Southern Oregon University president to receive prestigious award

When Mary Cullinan became Southern Oregon University's president in September 2006, the college faced declining enrollment and shrinking financial reserves.

Five years later, the university is celebrating record fall enrollment and is shoring up its reserves to try to weather future state budget cuts.

Cullinan's leadership led to SOU's turnaround, says the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education's District VIII, an international nonprofit supporting higher education.

CASE will present Cullinan with its 2011 Leadership Award at a District VIII conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Feb. 25, the university announced Tuesday.

"It's a great honor for me, but I have to just really emphasize that this turnaround was the result of the whole campus and many, many people in the community and throughout the state coming to our support during a very, very difficult time," Cullinan said. "This award reflects everybody's work."

District VIII is the nonprofit's largest North American district, encompassing Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and the western Canadian provinces and territories.

SOU's vice presidents gathered letters from former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Oregon University System Chancellor George Pernsteiner and community members to nominate Cullinan for the award, without her knowing, she said.

"It was a complete surprise," she said. "I was very touched and thrilled."

Kulongoski praised Cullinan's work at SOU in his letter.

"Southern Oregon University has been transformed under Dr. Cullinan's leadership," he wrote. "When she arrived, the institution was struggling with declining enrollment and budget challenges. Dr. Cullinan was willing to make hard choices to restructure the university, maintaining the respect and participation of the faculty and staff."

Pernsteiner highlighted Cullinan's work to reverse the university's declining enrollment trend.

"The president's prudent financial management, coupled with this year's strong enrollment, signal that the university should be able to weather even the extraordinarily severe reductions in state support forecast for next year," he wrote.

SOU's enrollment rose to 6,443 students last fall — a staggering 26.2 percent increase over a year ago.

Preliminary figures for the winter term show that enrollment is up 3.3 percent over last winter, Cullinan said.

Enrollment has risen steadily since Cullinan took office in fall 2006, when 4,836 students were enrolled at SOU. At that point, the university had seen enrollment drop 16 percent in seven years, she said. Meanwhile, SOU's fund balance had shrunk from 11 percent to 4.1 percent.

Cullinan immediately instituted nearly $4 million in cuts, reorganizing departments and laying off workers.

"It was a very traumatic time, very painful," she said. "But we were also rebuilding and realigning."

She also increased recruitment and retention efforts, boosting the university's enrollment.

Cullinan said she believes enrollment will continue to increase over the next five years, but she's still trying to build the university's financial reserves in case state funding decreases.

"I think by 2015 we could easily be at 7,000 students," she said. "Enrollment and retention have quite steadily been on a very positive trajectory. The wild card is the state support."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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