A president emeritus of a Minnesota college has been given a two-year contract as interim president of Southern Oregon University.

A president emeritus of a Minnesota college has been given a two-year contract as interim president of Southern Oregon University.

Roy Hirofumi Saigo, 73, visited SOU Friday afternoon and will take the reins on campus July 1, following the departure of Mary Cullinan, who resigned to become president at Eastern Washington University.

The state Board of Higher Education voted unanimously to appoint Saigo, and members of the Oregon Chancellor's Office accompanied him on his first visit to SOU.

"When I got a call, it seemed intriguing," said Saigo, while waiting to board a plane from Portland to Ashland Friday morning.

Saigo will oversee SOU as it and the other six public universities gain independence from the Board of Higher Education by establishing their own governing boards.

Saigo will be paid $205,236 a year, according to the Associated Press. His successor will be appointed by the university's independent board, which will be formed over the coming year and assume power next summer.

The president of Saint Cloud State University from 2000 to 2007, Saigo was called a "turnaround" leader in higher education by Oregon University System officials.

When he took the helm at Saint Cloud, the campus was facing 39 lawsuits, with cases of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.

A Japanese-American who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp, Saigo worked to transform the university to better accept diversity, while also raising enrollment and increasing the number of majors the school offered.

He has also served as chancellor for Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama and as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southeastern Louisiana University, among other positions.

Saigo said the key to improving a college is to involve all of the stakeholders.

"The secret is to listen. To the faculty, staff, students and the community, and get inside their minds, see what their dreams are and hear their voice," Saigo said.

Saigo said he will work to "build a consensus" on the campus and utilize the media to communicate with the community.

He said he was up for the challenge of leading SOU, which is in the midst of retrenchment, a budget plan that cuts $6.1 million annually and eliminates 80 positions over five years.

The school is also in the first stages of forming its own institutional governing board.

"It's an exciting time," said Saigo. "It sounds like they've put some things together, but it seems there's some concern over the direction (of the school)."

Oregon Chancellor Melody Rose said she believed Saigo could build on SOU's strengths.

"He will be able to build dialogue and understanding among the campus community and the region through his transparent approach," said Rose, in a release. "Dr. Saigo can unite the campus, address enrollment and affordability issues, build on the great retention work already underway and reach out to SOU's many communities."

Saigo is stepping in after Cullinan announced earlier this week she was resigning from SOU July 1 to become president of Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash.

The school has twice the enrollment of SOU and will offer Cullinan more budgetary flexibility, she said.

The position was one of at least two president posts Cullinan applied for in early April, just a month after faculty at SOU held a confidence vote on her leadership, with 63 percent voting they lacked confidence.

Cullinan was one of three finalists for the presidency at Youngstown State University in Ohio last month, but wasn't offered the job.

In a public forum at EWU earlier this month, Cullinan admitted that it had been a tough several months for SOU, citing retrenchment and the recent bargaining of the faculty contract.

"It was a very difficult time," she said. "It was very tense on campus. It was a dark hour, I guess I would say."

Cullinan will begin her position at EWU Aug. 1.

Saigo, who has a Ph.D. in botany and plant pathology, met his wife, scientist Barbara Saigo, while attending Oregon State University in the 1960s. They are in the process of moving from Minnesota to Oregon.

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.