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Exit interview: SOU's Roy Saigo looks back

Roy Saigo’s roughly two-year run as president of Southern Oregon University comes to an end today, three days before new president Linda Schott will take over.

It was an eventful 25-month stint for the 75-year-old Japanese American, who was appointed SOU’s interim president by the state Board of Higher Education in 2014. The school's board of trustees later removed the interim title as a show of respect for his efforts.

Touted as a “turnaround expert” who previously was president of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Saigo came out of retirement to take over Southern Oregon while it was in the middle of a retrenchment plan that called for several majors to get slashed and faculty cutbacks which increased the student-to-faculty ratio to 21-to-1 from 17-to-1.

Saigo talked to the Tidings on Thursday about his time at SOU and what may be on the horizon for the university. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

DT: Will you actually stay retired this time?

Saigo: You know, I hope so. This is my third presidency and I’m ready. I’m looking forward to it. I have a lot of friends here and they have invited me to go fishing and I’ve not been able to go on a drift boat this whole two years. We’ve decided to stay here in town and we’ve made many good adult friends so that’s kind of precious.

DT: SOU’s board of trustees was established right as you came on board. How has it changed how the school is managed?

Saigo: To have the community involved with local trustees is much more hands-on, it’s much more cause and effect immediately, rather than everything from Portland. So the thing that I’m excited about is, when the board gets together, they read the newspapers, they talk to faculty, they talk to students, they are here in the community and they have the pulse of the university right in their hands. Here, we have these monthly meetings and the information on the internet is available, and so we can make corrections in mid-air. That’s really an important advantage.

DT: What was the moral like among faculty and staff when you arrived and what’s it like now?

Saigo: I would say 80 percent are feeling really good. They had a retirement party for us and they had commissioned an original musical and dedicated the spring concern called Eastern Light. There were people all over the place visiting and the thing that was most astounding to me was that as the two choirs got ready to sing the alma mater the entire (SOU) football team, in red jerseys, hustled up to the stage and they all sang the university hymn. And there was not, including us, a dry eye in the audience of maybe 400 to 500 people. So the outpouring of kindness and love and respect and appreciation was just … you could put your arms around it. … There’s been an outpouring of appreciation of what we all as a team were able to do, and I think people feel really, really good about where we are.

DT: Public funding continues to decline. How can schools like SOU continue to make up for that gap?

Saigo: We don’t have the OUS [Oregon University System] anymore so we don’t have data from every university, but I’m kind of guessing that we’re the only public university that has grown three years in a row in undergraduate enrollment. And so, in order to pay for the expense of running a university you do have to become more efficient, and as I told faculty and staff and students, you’re going to have to do it better, you’re going to have to do it with less. But that’s life, isn’t it?

DT: Tuition and fees continue to go up. What’s the answer?

Saigo: Well, for now (creativity) is going to have to be. I believe that the economics of the state is going to start improving. Also, we’re going to continue to be more efficient. When I came we had too many courses that had fewer than 10 students and we eliminated most of those. We also had other responsibilities — and they were important — and we removed all of those. They’re called extended service. They (professors) would be chairing a committee or working on some research, but we got everyone back in the classroom where they needed to be. So we’re becoming much more lean and mean and really focusing on the success of each student and making sure that every student is treated as if they’re our own.

DT: As far as recruiting students goes, how far should SOU’s reach extend?

Saigo: When I came I listened for the first two or three months and I started getting kind of testy because I got the same question over and over: “Are you a regional university or a destination university? Are you University of Ashland?” There seemed to be a disconnect with Medford and I started getting defensive. And then I sat back like I usually try to do and looked at the university from 40,000 feet up. It occurred to me that those questions were not real questions, but they were offended because we had forgotten to pay attention to our regional consumers. I said, you know what, the question you asked — and this was at a Rotary (event) — is not a question that I can even answer because the answer is already in the name: Southern Oregon University. That means we’re regional. However, if you want somebody from Hawaii, which we have 130 students from Hawaii, and from California, and maybe 30 or 40 countries, then you’re welcome to come. We’d love to have you. But our focus is on the Rogue Valley. I’ve said this over and over — our territory is northern California to Roseburg, from Klamath Falls to Coos Bay.

DT: How do you feel about Oregon’s new outcome-based funding model and do you think it will ultimately help or hurt SOU?

Saigo: It’s hard to tell right now. It’s helping Western (Oregon) and Portland State more now, but I believe that it’s a good move and that we’ll focus on where we need to go and we’re doing that in transition. However, Eastern (Oregon) gets some compensation because they’re on the border and we don’t get that compensation. But we’re situated well. We’ve got 10 to 11 percent reserves and I think those reserves will go to about 13 to 14 (percent), and that’ll give the new president a lot of leeway. She will have some flexibility to do some new things that are going to be really exciting.

DT: Enrollment is going up at SOU and sits at 6,242 at last count. Is there a magic number that the university shouldn’t exceed in order to keep the student-to-faculty ratio down?

Saigo: No, we still have capacity and that’s a good thing. So the institution, I believe, can continue to grow for another thousand students without difficulty.

DT: During the retrenchment, SOU eliminated about 80 positions. The school is back in good financial standing now. Do you think the school is in position to try to reintroduce some of those majors that were lost?

Saigo: I’d put it a different way. They need to go back and reevaluate where the growth is going to take place, what are the needs of the Rogue Valley, what are the potential jobs to come, and then start filling in from there.

DT: What will you remember most about your time at SOU?

Saigo: The tremendous outpouring of the whole university coming together to solve the problem that we had ahead of us. It was so exciting that you could just literally put your arms around the energy and excitement and the adrenaline coursing through the campus, and that’s what turned the whole institution around. It was just thrilling, a momentum that I hope we can continue into the future.

DT: What’s next for you?

Saigo: I’m going to finish my book, and my last chapter is SOU. It started off about my experience in the Deep South. The title at that time — it may change — was “You Can’t Get There From Here.” It started out having jokes about the things that I encountered in the Deep South, then I started talking about some of my experience and how my incarceration (in an internment camp) during World War II affected my philosophy on leadership and why I speak for those who have no voice.

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.