Mary Cullinan talks Youngstown, Retrenchment and Legacy

Video: President Cullinan discusses her SOU legacy. 


“It was just like wildfire, it was going so quickly,” said SOU president Mary Cullinan about the recent chain of events that led to her being named one of the three finalists for the presidency at Youngstown State University. On Monday, April 28, Cullinan sent out a campus-wide email stating that she was a finalist for the position and would be visiting the Youngstown, Ohio, campus in the coming week.

Since the release of that email, little new information has trickled out about the situation. For President Cullinan’s part, it is because she doesn’t have an overabundance of information to give. She said she had not been aware of the situation until the agency working for Youngstown State University reached out to her and told her she was being considered for the job.

“I was pretty surprised,” said Cullinan. “I don’t know what all of their conversations are, of course… So I will go to Youngstown and learn a lot… I will explore and do some homework this weekend and figure out which questions I need to ask. But they haven’t sent me vast quantities of material. I’m going to go there and have to ask questions.”

While the president stressed that she has not been offered the job, and is unsure if she would accept it, the opportunity intrigues her.

“For me it’s about, ‘what can I bring to that university?’” said Cullinan. “So I want to explore what I might be able to do to help the university and help that region. It’s a much bigger place, they have Division I athletics, it’s a lot of things that I could learn from.”

“But mostly I want to go someplace where I can help make a difference,” Cullinan continued. “I think I’ve helped make a difference here. We’ve had some tremendous challenges, but that fact that I’ve been a steady leader for eight years has been good for Southern Oregon and I would be happy to do that at Youngstown if it’s a good fit.”

Some individuals question whether President Cullinan has actually been a positive force for the university, and leaving in the midst of a retrenchment plan that she initiated has the potential to be viewed negatively by the SOU community. When asked about people who would say she is abandoning a sinking ship, the president was quick to assert her positive view of SOU’s future.

“I don’t think the ship is sinking at all. The ship now has a path, and a very strong path,” said Cullinan. “What the retrenchment plan does, painful though it has been, is gives us a path with benchmarks through the next five years. And whether it’s me or my vice presidents, or a complete change in administration, they’re coming in to a really strong pathway to sustainability.”

“So although retrenchment sounds ugly and there’s been a lot of pain associated with it, it has righted the ship and created a really strong map that we can follow,” Cullinan continued. “I think this is a this is a tremendous step forward. It’s unfortunate that it had to be built on pain, but there have been a lot of people on campus and a lot of people in this community who have been saying all along that SOU needs to make the difficult choices. And I did step up and make the difficult choices. And you know that doesn’t make people think that that was the greatest thing ever, but people do understand that difficult choices had to be made.”

Although Cullinan believes she has done the right things while at the head of SOU, there are those who disagree with her. In early March the faculty senate of SOU initiated a “Vote of No Confidence,” which gave the university’s faculty a chance to declare anonymously whether or not they believe Cullinan is a fit leader. Sixty-three percent voted “no confidence” in her.

President Cullinan stresses that she is willing to work with the faculty in what she called a “healing process,” but admits the vote made her consider leaving the university.

“It was a difficult time, and it made me decide, maybe there’s a point where I should move on for the good of the university if that seems reasonable,” said Cullinan. “I’d be happy to stay longer, but it may be that something else will come along. I will say that whoever else is in my position, or another leadership position at SOU, they’re going to look at the same challenges and the same numbers. It’s a disconcerting world out there for smaller liberal arts institutions and there are no miracles out there. No one’s going to save us.”

If president Cullinan is offered the Youngstown job and chooses to accept it, she will likely be gone by the summer. If she does leave, she believes construction projects, campus renovations, and new academic programs such as the Honors College and Emerging Media and Digital Arts, among other things, will be her SOU legacy.