Student walk-out highlights tension between students, administration

With contributions from Nils Holst

Since the beginning of the term several events have been staged by students and community members to send a message of discontent to Southern Oregon University’s administration.

The reasons vary: some students are concerned about alleged “drastic” budget cuts to SOU’s Schneider Children’s Center, some are worried about student practicums being defunded, while others are disappointed with the lack of transparency regarding the removal of Deltra Ferguson, the former coordinator of SOU’s Women’s Resource Center.

Southern Oregon University’s Pre-Law Club hosted a “silent protest” April 17 where students and faculty “walked out” of classes and gathered in the Stevenson Union courtyard in protest of Ferguson’s removal, as well as other issues.

Christie Burgess, president of the Pre-Law Club, identified the student group as a “neutral party critical of the lack of communication between students and administration.”

“I’m really glad to see students and faculty come together and glad to see the important issues debated,” said Michelle Glass, a student organizer of the walkout protest. “But I was really disappointed to see the important questions evaded.”

Ferguson’s contract in particular has been a point of contention between students and administration for the better part of a month now, with each group accusing the other of dishonesty.

Ferguson’s contract with the university was terminated on March 23, the Friday before Spring Break, an action that caused many students to vocally accuse SOU administration of gross misconduct.

Jonathan Eldridge, vice president of Student Affairs, appeared at the protest to address concerns in what became an open forum for the voicing of grievances.

“I understand your concerns, but most of what you said just isn’t factual,” Eldridge argued in front of the crowd. “No centers are being merged, and no centers are going away.”

Eldridge stated that he believed false information and misleading rumors were knowingly disseminated by some students in the aftermath of Ferguson’s firing, one of which was that Ferguson was fired at 5 p.m. on Friday, which Eldridge said was “not true.”

“There are multiple trained sexual advocacy counseling experts on campus. I know there have been rumors because of false information, I believe made knowingly, about a lack of trained advocates,” Eldridge said. “There are survivors of sexual assault [on SOU’s campus] who don’t go to WRC.”

“Deltra has been on vacation, has gone to conferences. Do we have a shock because we suddenly have no advocate? No we don’t,” he added later.

Ferguson, who has served as coordinator for 8 years, said in a statement to the media that she was “disappointed and sad” with the administration’s decision to terminate her contract, and that she felt she had served the center well during her time there.

Many students felt the same, as evidenced by the many outraged messages written in chalk and printed on paper that appeared nearly everywhere on campus, messages such as “We were lied to,” “I miss Deltra,” and “Is your child safe at SOU?”

Students have expressed mixed sentiments regarding the messages, ranging from high endorsement to harsh criticism.

“I feel like the messages are justified,” said Amanda Lilienthal, 19. “If that is what it takes to get the school to take charge of the situation, then that’s what it takes.”

Other students spoke highly of the free speech issue, and the importance of raising awareness of it on campus. “It’s creative, but it offends,” said Justin Konoho, 21.

Henry Steelhammer, 20, noted that “I think they are extreme, but they get attention.”

“I saw one that said ‘Are you safe,’” said Ken Veach, 21. “I definitely had a reaction. I definitely looked over my shoulder thinking I might be attacked or something.”

The level of what several students have called sensationalism is a major area of concern among those who criticize the messages.

“I honestly think it’s kind of dumb,” said Andrew Bechard, 23. “I think shock is not a good way to get the message across. I think it’s a cheap way to get a message across.”

Other students said they felt the messages were distracting to students and misguided in the way they fight for a single individual rather than for a greater cause, and some even expressed confusion as to what issues the messages were trying to address.

“I think if the voice of the students was really dead, they wouldn’t be able to get those messages out,” said Moriah Miller, 18.

Due to standard university employment policy, Eldridge and all other members of the SOU administration are legally prohibited from commenting on reasons for personnel actions resulting in termination of a university employee’s contract.

“We certainly fully support students making their opinions known, taking productive action, rallying, doing whatever they need to do,” said Eldridge. “It’s just unfortunate when a few people decide they need to put out bad information.”

Eldridge emphasized multiple times to the walkout group the transparency with which the administration is willing to operate on any other concerns and criticisms, including making budget paperwork available to show legitimacy or to debunk rumors of controversial cuts and investments.

“A lot of students are disappointed and frustrated, and I expect tough questions,” said Eldridge afterward, adding that the problem is not lack of transparency, but rather the low turnout at open administration meetings from students and community members.

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