The state of Oregon is facing a $1.6 billion deficit. It has not been responsive to requests by universities for increased funding.
Last November University of Oregon President Michael Schill, along with the presidents of Oregon’s six other public universities, wrote a letter to legislators requesting $100 million for higher education costs across the state. That amount would have kept UO’s in-state student tuition increase below 5 percent.
On Thursday, May 25, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission approved UO’s tuition increase for in-state students. This decision came after a months long process of discussion and decision making by administrators and students across the university.
The Board of Trustees voted in March to approve the 10.6 percent increase for residents and 3 percent for out-of-state students, totaling $945 more per student next year. The increase reduces UO’s $15 million deficit to $8.8 million. That number is being reduced by $4.5 million in cuts that Schill announced in April. Schill attributes the majority of the budget deficit to increasing Public Employee Retirement System costs, increased salaries for faculty and disinvestment in higher education by the state.
In addition to tuition increases, the university has addressed budget issues by cutting faculty and staff around campus. Schools such as the College of Arts and Sciences have budgets that are made up almost entirely of faculty pay.
CAS was one of the first schools to be affected by cuts when the dean of CAS non-renewed 31 staff and faculty members last month. More cuts soon followed as the Substance Abuse and Prevention Program was discontinued for the 2017-18 school year, eliminating 18 more jobs.
In addition to balancing its budget, UO is pivoting back to emphasizing its status as a research institution. Non-tenure track faculty members — temporary instructors whom are signed to 1- to 3-year contracts — are being phased out as the university makes more space for tenure-track faculty.
In the flurry of cut programs and jobs, some stood out for students.
Kevin Alltucker was a beloved professor in Family and Human Services who made up his full-time requirements by also teaching in the Clark Honors College and Planning, Public Policy and Management departments. He was not laid off but was told by the school he would have his hours cut below the level required for full-time benefits. He decided he would not return next year. His announcement, made on Twitter, prompted an outpouring of student response and a petition to save his job.
Schill hinted that if the tuition increase was not approved by HECC, more cuts would be necessary to address the deficit. The day after the original request was denied by a 4-4 vote, UO spokesman Tobin Klinger confirmed that 54 staff positions would be non-renewed for the 2017-18 school year.
“The Higher Education Coordinating Commission’s decision yesterday [May 11] to reject the University of Oregon’s tuition plan is disappointing and creates uncertainty on our campus,” he wrote. “If it stands, we will be forced to make even deeper cuts at the UO than are already anticipated, including cuts that will likely affect student support services, academic programs, and jobs.”
Former ASUO President Quinn Haaga and Vice President Natalie Fisher were the only student government representatives from the six public Oregon colleges to approve of any kind of increase.
Fisher told the Emerald she didn’t see any better option for the university. She acknowledged that UO needs to balance cutting faculty and increasing tuition. A compromise was found by the Tuition and Fees Advisory Board — on which Fisher serves as a student representative — that a 10.6 percent increase would be sufficient to meet the needs of the university.
According to Fisher, an increase of 20 percent would have solved the university’s deficit problem and allowed it to retain its current number of faculty.
Current ASUO leadership disagrees with its predecessors.
External Vice President Vickie Gimm told the Emerald that Haaga and Fisher did not represent her because they are graduating seniors who “should not be speaking on behalf of the students who will be affected by this decision.” She said the tuition increase affects low-income students of color at UO.
The HECC disagreed. Documents show it determined that UO met the criteria of determining “clear and significant evidence of how Oregonians who are underrepresented in higher education, including low-income students and students of color, would benefit more under the university’s proposal than one that stays within the 5 [percent] threshold.”
In its report, the HECC wrote that UO guaranteed that its Pathway Oregon program would continue. Qualifying students are considered “low-income students” as one requirement is to be Pell Grant eligible. HECC noted that 42 percent of Pell Grant eligible students at UO are students of color.
Despite meeting four of the five criteria set by the HECC, the initial vote failed, resulting in a petition from UO that was approved last week. Between the two votes, Haaga and Fisher along with incoming Faculty Senate President Chris Sinclair sent letters to the committee. Haaga and Fisher’s letter urged committee members to reconsider its decision.
“Over the past four years, we have experienced first-hand the consequences that are derived from a lack of faculty and staff” The letter went on to say the effect of the cuts is seen. “through multiple week waiting periods to schedule counseling appointments, larger class sizes and inconsistent advising that has as [sic] times led us down the wrong academic paths. We fear that these issues and many more will increase at an exponential rate next year, further disadvantaging all students, especially those that cannot afford to take an extra term or even extra class.”
Sinclair wrote that fewer class options and larger class sizes are two side effects of the current budget crunch.
“Faculty are all too well aware that the price of tuition increases fall on the backs of our students, especially on low-income and underrepresented student populations. We wish it were not so,” he wrote. “We wish the state prioritized higher education so that we could provide affordable, high quality education to Oregonians without unduly burdening those in challenging economic situations.”