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Southern Oregon University

President Cullinan's Investiture Speech

Honoring Our Past, Taking Charge of Our Future

October 13, 2007


Thank you and good morning. Welcome to this wonderful celebration of Southern Oregon University. Thank you, everyone on the stage this morning, for your kind greetings.


Thank you, Chancellor Pernsteiner and Oregon State Board of Higher Education Chair Kirby Dyess for entrusting in me the stewardship and future of Southern Oregon University. It is a special honor to accept the charge of president and to wear this beautiful medal. Copies of the President’s Medal will be given each year to outstanding individuals who support this university in exceptional ways.


The responsibility of this charge would be a daunting challenge were it not for the support and dedication of our able faculty, staff, and students.  Dr. Greg Miller, Ms. MaryAnn Nealy, and Ms. Monique Teal, I am very grateful for your considerate remarks this morning. 


It is an honor to be invested in the wake of our former presidents present today – Ernest Ettlich, Joseph Cox, Stephen Reno, Sara Hopkins-Powell, and Elisabeth Zinser,


Mr. Danny Santos and other distinguished representatives of the state of Oregon; Mayor Morrison, of our lovely city of Ashland; thank you for joining us this morning and for caring about this institution and its importance in our region and state.


Distinguished colleagues from our partner and sister colleges and universities, I appreciate your presence today to celebrate this splendid university and our shared destiny of higher education.


Thank you, Ms. Anne Root and members of and donors to our SOU Foundation; Mr. Ron Singler, and the SOU Alumni Association, President’s Advisory Board members, and the many other representatives of governments, businesses and organizations in our community who are here today and have a special role in the promise of Southern Oregon University.


Dr. Curry, I appreciate your travel to join us in our celebration today.  Thank you for your personal inspiration and wise counsel to me over the years.  I am delighted that my husband Jeffrey is in the hall today. Dr. Battistella, thank you for serving as emcee this morning.


I deeply appreciate the Investiture Committee and many departments giving their time, talents, and resources to make this an extraordinary day for Southern Oregon University.  And what a joy to hear the music of our gifted faculty and students!


Thank you also to the friends and colleagues who have traveled here today, from near and far. I am so touched to see this welcoming crowd.


But this wonderful event is not about me. It is about Southern Oregon University, honoring this university and what it has done to serve students and the region over the years. It is about celebrating the great possibilities that lie ahead.


The institution has been in existence for many years. In the 1870’s and 1880’s, it was Ashland Academy, and in 1895 it became Southern Oregon State Normal School. In 1956 we became Southern Oregon College—SOC. We have now been a university,  Southern Oregon University, for ten years. The stars are aligning as we enter our second decade as a university and envision where we are heading—and what we can be.


Personally, I am in my third decade since I left graduate school. I had been, you might say, an English major since about age five. As I went through school, I thought I was following a fairly straightforward path. Loving literature and writing, I’d been reading Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens since I was a child. I was planning a life that would enable me to teach and write about the great books that I loved. 


I wrote my dissertation on the ways that Scott uses fiction to show readers what really went on in history—to get at the history beneath the history so to speak. In graduate school, I had my first opportunity to teach Dickens, to explore with students the way he takes you into every nook and cranny of society and shows you how this whole social enterprise we’re engaged in really works. And I had my first opportunity to teach Pride and Prejudice, a book that helps you learn to expect surprises in your life—and not jump too readily to easy conclusions.


That lesson was certainly a good one for me since my life took a number of turns I hadn’t expected. My first teaching job turned out to be in California State University, Hayward’s school of business, teaching business communication and principles of marketing (a course for which I hadn’t taken the prerequisites)—and almost as soon as I was tenured in English I was named department chair and began a route into administration that has led me away from full-time teaching for the past fifteen years.


Of course, I learned many new things as an administrator. I continue learning every day in the challenging, complex university environment.


But the books I have read and taught are always with me. They are books that entertain, that make a reader laugh and cry; they also provide awareness and understanding and a moral compass while dazzling the reader with the wealth and complexity of the English language. They are books that make a reader think. They prepared me well.


For me, love for those books extends to what I love about Southern Oregon University. They are part of what we’re striving for at SOU: to provide a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences, a foundation that prepares students for thinking critically and solving problems—for dealing with wherever life may lead, even for jobs and situations that we can’t envision today. 


A recent survey in the New York Times business pages noted that human resources executives now find that only 5% of recent college graduates lack technical and computer skills. However, 45% lack strong writing skills—and 27% percent lack critical thinking skills. One major goal of this university is to ensure that SOU graduates buck that nationwide trend. Our students participate in a challenging liberal arts education, an education that enables them to question, to think, to communicate, and to participate actively in their learning.


