Dear alumni and friends,
Our academic year is now well underway and it's exciting to have our students and faculty filling the WOU campus! I would like to update you on the latest news regarding our university – a campus community that I have been proud to serve for the last seven years as vice president for finance and administration and now as president.
I wish to start by making one simple statement: this will be another great year for Western Oregon University. The past year and summer flew by for me. Once again, I am extremely privileged to serve as WOU president. For those of you who know me even a bit, you know that I never aspired to be a university president but this is the very best job I have ever had. Why? Because of the difference we make in the lives of our students, many of whom grew up just like me – in families where English was not spoken and where I was the first to earn even a high school degree, let alone earn an advanced university degree. The concept of succeeding in college was not a reality in my own mind until I met professors who inspired me -- just like those at WOU who inspire our students each day.
Just a few weeks ago I enjoyed meeting many students and families as they prepared for their transition to college. I saw many things in the eyes of students and families – fear and joy, hope, tears, and smiles. And it warmed your soul to witness the hugs and kisses. While more than 80 percent of our students are Oregonians, 100 percent of them aspire for a future they will be able and proud to participate in.
This experience instilled within me what our number one priority is – to repay the trust placed in us by guiding the success of our student body, one student at a time. As I have said before – each one of us take that responsibility very seriously – to educate and have high expectations for our next generation, and to help prepare our students for the many twists and turns that their futures, like many of ours, will hold.
Continuing the momentum
WOU finished the last academic year very strong fiscally. We have tackled an aggressive campus-wide continuous improvement "Window of Opportunity" initiative that has, by all measure, been successful in correcting a negative trend -- spending down our fund balance reserves in the upcoming biennium. WOU also created several new programs: a chemistry minor with a concentration in environmental chemistry, a bachelor's of music in contemporary music track with an emphasis on jazz, a minor in forensic anthropology, and a bachelor's in visual communication design.
The continuing effects of the economy and our ability to provide access and affordability to our students remains an area of concern for everyone. State appropriations in Oregon are at the lowest levels in more than a quarter century. In 2007 we received $19.1 million in public support, and this year we expect to receive $13.5 million to supplement the tuition cost of a public higher education for Oregonians - a decrease of more than $5 million per year, or about 30 percent less.
The cost of investment
We, as a state institution of higher education, are now educating more Oregonians for the lowest proportionate investment by the state than ever before. Although in the bottom 10th percentile in the country for funding, we at Western stand tall and are proud of our productivity and the efficiency measures that have allowed us to thrive. I believe this decrease in higher education funding is a sign of the economic times we live in and certainly not a conscious effort to disinvest in education. There are simply too few dollars available from public funds for so much public need.
As a result, sadly, tuition levels are at the highest levels ever and students are graduating with the highest level of debt load ever – over $26,000 for our average graduating senior. In fact, student economics were so dire last year that it was necessary to write-off an unplanned $600,000 of past due student accounts, for a total of over $1 million uncollected.
Our Western Oregon University Tuition Promise, whereby student tuition rates are frozen for four years has been a great success and popular with students, the State Board of Higher Education, and legislators. However, when non-tuition funding decreases, the arithmetic simply doesn't work anymore. Therefore, this year, we have adopted the WOU Choice. The Choice allows our students to choose between a fixed rate tuition structure – the Promise – or a variable rate structure that is subject to annual increases depending on available state funding levels.
The 40/40/20 objective
We have seen a leveling of enrollment at our recent record highs, with approximately 6,200 students enrolled this fall. It is imperative that we continue to provide excellent support and resources to our students to facilitate their successful academic progress from year to year. Many of you know that Oregon's goal of an educated citizenry is ambitious and is summarized by the numbers – 40/40/20. This means that by the year 2025, 40 percent of Oregonians shall have earned a bachelor's degree or higher, 40 percent shall have attained an associate's degree and 20 percent shall have earned their high school diploma. Today we are a long way off from this goal as a total of 40 percent of Oregonians either terminate their education with a high school degree or drop out of high school.
