State Rep. Peter Buckley has confirmed that he is in informal talks with Southern Oregon University trustees about becoming the university's president when the position comes open July 1.
Although Buckley has no background in university teaching or administration, he says he has extensive experience with higher education budgets and finances as longtime co-chairman of the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee — and has many connections in the community.
“I’m not an academic,” says Buckley, who holds a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Santa Clara University. “It would be a different kind of choice for them, especially with SOU moving into having a board of their own. The board can open up parameters — and, in such a choice, it would be really important for the faculty to be supportive.”
SOU and other Oregon universities have moved to local boards of trustees following the dismantling of the state Board of Higher Education, a move taking effect earlier this year.
Buckley said his pitch to the trustees will be that a central job of the president is to be an effective leader of the organization, something he’s done as part of the leadership team for House Democrats.
“The important thing is that the president is not the academic leader. The provost is,” says Buckley. “It’s an important distinction. The president is a leader of the organization. ... What I bring is leadership, passion and connection to this region. That’s very different than bringing someone new into the job.
“My pitch to the board is that I’m committed to this region, my family is committed, this is where I want to be, and this is where I want to have an impact.”
Buckley recently announced he’s not running for the legislative seat he was elected to six times. His term is up at the end of 2016. If he is hired and the board requires him to quit the Legislature, he says he would do so. If he kept both jobs for the last six months of his term, he notes, the Legislature isn’t very busy in the last half of election years.
To fill the post, the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee would select three candidates for the seat. The county commission would choose one. The appointee must be from the same party that last controlled the seat. A new Democratic nominee will be chosen for the seat at the May 2016 primary and would be the likely appointee.
The trustees at a meeting this Friday will start a nationwide search, choosing among two to four executive search firms to come up with a short list for a new president, said board Chairman Bill Thorndike. Buckley would be welcome to submit his resume or have himself nominated, he says. Thorndike says Buckley’s lack of experience on campus does not rule him out — and Eastern Oregon University recently hired a president of Boise-Cascade, a person well established in their region, but with managerial not academic background.
Asked their take on a Buckley appointment, SOU professors, department heads and faculty officers had a spectrum of concerns, with some doubts about a new president who lacks the baptism of experience in campus complexities.
Economics professor Ric Holt said, “I have a lot of respect for him. He has good administrative skills, and SOU needs these in a president. He has the skill to bring different factions and groups together. He knows the people, the area and would work well with the SOU board and provide the guidance they might need. He knows how to work with unions and would step in and help there.
“His weaknesses are on the academic side, and those are extremely important for a president. The president picks the provost, associate provost, division heads and deans. You need to know how academic structure works and bring in people who understand academic and intellectual values. He needs to articulate to the community in talks and pieces in the newspaper what his academic vision is and how he would make them stronger. ... Unless he can do this, I think he would be weak. That’s his Achilles heel.”
Lee Ayers, criminology professor and director of University Studies, said hiring a “nonprofessional” to head universities is not unheard of — and “the university as we’ve known it many years is evolving. The position of university president requires more complex understanding than just traditional academics. When we look at the longterm obstacles SOU has faced, and our positioning in the region, I feel someone like him would be well-placed to serve our institution across the board. Sometimes we have to think about the skill set needed. What is needed is more like a CEO. You need a strong provost as the presence of academia. ... When you think about breaking away from the traditional realm, maybe it’s time.”
Vicki Purslow, chairwoman of the SOU music program and faculty union president, said she doesn’t rule out a nonacademic as president, adding, “There are benefits with someone extremely well known politically and who can be a strong advocate for us in Salem, however ... we need a strong president to lead the faculty. It’s a pretty specialized business we operate. We operate on different rules and regulations than the private sector and it can be a bit of a culture shock. But I’m open to all possibilities.”
Ashland City Councilor Carol Voisin, an SOU professor who is considering a run for Buckley’s seat, credits the “great job” he did in the House, but says the job of president is different, mostly fundraising for the school and making key hiring choices for provost and administration.
“A person who does that really needs to understand what academia is all about, where we’ve been and where we’re going. I don’t think SOU has time to catch him up on that. It would take three or four years.”
Voisin said Buckley may have a political fundraising network, but “raising money as an investment in an institution is really different. ... That person has to be able to schmooze and love doing it, then be able to bring home the question, which is asking for the money.”
The board will evaluate applications in January and announce a choice in spring.
In announcing his retirement from the Legislature, Buckley noted the long commuting distance to Salem and the low pay for a House member, about $19,000.
“My son last summer made more than that building trails with the Northwest Youth Corps,” he joked.
The SOU post, he says, pays around $200,000.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.