Southern Oregon University President Rick Bailey celebrates 2 years at the helm

By Jim Teece 

I got a “Happy New Years” card from the President of Southern Oregon University, Rick Bailey, this year and proudly held it above my head and danced around the room showing it to Dena and the dogs. With the dance moves I was making you would think that I was starring in a YikYak video or something. 

The card has a fun picture of the president with Rocky the mascot at a sporting event along with students who are cheering behind him. 

At the top of the card it says, “Wishing you a year of good” and on the side it says “Cheer” but I didn’t see the word cheer. It was lost on me. I only saw “Wishing you a year of good”. Those words gave me great joy. I loved it. I loved that wish and I cherish the card. 

Rick is celebrating 2 years at the University this month and I have had the opportunity to watch him work during my service on the Southern Oregon University Foundation Board. 

He was selected from a deep pool of amazing candidates. His background was flying jets in the Air Force for a career and he was president of another university for over 5 years before applying at SOU. 

He’s kind of like Taylor Swift. No matter what event you go to, he is there and the camera loves him because his interactions with students, faculty, staff and community members are so genuine. 

He leaves you excited about the future of the University and thankful that the only job he applied to was the one in Southern Oregon. 

I was asked by the marketing department if I would like to do a quick interview for the journal and I jumped at the chance. 

It snowed like crazy this week, campus was on break and his trip to Salem was canceled so I took the only 30 minute window available and showed up 15 minutes early. 

The meeting prior to mine ended on time and he walked the folks out of his office and saw me sitting there and ushered me in without taking a break. He offered me cupcakes that someone made for him to celebrate the 2 year mark. 

He asked if I wanted to do a photo with him in front of his wall of awesome life memorabilia. The shelves were filled with books and models of all the planes he flew and his pilot’s mask as well as other cool things. He told me that the word on campus is that he has the office of an 8 year old boy. We got the photo taken and sat down to do the interview. 

I only had 30 minutes and I wanted to ask him about the last 2 years and the next 2 years as well as his thoughts on leadership, AI, Harvard, Economic Development and more. 

When our time was up, I left his office feeling lucky and inspired and excited about the future of SOU and our region as a whole. I truly felt like we are all in for a year of good. 

Our interview follows. Get ready, we covered a lot of ground in 30 minutes and it is a master class in leadership. Enjoy. 

Jim : You went through a lot during your first two years here. Was it everything that you thought it was going to be for yourself?

Rick: After five and a half years at Northern New Mexico college, I do feel like together, we had really solved a lot of heavy challenges and at the end, the institution was in a much better place. 

But I didn’t necessarily come to SOU because I wanted to dive into another huge challenge. I was excited about a new perspective at a different institution and I will tell you and to the readers of Southern Oregon Business Journal, this is the only job to which I applied. There were 130 jobs available for senior executives in higher ed at the time. I thought SOU had something really special and so it wasn’t so much about going in and trying to tackle another challenge. It was, hey, I really want to serve this institution. Two years in, I can tell you, there is absolutely no other job in the world I would rather have than this one. That’s a really, really good place to be. Now it is “how do I do this job as long as I can and how do I make sure that I’m still of good service to the institution?”

Jim: Do you find that you are in an interesting place again, because you’re rebuilding your leadership team? You’re able to put different people in place now with retirements and other changes. Is that a good thing? Or is that a distraction for you? 

Rick: I was very intentional when I moved here, not to make any changes. Because to me it would be foolish for me to come into a new place, with the expectation that I somehow have answers that other senior leaders don’t. So I didn’t make any changes and really learned from the people and continue to learn from the people who are in positions here. You’re right, we’re at this very interesting, almost an inflection point, where by this summer, the senior executive team will be dramatically different than the one that I joined in. I think it is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that we have all of this wonderful knowledge, decades of experience that we’re losing. And so we’re in the moment now trying to make sure that we’re still capturing all of that. And at the same time, I think there are opportunities to take fresh eyes, to unique challenges and to be open to thinking differently about how we serve. I think all of those things have the potential to be really, really positive. 

I’m optimistic. 