At SOU we also support our students in bucking another trend: the social disengagement of Americans, and young people in particular, the trends highlighted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and other publications. SOU students are deeply engaged: they did a powerful job of working on voter turnout last year and participated actively in the legislative session.


They worked together last year, too, to tax themselves for the purchase of renewable energy credits (Green Tags) to offset 100% of the natural gas and electricity consumed at Southern Oregon University. SOU became the first school in Oregon to offset 100% of both natural gas and electricity, and one of the first schools in the nation to do so.


For the second year in a row this fall, all new SOU freshmen participated in civic engagement as part of their freshman orientation—and volunteered with over 30 agencies and companies around the valley. This engagement with our external community and regional partners is one of the commitments we make as an institution.


There is another set of disturbing data nationwide that SOU is working hard to overcome in this region—and that’s the college-going rates. An American Council on Education study published this year showed that the U.S. ranks first in educational attainment among groups aged 45 to 64—but we’re slipping fast for younger groups, ranking 10th world-wide for ages 25 to 34.


In Oregon, not enough high school graduates are going on to college. Among those who do attend an Oregon postsecondary institution, less than 50% of Oregon university students attain a degree after six years, and only 18% of community college students attain a degree after six years. We greatly need to improve those numbers.


In fall 2008 we will open the Higher Education Center in Medford, a partnership with Rogue Community College. This doesn’t bring SOU to Medford for the first time: we’ve been teaching classes in Medford for years in different locations. But the Higher Education Center does bring us together in a central, beautiful location and provides a major opportunity for people in this region to attain a college degree even while working and raising families.


This fall the president of RCC, Peter Angstadt, and I are beginning to speak with people all over this region in a series of focused conversations that we call Meetings of the Minds. These conversations are intended to help ensure that the Higher Ed Center really does transform this region, meeting the needs of employers and helping people attain the myriad benefits from having higher education opportunities right in their midst. 


This is an exciting new year for SOU. However, most of you know that we are emerging from hard times. 2006-2007 was an extraordinarily difficult year for us. Yes, we have had budget issues in the past—many of you, including all the former presidents here can attest to that—but last year was particularly challenging.


The experiences of last year, and our responses to those challenges, remind me of the famous image of a frog immersed in a pot of water.  If a frog lands in a pot of boiling water, so the reasoning goes, it will leap out right away to escape the danger. However, if  it jumps into a pot of cool water that is gradually being heated, the frog won’t know what’s happening to it until it’s too late.

The frog parable is meant to illustrate that we need to watch the subtle changing trends in the environment, not just the sudden changes. It’s a warning to keep us paying attention, not just to obvious threats but to more slowly developing ones.

Nonetheless, what happened to us last year was more like realizing that the water was already boiling.  We saw imminent danger, and we jumped. That jump actually consisted of thousands of changes, some large, some small—changes that truly reorganized the institution and created a “new SOU.” We jumped, and we made significant changes that will enable us to survive. I can’t over-state the dramatic nature of those changes, many of which are still in process.

We are wiser now. We have learned that we need to watch both for large changes and for less obvious changes. We need to track and respond even to subtle variations in demographics, retention, and enrollment numbers, to students’ changing learning styles, to shifts in the political environment, to progress in technology, to national as well as regional trends. From what I saw last year of the creativity and resiliency of our faculty, staff and students and of the incredible support from the Southern Oregon community, we will succeed. But the work has been more profound and challenging than anything I have seen during my years in academic life.

This fall I took the university’s executive team on a retreat. For a week or so before the retreat, I asked the team and others to compile headlines that they hope to see for SOU—some for fall 2008, next year, and some for fall 2012, five years from now. The headlines that came back from around the campus were remarkably similar. At the retreat, we voted for the winners.

For 2008, the winning headlines were:

·        SOU Leads the State in Enrollment Increases

·        Strong Commitment to Students Evident in reorganized University

·        SOU and Regional communities work together for change


For 2012 the winners were:


·        SOU Recognized Nationally for Academic Excellence

·        Southern’s Persistent Commitment pays big dividendS

·        SOU Nationally recognized for focus on Student Success


For me, these say it all: in the short term, we will increase and stabilize our enrollment. We will continue refining this organization to heighten our commitment to students and their success. And we will continue developing powerful partnerships with the communities of this region.


