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Southern Oregon University

Organizing the New SOU:

Reinvestment, Renewal, and Revitalization

Mary Cullinan, President, SOU
September 16, 2008

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome. I was pleased to see so many people here this morning and then again this afternoon.

And I was delighted this morning to see how many folks are enthusiastic or at least cautiously optimistic about starting this new academic year. As I said this morning, one of the truly wonderful things about working at a university-or indeed going to school-is that you have a new year each fall. It should be an exciting time for everyone.

It should be particularly exciting for us at SOU. I'm excited of course-I'm starting my third year-I'm a junior now. In 2001 the average university president served only about six and a half years-so making it to year three is actually a milestone. I can't say it was easy.

As you all know, we've struggled with a number of issues, we've gone through more pain than any institution should have to go through. But we have accomplished a lot-you're an amazing group of people. Last year we had a theme of taking charge of our future-and we really began to do that.
We've made great progress with our retrenchment plan. We're ahead of where we said we would be in our three-year plan. We're only just beginning year two of the plan-we're not out of the woods yet. But we're making great strides. Because of the hard choices we've made in the past two years, we can begin now, very slowly, to reinvest. We talked last year about a more sustainable SOU. Our planning will help us get there.

It also looks like we could have stronger numbers in enrollment than we had projected. From our weekly tracking, it looks like we will meet or slightly exceed our overall 2008 Fall enrollment projections. We're not where we need to be in the long run-but again, we're making strides. Building our enrollment strategically, intentionally, through retention as well as recruitment, remains SOU's most important priority. It remains everybody's business.

It looks particularly as though we will have made strong progress in retention. As I discussed with the campus last year, our retention numbers have been way too low-we've been losing a third of our freshman class. Many universities similar to ours lose a quarter of their freshman class-and surely we can do better than our peers in this regard. I'm hopeful that we'll see a strong increase this fall. I appreciate everyone who has helped to keep students enrolled. I know that's a lot of you out there.

Among the many wonderful things that happened last year:

  • We were re-accredited in February.
  • Our new Mission statement was approved by the Oregon State Board of Higher Education.
  • We completed construction of the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center in Medford. The building will probably be certified as LEED platinum, the first such building in southern Oregon and in the Oregon university system. We adopted a joint operating agreement with RCC.
  • We were named one of six founding institutions for the New Century Learning Consortium.
  • We highlighted our faculty and students at our first annual SOAR event.
  • Our alumnus Michael Geisen was named Oregon's first National Teacher of the Year. He'll be our Commencement speaker this coming June.
  • Our alumnus Ty Burrell gave a wonderful Commencement speech this past June-the day after the opening of The Incredible Hulk, in which he played a perhaps minor but significant part.
  • Our student Brian Fox was named to the Oregon State Board of Higher Education.
  • We initiated a significant number of searches and made terrific hires, most of whom were introduced to the campus this morning. I do need to thank again everyone who served on a search committee last year. You did great work.

And then, of course, our most important accomplishments are all those students who had incredible learning experiences in their classes, all the students who benefited from strong advising, from one-on-one assistance of every kind-and from the powerful learning environment created within this university.


This learning environment will only get better. We're building a great team of faculty, staff, and administrators. Students in Medford have an extraordinary place to learn. Our Enrollment Services Center, our residence halls, academic advising and support-all these and more are growing more effective and more dynamic every year.


We did conduct a lot of job searches this past year. I met with many job candidates for various positions-and I know most of you did too. It's great to see this university through the eyes of our job applicants: they see the energy, the positive spirit of this institution; they marvel at our resilience and strength. They could see we were tired last year-but they could also see the amazing potential and the successes we've achieved in the face of some pretty serious adversity. They loved the spirit they saw here. As we build back SOU, we need to nurture that spirit-both to inspire ourselves and to attract the wonderful faculty, staff, and students we need to ensure ongoing success, sustainable success.


And we have many exciting, inspiring things happening this year that will help keep up our spirits.


In a few days from now, classes begin at the Higher Education Center. The community is buzzing about the Center and our offerings. Many organizations have expressed interest in scheduling their events in our facility. The HEC provides great opportunities for us to build and expand partnerships.


This year we're celebrating our 40th anniversary of the partnership with the Universidad de Guanajuato. Dr. Josie Wilson has begun organizing an impressive group of folks to help re-energize our partnership and reconnect with our oldest partner. We will celebrate with an academic symposium on April 16. It will be an interdisciplinary examination of many issues and topics that affect our two countries.


Then, on April 17, the third annual Global Conference, co-sponsored by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce and SOU, will focus on doing business with Mexico. Many of our friends and colleagues from Guanajuato will be here all that week-and I know Dave Harris, Dennis Slattery, Meredith Reynolds, and many others will be working hard to make the whole celebration an incredible event.


We're already talking about the 50th anniversary-so start planning ahead!

This spring, too, we will celebrate again with Southern Oregon Arts and Research-SOAR II. Geoff Mills and others will organize this wonderful event, and they very much seek your ideas and contributions. This year we will be ready to open this event even more to our community supporters so they can experience the quality and depth of the work we do here-and the quality they can expect to see from an SOU student and SOU graduate.


