SOU that are not located in major population areas have considerable built capacity.

 

SOU's online programming and partnerships with community colleges and local high schools are helping to increase access and the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded in our region. Other OUS institutions are doing similar things.

 

Nonetheless, the state cannot expect to meet long-term goals for baccalaureate-educated citizens without a statewide effort to maximize enrollments in public universities.  A state compact could provide incentives for Oregon residents to attend the universities with capacity. Fully funding academic buildings through a long-term strategic plan would also help the state meet educational goals for its citizenry.

 

Conclusion

 

In these difficult times, OUS administrators, faculty, and staff have taken pay cuts and furlough days. Many of us have laid off employees, reorganized offices, reduced course offerings, and cut crucial resources. We have been significantly damaged as institutions even as enrollments increase. Now is the time to re-think the way the state and OUS do business together. We need the flexibility to manage our resources and the day-to-day operations of our institutions.

 

Now is the time to create a plan and a compact that we can all live with and count on. If we do this right, the benefits to the state of Oregon will be impressive and long-lasting.

  

Mary Cullinan

President, Southern Oregon University