Meet Dr. Rick Bailey, the New President of Southern Oregon University

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Interview by Jim Teece

I have proudly served on the SOU Foundation Board for over 20 years. Over those years I have had the pleasure of serving under 6 presidents. 

The SOU Board of Trustees appointed Dr. Rick Bailey, as the latest president for the university after an extensive national search and unanimous vote. He started on January 15th and from what I can see has hit the ground running. He is charismatic, caring, likable and a great leader.  

I attended the introductory press conference and watched and read all of the stories about him as they flooded in afterwards. I also watched YouTube videos he made in his prior college president position to the faculty and students as they all navigated COVID together. 

And then I was granted an hour long interview with him (via Zoom) so that I can share with all of the Southern Oregon Business Journal readers a little about his unique background and his vision for the future of the University.

Dr. Rick Bailey, the New President of Southern Oregon University

Welcome to the University Dr. Bailey. You have an interesting background that I don’t normally find in University presidents. You retired as a full colonel from the U.S. Air Force after a 24 year career and you were a command pilot with over 3,500 flying hours. Then you went on to teach Strategy and Security at Air University before taking the reins at Northern New Mexico College for over 5 years where you increased enrollment by 20%, decreased student loan defaults by 50% and more than doubled the college’s graduation rate.  How does a professor in cyber military strategy translate into the success you had being president and hope to continue to have at SOU? 

“My PhD was in Political Science and Government. As a professor, I learned to grow as a strategic thinker, because I was surrounded by students and that’s what they were focusing on. It was just incredible.

Strategy comes down to two things. 

1. How do we understand the environment? 

2. How do we adapt to uncertainty? 

We live in a highly complex and dynamic environment. It’s constantly changing. So there is no way to understand our environment fully, but we should still endeavor to do it. We have to try the best we can to understand our environment in order to make better strategic decisions. But also, because our environment is evolving constantly. There’s always uncertainty. So the second part of strategic thinking is how do you adapt to that uncertainty. Organizations, like universities, in my opinion, are most successful, when they create an environment that is intentionally adaptive and nimble, it’s the same thing in the business world. The more nimble and adaptive you can be to that ever changing environment, and the more accepting you are, that there is uncertainty, omnipresent in the environment, the better. Those are two sides of a coin, as institutions, we need to instill.”

Sometimes you think of a university as a free and open place where ideas can float, mix and intermingle but sometimes in reality, it’s not that way. How do we get the university to be more nimble?

“I think that’s true for any organization, I agree with you, I think universities are probably better suited to accept that reality only because we live in the life of the mind here. I do think there is likely a greater willingness to be creative that way. But I think every organization, universities included, have those challenges of what I would call a calcification of an almost intentional or unintentional and conscious or subconscious framing of possibilities. So if you’re not careful, there is always a limitation to what is possible, if you’re not forcibly challenging the assumptions that cause that framework. At my last institution, where the institution was really experiencing existential crises, even then, conventional wisdom would say, when things are that desperate, people are going to be a little bit more willing to think differently, because we’re obviously in this really chaotic situation. Even in that environment, there was this limited framework. I finally had to pull a lot of the leadership of the institution together. And I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to make this a challenge. Right now, we’re going to have some crazy ideas that we’re going to come up with, and the goal should be to start with Yes.’ 

Start with Yes

I have the good fortune that in five and a half years at Northern New Mexico college, there were so many things that we tried that conventional wisdom said, and people in power, said, ‘Rick, that cannot happen.’ When we finally got those things to the finish line, after a while those voices stopped. Because they said, ‘Well, you know, I was caught on the wrong side on this one.’ They were able to prove that this impossible thing was possible. Over time, the culture of the organization shifts to one that is a little more innovative, and a little more risk tolerant, because recalculations of risk play into this. I think the culture can transform that way. And you know, doggone it, that’s an exciting place to be when institutions start to make that transformation. That’s exciting.”

This issue of the Southern Oregon Business Journal is featuring a section on “Black Business Owners in Southern Oregon”. SOU recently hired a VP for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. How does D.E.I. play out in your vision at SOU?

“Dr. Toya Cooper, is our vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. Even before she arrived, there were some really impressive thinking happening at the university. We have a DEI committee that has been doing really, really good work for a long time. 

I came from an institution where 91% of our students self identified as students of color. The student body almost perfectly reflected the cultural demographics of the entire region. Diversity, as an initiative, at that school wasn’t proactive. 

We need to continually celebrate the diversity that we enjoy here and continue to make sure that every person in that environment knows that they are in a safe, mutually respectful place. Here at SOU, I think it’s actually twofold. I think we have to still do that work. 

We have to make sure that every student, every staff member, every faculty member, every community member who comes to the campus knows that this is a place with a respect of all people and a celebration of diversity. 

Educational Institutions are the perfect vehicles for this because as an educator, diversity leads to a more robust marketplace of ideas. The more diverse the classroom is, in every way that you can identify diversity, the more rich the educational experience is going to be, when you have that multitude of perspectives, and backgrounds and experiences. 

Here, we need to be more proactive.  We shouldn’t set the same goal to say, as long as the student body perfectly reflects the cultural demographics of Jackson & Josephine County, that we’re at the finish line. I think we have to be different. I think we have to be proactive in actually striving beyond that. I don’t have the laundry list of actions that will achieve that result. I think, Dr. Cooper, me, the DEI committee, the rest of the university, need to start having conversations about how those things happen. 

The nice thing is that I met with Governor Brown this past week and she has an initiative in concert with the legislature where there’s a $30 million investment in scholarships for students from tribal communities. That’s a proactive thing that can actually help change the dynamic and bring more diversity into the higher ed space. We need to engage in ways where there’s already opportunities for us to do that work”

The interview continued and we touched on workforce housing and ideas on how the university might play a role in finding solutions for all of Southern Oregon and we spent time talking about how it will be important to diversify the income streams of the institution moving forward.

I left the interview excited to continue to serve on the Foundation Board under his leadership.  

Links to more about President Rick Bailey at SOU

SOU is perfectly positioned for the times we live in – Op Ed – 1/3/2022 Mail Tribune

Just arrived on campus, SOU’s new president has big plans – 1/18/2022

Richard Bailey takes the helm at Southern Oregon University – 1/24/2022 Jefferson Public Radio

Meet SOU President Richard J. Bailey, Jr., Ph.D. – SOU Office of the President Page


February 2022 Video Address to Campus

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1 Comment

  1. Col Joe Panza, USAF (ret) on February 11, 2022 at 1:37 pm

    No one does it better……SOU is one lucky University!!

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