Third YSU Finalist Cites Innovations She Led

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- The last finalist for the presidency of Youngstown State University, Mary Cullinan, says she would bring “a lot of creativity and energy” to the position and is not afraid of making tough decisions and sticking to them.

Her record as president of Southern Oregon University the last eight years would seem to support her assertions.

Cullinan visited the campus Wednesday and, as had the other two finalists, Jim Tressel and Gary L. Miller, took questions from the press before spending an hour in an assembly with students, faculty, staff and trustees in a filled trustees meeting room.

As had Tressel and Miller, Cullinan expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming president of YSU and iterated all of the same major points they had: a commitment to remain an extended period of time, involvement in fundraising, involvement in the nearby communities, recruiting and retaining students, student success, developing a collegial approach with the faculty in making decisions, strengthening ties with the downtown, and regret at the development over the years at “how much a university has to be like a business anymore” because of state legislatures cutting back on funding public higher education.

More so than Miller, president of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, she has not hesitated to personally visit her capital -- Salem, Oregon -- to lobby for increased state funding. Cullinan has appeared before committees and not hesitated to use the word “disinvestment” in her testimony. And she inspired some 50 Southern Oregon students, mostly political science majors, to volunteer to visit Salem and meet their legislators about the need for more state support.

Tressel, head football coach 14 years at YSU and another 10 at Ohio State University, never had a need to lobby Columbus for increased state funding although he noted the decrease in state support that once constituted 75% of the budgets of Ohio public universities to 20% today. He mentioned those figures when he was on campus Monday.

Cullinan suggested public higher education would not face a financial crisis and critics would not be so quick to judge university finances if citizens were more aware of how legislators adopt state budgets. “People need to learn how a state budget works,” she observed.

She also thinks that those with no direct ties to a university would be more likely to contribute, whether to Youngstown State or Southern Oregon, if they had a better understanding of its purpose, mission and operations. “We must engage the community and help them understand they need to support the university,” she stated.   

On dealing with the four unions that represent YSU faculty, administrative staff and campus police department and whose contracts are nearing expiration, Cullinan noted, “I have been in a unionized environment all my career except at Texas,” where she was provost and vice president for academic affairs at Stephen F. Austin State University from 2003 to 2006.

It was the faculty union at Southern Oregon who raised questions from the press (and one during the assembly) about her narrowly escaping a vote of no confidence taken by the professors.

Cullinan was forthright about what happened. “As president, I’ve got to be responsible,” she stated. Collective bargaining sessions turned “confrontational [because] we could not come to a mutually happy agreement,” meaning she could not concede the pay raises the faculty wanted. “We’re short on resources,” she told them.

Near the end of Cullinan's public forum, the four labor unions at YSU issued a joint statement endorsing Tressel's candidacy (READ STORY).

Oregon ranks 48th among the states in support of public universities, Cullinan noted, and the funding it does provide goes mostly to buildings, not salaries or student financial aid.

Her relationship with the faculty union has since improved. “We’re working through things. I meet with the union heads regularly,” Cullinan said. “I do everything I can to be as transparent as possible. I try to minimize friction and maximize opportunities for cooperation.”

Her efforts have paid off to some degree. The head of the union recently informed the faculty, “I know Mary. She’s no ogre,” Cullinan related.

The president of Southern Oregon has made it a point to learn what’s on the minds of students and faculty by regularly holding small meetings. “A good president must be boots on the ground,” she said.

To this end, she invites participants to the small meetings at random. Who’s chosen might be based on their birthdays, for example. In the “fireside chats” she holds with faculty, everyone sits “in comfortable chairs.”  Such sessions scotch rumors before they start or spread, she noted.    

Cullinan was asked where she would make cuts as YSU continues to see its budget shrink.  Besides consulting with the faculty before deciding -- Tressel and Miller said the same thing -- she allowed, “You might have to make hard decisions. You can’t be all things to all people. You would have to set priorities.”

At Southern Oregon, the university outsourced its food service. Before contracting with an outside vendor, the food wasn’t that good, she related, and the university was losing money in operating it. Today, Cullinan reported, the food is good and the food service shows a profit.

Her proudest accomplishment at Southern Oregon, the candidate told a student, is founding the university honors college. The program is completing its first year with 28 students and eventually will have 100.

It has raised the profile of the institution with an enrollment of 6,500, attracted excellent students, many from out of state, who probably would have gone elsewhere. The vast majority of students at Southern Oregon reside in that state.

And it has helped fundraising, Cullinan said.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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