Anyone in a chief executive position has a responsibility but not sole responsibility to nudge the culture of the organization and to really represent and demonstrate the values that define that institution. Those subtle changes happen over time, with new leaders coming in. If they are wise, they look at how that culture is evolving, and they help contribute to that culture. 

Jim: I’ve seen you in the community at different events and you have been with the president of Rogue Community College at a couple of them. Is that intentional? Is that relationship a strategic one that you’re working on?

Rick: It is absolutely intentional. It is far more than just the symbolism of us together. Dr. Weber is a dear friend. So in addition to a partner, and a colleague, we are really, really close. He is one of my closest friends in Oregon. And partly you know, a lot of that speaks to who he is as a person and as a leader. We both have very similar visions for our schools and the community. We both passionately believe in the transformative power of education. We both believe in higher education as a public good. We both have a boundless optimism that there are opportunities to serve more students than our two institutions do now and that there is a pathway to do that. And we are both very, very conscious and deliberate about making decisions for our institutions that complement the strategic initiatives of the other. When you know you have a friend and a partner like that you can move mountains. 

In my first two years here, I have visited with the better part of a dozen community college leaders on their campuses. I’ve gone as far north as Portland and visited with PCC. I went out to Coos Bay to meet with Southwest Oregon Community College. I’ve been to KCC, I’ve been south to Shasta College in Redding, and I’ve been out east to Blue Mountains and everywhere in between. In every one of those engagements, I ask “how can we serve them and how can we serve their students?” To a person those presidents have been really receptive to that approach and by the way, I think those efforts are starting to bear fruit. Our first year enrollment numbers went up 15.9%. Far higher than it’s been in the last five years. But what’s also really exciting to me is that we went up in transfer enrollment by 10%. Those are students who came specifically from another college or university. That’s pretty remarkable. So to me, that says that we’re starting to build more trusting relationships that are where their students are seeing a pathway into higher ed. And by the way, a majority of those transfer students are not coming to us from community colleges.

Jim: Jumping around now, when you were in the Air Force they taught this concept of the OODA LOOP. Does it still apply to your job now?

Rick: You’re the first person to ask me that. It stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It’s basically a model of strategic decision making. Yes it applies, but with some very, very distinct differences. 

You can make the argument that a decision made by a CEO of a corporation is like that of a CEO of a university but there are principles that need to apply. 

How culture is important and how you establish the core values, how you take care of people, how you inspire them to do selfless work and and bring unity and collaboration, and fresh ideas and risk tolerance and all these things that that can contribute to a positive strategic environment. 

But I will also say that a university is so wildly unique in its structure. 

Similar to a CEO of a corporation, I report to a board, I do have a board of trustees. But the difference is, although I serve at the pleasure of the board, in many ways because of how higher ed is woven, I also serve at the pleasure of students and faculty and staff and donors and alumni and the governor and legislators and business leaders and community partners, city and county governments. And this is going to be a bold thing to say to your readers, it’s shocking, but not all of those entities have exactly the same agenda. 

So that makes my job really exciting. 

But I will also say this, it is the thing that makes this job so incredibly challenging, but incredibly rewarding, because if you want to work on becoming a better leader, this is a really good way to do it. 

One of my mentors, Bill McRaven, is a retired four star admiral who ran Special Operations Command for the Department of Defense. Right after he retired from the military, he became the Chancellor at the University of Texas.

I had a chance to have a conversation with him one on one about the transition because both of us had done exactly the same thing. We retired basically on a Friday and started as a college president on a Monday. 

I started at a much smaller college than he did, but it was funny how we shared that we kind of had very similar stories. 

The thing that both both of us agreed is that the DNA of a university is so vastly different than the military. There is a hierarchy in the military, it is very rigid. There is a demand for allegiance and discipline and order. 

In higher education, it’s far more fluid, probably not a fair word. It’s far more intentionally collaborative. And I think that’s a good thing. Because of the nature of what we do. And we aren’t putting lives at risk on a daily basis. It’s just a fundamentally different mission. So the type of leadership to be successful in higher education, is far more nuanced, and far more collaborative and far more about coalition building and really welcoming of wide variety of decisions.

