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Picking a president

They come from three different universities, each on other side of the country, and soon — maybe even today — Dr. Michael Tidwell, Dr. Terry Allison or Dr. Linda Schott will agree to become Southern Oregon University’s next president.

The finalists to replace Dr. Roy Saigo, who will retire when his contract expires at midnight on July 31, were selected from a pool of 77 applicants by a search committee and visited the campus over the course of a 10-day period starting with Tidwell on May 25-26. SOU’s 15-member Board of Trustees met Monday in the DeBoer Boardroom of the Hannon Library to decide to whom it would offer the position, after which board chair Bill Thorndike was tasked with negotiations.

The board offered a $225,000 salary initially. When asked Wednesday morning how soon an announcement will be made, SOU spokesman Ryan Brown said it could be as early as that evening or as late as next week.

The candidates each bring pages of qualifications to the table (their resumes can be downloaded via a “special meeting” link at http://governance.swp.sou.edu/). Tidwell is the dean of the college of business at Eastern Michigan University, Allison the chancellor of Indiana University South Bend and Schott the president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

“It was our job to pick out the people who were going to come to campus and I think we did a really good job,” said SOU School of Business chair Joan McBee, who was on the search committee. “The three candidates that came to campus, I think they were all great. It was a very time consuming process, we went through a lot of applications and two days of interviewing.”

Whoever gets the job will begin Aug. 1 with a host of unique challenges. In 2015 the Higher Education Coordinating Commission approved a new funding formula called the Student Success and Completion Model which will divide the state’s Public University Support Fund based on the number of students who graduate rather than the number enrolled. The PUSF accounted for about 32.5 percent of SOU’s operating budget during the 2014-15 school year.

Also, SOU is coming off a retrenchment plan whose goal was financial sustainability, namely a 10 percent fund balance by the end of the 2015-17 biennium. The move boasted $6.2 million in permanent savings and $7.8 million in one-time savings, according to SOU, but required the elimination of Art History and French majors and the suspension of the Physics major. Minors eliminated included Photography, Professional Writing and Film Techniques.

The move did not seem to hurt SOU’s enrollment, however. In the fall quarter of 2015, enrollment climbed slightly to 6,215 students from the previous fall’s 6,203 count. That included a 17-percent jump in the number of freshman students to 834, the largest freshman class in 12 years, university officials said.

Saigo said Wednesday night he feels good about the situation his successor will inherit, especially considering the shape SOU was in two years ago, when it faced a budget deficit, declining enrollment and was in the throes of retrenchment.

“Last year we had the largest freshmen class in 12 years and second largest in 20 years,” he said. “Our (financial) reserves have gone up from 3 percent to about 10 percent and I’m guessing it’ll be about 11 or 12 percent this year. We also have an increase for fall of 2016 for those (students) confirmed, who have put money down, to come to SOU.”

Each of the three candidates spoke for about an hour during an open forum portion of their visit, spending the first 20 to 30 minutes talking about their background, philosophy and vision for SOU before opening it up to questions from the audience.

SOU associate professor (school of business) Dennis Slattery, who is on both the Board of Trustees and the search committee, declined to discuss specifics about each of the candidates but said all of them brought something to the table.

“We had a really good process,” Slattery said. “We brought three people to campus to meet the people here, all of whom we felt really good about. We would not have brought them if we didn’t think that each one of them would make a great contribution to SOU as president. And each one of them, I think, did a great job presenting themselves to the different stakeholder groups, telling their story, sharing what ideas they had, how they would come to SOU and what they would do — how they would go about things.”

Slattery went on to say that the next president must be willing and able to work well with others, a quality he said the search committee was looking for both during the interviews behind closed doors and the open forums. Also, the next president must have a vision.

“We need to figure out exactly what SOU is, what SOU needs to be to meet the challenges of the future and how we’re going to get there,” he said. “So we need strategic planning, collaborative strategic planning. We listened to the candidates for president with that ear. Across the board, from faculty input to student input to the search committee, we listened with an ear toward people who could offer a collaborative strategic planning process. And when we say collaborative, we’re looking to not only include faculty, staff and students, but also the extended community. We need somebody who can bring all that together in an effective way. That’s tricky and challenging, but I think we have this wonderful product that’s ripe for the picking and everybody’s ready and eager to be engaged in that way.”

McBee agreed, and added that Saigo’s successor may have to blaze a trail for SOU that some may find uncomfortable, at least at first.

“I think the greatest challenge will be moving us forward,” she said. “With all the changes that are occurring in the environment, we need to look at doing things different than we’ve always done. I think we have such a wonderful campus, a wonderful offering. It’s just that our environment has changed, the financing has changed, students have changed and their needs have changed. We really need to start thinking about doing business differently. So with change, usually it comes with some kind of opposition. That will be the challenge for this new president, to bring us forward into the next 10 years and to get everybody on board working together, standing behind him or her.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.