In the long term, our persistence and steady focus will bring us stability and strength. Within five years we will have developed and enhanced our commitments


·        to a challenging and practical liberal arts education centered on student learning, access, and community engagement,


·        to academic programs, partnerships, public service, community outreach, and economic development activities that address regional needs, and


·        to outstanding programs that draw on and enrich our unique arts community and bioregion


These commitments will guide us as we continue working in our ever-challenging environment, maintaining and enhancing our focus on students and academic excellence. And these commitments will be central as we discuss our future with the re-accreditation site team coming at the end of October from the Northwest Association on Colleges and Universities.


As we look forward as an academic community, we need to continue increasing our expectations for student achievement, to involve entire families in the learning experience, to use technology effectively—especially as students today expect services to be available 24 hours a day. We need to continue helping our students become committed citizens, to become involved in a society that needs a lot of commitment.


Before five years have come and gone, we will have achieved and surpassed the visionary headlines that inspire us today.


To achieve those headlines, we are embarking on a significant planning effort this year. Our Foundation Board is launching a tremendous effort to raise scholarship funding for our students. We are starting to plan for realizing our theatre complex renovation and expansion. We are developing enrollment management plans, improved budget processes, curricular plans; plans for the Medford campus, for our work in Deer Creek and at Crater Lake, for technology; for online programs; for increasing our diversity and improving campus climate. We are planning a campus research day for spring 2008 to celebrate the scholarly and creative activities of our faculty and students.

Before we reach the next ten-year mark, SOU will have balanced and taken charge of enrollment so that we serve the needs of southern Oregon while a number of our programs continue to attract students from around the country and around the world. We will be continually refining our curriculum to be responsive, to meet the needs of a changing workforce, while also continually providing the liberal arts education fundamental to a thoughtful, engaged citizenry.

Right now both our students and our graduates serve this region and state in myriad ways. They work in the arts, in education, in business, in medicine and law; they work for the public good in agencies and non-profit organizations. They work in the governor’s office. Both the mayor of Ashland and the mayor of Medford are SOU graduates. At Commencement last spring we heard wonderful words from an SOU alumna now serving on the state’s Supreme Court.

Before we reach the next ten-year mark, we will have told our story much more effectively, helping Oregon communities understand the tremendous benefits that this university brings to the region and the state.

Southern Oregon University has changed—and it is still changing. In ten years, as we enter our third decade as a university, we will look different again.


In another ten years, the Medford Higher Education Center will be the bustling core of a vibrant downtown and a key component of a dynamic region that has planned successfully, that has become a model around the country for social and environmental health.


Ten years from now, on the Ashland campus, we will have an expanded theatre complex and a new science building. The physical campus will have made the most of its beautiful natural setting but will also be continually updating facilities and grounds to be optimal sites for teaching and learning, for working and living.


And, in another ten years, we will have retained all that’s best of today’s SOU: the commitment to the liberal arts that provides the foundation for students’ work and lives, the commitment to learning and academic quality of undergraduate and graduate programs; to our students, faculty, and staff; to excellent teaching, research, and creative activity; to the arts; to the health of our bioregion; to our regional partners. We will be a vibrant and celebratory campus community.


And that brings me again to celebration. In 1990, the Carnegie Foundation published a special report entitled, "Campus Life: In Search of Community" to assist universities in attaining a more integrated, holistic vision.  In the report, Ernest Boyer called for colleges and universities to be educationally purposeful communities, places where faculty and students share academic goals and work together to strengthen teaching and learning. He called for universities and colleges to be open, caring, and just communities, where diversity is aggressively pursued and freedom of expression is uncompromisingly protected.

Boyer’s vision also called for a campus to be a celebrative community, one in which the heritage of the institution is remembered and where rituals affirming both tradition and change are widely shared. This is also my vision for Southern Oregon University. We have so much to celebrate, so many great individuals, so many people working together. Many of them are here this morning.

SOU has a powerful history that we must treasure and build upon. We also have an exciting future that we are just beginning to envision. We need to celebrate our past, our present, and our future. That is one reason we are all here this morning.

This is such an exciting time to be president of Southern Oregon University. We have many challenges. We also have challenging goals. It is time to think broadly, boldly, and proudly.  It is time to work hard, but also to re-imagine ourselves, to craft and work toward a vision. It is time to take charge of our future.


Thank you so much for being here this morning. I am greatly moved to be standing here before you. I am so happy to be the English major who became the eleventh president of Southern Oregon University. Thank you.


Dr. Mary Cullinan

President, Southern Oregon University

October 13, 2007