SOU: Trying times ahead?

Fingers are crossed in anticipation of the state's mid-May budget forecast, which will affect every state government agency, including Southern Oregon University.

A state economist from the Legislative Fiscal Office will give the mid-May forecast and decisions will then be made by officials at impacted organizations. The forecast needs to figure in lottery revenue, new tax revenue, federal stimulus money and the state General Fund, all of which have not yet been taken into account.

For many state agencies it could be a doomsday predicament.

The State Joint Committee on Ways and Means asked all state agencies to come up with budget proposals implementing a 30 percent reduction from last year's budget, an unsettling scenario for many agencies, considering there is an approximate $3 billion funding gap.

SOU is directly in the line of fire, but through proper planning, its outlook is much better than expected, officials said.

"We had already tightened our belts," SOU Public Affairs Officer Jim Beaver said. "Two years ago, we were already operating very lean, long before this economy came into play."

Beaver explained the cause of this "lean period" was a period of declining enrollment that forced the university to reorganize into a smaller, more efficient organization. A previous tuition hike is believed to be part of the lowered enrollment issue.

How the university will react to any budget cuts is undetermined at this time.

"It all depends on what cards we get dealt," Beaver said, "and we don't know what those will be yet."

SOU President Mary Cullinan was cautiously optimistic on what may or may not happen.

"There are many variables involved," Cullinan said. "If the cuts go way deep, we will have to figure out our options. We are just waiting for the May forecast."

Cullinan explained possible issues could include: extension of the hiring freeze set to end on July first, tuition hikes and negotiations with the different unions on campus. Cullinan believes layoffs would only contribute to the total problem, so the university is considering other options, one of which is the lowering of salaries.

"We have put together some scenarios, including variables the university can't control," Cullinan said. "We are assuming that we are going to get through this by compensation reduction management."

The budget is normally for two years, with the fiscal year beginning July 1. The upcoming budget may only be for one year, or worse, three months.

"We hoped they will have an 09-11 budget ready by June," Cullinan said. "We would prefer to have a sense of where we are going. This will enable us to set the tuition for next year."

If a budget is not passed in time, Cullinan hopes the Legislature will stay in session until one is approved. When the Oregon State Universities' budget is approved it then gets divided among the different schools in the system. With each individual school's needs taken into consideration, it is not always an even distribution of funds.

Overall SOU enrollment for next semester is slightly down, but Cullinan's optimism comes from the fact SOU experienced a 4.1 percent increase in 2008-09 winter semester freshman enrollment.

This enrollment spike is mostly due to the Oregon Opportunity Grant, a financial aid package the state had a hard time honoring financially. Enrollment is, however, on an upward curve, possibly from high enrollment at area community colleges, causing many students to finish their last two years at SOU. Also contributing to the spike are the Memorandum of Understanding between SOU and the University of Oregon, where U of O students attend their first two years at SOU before finishing at the U of O, the Obama Administration's increase in Pell Grant funding and the overall increase of SOU's reputation and various other SOU recruitment initiatives.

SOU's current student enrollment stands close to 5,500 students

Both Cullinan and Beaver agree that a larger enrollment would definitely help.

"We would love to see ballooning enrollment, " Beaver said.

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