Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. He told us it could be done. So far the results are backing him up.
The "he" is Roy Saigo, the interim president of Southern Oregon University. The "it" is filling empty desks at the university. The results are displayed in the report of fall enrollment just released by the Oregon University System, which show SOU with an increase in enrollment over the year prior.
Granted, it's a small increase — a bit over 1 percent, or 63 students. But that number masks the real result, for SOU was predicted to lose enrollment as most of the rest of Oregon's state universities did. In fact, SOU was one of only two schools — Oregon State was the other — to record an increase. Some of the schools took big drops: Eastern Oregon was down 12 percent with just over 500 fewer students; Oregon Tech was down 3.2 percent; Western lost 2.1 percent and Portland State slipped 1.9 percent. Even the high-profile Ducks' football team couldn't prevent it from dropping about 1 percent.
Those who know Saigo, who came out of retirement to lead SOU on an interim basis, are probably not surprised. Saigo, 73, previously was president of St. Cloud State University for seven years and is credited with helping the Minnesota school make a dramatic turnaround. He was hired to lead the Ashland campus for a projected two years following the departure of his predecessor, Mary Cullinan, who moved to the president's office at Eastern Washington University.
Saigo, who along with his wife, Barbara, attended college in Oregon, has an energy that belies his retirement-age status. In talks to local organizations as well as on campus, he is the epitome of the can-do leader. And he is a leader who expects his troops to follow. Under his watch, keeping the university growing and its student population strong is a task not assigned to the admissions department, but a task assigned to every member of the staff and faculty, from custodians to administrators.
He tells the story of coming to SOU for the first time and seeing a family looking puzzled as they studied a mounted campus map. He discovered the reason: There was no "You are here" notation on the map. So he made a phone call and promptly moved the staff to action. Shortly after, a taped "x" marked the "You are here" spot.
He also took a page out of the airlines' playbook, deciding that if the school had empty "seats" as the summer wore on, it would offer discounts via reduced dorm fees to fill those seats. No long studies, no ponderous committee formations, just a call — and a move — to action.
SOU has had its problems in recent years, with dwindling state support and other financial shortcomings leading to layoffs, program cuts and, in the past two years, enrollment declines. There's no guarantee an energetic interim president can turn the school's fortunes in two years on campus. But there's also no denying that he's off to a good start.