Campus Conversations: SOU Restructuring, Not Realigning

As the Fall Term wound to a close, plans for campus-wide improvements are just getting started. SOU President Rick Bailey invited students and staff to the first of many “Campus Conversations” held the Thursday before Thanksgiving. These meetings are meant to bring the community in on the discussion of overcoming the financial challenges faced by SOU. Despite the surface similarity to the Town Halls from February, President Bailey clarified that the name change was deliberate: “We are moving forward in a different way.” The Realignment Plan from earlier this year created a lot of tension on campus, with students and staff worried about department cuts and the resulting damage to SOU’s culture and identity. As this particular meeting got underway, it became obvious that SOU is not looking to repeat the Realignment Plan, but is instead working on internal restructuring in order to create long-term stability.

Part of the ability to make these changes stems from one-time funding granted to Technical and Regional Universities, as well as Portland State, by the state of Oregon. The money is meant to “help us with our long-term fiscal stabilization.” SOU’s slice of this funding could be as large as $2.25 million, but the money cannot be used to resolve debts, assist with continual expenses, or cover gaps in operation costs. Oregon legislature outlined four potential ways for universities to invest the funds: Enrollment, Retention, Administrative Services and Efficiencies, and Workforce Development.

The state funding would not be used for the business center and the Cascade retirement community, as President Bailey later clarified that those are separate entrepreneurial ventures that involve SOU partnering with private businesses. Those plans are still underway as a continuing part of generating fiscal stability for SOU.

President Bailey did come prepared with some ideas for how the university could spend the money. As an institution, SOU pays approximately $1.5 million a year for the Banner system, which manages all of our records. One of the projects already well underway is the Core Information Systems Replacement (CISR), which is the fancy name for the process of changing to Workday, which will help streamline the digital face and management of SOU. Investing some of the funding from Oregon could help with the process, and in the longterm, the switch to Workday should save SOU hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. In addition, the university’s IT department is looking at using student workers in the transition to act as “Workday ambassadors,” which would give students applicable tech experience for post-grad job hunts.

Another idea for investment from President Bailey related to SOU’s buildings and energy grid. The university could use the money to redo older buildings as part of more efficient energy management, like upgrading ventilation systems or installing solar panels. Ideas from the crowd for the funding included working on campus accessibility, creating a curriculum for AI literacy, and working on attracting more graduate students to SOU.

Other improvements for student life could come from a partnership with the other universities in Oregon that will benefit from the funds. President Bailey introduced the potential for academic partnerships through the development of online education. The plan on the drawing board is that universities with classes that don’t fill up would then offer their students a similar class from a fellow state university. This would help prevent delays in graduation, and allow invested students to take the classes they’re interested in rather than placeholders.

Another issue raised at this meeting was how to fill the empty seat of the Vice President of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. As discussed in last years Town Halls, there was a request for what President Bailey refers to as a “smaller executive footprint.” However, the reduced amount of executives should not lead to a compromise of SOU’s culture, in which EDI plays a key part. President Bailey stated that “Students need to see themselves in the institution – leadership should look like the diversity we want.” Instead of looking externally to fill the VP position, Dr. Alma Rosa Alvarez proposed that SOU should look internally for an individual to raise into the position. Someone who knows SOU’s culture would be better positioned to advocate for students, and a homegrown VP wouldn’t be a stranger to the students they are supposed to represent.

In addition to discussing financial longevity, infrastructure improvements, and executive matters, President Bailey also brought up his concerns about the salaries of the unclassified staff at SOU. Unclassified staff are SOU employees that are not part of the SEIU or APSOU unions – they negotiate on an individual basis with the university as their employer. Some familiar faces would be our Student Success Coordinators, or the team working in Financial Aid. President Bailey expressed worry about the fact that union contracts stipulate cost of living adjustments and tiered wage increases for seniority – but unclassified staff are often left out of those gains. President Bailey states that he hopes to resolve this disparity in the coming fiscal year by deliberately setting aside funds for unclassified staff and budgeting to pay them a fair wage.

Finally, President Bailey shared that SOU is reconsidering how best to support student health and wellness. The aptly named Student Health and Wellness Center is an essential service for many SOU students, but the university is struggling under the sheer volume of need. Many students are from out of state and thus do not have local care providers. More still are struggling with access to health insurance, which leads to a lack of access to healthcare.

As part of SOU’s plan for financial longevity, President Bailey presented a plan to partner with a local care service in order to make sure students will have access to the care they need – without forcing SOU to continue acting as a bandaid for the gaping wound that American healthcare is. The provider that SOU is looking to partner with is the local La Clinica, which has worked to serve Rogue Valley for over 30 years. La Clinica predominately provides care for low-income and underrepresented communities, with their goal being to provide “culturally appropriate, accessible, and affordable quality healthcare.”

In addition to increased affordability and access, a partnership with La Clinica is uniquely beneficial to trans and gender-nonconforming students. There is a large population of students at SOU who use the Student Health and Wellness Center to access gender-affirming care. SOU’s choice in partner reflects the care of the university to improve and expand the options available to students.

Overall, it is clear that SOU’s plans for financial stability and campus-wide improvements are already well underway. Despite the initial worries over a repeat of the Realignment Plan, it’s apparent that the current projects aim to enrich and stabilize the campus community for students and staff. SOU’s plans for restructuring are meant to build a future in which the university can sustain itself and continue to serve students for years to come.

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