SOU's finances still need work

Budget concerns dominated the recommendations made Friday morning by the accreditation team that visited Southern Oregon University this week. The 10-member committee also commended the university on its transparency and resilience during the budget crisis it considered "one of the greatest fiscal challenges faced by SOU," as well as SOU's dedication to students and community outreach efforts through non-credit programs.

None of the budget suggestions in its report came as a surprise to university officials.

"All of the recommendations were things we knew we needed to work on," said University President Mary Cullinan. "We're in the middle of attacking all of them."

Cullinan compared accreditation to a test, where the preparation is more important than the actual examination. SOU spent the last 18 months preparing the self-study on nine different standards the accreditation team uses to evaluate schools. All universities go through the accreditation process every 10 years to qualify for federal funding.

Among the financial recommendations the team made were creating a strategic plan that addresses resource allocation and program development, building financial reserves back up to adequate levels and improving strategies for facility maintenance.

"The reserves is one I least liked hearing," said Prof. Sherry Ettlich, who serves as the chief negotiator for the faculty union. "We had fought not to have to raise the reserves too quickly. I just don't want us overly pressured to have a 10 percent reserve overnight."

SOU ended its fiscal year in July with 4.1 percent of the budget in reserve, below the 5 to 15 percent range recommended by the Oregon University System, said Craig Morris, interim vice president for finance. The retrenchment plan developed in response to the budget shortfall aimed at a gradual increase in reserves, to reach 7.5 percent after three years, he said.

Ettlich said she was surprised about the emphasis on funding for facilities, but could understand the reasoning behind it.

"That's more easily postponable than classes and students," she said. "We had already been putting money into those programs."

In addition to the budget recommendations, the team advised more evaluations for temporary and part-time faculty and more comprehensive educational assessments.

Psychology Prof. Michael Naumes responded with interest to evaluation of faculty.

"The psychology department has quite a few adjuncts," he said. "It will be interesting to see how we can grapple with that. There's only so much time in a day."

He said it seemed to be a good idea, however, because adjunct faculty members don't always get a lot of supervision or support.

The university already has a system in place for evaluating all courses and tenured faculty, said Interim Provost Ed Battistella, and the suggestions addressed known shortfalls.

"It sounds like they want us to be more systematic," he said. "They've identified things that we've been working on, and it gives us the impetus to finish our work."

The team will present their final recommendations to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities' board of commissioners in January.

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