Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan wanted to be a soprano, but when it became clear nature wanted her to be an alto, she had to redirect her goals. Next she wanted to be a writer. As a little girl she would dictate stories to her mother. That career path lasted quite a bit longer — long enough for her to earn a Masters and PhD in English Literature from the University of Wisconsin, and a position as director of the composition program at California State University, Hayward in 1987.
Although she would continue to teach English for a number of years, she continually found herself in administrative positions, first as chair of the English Department at CSU, then as interim dean, then as director of the Office of Faculty Development. In 1996 she became Dean of the College of Arts, Letters and Sciences at CSU, Stanislaus, followed by three years as provost/vice president for academic affairs at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.
Although she still considers herself a writer, most her writing today is confined to reports, memos and lists.
"I'm a great list maker," Cullinan says with a smile, though she's only half kidding. She's a big believer in preparation, in knowing what jobs need to be done. "It's important to be able to look at what you plan to get done in both the short and long term."
That does not mean, however, she believes young people should plan their lives out years in advance. While list-making helps you see what's on your horizon so you can organize your approach, people need to be flexible and open to change, she says.
"My approach is to think realistically about what you want to do and what you want to be, but I don't believe in planning out your whole life. Some of that has to come as a surprise.
"I've met students who had their whole life planned out," she says. "I used to try and talk them out of it. Being 19 and having your life planned out is not a recipe for true happiness. I believe in taking risks... moving around and trying different things. People need time to explore and room to make mistakes."
Cullinan, 56, grew up in Washington, D.C. She came of age with a unique vantage point from which to view the turbulence of the late 1960s and '70s. Her father was assistant postmaster general under President Dwight Eisenhower. He was a later a speech writer for senators, congressmen—even Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Cullinan was in college when student protest over the Vietnam War turned violent, when university administrators were viewed with distrust.
A generation later, America is again at war, and students are again questioning the actions of their leaders. Cullinan believes her experience as a student in those years makes her a better administrator today.
"We were very caught up in arguing about where our country was going and questioning what our leaders were doing," she says. "Student voices were being heard more than they had been in the past. It made me more skeptical, but I learned then that administrators need to listen to students."
Students are just as engaged in national events today as her generation, Cullinan says. "Students are trying to understand what they can do to make a positive difference. They're not just protesting, they're trying to articulate what our values, goals and objectives should be. I see their response as somewhat more sophisticated and analytical than ours in the 1960s and '70s."
Universities and their missions have changed much since then, she says. Government support and enrollment have dwindled, tuitions have risen, and schools like SOU, where programs are being cut and jobs lost, are facing the crunch. At the same time, changes have occurred that Cullinan sees as positive. The old town-gown split is less prevalent. Universities are more engaged in their communities, and towns have grown to see the importance of having a university in their midst. Colleges have become more involved in K-12 education, and to see more clearly their roles as economic engines for their state and region.
The topics are meaty, the stakes are high, and the budget problems are perhaps more serious than Cullinan expected when she became SOU president last year.
But she doesn't look overwhelmed or overburdened.
Two pieces of advice she lives by, and which she offers, help her keep perspective.
"One of the keys to success is to keep a sense of humor. If you take yourself too seriously, you won't be happy," she says.
The other credo came from a colleague as she left to become dean at CSU, Stanislaus. "Make sure when you go there you don't give the impression you have all the answers," he told her.
"I'm trying to do that here," she says.