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New SOU president gets to work

Seven weeks after agreeing to become Southern Oregon University’s 13th president, Linda Schott spent her first official day on the job Monday touring the campus and meeting faculty and staff during a campus reception.

Schott earned a master’s in history in 1981 and a doctorate in history and humanities in 1986, both from Stanford University, after which she began her teaching career at Texas State University. She served as the director of the center for the study of women and gender at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and as the director of the women’s and gender studies program at Eastern Michigan University before becoming EMU’s head of the department of history and philosophy and the associate dean of the college of arts and sciences in 2006. Two years later she began serving as the dean of the school of arts, humanities and social sciences at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and in 2012 Schott became the president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI).

Before Monday’s reception, Schott, who said she arrived in Ashland on July 27 with “our two vehicles, our son, three cats and a dog,” sat down with the Tidings to talk about the transition, her philosophies regarding secondary education and the challenges the lie ahead at SOU. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

DT: You’ve only been in Ashland a few days but what do you think about what you’ve seen so far?

Schott: Our temporary housing is in the historic district here in Ashland so we’ve been walking around a lot. I’ve passed two trees of the year: the 1997 and the 2000 trees of the year. We’ve been downtown, we’ve eaten out a lot. We’ve been to the co-op, we’ve been to Albertson's.

DT: And you’ve been up to Mount Ashland.

Schott: Well, my husband likes to ski and so he kind of wanted to go up and have a look at what the little ski resort up there looked like. So we just drove up there and it was on Friday, so when it was 104 (degrees) down here it was only about 85 up there. So we went up and it was just gorgeous.

DT: During your public forum presentation you mentioned that neither your mom nor your dad graduated from high school. SOU in the past has billed itself as a good landing spot for first-generation students. Was that something that attracted you to SOU?

Schott: Absolutely. When you look at our nation we really need to increase the number of students who have baccalaureate degrees or other kinds of certifications, and an institution like this is here to provide baccalaureate and master’s degrees. We know that the students who are succeeding in our high schools and come from wealthy backgrounds or even privileged middle-class backgrounds, they’re usually going on to college and have a pretty good chance of success, although not all of them succeed. But the bulk of the population in the United States, the growth in the population, is among what we have called minority groups and students who come from less privileged economic backgrounds. So, we need to figure out how to best serve the students from those backgrounds. And it’s this kind of public institution that really has a lot of opportunity for those kinds of students. I get tired of seeing so many media stories about how hard it is to get into college and how expensive it is, because really public institutions like this are much more accessible and much more affordable than the schools that you usually hear about, the elite schools. So that’s very attractive to me. And, thinking about how we really educate students, are the methods that we’ve always used the most effective? Some of them are, some of them probably aren’t. So we need to really think, for the 21st century, about the most effective way of educating students.

DT: During your public forum you mentioned that, prior to arriving at University of Maine at Presque Isle, it was a university with “no clear vision or sense of direction.” How do you feel about SOU’s vision and sense of direction?

Schott: Well, what I’ve been told is that there’s a little lack of clarity at this point. I really don’t feel like I have this history down very well yet, but there may be some lack of clarity in whether being a public liberal arts college is the appropriate mission for this institution, or whether it should be more of a regional-serving institution. I don’t want to take a position on that at this point but I think what is clear is that the university needs to have a very clear idea of what its mission is and how it can best serve this region. So that’s part of the thinking that I hope to do with the campus over the coming year. The way I’d like to do that is sort of talk to people and find out why they’re here, what’s kept them here — I’ve met people already today who’ve been here 20, 25 years or more. And not just faculty, but staff. What do they love about this place? What are they passionate about? What do they see as the potential that maybe hasn’t been fully realized? And then start thinking about how we work together to achieve that potential for the institution, just like we’re trying to help students achieve their individual potential. Where’s really the potential of this institution and how to do we work together to fulfill it.

DT: At UMPI, you partnered with a company that specialized in “enrollment management.” Is that something that you may consider exploring at SOU?

Schott: I need to learn a lot more about who’s managing enrollment right now. At UMPI, we didn’t have a vice president for enrollment management. Enrollment management has become very sophisticated. It’s really a big business and there’s a ton of expertise in it now and universities need to have that in some form or fashion or you’re just not able to compete with the institutions that do have it. At UMPI, we didn’t have the money to hire a vice president and so we partnered with (Royall & Company), which was not inexpensive, but they brought not just a person, they brought marketing, they brought design. And one of the most valuable things that they brought was research. They have a ton of research on what kinds of communications work best, timing of the communications — it’s amazing how sophisticated they are about the best way to reach out to students. I’m very focused on research. I think we’re an educational institution. We believe in research and so we ourselves need to always be looking at the latest research and using it to do our work. So I don’t know whether that would be appropriate, but certainly we need to make sure that we have a high level of expertise in enrollment management and are using the latest information on how to recruit and retain students.

