Bill Thorndike recently recounted a conversation he had with fellow Southern Oregon University Board of Trustees member and Phoenix-Talent School District Superintendent Teresa Sayre.
Sayre, says Thorndike, was explaining the importance of a well-rounded education.
“(Sayre) basically said, ‘If you could give me five elementary school teachers who were bilingual certified, I’d hire them today.’” Thorndike said. “Now, we have opportunities, if we’re listening.”
The “we” in Thorndike’s statement is Southern Oregon University — or, more specifically, the Southern Oregon University Board of Trustees, a 15-member independent board that “has broad authority to supervise and manage the affairs of the university and may exercise and carry out all of the powers, rights and privileges that are expressly conferred upon the university, or that are implied by law, or are incidental to such powers, rights and duties.”
That long-winded explainer, a small snippet from Section 2 of Senate Bill 270, sums up the new world order which shook up Oregon’s seven public universities beginning July 1, 2015, when each university began reporting to its own governing board rather than the now disbanded Board of Higher Education.
Before it was enacted, nobody knew exactly how each university, particularly the smaller schools such as SOU, would fare. Without enough donations to cover expenses, SOU — like Oregon Institute of Technology, Western Oregon University and Eastern Oregon University — relies heavily on state funding, which makes lobbying efforts crucial to its survival. Once the umbilical cord to a state agency charged with spreading the wealth was cut, would SOU be able to fend for itself?
A final verdict is probably years away, but 13 months after SOU’s Board of Trustees took the reins, it’s being viewed on campus as a home run for local interests.
“I think it’s been a great success,” said Dennis Slattery, SOU school of business associate professor and the faculty representative on the Board of Trustees. “The first thing I’d want people to know is that my fellow trustees have put in a great deal of effort to do what the state board would never have done for us, and that’s to understand the institution. We spent a year in meetings understanding different departments, efforts for outreach, how administration works, how budgeting works. That amount of intense focus on SOU specifically is going to make a huge difference.”
Board vice chair April Sevcik, a former Morgan Stanley financial advisor who received a bachelor of science degree from SOU in 1969, said the move to local boards should be a net win for SOU since it shifts the power to a group of people who have a vested interest in the university.
“I have been involved with the university most of the time since I went to school there in the ’60s, and I have seen every president since Jim Sours,” Sevcik said. “And we never had an opportunity before to have very much input at all. In fact, there were several cases in the past where local people were asked to submit input and I knew what we felt and nobody listened. And yet, having later met those presidents, I could understand part of what the appeal was.
“I think we have a chance to look at the university and say, ‘What is it we need in this community?’ I am very, very concerned about our local people and I want to be sure that the university is serving the needs of the local people first. …What we’ve got to do is understand or community and make sure that we meet their needs.”
Southern Oregon’s Board of Trustees, which includes a faculty representative, a student representative, an ex-officio member (president Linda Schott) and 12 others appointed by the state, didn’t have long to adjust to its new role before it was faced with its first major decision: finding somebody to replace then-outgoing president Roy Saigo, who announced his intention to retire last October.
Previously, university presidents in Oregon were appointed by the chancellor, but last January SOU kicked off its own search. The board budgeted $100,000 for the endeavor, which included the hiring of Parker Executive Search, the formation of a search committee, a round of interviews in Portland and campus visits by the three finalists. In an attempt to stick to its “open search” promise, the board decided that each finalist’s presentation would be held in SOU’s Science Auditorium and open to the general public, which was invited to participate in a question-and-answer session. All three finalists fielded questions from the audience.
In the end, SOU hired Schott, naming the former president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle SOU’s 13th president on June 13. Schott signed a three-year contract and got to work Aug. 1.
Would Schott have wound up at SOU under the old system? Slattery said there’s no way to know.
“That’s a huge question,” he said. “That’s a hypothetical I don’t know that I could answer. I feel fortunate that our timing is such that we have Linda Schott on board. The board leadership did a really great job with this, combining the students’ desires, the faculty, staff, putting that all together, having a lot of meetings to get a sense for what kind of leader we wanted and what we wanted them to tackle as they came in. Again, that local focus ends up with somebody’s of Linda’s skill set. And so I’d have a tendency to say that I think we made a better decision because it was local.”
The challenge going forward, Thorndike said, is turning that local influence into policies and programs that can make SOU the school regional residents chose to gain the skills they need to begin the careers that are already here.
And Thorndike, the board chair, says opportunities are everywhere.
Last October, he points out, Rogue Community College was awarded a $14.6 million federal grant for 1,100 low-income students in job training and education programs for health careers. The Southern Oregon Health Occupations Poverty Elimination Project will provide training and classes in 16 high-demand health care fields, such as EMT training, medical assistant and CNA training.
“So we can all applaud and say that’s great for Rogue Community College,” Thorndike said. “But what goes through (my) mind is, there’s going to be a certain number of those students who are going to say, ‘You know, I’m smart enough and I have the skills and now that I understand what it means to become certified to do a CNA job, an entry-level job in our health care business, I want more.’ I ask myself, what is Southern Oregon University doing?”
The answer, previously, may have been “not a whole lot" — at least not before wading through a certain amount of government bureaucracy that could at times stymie even the best of intentions. Now, Thorndike says, perhaps SOU can explore a possible partnership program with OIT that would draw some of those potential students.
Getting something like that off the ground would take a great deal of planning and dedication to the project. But Thorndike’s optimism is palpable, and the hope on campus is that now that the decision-makers understand the history and mission of SOU, its future will be sculpted accordingly.
“The reality was, in the past, we were just a small fish kind of swimming out on the side of the pond,” Thorndike said, “and Oregon State and Portland State and the University of Oregon, they were chomping up most of the food in the pond. Now we have the opportunity to maybe change that. So that’s my hope and my dream.
“It’s going to take us a while, but the board itself over time, within the flexibility of the policies, will be able to adapt the policies to better represent what we need in southern Oregon. The old deal where, ‘Sorry, you’re stuck with this policy.’ Well, you are stuck with this policy until you change that policy.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.