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'Of service to others’

Photo courtesy of Northern New Mexico College Rick Bailey, the new president of Southern Oregon University, claps as certificates are given to students during a research symposium at Northern New Mexico College, where he served as president.
Rick Bailey, Southern Oregon University’s new president, described by friends and associates as go-getter, innovative leader

Who is the real Rick Bailey?

People who have worked with the man set to take the helm of Southern Oregon University Jan. 15 say they know the answer.

Ivan Lopez Hurtado, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northern New Mexico College, where Bailey last worked, met his future boss during a college presidential candidate forum in 2016. It was there that he wondered whether Bailey, one of several finalists for the top position, was really the smart and charismatic person he saw on stage.

“To my surprise, and to the surprise of everyone, well, no, he was for real,” Lopez Hurtado said. “What we saw in that forum, it was the real Rick Bailey.”

Jennifer Parks, president and CEO of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, thought so, too, when she started having breakfast with Bailey and other community leaders.

“All that’s real. It’s not an act, it’s not shallow,” Parks said of the college president’s attitude. “It’s the real Rick Bailey.”

After attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and giving back to his country through top assignments around the world, including in Afghanistan, Bailey parlayed his military credentials into a higher education career.

Bailey was the first elected president of the faculty senate at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies in Alabama, where he was also the inaugural dean of students. Bailey advised senior leaders on issues regarding the school's 600-plus faculty and won awards for that work.

Following his tenure at the military school, Bailey was appointed president of NNMC, where he is credited with essentially saving the college.

It is these experiences and accomplishments that lead people who know Bailey to say that the Rogue Valley community will like what they get from the new guy leading SOU.

“You guys are lucky to get him,” Parks said.

Informed of the fact that people had made strikingly similar comments about this demeanor, Bailey told the newspaper that he was not quite sure how to describe who the “real Rick Bailey” is.

“All of us are constantly evolving,” he wrote. “I think I am just someone who realizes how fortunate I am to do what I do, and that I hope I can be of service to others.”

Early years

Angela Nelson, a registered nurse at Baylor Scott & White Health in Texas, was a high school classmate of Bailey’s in the Lone Star State, where the two students both had parents in the military.

The star students were involved in various extracurricular activities and they had heard of each other, but they’d never met face-to-face — until Bailey and Nelson were tapped by their peers as “most likely to succeed” and were asked to take a picture together for the yearbook.

“It felt like we had known each other forever, even though we met our (s)enior year,” Nelson wrote in an email, saying their friendship evolved to the point where, “I could literally ask or tell him anything ... and I did.”

“Nothing was ever off limits, nothing was ever too private or personal,” she added.

Bailey’s success in activities like Academic Decathlons, Speech and Debate and ROTC “all helped set the stage for the man he is today,” Nelson said.

But there were other sides to Bailey besides being an “academic,” according to Nelson. He love hanging out with friends, going to dances and participating in “stupid movie night.”

“This was our high-school experience as we began our journey of navigating adulthood and a friendship that has stood the test of time — 33 years and counting,” she wrote, calling Bailey her “protective brother.”

Academy days

Preston Leon, a consultant in the retail industry, graduated with Bailey in 1992 from the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. During the four years they served together, Bailey and Leon were in the same squadron, known as The Bulldogs.

“I remember him standing out quite a bit as a sophomore,” Leon said, describing Bailey as an outgoing individual and one of the smartest in the group as an astronautical and engineering major.

Coursework came easy to Bailey, his friend noted.

“He used to help me cram and study for my tests,” Leon said. “I always wondered, ‘how on Earth did he get an A and he didn't have to study and I squeaked by with a B or a C after all that help?’”

Like all cadets, Bailey participated in intramural sports, including flag football and soccer.

“More so than Rick’s aptitude athletically, he stood out as somebody who ended up taking charge,” Leon said. “Even if he wasn’t the best athlete on the team, he was more likely to get picked as the captain.”

There was limited time to get off the base, but when they did, the two young men spent time with “cadet sponsor families.”

“The purpose of the program is to … give the cadets a place to go to get away from the pressure and the stress of being in one of the service academies,” Leon said. “We’d have dinners over there, we’d go to movies, we’d hang out.”

Bailey “from the very beginning” was a leader, his Academy friend said. During junior year, Bailey rose to the rank of first officer in the squadron, followed by commander when he became a senior.

“We were teenagers back then, so you don’t know what you don’t know,” Leon said. “Yet Rick, who leaves his Texas high school and gets into a service academy, rose to the top very early on.”

Leon added that he felt “both pride and envy” in those days when Bailey reached top leadership levels. The two Academy alumni are still in touch, with Leon’s kids calling Bailey “Uncle Rick.”

Leadership in New Mexico

When Bailey became president of Northern New Mexico College he inherited a “total mess of an institution,” as Lopez Hurtado put it. The prior administration, which received a vote of no-confidence from the faculty, left him with a financial crisis, a steep decline in enrollment and almost a dozen lawsuits.

“Dr. Bailey intervened quickly,” Lopez Hurtado said. “He brought a lot of healing to the institution.”

Parks also noted NNMC’s “mess” when Bailey came into the top job.

“It’s a primarily Hispanic-serving institution, and here’s this white guy from Colorado who comes in, and I think people were kind of skeptical,” she said. “He has a good team working for him, but he has almost single-handedly turned the institution around in so many ways.”

But Bailey didn’t spend the whole time at NNMC putting out fires. He boosted enrollment, brought solar power to campus and helped pass a levy to authorize taxpayer funds to bring trade classes back to campus.

“The community was demanding we bring back these programs and resurrect [the] El Rito campus,” Lopez Hurtado said, referring to the Northern New Mexico College mill levy.

A branch community college district was passed unanimously by the New Mexico Legislature in 2019 and signed into law by the governor. The following November, voters overwhelmingly approved the levy, providing $2.4 million annually to establish and sustain associate degree programs in key trades.

Lopez Hurtado credits Bailey and his persuasive skills for both the passage of the legislation and the vote of support for the levy.

“Somebody who was not from the state of New Mexico … but everybody recognized he was a real leader,” Lopez Hurtado said. “He told me — and this is something he always does — he expressed gratitude to everybody.”

Community impact

While the immediate needs of the college were paramount, Bailey was also looking to forge partnerships with the community, as he did with Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation.

The lab has a storied history going back to World War II, when it helped develop the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. But the foundation, established by lab employees, aims to create educational opportunities for public school students.

Though it mostly focuses on K-12 endeavors, the foundation has a “careers pathway” scholarship for nontraditional college students. Bailey has spoken with Parks about how they can attract those pupils to the program.

Parks credits Bailey for his outreach in other areas, too, such as opening up the college to more community events. Not only that, he has graciously allowed health care workers to facilitate drive-thru coronavirus testing in certain places on campus.

“He’s so respectful of everyone, that's what endeared him to this community,” Parks said.

While some higher education officials might feel their schools are “a universe upon themselves,” Parks said Bailey is someone who understands NNMC is “part of a much bigger ecosystem.”

“There is no line. The college is part of the community and the community is part of the college,” she said.

Parks seemed certain of Bailey’s potential at SOU.

“I bet you a million bucks, he will grow that university and think of things you guys haven’t thought of,” she said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.