Our membership in the New Century Learning Consortium is going to reap rewards for us this year as well. We will work with our partners to strategically expand our online and hybrid offerings, to provide training and support for programs that want to increase access to students and maintain or exceed the academic quality we've always offered.


We are organizing the new SOU. This year we will change our focus slightly-not on the big R of retrenchment, but on reinvestment, renewal, and revitalization. Of course, challenges remain: the retrenchment plan continues. We are still not where we need to be in terms of enrollment. But we are building back; we are going to be able, slowly, to reinvest.


At today's breakfast, people were asked to respond on cards to the questions What have you seen change for the better in the last year? and What hasn't improved? One card had a drawing on it. It may have been submitted by the small child sitting at one of the front tables. However, it also looks a lot like the image we've used about fixing the plane while we're flying it. There's a smiling pilot in the picture and lots of stars around the plane. But the plane is firmly tethered to a substantial-looking truck on the ground. I find it a complex and multi-layered response to the questions . . . the imagery probably needs to be deconstructed a bit more for its full significance.


Seriously, though-when I did a quick review of the cards, I was thrilled. So many, many people commented on the change of morale at SOU over the past year or so. People used words like esprit de corps, enthusiasm, positive energy, positive climate, community, student excitement. People cited SOAR, the 40th anniversary celebration with Guanajuato, the Higher Education Center, better marketing and SOU web pages, better sense of collaboration, inclusiveness, good hiring of faculty and administrators. A couple of people asked that we just not use the word retrenchment any more. That's fine with me. We're moving on.


The areas that people said were not better were not surprising. Most of them had to do with money: we need to improve salaries; we need to beautify the campus; we need to reduce pressures and workload, especially for department chairs. We need funding for scholarships, for professional development, for technology. We're still doing more with less.


Some people said that there are still attitudes out there that need to be improved. We need to improve the budget process, to make it truly responsive and transparent. A number of people said we need to improve student advising. We need to expand our online course offerings. We need to streamline our processes. We need to set clear directions for the campus.


We still have work cut out for us. No one said we would solve everything immediately. But it's wonderful to work in an environment where people feel optimistic. We will continue to make positive change.


This will be an exciting year, a year of building, of creative thinking. We're developing a vision, an image of this institution-a university that serves the region, reaches out, offers a strong foundational experience for students who will be thoughtful versatile contributors to our society, whatever they do after graduating.


We are building a sustainable SOU. At this university, you can learn about sustainable practices in our curriculum-and see those best practices actually functioning on our two campuses.


One image that makes sense to me, after two years in Oregon, is related to our sustainability theme: it's an image of getting off the grid. The grid in this case is not just electrical-it's about our reliance on state funding.


Let's face it. We have on-going evidence that the State of Oregon is not committed to providing fundamental support to public institutions of higher education. Maybe no state in the United States is really committed anymore. It's a sad situation for our country; I think it's a very shortsighted approach to our being globally competitive as a nation. But it's reality. We've lamented about it long enough. We need to focus our planning on the reality. We're a state institution-what can we do? I see three parts to our planning.


First, we can raise more money. We have a new vice president for development, Sylvia Kelley. We have a wonderful, dedicated Foundation Board. We need to organize alumni, supporters around the region and around the world. We need to build an endowment, provide more financial support for students, find more discretionary support for departments. We can do this. Sylvia Kelley is committed to doing this. I'm committed. It won't happen overnight-but it will happen.


By the way, for this Homecoming, we're planning the first President's 5K run, with proceeds going to scholarships. So dust off your running shoes. I'm working personally to break the 12-minute mile-so you can see the competition will be intense.


Our second approach to becoming sustainable is to revise somewhat our tuition and financial aid structures, so we can attract and retain the types of students we really want to attract: students who will flourish in the learning environments we create, qualified students who will bring a diversity of backgrounds, interests, and experience to our institution. This is a complicated undertaking. Work began this summer, with some help from Noel-Levitz consultants, and will continue this fall. Hopefully, too, the Shared Responsibility Model, providing additional financial aid for Oregon students, will help us in this work. This is the model that was approved by the legislature in the last session.


And for the third approach to sustainability, we can-this will not surprise you-significantly increase numbers of students through academic planning, targeted recruiting, and improved retention. This, of course, is the major effort, the effort in which every one of us needs to be involved. We must be creative: the pool of 18 year olds is dropping in Oregon and nationwide in coming years. Competition is intense. Doing all the same things we have been doing simply will not work.


We can't stay on a treadmill-running faster, getting thinner, but not going anywhere.


To reduce our reliance on unstable state funding, to ensure sustainability, we must plan strategically within each academic department. Where will our future students come from? Are they new freshmen, transfer students, or graduate students? Can we offer a program at different times or in more compact time frames to appeal to working or returning students? Can we offer a program online to attract students from around the state, around the country, or around the world?


Do we have a program that could be revised to appeal to a different demographic, to international students or students co-enrolled in community colleges or even high schools? Do we have a program that might be offered in conjunction with other disciplines, making a more attractive offering for students who now go elsewhere for  this interdisciplinary approach?


