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Cuts out the financial woes of Oregon's oldest public university versus the institution's 'soul'

Oregon's oldest public university, Western Oregon, in the small town of Monmouth in the Willamette Valley, it will cut back several programs and the equivalent of more than a dozen full-time teachers, in hopes of anticipating the drop in enrollment that has only worsened during the pandemic.

Administrators say it is a necessary measure to protect the financial health of the university and a way to keep the 165-year-old institution affordable for future students. But employees, current students, and alumni say they are concerned about a change in campus culture and community, especially with the removal of programs like philosophy, which teach broadly beneficial skills such as critical thinking, analysis, and writing.

"To cut the philosophy is to cut the soul of the university," said Mark Perlman, chair of the philosophy department at WOU. “And it makes me very sad that certain people just don't understand that. All they do is live off spreadsheets, and that's not how you're supposed to handle things. ”

Perlman has been teaching at Western Oregon University for 23 years and is among the four tenured professors

Mark Perlman has taught at Western for 23 years.

Mark Perlman

The equivalent of 11 non-tenured teachers is also affected, either by dismissal or a significant reduction in the classes they teach.

Dismissed professors, such as Perlman, will be employed at the university for one more year, as required by the teachers' union collective bargaining agreement. The cuts have been deeply divisive on campus, both because they mean the elimination of valued programs, but also because they are the result of a direction of process

At the end of last year, a task force that included the president of WOU, Rex Fuller, published a plan that established several cuts for the school. That final plan included the elimination of programs such as philosophy, anthropology and geography, master's degrees in information systems and music, as well as other certificates and minors.

That working group considered the cuts needed due to declining or declining enrollment in those particular programs.

"In all honesty, since we are a publicly funded university where enrollment matters, at this time, approximately 70% of our revenue comes from enrollment activities related to tuition and fees," said President Fuller OPB. .

WOU President Rex Fuller will be retiring later this year.

WOU

Fuller will be retiring later this year, and some faculty and staff say that decision-making for program cuts has been too rushed, with many expressing a general sense

Both the teachers and staff unions at WOU initiated a “no-confidence” vote last year in which more than 85% of voting members expressed a lack of confidence in Fuller's leadership.

“I want to make it clear that this vote was never something that [the union] or the staff really wanted,” said Jackson Stalley, a library technician and president of the WOU staff union. "It was something that, as those voices got so loud from our colleagues on staff that we couldn't ignore it anymore."

Before these more recent teacher layoffs, WOU announced last year that more than 50 staff members were to be fired or not to renew their contracts.

Regarding the eliminations of the current program, the teachers union said that it is not convinced that such drastic cuts are needed, and if they are needed, then a more transparent process is necessary.

“We know that the budget is under some pressure at WOU. We are in the process of looking at the extent to which there is a budget issue, ”said Scott Beaver, communications director for the WOU Teachers Union. “But either way, we believe that if we had time to research how to reasonably address any relevant budget issues, we would be confident that we would be reaching an appropriate and justified conclusion. Many teachers don't feel that way at the moment. ”

Fuller said the next fiscal year is when the university will start to see savings from the program cuts, due to the one-year delay before the layoffs go into effect.

The planned cuts are estimated to save about $ 1.5 million from teachers' salaries. Total savings exceed $ 2 million when benefits and other personnel costs are included, according to WOU Director and Vice President for Academic Affairs Rob Winningham.

While administrators point to challenging budgets and declining enrollment over the past decade, students and faculty members like Perlman feel they are bearing the consequences of problems they did not create.

"It really feels like a betrayal on a very deep level," Perlman said. “My job as a teacher is to teach the students who are in my class. The administration's job is to get them to college and put them in my class. I've been doing my part all this time. The administration has been falling into the task of keeping the license plate where it should be. ”

Students say philosophy is not just for older or younger

Of the programs that are being phased out, philosophy is getting the most extreme treatment. Western is eliminating both senior and high school philosophy and laying off half its faculty – two out of four teachers. Those cuts deal a devastating blow to students currently enrolled at Western who suddenly have to rethink their future plans.

WOU philosophy student Zach Zappe attended college in his home state of Colorado and Florida, before transferring to WOU. He is scheduled to graduate next year, but said that if he cannot get a degree in philosophy, he will have to transfer elsewhere.

"I'm pretty heartbroken that I transferred to Western, and I might have to transfer again, which is, you know, transferring is a painful process and costs money," Zappe said.

 Currently specializing in philosophy at WOU, Zach Zappe.

Specialization in philosophy from the current WOU, Zach Zappe.

Zach Zappe /

[1945990132] WOU officials say that all students currently pursuing a career in philosophy, as well as any other degree program scheduled to be phased out, will be able to finish through a "teaching program".

According to the university, the faculty will develop a schedule for affected students so that they can complete their required courses in the coming years. WOU could also offer "major goals" such as a humanities major or an interdisciplinary major.

Zappe is considering going to graduate school and eventually teaching, but he said that's not something he can do with the undergraduate alternatives at WOU.

"If you're trying to get into academia in philosophy, you need a major in philosophy," Zappe said.

He said he knows other students in his program who will end up leaving WOU if only an interdisciplinary degree was offered.

According to Fuller and other administrators, the main reason for eliminating the philosophy and other programs is due to the low number of students pursuing a major or high school.

"The three majors: philosophy, anthropology and geography, represent less than 1% of our students," said WOU Provost Winningham.

Although students cannot be declared minor or major in philosophy, Zappe said that he has always had classes with students from a variety of ety and different programs.

