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VIP: Conversation with Mary Cullinan, President of SOU

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007
MaryCullinan0407.jpg Photo by Timothy Bullard


Mary Cullinan, President, Southern Oregon University

Mary Cullinan has been around academia long enough that she says she can sense the mood of a university simply by walking around campus. “You can feel when people are angry or not getting along,” she says.

The mood on campus at Southern Oregon University, where Cullinan is president, has been an anxious one since October when she leveled with her colleagues that the school faced a
$4 million shortfall. Despite much hand wringing, the new president was firm. Programs were pared and schools consolidated. By 2010 there will be two dozen fewer faculty positions at SOU.

The shortfall made a rocky start for Cullinan’s love affair with the 5,000-student university in Ashland.

Cullinan developed a crush on SOU almost four years ago when she interviewed for its provost position. “I loved this place and the school’s liberal arts mission. It stuck in my brain.” She got a job offer in east Texas instead, but after three years at Stephen F. Austin State University as vice president for academic affairs, Cullinan made her way back to Ashland, moving into the SOU President’s House last September.

She wasn’t expecting a lavish budget when she arrived, but neither did she know the depth of the shortfalls. The 56-year-old English literature scholar chooses her words precisely: “It was a question of degree.” 

Like a steadfast lover, she is quick to come to the defense of the small, regional university in her care and to point out that the current budget crisis resulted from years of paltry support from the state. She suggests that it’s a poor economic strategy to allow such negligence to continue. Then she quickly moves forward to talk about plans for the future: partnerships, an MBA program, civic engagement, new relationships.

With a smile that’s almost shy, she confesses  she’s still delighted to wake up every morning on campus. SOU is at a crossroads, Cullinan says, and she’s there to nudge it in the right direction.

— Christina Williams

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