And, of course, what can we do to keep those students with us once we've introduced them to our top quality learning environment?


We are developing an aggressive enrollment management plan, with leadership in Student Affairs, to help us envision the demographics of SOU ten years out. That plan needs to be driven and reinforced by the planning in each academic department. We are also developing a recruitment plan to help us achieve our goals for fall 2009. Again: doing all the same things we have been doing simply will not get us anywhere. We must get off the treadmill-and get off the grid.


This will be a year of planning: planning and organizing. The enrollment management plan will be coordinated with a Master Academic Planning process led by our new provost, Jim Klein. As the MAP emerges, Jim will ensure we have processes for feedback and campus discussion, much as we did for the retrenchment plan.


And as that process moves forward, I will continue coordinating the strategic planning process that we embarked on last year, the process that gave us a new mission statement. The strategic planning process, like the academic planning process, will provide multiple opportunities for feedback online and in person.


This year, too, the budget process will be refined. Communication on budget issues will be ongoing. Jim Klein and Craig Morris will coordinate that process.


We also have an affirmative action plan, developed within Human Resources, that responds to our governor's call for accountability in this area throughout state agencies. This plan aligns well with the work done by our consultant Greg Bell, who visited us last year to help us think about diversity and campus climate. Truly, SOU needs to be a model in promoting affirmative action and equal opportunity, in maintaining a campus climate that encourages and supports diversity.

On another front, Christine Florence is organizing a branding and marketing planning process. This process will help coordinate our messages to the external world, to prospective students and others, while also promoting our own internal understanding of who we are and where we're going. I appreciate those of you who have been participating in focus groups and providing other feedback to Christine.

We are gradually getting the word out there about what we offer. We're becoming somewhat less of a "hidden" gem-and we're moving forward, slowly but surely, toward becoming a well-known gem.

None of the planning we're doing this year is going to lead us in surprising new directions. Instead, it will build on and affirm what we already recognize as distinctive characteristics of SOU. The planning, though, will enable us to set priorities and goals-to focus our vision so we can move forward intentionally, not haphazardly, not lurching from crisis to crisis-or from one presidential mandate to the next.

We know, for example, that SOU values and fosters meaningful connections between students and faculty. Over and over again, students tell us that they are here because of the connections they have with faculty-from initial contacts while they're applying to SOU, through freshman experiences, one-on-one advising, research and scholarly projects inside their major, and ongoing experiences in classes and capstone projects.

This characteristic sets SOU apart from larger institutions and from the majority of smaller universities. Every school says it is "student-centered:" true connections between faculty and students make that statement come alive at SOU. These connections are fundamental to increasing enrollment and retention: there's a mountain of research showing that powerful student/faculty connections are a major reason students choose a particular school and then stay enrolled. And the undergraduates who participate in a scholarly or creative experience with a faculty member will be better positioned for lifelong career and educational opportunities. SOU needs to be known for these meaningful connections, just as we're known for our commitment to the liberal arts and to professional programs that meet regional needs.

A second characteristic that sets SOU apart-and that is highlighted in the commitments of our mission statement-is powerful partnerships. From our partnership with RCC to our collaboration with the Universidad de Guanajuato, from our association with agencies, schools, and companies throughout Southern Oregon-we demonstrate that this university is not an isolated ivory tower; we are an integral part of a region, a state, an interconnected global society. We are not self-sufficient; we depend on our partners, but they also depend on us.

This commitment to partnership means that our academic and strategic planning needs to turn outward, as well as inward, when we are designing, revising, and assessing programs. It underscores our commitment to being responsive to the needs around us and to sustainable practices. It establishes SOU as an integral and critical part of regional planning.

A third distinctive characteristic is our commitment to civic engagement. As our web page points out, civic engagement is the act of becoming involved in the community or government in order to solve problems, to help meet a need and to have a voice.

AT SOU, this distinctive characteristic means that our students are not taking classes simply to "get a good job," although that is an important and  legitimate goal. At SOU, students learn to value involvement, contributing to the greater good,  as well as the knowledge and experience gained from academic curricula and co-curricular activities. It means that our students learn the values of sustainability that underlie our responsibility to our community, our economy, our bioregion, and our planet.

Civic engagement heightens students' learning by enabling them to apply their learning in community settings. It means that students learn how to make a difference in the world as students and as alumni.

A commitment to civic engagement also heightens SOU's contributions to sustainability and to the economic and social well-being of the region, ensuring that communities increasingly depend on SOU to help solve difficult problems in an increasingly complex world.

Meaningful student/faculty connections,
powerful partnerships,
civic engagement:

These characteristics are already distinctive parts of our campus community and culture. They highlight our values and our current strengths as well as our aspirations. We can build on these strengths as we reinvest, renew, and revitalize our institution, as we organize SOU to make it truly sustainable.
We're embarking on a year of bringing our visions and aspirations closer to reality. I hope you will join me in the same spirit of collaboration that has marked our first two years together. We will all be amazed at what we can accomplish.

Thank you so much for joining me this afternoon. Happy New Academic Year.
Please stay on and enjoy our welcoming reception.