Professor: "There is right now a climate of fear at SOU"

, Written by Christine Pitawanich, Posted: Mon, March 17 2014 at 6:12 PM, Updated: Wed, March 19 2014 at 10:36 AM

Ashland, Ore. -- Faculty, staff and administration at Southern Oregon University have been tight-lipped even during a process that could result in top administrators losing their jobs.

NBC 5 News has been in contact with faculty members for months regarding dissatisfaction with SOU's administration. Professors we've spoken with would not publicly speak on camera due to a belief that it might affect their future at the university.

However one professor has decided it's time to voice his concerns.

Speaking out for the first time

It wasn't an easy decision for SOU computer science professor Kevin Sahr to talk on camera.

"By speaking out I've been told that I'm putting a target on my back," began Sahr, who is also a Faculty Senator in the the Faculty Senate at SOU.

"To be quite frank, it was really a nerve-racking decision over the weekend on whether or not to actually talk to you today," he continued.

However, he said he feels a responsibility to voice concerns that have grown among faculty members.

"I do feel that because I have tenure and because I'm in a computer science department and therefore it's a department that it would be very difficult for them to cut, I do feel that I have a responsibility to speak out where others really are in jeopardy of losing their jobs and therefore cannot speak out."

Allegations of financial mismanagement fly

Faculty concerns are regarding the top administrators at SOU and how finances are being managed.

"Their fiscal mismanagement has exacerbated an already bad financial situation," said Sahr.

According to Sahr, nobody can deny the university system in Oregon is in a difficult time, but he said SOU leadership needs more creativity in handling money.

"We don't believe that going forward that they are the correct leadership team to actually turn things around at SOU," Sahr said.

Votes of no-confidence in top three SOU administrators

In addition to allegations of financial mismanagement, taking faculty out of important decision-making and lack of leadership, resulted in faculty deciding to take a confidence/no-confidence vote in SOU President Dr. Mary Cullinan, Provost James Klein and Vice President of Finance and Administration Craig Morris, said Sahr.

No-confidence votes of more than 2/3 came in for Klein and Morris. According to Sahr, Cullinan was three points short of a 2/3 majority of no confidence among all faculty members.

He added that of the faculty that voted, 92% expressed no-confidence in Morris, 84% expressed no-confidence in Klein and 76% expressed no-confidence in Cullinan. Those percentages are different than the ones released about two weeks ago which calculated the no-confidence vote percentage from the entire faculty as a whole.

"The State of Oregon is investing a million dollars a year in our three top administrators and we really have to ask whether we're getting a million dollars a year of value out of those three top administrators. I don't think we are," said Sahr.

Sahr: "Retrenchment is merely a symptom of the greater problem."

The confidence/no-confidence vote closed in early March in the midst of the university cutting programs, cutting staff and cutting costs in a move they call retrenchment.

According to Sahr, the no-confidence vote has been a long time coming, and isn't specifically related to retrenchment. He said faculty are losing faith.

"This is the 2nd retrenchment under President Cullinan's watch ... That's like taking a company into bankruptcy twice," Sahr said.

In addition, he said he's concerned about how the changes will be affecting students.

"There will be uncertainty about which programs will be available, about whether classes will be available, about which professors will be available, all those sorts of issues."

Top administrators decline on-camera interview

On Monday Cullinan, Klein and Morris refused to speak on camera about allegations of mismanagement of public university dollars. NBC 5 News tried multiple times to get a hold of all three administrators. We put in phone calls to the President's office and showed up in person on the SOU campus.

However, on Monday afternoon, President Cullinan did issue a statement saying: 

"I can't comment on personnel matters, but faculty certainly have the right to provide advice and share concerns. I'm committed to working closely with faculty leadership to ensure strong communication going forward. My priority as we go into spring is that faculty and administration work together to ensure strong enrollment and a strong strategic plan for SOU." 

What's next?

The Senate Faculty is drafting a letter to President Cullinan asking for the removal of Klein and Morris based on the confidence vote.

Sahr said faculty members are keeping an eye on what Cullinan does next.

"We are hoping that President Cullinan will show some real leadership here," he said.

Dr. Cullinan is scheduled to appear in the 5 on 5 feature interview on Thursday.

What do you think? Sound off on our Facebook page and on Twitter, or leave a comment below.

About the Author

Christine Pitawanich

Christine Pitawanich was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. In 2010, she received a master's degree in Broadcast Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York.

Christine also has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from the University of Washington.

Before joining the NBC5 News team, she had the opportunity to file reports from Washington D.C. for WFFT FOX Ft. Wayne News in Indiana. Christine has also interned at KOMO-TV in Seattle.

Christine loves to ski, try new food and have fun in the outdoors.

Catch Christine anchoring weekdays on NBC 5 News at 5pm.

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