Former Southern Oregon University Executive Vice President Earl Potter III died in a single-vehicle crash Monday in Minnesota. Potter, 69, had been president at St. Cloud State University, a 15,000-student school northwest of Minneapolis since 2007.
“We have a gaping hole in the heart of our community today. And we won’t truly appreciate his impact for years, and decades and maybe generations," said Brian Schoenborn, a St. Cloud State graduate and local attorney who worked closely with Potter on several campus initiatives. "He cared so deeply and gave so much. Our entire community should bow its head for what he gave us. He will be forever missed.”
Former SOU President Elisabeth Zinser, who hired Potter as SOU provost in 2004, said he was “a very strategic thinker, superb with challenging others and delegating them to his themes, to the kind of progress we were working toward, while providing the appropriate guidance, yet giving them lots of autonomy and license.”
Zinser said she early on marked him as university president material, especially in his gift for connecting with the regional business community and “making a huge difference, building relationships with the Chambers of Commerce, business leaders and nonprofits, bringing them to SOU and helping with their influence in building a future. He worked hard to get opportunities for students in a wide variety of fields, linking to what they were learning in the classroom.”
Potter built relationships for SOU internationally, especially in China, she added.
Potter was driving to the Twin Cities for a meeting with the SCSU Foundation Board chair, according to the university, when his Toyota 4 Runner went off Interstate Highway 694, hitting the guard rails. The vehicle over-corrected, crossing into the center lane, almost hitting another vehicle. The vehicle then over-corrected to the left, causing the SUV to flip several times until it struck the cable barriers. The crash happened just after 5:30 p.m.
Potter recently reached an agreement to continue at St. Cloud State through at least June 2019.
Potter was also SOU provost as well as vice president, the university's number-two leadership position, when he left to take the St. Cloud post in 2007 after four years at SOU. He succeeded outgoing President Roy Saigo, who served as president emeritus at St. Cloud until becoming interim president at SOU in 2014.
Potter previously served in leadership positions at Eastern Michigan University, Lesley University, Cornell University, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the University of Colorado. He served 24 years in the Coast Guard, where he attained the rank of captain.
"He was a fine strategic thinkers and a pleasure to work for," said Ed Battistella, a professor of English at SOU who worked for Potter when Battistella was dean of Arts and Letters. "Even when we didn't see eye-to-eye about something he was always open to discussion. I learned a lot from him."
Brad Hicks, president of the Medford-Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, lauded Potter’s skill at creating ties to regional business and community organizations. He noted, “You didn’t have to go to campus to find him; he was out at Chamber meetings, at SOREDI or nonprofit meetings. He walked the talk.”
Potter sought the presidency of SOU in 2007 and, says Hicks, “a lot of people were upset he didn’t get it, but equally happy he found another presidency at a university. He was that caliber of a guy, that had all the qualities — and you wished that for him.”
SOU’s current provost, Susan Walsh, said she worked closely with Potter on a comprehensive redesign of the curriculum which is still in use. “His leadership style was both creative and pragmatic," Walsh said. "He was passionate about higher education.”
Dennis Slattery, an SOU trustee and accounting professor who was hired by Potter, said, “He was a really effective university leader and I thought he should have been chosen president ... I hate to see his passing. Education has lost a really fine leader. He really understood how to make the community connection."
“President Potter came to St. Cloud State because he felt this is the type of place where he could make a difference," according to a statement from his wife, Christine, which was read at a news conference on the SCSU campus Tuesday morning. "He was incredibly proud of St. Cloud State University and its students, faculty and staff. And he likewise was proud of the greater St. Cloud community. We thank you for your thoughts and prayers."
Potter came to St. Cloud State from SOU to be the university's 22nd president. He inherited a campus known for its raucous move-in weekend parties and disputes with neighbors who sought a peaceful co-existence with the local university. He cracked down on student behavior, more strictly enforcing codes of conduct and bolstering support services for students engaging in risky behaviors.
He was forced to navigate the university through significant budget crises, while shepherding projects such as the extensive renovation of the National Hockey Center, the Fifth Avenue Live! redevelopment project, creation of a university Welcome Center just outside the campus border and construction of the Integrated Science and Laboratory Engineering Facility on campus. His budget-cutting decisions, particularly the closure of the school's aviation program, earned him some critics. But he generally won respect from those who worked with and against him.
Potter's desire to keep tuition low and allow everyone a chance at an education earned praise from Steven Rosenstone, chief executive officer of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and Ashish Vaidya, St. Cloud State provost and vice president for academic affairs.
"President Potter’s commitment to access and opportunity is unwavering in our work and was one of the prime reasons why I chose to join his team and him in partnership,” said Vaidya, who was named acting president of St. Cloud State by Rosenstone in the wake of the news of Potter's death.
A saying attributed to Albert Einstein was on Schoenborn's mind Tuesday as he talked about Potter's legacy.
"There's the old line that 'only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,’" Schoenborn said. "Well, he lived one incredibly worthwhile life.”
Freelance Ashland writer John Darling and Ashland Daily Tidings staff contributed to this report.