WOU welcomes first students to new Salem campus

Western Oregon University President Rex Fuller cuts the ribbon at the WOU Salem campus while Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett looks on on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Western Oregon University’s new campus is open for business in Salem.

The opening of the downtown Salem campus at 525 Trade St. S.E. was pushed back a year due to the Covid pandemic, but about 169 students are signed up for undergraduate and graduate classes which begin next week.

The opening means Salem is no longer the only state capital in the U.S. without a public university campus, Mayor Chuck Bennett said at a ribbon cutting ceremony Monday morning.

“This has been a long time coming,” Bennett said. “This is a really fantastic opportunity for the residents of Salem.”

The satellite campus for the Monmouth-based university is intended to attract working professionals through courses primarily offered evenings and weekends.

University leaders framed the campus as a way to boost enrollment at a time when the number of high school graduates in Oregon is leveling off because birth rates have declined.

The university began offering several programs in Salem in 2019, hosting classes at the Willamette Educational Service District office while working to purchase and renovate the historic Vick building.

Emily Knaus is among the first graduates to earn a master’s degree in organizational leadership after starting the program in the fall of 2019.

Knaus, who attended WOU as an undergraduate, said the program appealed to her as a way to improve the organizations she works for and have her ideas taken more seriously.

Knaus said it’s common when joining an organization to notice what’s working well, but after some time on the job, “You dig in a little deeper and go, ‘Oh, we could do better here,’” she said.

She works for the Special Districts Association of Oregon and started in an entry-level administrative job, but said she got promoted to an underwriting role because of her new degree.

“When you have a master’s degree, people are much more willing to accept that you have some kind of knowledge and skill base,” Knaus said.

She lives in Scotts Mills and already commutes 45 minutes into Salem, so attending a program in Monmouth wouldn’t have worked with her schedule, she said.

A common area at Western Oregon University’s new Salem campus on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The Salem campus has several flagship degree programs for adults seeking to improve their job prospects. Bachelor’s degrees in applied science and interdisciplinary studies are aimed at adults who have completed some college credit or a two-year degree and want to be more competitive in the workforce.

The master’s degree in organizational leadership has about 50 students currently enrolled and 12 graduates, said Tracie Wicks, an administrative program assistant.

WOU bought the Vick building in late 2019 for $2.7 million. Administrators intended to open the Salem campus last fall, but delayed plans when the university moved all of its classes online due to the Covid pandemic.

While most Salem classes contain both online and in-person pieces, Sue Monahan, the university’s provost for program development, said it’s exciting to resume face-to-face courses.

“We’re super excited to get people back because online education is not for everybody,” Monahan said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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