At every stop of his career, Roy Saigo has jumped into the trenches — sometimes living in the dorm rooms weeks at a time — to enhance his perspective on what would make the particular campus more appealing to students.
During his lengthy tenure on college campuses in the Midwest and South, Roy Saigo established himself as a change agent, and his role is no different now that he's leading Southern Oregon University as its interim president.
The veteran academic shared his vision and leadership style during Monday's Chamber of Medford/Jackson County Forum at Rogue Valley Country Club.
Whether it's making an on-the-spot fix for a locator map, ensuring campus benches suit their intended purpose or pursuing a new source of students, Saigo seizes the moment.
At every stop of his career, Saigo has jumped into the trenches — sometimes living in the dorm rooms for weeks at a time — to enhance his perspective on what would make the particular campus more appealing to students.
"Fresh eyes, folks, when you look at your business is extremely, extremely important," Saigo said, illustrating his point from the moment he arrived in Ashland.
When he and his wife, Barbara, pulled into the campus visitors' parking lot in July, two cars with prospective students and their families arrived at the same time. They were all puzzled about where they were at the moment. His wife suggested they look at the campus map.
"So she went over to the map, and there is no, 'You are here,' " he said. "We had received a phone number, and I said, 'We need a 'You are here.' "
The voice on the other end of the line suggested buildings and grounds staff takes care of such matters.
"I said, 'No, mam, we are losing students as I speak, they are leaving the parking lot,' " he said. "I need for you to come down with masking tape and a red marker to put it on the map; it was taken care of that afternoon."
When he arrived, Saigo saw a campus needing to pull together as a team.
"I didn't feel that was happening," he said.
He sat down with the Service Employees International Union, maintenance crew, residence hall staff, information technology and management leaders and coaches.
"I said to all the coaches, I have one major guideline," said Saigo, a one-time chancellor for Auburn University's Montgomery campus. "They all sat up, maybe about 30 of them, and Athletic Director Matt Sayre — win every game."
He called the custodians together for a meeting at 10 one evening.
"They were wondering what was up, and I said, 'Folks, I'm so pleased that you are here with me tonight. You are invisible, working afternoons and graveyard shifts, and we don't see you. But we see your work. If you don't do your job, and the bathrooms are dirty and the hallways are dirty, it takes only about 15 seconds to decide whether you want to come to this institution or not.' "
He asked the custodial staff to tell him about ways to make SOU better and more welcoming.
"I would not know that, and I have no way of finding out," he said. "It helped to build more teamwork for the institution than we had before."
During one of his first SOU cabinet meetings, Saigo recalled, double-digit enrollment declines were mentioned, and the conversation moved down the agenda.
"I said, 'Wait a minute, let's come back to that,' " he said. "Why aren't we talking about the issue? The answer was that the admissions people take care of that. I spoke some French about there, I never realized that French has so many American words."
He learned that some of the school's dorm rooms were unfilled. He suggested giving dormitory scholarships and not worry if some students had paid more than others.
"Let's follow the airlines' motto that we don't fly with an empty seat," Saigo said. "We became a team that week."
To that end, financial aid, admissions, honors college, housing, faculty, administrators, information technology and counseling staffs went to work. Calls went out to as many as 2,000 students, who weren't planning to return.
"Everybody came together," he said. "When you see or feel that kind of spirit, you can get your arms around it. You have all had that at some time in your life or career. It's something basically priceless."
He related a story from a single mom in Medford who said she couldn't afford to send her son back to SOU.
"When you are poor, you don't have the energy or strength or even the audacity to ask for help," Saigo said.
Ultimately, the student qualified for financial aid, received a dormitory scholarship and enrolled that afternoon.
"She thanked us with tears in her eyes," Saigo said. "Every one of us — faculty and staff — are going to focus on helping, mentoring, advising and, yes, even wiping away tears. If we can do that, treating every student as if he or she are our child, we will be the most successful institution in the state.
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.