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‘Where are the women?’

Churchill Hall at Southern Oregon University. [Mail Tribune file photo]
Lack of diversity among SOU president finalists raises concerns

In Linda Schott, Southern Oregon University has one of a handful of female university presidents who have led the institution over the years.

But the current crop of finalists vying to succeed her — five men — leads observers such as Ashland resident Louise Paré, a longtime educator and activist who sits on several local boards, to ask, “where are the women?”

“Obviously, we’ve had women presidents of SOU in the past, so no one is questioning if women have the ability to lead a major institution of higher learning at this time and do it competently,” Paré said. “It just makes me curious looking from the outside in.”

The five finalists are Richard J. Bailey, Jr., president of Northern New Mexico College; Chris Gilmer, president of West Virginia University at Parkersburg; Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of the Montana University System; Curtis Bridgeman, the Roderick and Carol Wendt Professor of Business Law at Willamette University College of Law; and Junius Gonzales, provost and professor at the New York Institute of Technology.

At the center of the search for a new president is an 18-member committee tasked with helping the Board of Trustees pick the school’s next president.

The committee members, listed on the university’s website, include nine women, including Rogue Community College President Cathy Kemper-Pelle and Ashland City Council member Gina DuQuenne.

Danny Santos, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees and head of the search committee, applauded the makeup of the search committee, saying including women leaders’ input has helped them narrow down candidates.

The committee started with more than 100 applicants before members narrowed them down to 12 candidates — four of them women — for virtual interviews. From that list, the committee recommended five finalists, all of whom visited campus this month. Now, the trustees will deliberate before entering into contract negotiations with the chosen candidate. An announcement will likely come in early November.

Paré wondered about the search committee’s approach and how it settled on five men and no women as finalists.

“I’m wondering whether or not the search committee decided that it was important to them to have a male president after a history of however many women presidents,” she said.

Paré is not the only one concerned with the current finalist pool. So is Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland.

“We’ve seen great women leaders in our local and state institutions,” she said. “While I’m sure there are fine candidates in that five, I am disappointed there are no women represented.”

Marsh cited the school’s history of having a woman president every year except two since the year 2000 as a factor in her feelings. She said that another compelling reason to hire a female president is that studies have shown women outnumber men on college campuses.

Santos defended the group’s thinking in deciding on who the finalists were.

“The five candidates were chosen to come to campus because they were identified as the most highly qualified candidates for this position out of a very large and diverse pool,” he said.

Asked why that small pool did not include women, Santos responded, “The search committee and the board have all been committed to finding the best possible president … and we wish to base that on their qualifications for the position without any real bias or discrimination against anyone.”

Informed of Santos’ comments, Paré responded by saying, “that phrase is used a lot — ‘the best possible president’ — which sets aside any conversation about … diversity. So it is, in my opinion, a way to sidestep that conversation.”

Santos emphasized that both the search committee and trustees “see diversity as an extremely important factor,” and questions about initiatives on that front are being posed to each of the five finalists.

“It’s not that we excluded the equity lens from our conversations; we have very much emphasized them,” Santos said.

When asked about the potential for a woman to be added to the finalist group at this stage in the search, Santos said that SOU is going to “maintain our process with these five candidates.”

“Hypothetically, yes, a candidate may withdraw,” he said. “But that would not change our desire to successfully complete the search as soon as possible.”

SOU spokesman Joe Mosley told the newspaper Friday “to the best of our knowledge,” none of the finalists had dropped out of consideration.

The Mail Tribune reached out to a few faculty members for their thoughts on the president finalists. Both of them forwarded the interview requests to Mosley, director of community and media relations.

“On our campus, our Presidential Search Committee — through its chair — is uniquely qualified to describe and discuss the presidential search process,” Mosley wrote in an email to the newspaper.

The Mail Tribune spoke to one former SOU female president, Sara Hopkins. She led SOU as interim president from 2000-01 before departing to take the reins of Pacific University, a private school in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Hopkins retired in 2013 and moved back to the Rogue Valley, but she noted she has had “little contact” with SOU.

“I am impressed with the quality of the presidential search committee, and I trust in their ability to find the best qualified candidate,” Hopkins wrote.

Though her criticisms remain, Marsh also said she trusted those facilitating the search process.

“I am sure that the board will choose someone who is well qualified, and look forward to working with them,” she said.