There also has to come a time and we saw it over the last two years, where sometimes decisions are so difficult that no one wants to own those decisions. Ultimately it comes to the senior leader to make decisions that not everyone is going to embrace. I understand that’s part of the responsibility. But even in those cases it’s important to make sure that everyone knows that they have a voice before that decision is made.

Jim: So, kind of jumping around again. With the recent news at Harvard and what’s been going on there, do you feel the scrutiny on you as a leader for every movement, every word you say and everything you write? It’s got to be daunting. 

Rick: It is. But again, it’s part of the thing that makes the work so rewarding, and gratifying because it helps you. I’m grateful for so many things that I have learned from my colleagues and community members and partners, over the last two years. What I come back to, is the fact that I am an inherently flawed thinker and decision maker and human being so I don’t pretend and will never pretend that I have all the answers. My dad once told me that if you think you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room, and I think there’s some real truth to that. 

In answer to your question about Harvard, I do think that that unfortunately, there has been a hyper politicization of higher education. I’m not blaming anyone. I think part of that is coming from inside institutions. I think part of that is coming from outside those institutions. But the way that we address that at SOU is to be mindful of the fact that we are a marketplace of ideas, and that if there is going to be a place in our society where we should be able to have conversations, particularly on topics about which we don’t always agree, the university should be one of those places. 

One of the other places where that should happen is the legislature. They are actually grappling with and thinking about laws that are going to be applicable to everyone. 

At the same time, we welcome a marketplace of ideas, we should be able to talk about topics even if they are uncomfortable and at the same time and in the same breath. We have principles that help define who we are as an institution. One of those is inclusivity. We are very clear that hate is not part of our identity. If it is in any way, then let’s work on getting better and educating ourselves on how to be better about that. 

Sometimes, those two principles, this marketplace of ideas and this commitment to certain principles, come into conflict with each other. We’re making the best judgment that we can. They’re trying to do the best they can, but even they are flawed decision makers and flawed leaders. I think at some point we just have to do the best we can and stand up for what we think is right at the moment and then accept responsibility for that position.

Jim: AI is everywhere now, it’s been here for a long time, but last year it really became normalized. All students now have immediate access to create anything by just asking AI to do the work. Beyond the ethical side of that are they really learning if they are just having the machine do the work for them? What’s your personal take on AI? 

Rick: So it’s interesting because I kind of approach it from a 30,000 foot view. When I was a kid, going through school, a lot of what we did education wise, was based on what we could absorb, remember, and communicate. We did multiplication tables. We memorized history, historic dates. It was rote memory, and that’s how you were rewarded, by how much you could remember and repeat. 

At the point that students could have really inexpensive, almost ubiquitous calculators, well, then that changed education and so I almost see AI doing the same thing. 

Now granted, it’s a far more complex concept, but I think as educators, it’s incumbent upon us to say, “Okay, how does that change the way we think and make decisions?” and let’s not try to shoehorn this into a 20th century model. Instead, let’s look at what that technology is going to provide. Then let’s make sure that as an educational institution, we are equipping students with how best to thrive in that environment. 

Some say, “let’s go back to blue books”, you know, a notepad, a ballpoint pen, nothing else, and you got to just write this manually, and then they’ll know that this is your own work. But how often are our people going to do that after they leave the classroom? That’s just not happening anymore. 

So how do we leverage AI to help computer programming? How do we leverage AI to create content? And then how do we optimize that to help us with with strategic endeavors that we’re accomplishing? 

Depending on the discipline, there are probably wildly different perspectives on it. 

I do think that we need to be mindful. I certainly, as a president, want to be very mindful of letting the faculty help guide us as we make those decisions. 

I read somewhere recently, and I’m probably going to butcher this but, 10 years from now 20% of jobs that will be out there don’t exist right now. They are going to be invented in the next 10 years. 

There’s also a very interesting dynamic when you ask an SOU student about their career plans, most of them will give you six or seven wildly different ideas about things that they want to do sometime in their lives. That is so different than the 20th century model of, hey, you’re gonna go to high school or college, you’re going to learn some specific thing. And then you’re going to do that for 30 or 40 years and retire.That model is fundamentally different now. 

