With the worst over, Cullinan looks ahead

Mary Cullinan is well into her second year as president of Southern Oregon University after a tumultuous start. During her first year, she guided the university through a $4 million budget shortfall and the creation of a three-year retrenchment plan. Below are excerpts from an interview with her about the challenges she and the school have weathered, and plans for the future.

Daily Tidings: What would you say is the most important thing you've learned during your time at SOU?

Mary Cullinan: That's a tough one. I've learned so much, and the learning curve has been pretty steep. I learned a lot about the great team that's here. As you know, we went through financial retrenchment last year. We made changes to every corner of this university. Some of them were very difficult changes for people, and yet faculty, staff, students and even people in the community came together as a team. I have never seen that at any other university. I not only have never seen this level of change that people have had to deal with, I haven't seen this level of cooperation and positive feeling despite the real personal difficulties a lot of people had to go through. For me, that was a learning experience that I treasure.

DT: Earlier you mentioned the budget crisis. That was probably the biggest story over the last year and a half. How do you think beginning your term with a crisis situation will define the rest of your term here?

MC: I'm hoping that people will say 'The worst is over.' I think that's one good thing. I think people have been very positive about this year, because it's so much better than last year. But I think they saw that we could work together as a team, and I do feel like the fact that we worked together so well in my first year during that crisis was a good omen.

We still face a lot of challenges, but we don't face challenges to the same degree that we did that first year. People are going to say 'Sure, we can do that together. That seems easy compared to losing 10 percent of your workforce and other things that we did last year.'

DT: What are some of the big challenges you see the university still facing?

MC: We're still reorganizing, we're still thinking through tons of processes that we need to do better. We still need to recruit tons of students here. I want to see us get back, first of all, the 500 students or so that we lost over the last few years when tuition rates went up.

We need to improve our retention rates. We still lose too many students either for financial reasons or personal reasons or other reasons. We should be able to keep those students here because once they go away thinking they're only going to be gone for a quarter, sometimes they never return, and it affects their whole lives, so we need to do a better job of that. There are a whole range of areas throughout the university where we need to help students be more successful, help our faculty and staff be able to do their jobs better.

DT: Increasing enrollment and retention are big goals. How do you plan to achieve them with limited funds, now that you're also trying to get your reserves back up?

— Videos by Orville Hector | Daily Tidings

MC: We did have a pretty good year from the legislature, and one of the things they gave us was money for all of the regional universities. They gave a certain amount of money for this biennium to work on recruitment and retention, and we have a very good plan for that money. We've been working on a number of different areas to help recruit students. I've also just hired a new executive director of marketing, which I'm very excited about. She'll be coming onboard; there's been a real void there since our last person left. I know we're going to do a better job of marketing the university, but we do have a little bit of money at least this biennium, and I hope in future bienniums, because each of the regionals really need to have some money to put into recruiting students.

DT: I have heard some faculty voice concerns that they're increasingly being asked to do more with the same or fewer resources than they had before, and I've also noticed that the turnover rate has steadily increased, even before you got here, in the last three years. How are you planning to handle some of those concerns?

MC: We're working hard to provide faculty with the salary and other kinds of support services that they need. I don't have the data that show increasing turnover, in fact I was pleasantly surprised that people did not leave last year when we were going through such turnover. People stayed here and are really committed to staying here. We do need to get our salaries up to a better place, and I'm hopeful that we'll make some progress on that this year.

We also need to gradually build back our workforce, and that's going to happen as our enrollment goes up. One thing that happened in the past as we had budget challenges is that we kind of made opportunistic budget cuts. If someone retired, we wouldn't fill the job, but we weren't sitting there saying here are the programs where there are a lot of students, here are the programs where there are fewer students, here are the kinds of jobs we might be able to combine, here are sorts of things that really are outmoded and we don't need as much anymore. We hadn't done that kind of thinking, and now we're being more strategic.

We're reorganizing and my hope is that faculty and staff, if they're patient and give us a couple of years to go through this retrenchment plan and do this kind of aligning budgets with needs and priorities, the workload will even itself out. But it's true, right now, there are a number of areas inside and outside that academic area where people are really heavily overloaded. We are very, very thin in terms of the workforce here, and that's a problem, and I certainly accept that.

— Financing issues

DT: I know that there's a new budget process that's been implemented to catch problems like the one that just happened before it gets to such a high level of a crisis. What other kinds of changes are going to be implemented to prevent the same kinds of problems in the future?

MC: Well, we've put a lot of accountability measures in. Our higher education board has put in a process where they look at the fund balance at each of the universities and they have a range which is an acceptable range. The low point of that range is 5 percent of your general fund and if you fall below and a red flag goes up. That's what happened to us. When we went below 5 percent, that's what triggered the retrenchment. Our new processes now have us working through a three-year plan that will get us much closer to a 10 percent reserve which is what we need to do.

We also had to look a whole lot more honestly at our enrollment. One thing that we kept doing was saying 'Well, we're only a little bit down from last fall.' Well, in truth, last fall was a little bit down from the previous fall. If you keep saying, 'Well, we're only a little bit down,' and you look at the short term and you don't look at what happened since the year 2000 or 1999 and there's 500 students fewer than we had, you have to look at the whole picture, and I don't think we were looking as honestly as we should. We need to have some real goals, and that's what we've laid out for ourselves now. We're looking at incremental growth, 2 percent, 2 percent, 2 percent.

Of course, if we exceed those goals, we'll be excited, but we can't just accept when were not meeting those goals. So we're trying to have processes in every department and every area of the university where they've got benchmarks and they've got goals, and they need to lay out the processes that they each intend to use to meet those goals. We're a long way from having a perfect system, but it's getting better every day.

— See and hear more in the videos of Cullinan's sit-down interview with the Tidings

— Balance, creative funding, sustainability and green issues, sports

Share This Story