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SOU president Mary Cullinan leaves for Eastern Washington

After eight years as president of Southern Oregon University, marked by relentless state budget cuts and a recent faculty vote of no confidence, Mary Cullinan will leave to become president of Eastern Washington University on Aug. 1.

"I'm really delighted," Cullinan said in a phone interview Monday. "It's a wonderful opportunity, very exciting, with a fast transition."

The new school has a much larger enrollment than SOU and faces similar budgetary pullbacks by the state, but Washington overall has more resources for higher education than Oregon, she said, "and I will have a little more (budgetary) flexibility."

Cullinan's resignation is effective July 1. An interim president will be chosen for SOU by that date by the Oregon State Board of Higher Education. No one at SOU, she said, has any information about who the next president might be.

Typically, the Board of Higher Education and the chancellor name an interim president, then conduct a search for the new president, said Charles Triplett, chief of staff for the chancellor's office and secretary for the board. The search committee includes officials from the faculty and students of SOU.

Cullinan suggested the search for her replacement could be difficult.

"I don't know their thought processes," Cullinan said, referring to the board's ideas on the new SOU president. "Everyone in the country knows Oregon is one of the most financially challenging states."

Cullinan's resignation was accepted by OUS Chancellor Melody Rose with plaudits.

Rose said Cullinan increased SOU enrollment by 1,300 students, upped student performance and retention, built transfer and enrollment programs with Rogue Community College, enhanced student diversity and created "living-learning houses" to help integrate a broader learning experience.

"I've been here eight years and done a lot of good things," said Cullinan. "We transformed the physical campus and did more renovation than took place (under one president) in the history of the campus."

Cullinan also cited improvements in the honors program and curricula in Medford (at the SOU-RCC campus) supporting working professionals.

In March, 63 percent of faculty at SOU voted that they were not confident in Cullinan's leadership. The vote was just below a two-thirds threshold that faculty needed to make a formal recommendation to the Oregon chancellor for Cullinan's removal.

The painful retrenchment plan, hammered out at the same time as the no-confidence vote and in the midst of faculty contract negotiations, will proceed over the next four years and "will be easy" for the new president to enact, Cullinan said.

It cuts 80 positions, most through retirements and restructuring, and saves $6.1 million a year.

Not long after the retrenchment was announced and the no-confidence vote cast, Cullinan began searching for new work, ending up a finalist for the top job at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Cullinan said EWU is a "tremendous success story" and includes a branch at Washington State University in Spokane. The university is based in Cheney.

Paul Tanaka, chairman of the EWU Board of Trustees, lauded Cullinan.

"We are thrilled to have someone of Dr. Cullinan's caliber ...," Tanaka said on the EWU website. "Her tremendous academic and leadership experience, along with her focus on student success, make her an ideal choice."

"Cullinan led SOU to identify and implement a strategic vision for success that focused purposefully on access and success for all students," the EWU page says. "She believes her passion for student success aligns well with Eastern's long commitment to helping students, especially first-generation and those who come from under-represented populations."

EWU, located near the Idaho border, has more than 12,000 students, compared with SOU's 6,700.

"I'm going to have to do a lot of learning up there ... and keep their momentum going," she said.

Before coming to SOU, Cullinan was provost and vice president for academic affairs at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas and held administrative jobs in the California State University system. She was dean of the College of Arts, Letters and Sciences at Cal State Stanislaus.

At EWU, she replaces Rodolfo Arevalo, who serves with her on the board of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Cullinan has graduate degrees in English literature from the University of Wisconsin.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

President Mary Cullinan talks in her office on Tuesday at Southern Oregon University. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore