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Western faces challenge

WOU State of the Union


A drop in enrollment of about 300 students leaves Western Oregon University "at a tiping point," according to interim President John Minahan. Key note speaker Will Keim talks to incoming freshmen at one of the many events for new students.

MONMOUTH -- Class is back in session this week at Western Oregon University.

And as students prepare for the rigors that await them in the classroom, administrators will be facing challenges of their own -- decreased enrollment from recent years and a deficit in the college's general fund.

Those were among the revelations during WOU President John Minahan's "State of the University" address last week. Minahan was appointed interim chief of the school in August by the Oregon Board of Higher Education.

The state will begin a two-year search process for a permenant president.

After being introduced to a standing ovation from the 255 faculty, staff members and students in Rice Auditorium, the longtime professor and former provost revealed that he'd been offered the job while sailing toward Alaska during the summer.

"I had fallen on the boat and had split my head open," he said. "I figured a boat wasn't the best place to be at that time, so I said 'yes.'"

Minahan referred to the 2005-06 as a time to get the college back on track.

The school is projecting $35.6 million in revenues this year, about $2.9 million less than planned expenses, Minahan said.

Though that deficit has shrunk since 2004-05, the school has once again had to dip into its reserve funds to balance the budget, said Mark Weiss, WOU vice president of finances and administration.

A 7 percent increase in medical benefits for the school's employees and cost increases for the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) are among the added expense items.

Minahan said enrollment and difficulty in retaining students have played a part in that financial outlook.

About 4,770 students were enrolled at Western last year. That's almost 300 fewer then 2003's record enrollment. Minahan said competition from larger colleges like Oregon State University for prospective Willamette Valley students have affected numbers.

In recent years, Western was able to retain about 73 percent of its enrollees between their freshman and sophomore years, Minahan said. That figure is about 65 percent today.

The loss of 300 students equates to about $700,000 a year and a $1.5 million loss for the biennium.

"I was disappointed to see that decrease while our tuition had been frozen," Minahan said. "We had the lowest tuition in the state."

Because of a higher-than-normal fund balance at the end of the 2003-04 school year, Western was the only school prohibited from raising tuition for students in 2004-05.

"We are at a tipping point where if we don't turn this around, we will be in a deficit position" again."

Minahan said if need be, he would spend the reserve level "into zero," if it meant a turnaround for recruitment and getting total enrollment above 5,000.

Minahan said the college is currently in negotiations with faculty members, and that the school's deficit would have no bearing on whatever salary level is reached.

"We will negotiate a good and fair contract with our faculty," he said.

"For this school, the heart is its faculty. There is nothing more important than that simple fact. We need to continue its growth, to care and nurture it ... you will make something happen in this place."

The school's unclassified staff was given a 3.5 percent raise -- per a service workers union settlement with OUS. It was the first for non-teaching employees since 2002.

Other items of note during Minahan's address:

The state will relocate its Department of Public Safety Standards and Training from its current home at Western to a new facility in Salem next year.

The college has been included in the governer's capital construction budget this year, an "opportunity for Western to improve the digs for faculty and students," Minahan said.

Western and the City of Monmouth will conduct joint planning for their respective year-long sesquicentennial celebration, which begins in January.


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