“I can see that the philosophy program has been positively affecting other students outside of the program. And so I think he has value in that, and Western is absolutely going to lose that, "Zappe said.

Nathan Soltz – a recent WOU graduate with degrees in philosophy and psychology, and a minor in political science – he said his philosophy classes were often full of out-of-program students as well.

Soltz is now the chief of staff to Oregon Senator Lew Frederick, D-Portland.

 WOU graduate Nathan Soltz sits down after casting one of Oregon electoral votes in December 2020. Soltz is Oregon Senator Lew Frederick's chief of staff.

WOU graduate Nathan Soltz sits after the election one of Oregon's electoral votes in December 2020. Soltz is the chief of staff for Senator Lew Frederick of Oregon.

Nathan Soltz

"The Western administration is cutting back on a program that, at its core, teaches critical thinking skills and teaches how to have serious discussions and teaches how to see the world from a less polarized point of view," he said. Soltz, highlighting the national context, of deep political divisions and suspicions. "You're really doing the entire community a disservice at any time by trying to remove this really valuable program, but [especially] trying to remove it now that it's more important than ever."

Winningham and President Fuller say they will continue to be philosophy courses taught at WOU, even without students being able to declare a major or minor, and fewer professors.

It is not a "fatal blow" to Western

Western, as most Oregon public universities have been hit especially hard financially during the pandemic. Oregon's seven public universities experienced an average enrollment decline of 3.8% last fall compared to fall 2019, according to data from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or HECC, although not all institutions saw declines

"The combination of increased spending and decreased revenue has been, you know, very, very tough budgets [on] really at all of Oregon public universities," said Ben Cannon, CEO of HECC.

But, Western has seen a declining enrollment trend for years. From 2011 to 2020, university enrollment has decreased by more than 25%, according to WOU.

Oregon has seen tuition declines, and financial difficulties led to major private universities closing in recent years, including Concordia University in Portland and Marylhurst University, one of Oregon's oldest private universities.

But Cannon said the enrollment trend in western Oregon is not much different from other public institutions, and said he is not concerned about Oregon's oldest public university.

"I think we have every reason to be optimistic about the future of Western," Cannon said. "I don't think the types of cuts that have been proposed represent anything like a fatal blow to Western."

Cannon said part of the solution to situations like Western's is to work together with other public universities and community colleges to form partnerships that serve and support students with the programs they need, especially students from underserved communities.

Oregon legislators are currently considering a bill that would allow voluntary mergers between public universities and community colleges, although no institution has openly expressed its intention to participate in such an agreement.

Cannon said Western has already done a great job of engaging students from local communities and focusing on increasing diversity.

He noted that WOU is likely to soon be designated as a Hispanic service institution, defined as an institution with at least 25% full-time Hispanic college students. Until last fall, the WOU was around 20%.

Another solution, Cannon said, would be more of a financial commitment to higher education by the state.

“It is the legislature, the representatives of the people who provide the basic funding for our community colleges, for the public universities that can sustain them during the good times and especially during challenging years, like this one,” Cannon said.

Concerns about what could become WOU

For WOU faculty, staff and students, many are concerned about how the campus culture and community will be affected by the program and position cuts.

Philosophy Chairman Perlman, Stalley with the staff union, and Beaver with the teachers union say there needs to be more communication and more opportunities for participation and shared governance.

“If people don't feel involved in making decisions, they lose their morale. They lose their dedication to the place, ”Perlman said. “If it just becomes a place where I show up when I teach and go home and 'what do I care?' Then it won't be the special place he's been for all these years, and that's the direction he's been. we are heading. ”

Recent graduate Soltz was part of the WOU student government when he was in college. He said that while he appreciated his time at Western, the cuts and administrative actions did not surprise him.

“This administration has long proven itself, despite what its words may say, through its actions. they don't value the kind of education Western Oregon University provides and should provide, ”Soltz said. “They want to make this school something it is not, which is not just a disservice to the Western Oregon University community, but to the Oregon public university system as a whole.”

Philosophy Chairman Perlman agreed that Western appears to be redefining itself by cutting these programs.

 Bellamy Hall at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

Bellamy Hall at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

Diane Stevenson Photography /

"I think it becomes a place where you are not going to educate yourself, but it is like a job training school," said Perlman, noting that it was the philosophers who initially created the idea of ​​the university in ancient Greece. “The idea of ​​college is that you don't just get the training you need for a job or a career, you become an educated person. You get to know things in all the different areas. ”

He also noted that students, like Soltz, often do not become philosophers or scholars, but instead take skills like critical thinking and problem solving and apply them. to their daily life.

"We have not focused on developing many races and even many minor ones," said Perlman. "We have focused on providing something for all students at the university."

Dwindling faculty is not new this year. Like declining enrollment, Western has seen its faculty steadily shrink over the past decade. As of November 2020, the most recently available data provided, WOU had 329 faculty members, including full and full-time professors, as well as full and part-time non-tenured professors. That's less than 421 faculty members in 2012.

Provost Winningham acknowledged the effects of cutting programs and employees at WOU, but he and President Fuller say these cuts will now help WOU financial stability and affordability for students, in the

"Frankly, I would say that our campus is still grieving, not just over the loss of faculty positions, but also dozens of staff positions, and we've had to, ”Winningham said. “Otherwise, we would have needed to significantly increase enrollment. … But more pragmatically, that would have cut off access to higher education for many Oregonians. And that's one of the reasons why we have to do this difficult job. "

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