There are some trends in our state's demographics worth noting - the numbers of Oregonians entering universities are not as high as expected – perhaps it's the economy, perhaps students are selecting community colleges because of the tuition rate bias for their first two years, perhaps students find it necessary to seek employment and income in an economy that appears to be leveling off somewhat. The number of traditionally underserved populations and first-generation students to attend college is dramatically increasing. This positions Western well in serving Oregonians as our mission directly aligns with this changing demographic. Furthermore, we must work harder with community colleges to ensure that their entering students succeed and do not drop out, and that they desire to further their education and succeed at Western.
Western remains the most Oregon of state universities with nearly 85 percent of our student body coming from in-state. Yet the competition for international and out of state students is higher than ever – all state institutions around the country have recognized this as a means to supplement decreased state funding. It is imperative that we maintain our international student numbers both to provide additional diversity to our campus in a global economy and to provide additional fiscal support to the university.
The physical space
Now to turn our focus to bricks and mortar - or campus buildings and construction. Following the accolades received from our LEED Platinum certified Ackerman Hall, the new Health and Wellness Center with classroom facilities, our 24 new family housing units, we have completed the remodel of the Werner University Center. We have also provided new lit, artificial turf fields for recreational and club student activities; all funded by students themselves following a student referendum. Additionally a recording studio has been completed in addition to other renovations and upgrades to our facilities.
And, a news flash for next biennium – expect a new building to house our College of Education – a building that will make us all proud, in keeping with our founding as a teacher's college. We already received approval from the State Board of Higher Education and we are working with our friends in Salem to approve this project, which will include private philanthropy to make it a reality.
As you may know we have a major construction project with a completion date of next September: The DeVolder Family Science Center. This will provide two stories of much needed chemistry and anatomy and physiology laboratories. We thank the State of Oregon, Ron DeVolder (class of '68) and his wife Norma, and others for their support in making this facility a reality. As identified in our 2010-20 Campus Master Plan, our number one facility need will soon be addressed with the completion of this state-of-the-art 22,000 square foot facility.
The future at stake: OUS and Senate Bill 242
As we look toward the future, I would like to share some additional expectations. We project finishing this current running fiscal year with a deficit but financially healthy, nevertheless, due to our strong fund balance and the "Window of Opportunity" measures already identified for implementation.
There continues to be a robust discussion about the future of the Oregon Board of Higher Education and the Oregon University System. With passage of Senate Bill 242, the University of Oregon and Portland State University have stated their strong desire to form independent governing boards, potentially breaking away from the Oregon University System and the State Board of Higher Education. The other five institutions prefer the coordinated governance structure currently in place. The State Board of Higher education has made recommendations and I have provided testimony to the legislative committee on higher education in favor of retention of central governance and state funding with limited delegation of responsibilities to those institutions favoring local boards. Please stay alert to future developments as this topic will likely remain contentious and I am concerned that those institutions with influence and power could cause change; but, that change must not have any deleterious impact for Oregonians, Western or the other state institutions of higher education.
Lastly, as we move forward together this year and in the future to plan how we best accomplish our mission, we must also work together to secure the financial resources required to achieve our goals – keeping Western affordable and accessible to all Oregonians and filling vital gaps in resources. This past year was a banner year for WOU philanthropy, with nearly $3 million of contributions compared to the next highest year of 2001, more than ten years ago – the year we raised $2 million. Our success this past year far exceeds prior efforts and more than triples the prior year's accomplishments. The good news is that alumni participation rates have increased by 20 percent this past year and faculty and staff giving levels have almost doubled in the past four years. Clearly, it is risky to rely on more from the state with unemployment rates high and not decreasing quickly enough. I ask again this year to consider, if we do not invest in ourselves, why should anyone else?
As always, we appreciate your support of Western Oregon University. Although we face many challenges – educating more of the Oregon population and meeting the needs of our students in difficult economic times - we're sure that with your help, we will continue our collective successes. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule as I share the latest news from our university. We want you to be well informed regarding Western and the issues facing higher education throughout Oregon.
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