Because the world is changing so fast, students need exactly the kind of education offered by Southern Oregon University — one rich in the liberal arts and sciences. That’s why, when life is very different a decade from now, they’ll have a well-rounded, time-honored education to help them and society stabilize and grow.

That’s the philosophy of Terry Allison, the second of three candidates screened on campus for the presidency of SOU. He not only loves the liberal arts, he told several hundred people gathered in the school's Science Auditorium Wednesday, but he learned the Socratic method — asking questions — in high school and it’s at the center of his leadership style.

Allison, the chancellor of Indiana University South Bend, was named as one of three finalists for the president's job from among 77 applicants by a search committee made up of five SOU trustees, three faculty members, two staff members, two students, two Rogue Valley community members and Oregon Institute of Technology President Dr. Chris Maples. The SOU board will meet in executive session Monday to prioritize the three finalists. Board Chairman Bill Thorndike will then negotiate with the top choice and, if an agreement is reached, the selection may be announced sometime next week.

“Sooner is better, to give certainty to the candidates and campus as soon as we can,” said Thorndike. The third candidate, Linda Schott, president of University of Maine at Presque Isle will speak in a similar forum at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the Science Auditorium. Finalist Michael Tidwell, dean of the College of Business, Eastern Michigan University, visited the campus May 25 and 26.

Allison said he’s drawn to SOU because of its “public liberal arts model,” its attractive landscape, arts and climate, its “very attractive local board,” its diversity and “LGBTQ-friendliest” status. As a lover of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which he’s attended many times, he said he feels he could be creative in Ashland and perhaps even write musical plays. He has written haiku poetry about all the universities where he’s studied and worked and on Wednesday read one about SOU, its feeling of being at home and surrounded by mountains.

Allison was on the founding faculty and administration of Cal State San Marcos (near San Diego), where, of necessity, he joined in creating many new programs and took part in budgeting, strategic planning and setting up athletics, the library and the women’s program — including using “juried competition” in making major investments.

A key to success for a university, he said, is the ability to retain students after the first term and see them through to graduation, a goal he would pursue at SOU. He said, however, in phone surveys of dropouts, he found that it often was not lack of preparation for college work that held them back, but the surprising factor of medical costs. They or someone in their family had a mishap or ailment and that was enough to push them out of college.

Allison said public universities must face the reality of declining state funding.

“It’s hard to see getting back to a better state contribution," he said. "We’re never going to get back to 90 percent or even much more than half from the state."

Allison, in an interview, said state support of higher education will continue its decline unless something drastically reduces burgeoning state spending on corrections and health care.

Lyn Hennion, SOU trustee and chairwoman of the presidential search committee, said the committee interviewed the 10 best applicants at a site near the Portland airport, so they could easily fly in and out — and selected the three finalists from among them.

“Their qualifications were all very impressive, stellar,” she said.

Allison showed no shortage of humor and when asked by a member of the audience what he saw as the major problems for SOU, replied that administrators never speak of problems, only challenges. He added that for-profit colleges have problems with student retention, “which they richly deserve, but we don’t deserve those problems.”

Allison has a doctorate in literature from the University of California San Diego, a master's degree in comparative literature from UCSD, a master’s in library and information science from UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s in economics and political science from UC Berkeley.

For more information, see http://presidentialsearch.sou.edu/campus-visits.

June 2: This story has been updated to correct the composition of the search committee.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.