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‘Honored to be here’

Students Kayla Dumore, left, and Cameron Kolpak meet with Southern Oregon University's new president Rick Bailey, Wednesday at the campus' dining commons. Photo by Denise Baratta
Rick Bailey, Southern Oregon University’s new president, talks ‘strategic listening’ and other priorities in wide-ranging news conference

Whether it’s enrollment or funding from the Legislature, Rick Bailey admits he has a lot of learning to do when it comes to the issues he will have to deal with as Southern Oregon University’s new president.

But even though he has been leading the Ashland institution for only a few days, his optimism for the school is shining through.

“I am so super humbled, excited, honored to be here,” Bailey said during a virtual news conference Tuesday from his office. “There is an unbelievably strong team here at SOU. I’m just happy to be part of the team.”

He went on to say SOU “has a lot of challenges ahead,” but also “great opportunities,” which he talked about in a Q&A lasting more than 30 minutes.

Ascent to office

Bailey assumed office Jan. 15. He came to the Rogue Valley from Northern New Mexico College, where he had served as president since 2016. Bailey succeeds Linda Schott, who served as SOU president for the same length of time.

Bailey — a retired member of the Air Force who graduated from the service academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado — realized his responsibilities as SOU’s president came even before he was appointed by the Board of Trustees to the top position in November.

While in the valley back in October for several days of interviews, Bailey had some time to kill on campus while waiting for his wife, Diana, to fly in.

“No one knew who I was or what I was doing there, and I just started walking around the campus just to get a sense of it,” Bailey said. “I realized that, all of the students walking on that campus, all of the employees who work at the university, I take responsibility for every single one of those people. I understand the decisions we make as a team are really important — not just for the students but the people who have committed themselves and their careers to being of service to students.”

Getting started

He said his “first order of business” will be a lot of “strategic listening.”

“It’s really learning about the university and gaining a respect for its values — and that’s not something that I can just get from reading the website,” Bailey said. “That’s something I get from sitting in the Hawk with students and breaking bread.”

The new president, in fact, was doing just that Wednesday night, when the Mail Tribune came to photograph him for this story.

Bailey called students a priority for him as president.

“All of us serve at the pleasure of our students,” he said. “The nice thing is, they are very vocal about the things that we do well and they’re vocal about the things that they’d like us to do better. That's a gift to have that kind of feedback with no filter on it.”

Kayla Dumore, a SOU sophomore who is also co-chair of the Native American Student Union, said she appreciates the approach the new SOU president takes with students.

“Personally, I feel that President Bailey has made it very easy for me to give him unfiltered feedback,” Dumore wrote in a text message to the Mail Tribune after she had dinner with him and a group of other students at The Hawk dining hall on campus. “Many problems Black and Indigenous students face can't be sugar coated, so it is wonderful to know that he wants to hear our raw, unfiltered experiences. That is how the best change will happen.”

Among the topics Bailey and Dumore discussed was the best ways to improve how racial discrimination is handled on campus.

“I feel that he will not only be vigilant about potential discrimination, but also be very transparent with the student body about his plan to handle it if it does happen,” Dumore wrote. “This was something many students felt could have been handled better in the past, and I feel President Bailey really looks to make sure our students feel heard and safe.”

She noted Bailey spoke to her before he even had a chance to grab his food, but the new SOU president, “struck me as a curry chicken kind guy.”

Top goals

While he believes it would be premature to give constituents definitive answers on his long-term goals for the university, Bailey gave hints at them based on the conversations he has had with members of the SOU Board of Trustees.

He would like to make SOU a more “attractive environment for a diverse student and employee base. Not only that, Bailey would like to diversify SOU’s revenue stream — including, potentially, through public-private partnerships.

“It’s a lofty goal, but the more we (diversify revenue), the less dependent we will be on state funding, which, no matter what state you’re in, can be somewhat difficult to predict,” Bailey said.

The new SOU president is mindful of the upcoming regular session of the Legislature, which begins Feb. 1.

“I’m answering from a place of ignorance,” Bailey said. “What I’m interested in finding out more about is, how state funding goes through its funding formula, to the university. I’ll be a better advocate when I learn how that funding model works.”

Enrollment is another priority for Bailey.

“My primary focus is not necessarily competing with other universities, but looking at this region and what the prospective students will look like,” he said. “Are there people who have never been on the higher (education) radar who we have not reached out to before? Are there opportunities to bring people into the higher education space who have traditionally not been a part of that space?”

Managing priorities

Bailey believes carrying out the responsibilities of president will involve careful time management.

“The interesting thing about a university president is that the constituencies are so different — students, faculty, staff donors, alumni, the governor,” he said. “They all have different agendas. As a university president, it’s really complex trying to balance that, but I will tell you also that that’s part of this job that I really like, it’s a really interesting challenge. Especially when all of those constituencies don’t agree.”

Bailey said it’s exciting to build bridges between constituencies, and one way he hopes to do that is to close the gap with entities in Ashland and the Rogue Valley. During the press conference he described this as the “town-gown divide,” a concept that implies a disconnect between a college or university and the town in which it is located.

“I’m not saying it’s here, but if we’re not always cultivating a relationship between the university and the community, you can end up with a town-gown divide,” Bailey said.

During an MLK, Jr. Day event Monday — his first campus event as president — Bailey spoke with Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

“We started, already, talking about how we can work on that together,” Bailey said. “A successful chamber of commerce means a successful SOU and vice versa.”

In an email to the Mail Tribune, Slattery said she is impressed with the new SOU president.

“President Bailey has a great deal of experience in expanding access, funding and support of higher education from his time and successes in New Mexico,” she wrote. “His natural enthusiasm, drive and leadership skills are what is needed right now to build on the successes of those who have come before him. I look forward to working with him and can imagine even greater collaboration in the future with the Ashland chamber and business community.”

Slattery, who agrees with Bailey that there really isn’t a “town-gown divide” between SOU and Ashland, would like Bailey to build on the partnerships already in place.

“There is great expertise on campus with professors and with students wanting to learn,” she wrote. “Providing more opportunities for engagement with the broader community, and especially business, is a direction that could bring mutually beneficial rewards

A man and his chickens

Big issues aside, Bailey is settling into the president’s residence at 610 Elkader St., an entitlement that is part of his contract.

His wife is working on bringing 11 chickens, all named after movie stars, from Colorado to live with them in Oregon.

“I think it was a response to the pandemic. We’ll raise chickens and we’ll have fresh eggs,” Bailey said, laughing, noting his wife might not approve of his disclosure about the animals. “Those are the most well-treated chickens in the world. They eat better than I do.”

He added that his chickens — with names like Ann-Margret — produce “the best eggs in the world.”

Bailey confessed his wife no longer eats chicken because she raises them.

“Because I love my wife, when I am with her, I don’t eat chicken,” he said. “Thank goodness she doesn’t raise cows and pigs.”

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