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DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: Sailing Through Transition

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Don't Shoot the MessengerSomewhat quietly, and with little public attention, the newly enacted Board of Trustees for Southern Oregon University unanimously voted to extend the contract for interim President Roy Saigo beyond its expiration date of next June. Saigo has served as president for one complete academic year, and entere his second full year as president this summer. The vote by the Trustees to extend his contract one more year, lengthens the amount of time Saigo is allotted to calm what had been troubled waters at the university—and, just as important, extends the time frame for a nationwide search for his permanent replacement.

It is too bad that the event did not receive more attention or fanfare.

Southern Oregon University is at a point of significant transition—and that change in course over the past year, as well as SOU’s accomplishments and opportunities, deserve more attention. It is an exciting time for SOU, and the current presidential search perhaps personifies those opportunities better than anything else.

The SOU Board of Trustees was created a year ago, but only took over formal control several weeks ago. One of its first tasks was to find a new, permanent president. As an immediate step, the Trustees extend Saigo’s contact one year, seemingly to afford themselves more time to complete a far-reaching search.

The current interim president Saigo stepped into the role a bit more than a year ago, after then-president Mary Cullinan, resigned, ostensibly to become president of Eastern Washington University, although at the time, the faculty has recently registered a 63 percent vote of “no confidence” in her leadership.

Moreover, over the previous two years, enrollment had declined to 6,140, down more than 600 students. Doubling-down on those declines in tuition, there was also less public support from the state.

Yes, Saigo stepped into the president position as a “fixer”—a role that he has done without much fanfare, but with calm and kind confidence. He had overseen a similar transition at his last job as president for St Cloud University in Minnesota.

For starters, to counter financial declines, Saigo pledged a “retrenchment plan” to cut more than $6 million through layoffs and trimming back less-popular majors. It is hardly an enviable position to introduce oneself to the faculty and student body by brandishing hedge clippers, but Saigo seemingly has gather more friends than foes—as evidenced by an unanimous vote to extend his contract—and seems to be patching the leaky hull at SOU and re-positioning the school for future successes.

He is smart, with an easy-going confidence and compassion. In an interview with Jefferson Public Radio soon after his appointment, he gave some insights into her character as he talked about his early childhood when his family was held in an internment camp in Arizona during World War II. “It has touched me,” he explained, underscoring his belief in providing fair opportunities, particularly, education for everyone. “I’ve been taught to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” he added.  

Finding the right president for a college campus is much like dating—the better shape and higher spirits, the more attractive. And, during the last year, SOU certainly has taken some administrative and financial steps in that direction.

It is our hope that over the next year that the Board of Trustees settles into its stewardship responsibilities at SOU, and that Saigo continues to improve SOU, so that the school can attract the most suitable president to carry it into its next chapter.


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