As a university I think we need to be adaptive to say okay, knowing that this technology is expanding so quickly, and that the time horizon is getting so much smaller, and knowing that our students themselves, in this generation for the most part, are planning on a wildly diverse career path, then it means what we provide in terms of education has to be far more holistic, and it’s really more about creating habits of intellectual curiosity and adaptation and basic fundamental traits around communication, strategic thinking, critical thinking, teamwork and team building. 

Those are the things that no matter what discipline a student chooses, as a pathway here, there are those core things that we’re going to focus on. Over the last couple of years, the faculty have been marvelous about retooling our general education curriculum. Those are all the classes that that students have to take as part of their bachelor’s degree experience here. They are addressing how they retool that and that started this past fall. I think SOU is the only university in the state that’s really made that change. I’m really proud of what our faculty have done that way. 

Jim : What do you think the university’s role is in economic development within the region?

Rick: I think that universities and community colleges should be the economic engines. I think we should be involved in helping to ask the right questions and helping to craft what that that looks like. I don’t think we should be the sole authors of that, because I think that’s where business leaders, even elected officials come together to help establish what that is. 

I think if we are the partners that we need to be, then colleges and universities end up as the engines for making that change and really building the curriculum that helps to drive that. 

Especially regional institutions. We’re Southern Oregon University. I always say from Redding to Roseburg, we should be an agent that helps to move economic development, strategic initiatives, workforce development.  

We should be part of all of that and moving forward.

Jim: You have been here two years, and if we have this conversation again two years from now, what would you like to have said to me… I got these things done.

Rick: In the next two years, several things. 

One is to continue to build on and strengthen all of the external partnerships that we’ve developed. That’s K-12, school districts, community colleges and universities, tribal governments, state and local entities, business leaders. 

Two, Replicate the momentum when it comes to enrollment and student success. Let’s keep on this train that we’re on because it’s really positive for us and for the community. 

Three – We have spent the last two years really focused on budget, because the budget crisis was so real and so challenging. A lot of our energy was spent on how we could free ourselves from under that cloud. It was very defensive in nature. 

What I want the next two years to be characterized by is offense. Now let’s go out and be entrepreneurial. Now, let’s take these ideas about how we are going to transform our fiscal model and, transition from idea to putting pieces in place and bringing partners in to start translating that into actionable steps. 

This is a pledge I’ll make to your readers. We’ve already moved the needle in energy transformation. We’ve already started work on projects, and in the next two years, you’re going to see far more renewable energy on our campus. You’re going to see the very first solar covered parking lot. So that’s moving forward and I’m excited about that. I’m pretty confident about that.

I also think that about the university business district, which is a project that we are envisioning on our campus, which could include retail space and attainable housing and a senior living facility which will inhabit where the current Cascade Hall sits. 

With a goal of both of those projects being to cut a ribbon in 2027. 

It means that the next two years we have to start putting all of those things in place so that we stay on that timeline. And that means the bulk of the action will take place here in the next two years. I suspect that we will have request for proposals go out in the next six months for both of those projects. 


My last answer to that question is I and everyone I serve with here knows what a gem SOU is. I want that universe of people who recognize that to grow. I want everyone from Redding to Roseburg to see SOU as their hometown University, whether they attended here or not. I want innovative things that we’re doing with the senior living facility and the business district and the energy transformation and the general education curriculum, and our K12 partnerships to start to make waves on a much larger stage. We should be and we will be seen within the next two years as a role model for what 21st century higher education can look like. That’s a tall order but that’s what I’m hopeful for in the next few years.

Jim : Anything else? Anything you want to make sure that gets said here.

Rick : The last thing is that as challenging as these two years have been, I am conscious of how extremely fortunate I am to be at this university, serving with the people with whom I have the privilege to serve. Every day here has been a gift and I need to make sure that I don’t take that for granted. That’s one of my New Year’s resolutions. Make sure that I enjoy the heck out of it.


  1. Pamela Jones, Mark Nelson, James Aebi on January 26, 2024 at 3:58 pm

    With three SOU graduates in the immediate family, we deeply appreciate the historic foundation provided (dating back from 1965 on forward to my son’s graduation in 1999). It’s a challenge to put it in words. We’re pleased with the potential of Rick Bailey’s leadership!

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