DT: You just touched on a key element for universities — enrollment retention. Enrollment has actually gone up two years in a row at SOU, but helping those students follow through to graduation is another challenge. What’s the key?

Schott: Well, they have to have a really good experience. For the traditional undergraduate student, they need to be engaged. So campus life needs to be engaging for them. We know that if they’re engaged — if they’re on the football team or they’re in the band or they’re in the theater troupe, or they’re in ROTC — some organization, they’re more likely to stay. So if campus life is focused on getting students engaged, we’re much more likely to retain them. They build a community and then they want to stay for their friends as much as they do for the educational experience. The other thing is just making sure you’re providing a great educational experience. So I really hope to bring student-centered focus. How do we best serve the students? You have to have, I think, excellent customer service. Students are not customers in the classroom, but they are customers when they go to financial aid or when they go to get their parking permit. When they’re doing business on campus then they are a customer, and we need to make sure that we’re treating them well and giving them an excellent experience there, just like we want to have when we go to some other business. And then I think really thinking hard about what kind of learning support students need. Students learn in all sorts of different ways. Not everybody learns the same, and some people are stronger in math and others are stronger in English and others are stronger in business. So we need to think about how we create well-rounded students so that they have their strengths but we can also support them in the areas where they’re maybe not as strong. Because sometimes students will end up leaving because they get tripped up by one of these other fields. They’re doing OK in their major but they’re getting tripped up in another area. So I really believe strongly that the old idea that some people are smart and others aren’t is just really not accurate. Most people are strong in some areas and we need to help them figure out how to work with their strengths and then support them in the areas where they’re not as strong.

DT: During your public forum you referenced Jeffrey Selingo’s book “College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Our Students.” (Selingo’s research, Schott said during her speech, noted that the number of graduates from the most economically advantaged families has increased to about 82 percent, while that number has dropped to 8 percent for students from the least economically advantaged families). How can a school like SOU help students from economically disadvantaged families?

Schott: Well, I need to learn a lot more about the profile of the students here at SOU. One of the things I like — I’ve seen data on enrollment and retention and graduation rates, but I haven’t seen it broken out by income group or ethnicity. I really need to see that so that we can analyze where there might be issues and then start thinking about how to address them. But I think a lot of what I just said (applies). We’ve had a very traditional educational system, in which there’s a lot of lecture, memorization, repetition, and there’s a segment of students that do well in that and then there are a lot of people that are turned off by that who are still plenty smart. I always say, “Remember the person you went to high school with who you knew was smart but just wasn’t doing well in school,” and we all can think about those kinds of people. So how do we serve those students and acknowledge that they are "smart," they’re capable, it’s just not in that traditional way of learning.

DT: For those of us who don’t understand exactly what the transition process is like for a university president, can you explain it? You just got here — now what?

Schott: I think at first I’m going to focus a lot on getting to know the campus, getting to know the board members, then I’ll gradually work on getting out into the community and getting to know the people in the community. I also want to get to know my presidential colleagues around the state, so that we can work effectively together in terms of helping legislators and others across the state understand the importance of these institutions and the roles that we’re playing.

DT: Sounds like a lot of meetings.

Schott: A lot of meetings — the proverbial drinking out of the fire hose here for the first few months. A lot of listening, I think. I’m doing a lot of talking today but I hope to do more listening as I sit down and talk with people, about “why are you here, why have you stayed here at SOU all this time?” I’ve asked for meetings with some faculty and some students this week because I want to send the message that I’m really committed to the core business of this institution, which is teaching students, helping them learn. And I’m also meeting with many, many other people. Staff, of course, is very important to student learning as well. So it’s a lot of listening and then I read widely about education. I read “Inside Higher Ed” pretty religiously every day, so I try to track what’s happening in higher education. I like to think about innovation, and so I’ll just be sort of processing a lot, thinking about all the people I’m meeting, what the strengths are, and putting that together with what I already know about what’s happening in higher ed and trends. I need to get to know the state so I have a better sense of the needs here, and really what role this institution plays in the state. And then I’ll sort of bring that all together and meet with groups and probably try out a few ideas and get feedback. I’m not going to suddenly have a meeting and then announce a new plan. Hopefully by the time we finally do announce something, everybody will go, "Well, yeah, we knew that’s where they were going.” There will have been enough input that nobody will be really surprised.

DT: Have you been able to enjoy this, your first official day on the job? What has today been like for you?

Schott: I haven’t really gotten out a lot yet. I’ve sort of been in the building, in my office. There’s been a lot of practical things today — get your keys, get your parking permit, get your email going. I’m like any other new employee today. I hope later on in the next few weeks to really get out on campus, wander around, meet people. And of course I just have a lot of meetings. But the first day it’s just exciting. I’m kind of glad it’s finally here. There’s been a lot of anticipation over the last few weeks. Some sadness with leaving my previous institution, because it was a wonderful little campus. So it was good to sort of finally say goodbye and have about two weeks to make the transition and now it’s about being here and starting to focus on this institution.

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.