ashland.news
June 13, 2024

Institutional knowledge: SOU’s top academic leader retired after nearly 40 years at the university

Susan Walsh, as provost of Southern Oregon University, lead the academic side of the university under four university presidents. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
March 13, 2024

‘I cared about others’: Susan Walsh hands off provost post — number two at SOU — to Casey Shillam 

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

For Susan Walsh, institutional knowledge has served her well for the past four decades as she rose through the ranks of student and professor to become provost at Southern Oregon University.

Walsh officially retired from her role as provost and vice president of Academic and Student Affairs at Southern Oregon University on Dec. 31, 2023, after 38 years at the university, but stayed on until recently to help with the transition period for incoming Provost Casey Shillam, who will also oversee Student Affairs. Shillam officially took over March 1.

Walsh served as a professor for 25 years before transitioning into an administrative role as associate provost in 2010. After starting as associate professor, she became provost in 2014. She’s spent the last decade helping SOU navigate financial obstacles under four university presidents and myriad of other challenges, changes and opportunities.

Walsh sat down with Ashland.news at Hannon Library recently to reflect on nearly four decades as a Raider. Her last day was on Feb. 29 – Leap Day – as she stayed on to help Shillam transition into the role.

Susan Walsh, retired as Provost and Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs March 1. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“It was just time,” Walsh said, of her retirement.

She’s planning to attend plays and concerts, travel, and spend time with friends and family.

Asked what kept her at SOU for so many years, Walsh told Ashland.news,

“It didn’t feel like I should leave.” 

“If that’s what it would’ve felt like, I would’ve made a change,” she added, of her decision to stay.

She stayed on at the university through some tumultuous financial storms the university has weathered over the years.

Walsh said her hope is that she is remembered for her honesty, willingness to tackle hard decisions, and for her care for others.

“That I cared about others would be an awesome legacy,” Walsh said, “‘cause really at the end of the day, it’s all about the relationships — It always was for me.”

Alena Ruggerio remembers when Walsh was part of a committee that hired her at Southern Oregon University more than 20 years ago.

“She was one of the very first professors that I met,” Ruggerio told Ashland.news. “She’s one of the people that I have to thank for this incredible opportunity that I’ve enjoyed for these last 22 years. She made this dream come true for me to work at Southern Oregon University.”

At the time Ruggerio was hired, Walsh was just starting out in her new role as chair of the Communication Department.

“We both kind of started those parts of our professional adventures together,” Ruggerio said.

Susan Walsh reflects on her long history at Southern Oregon University where she started as an undergraduate student and ended her career as Provost and Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Ruggerio describes Walsh personally as having “a generous spirit,” especially when Walsh noticed that Ruggerio didn’t drive a car, so often offered her rides to and from campus.

“She would never accept gas money and, you know, it really wasn’t planned this way, but because she invited me to carpool with her in those early days of my job in the department, she became my mentor,” Ruggerio said. “I learned so much about life at Southern Oregon University and life as a communication scholar from her in those conversations in the car back and forth to work.

“She was the chair of the department at that time and so I got a front row seat to see what her leadership style looked like,” Ruggerio added. “I really got to see how much love she had for the students and how much care she poured into every member of the faculty in the department.”

Perhaps most notably for Ruggerio, she said, was getting to know Walsh as a person during their carpool rides.

“One of the things I find so beautiful about Sue is her love for animals,” Ruggerio said. “This is the kind of woman who drives around with extra cans of dog food in her trunk.”

Whenever Walsh saw a homeless person with a four-legged furry friend, she would pull over and offer the person and their dog some food.

Professionally, Ruggerio noted that Walsh took the Digital Media Center “under her wing,” and helped grow it into what it is today.

“Communication is an always evolving field,” Ruggerio said. “The department has always tried to evolve along with the technology and the research.”

Walsh followed this evolving path closely, according to Ruggerio.

“The nucleus of the (communication) major, even though it’s stayed the same in some places and some areas, it’s evolved a lot,” Walsh said. 

The Digital Media Center, which now also houses Communication, Media, and Digital Cinema classes, was once primarily the home of RVTV, which provides community TV service locally.

“We did a complete revamp and bought all new equipment, started having classes there,” Walsh said. “Really brought it into the 21st century.

“We really made it student-centered,” she added.

When Andrew Gay, now director of the School of Arts and Communication and the Oregon Center for the Arts, came to SOU, Walsh said Gay pitched the Digital Media major to her.

“We made it happen,” she said, crediting the program’s success to Gay, assistant professor and program coordinator for Digital Cinema Christopher Lucas, and assistant professor of Digital Cinema and Communications Vaun Monroe.

“I did shepherd it through,” Walsh said, “and I kind of felt like it was my baby as well as theirs.”

Susan Walsh. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Starting as a student, rising through the ranks

Walsh started at SOU as an undergraduate student in 1981.

After growing up in Oakland, California, and working in radio in Davis, Sacramento and Crescent City, California, she took a radio position in Medford with KISD in 1980. In fact, that’s how she landed in Southern Oregon.

“I was the only female midday announcer in the valley,” Walsh said. “Usually women are either late at night or in the middle of the night.”  

A single mother of a young daughter at the time, Walsh had a junior college degree in broadcast and was looking to expand her career opportunities. 

Walsh took classes with Jon Lange, who would later be part of a committee that hired her as a professor of Communication. 

But first, she earned a bachelor’s degree from SOU in 1984 and a master’s degree in 1985. She took leave from SOU to earn a doctorate from the University of Oregon in 1998. 

“Those degrees in Communication came in handy throughout the years,” Walsh said.

Walsh returned to SOU to teach Communication after she graduated in Eugene.

“I loved teaching, but when an opportunity came around to get more administrative experience, I kind of grabbed it,” Walsh said. “I could’ve been professor forever and retired out of the Communication Department, but it just felt right to take the opportunities that came forward.”

One such opportunity that arose was the position of associate provost, which oversees the curriculum for the entire university and reports to the provost.

“It was a big leap,” Walsh said. “That was really the first throw-my-hat-in-the-ring moment, because, you know, these people are my colleagues, and to be in a position where I had to make tough decisions … I was a professor with them for many years, so it’s challenging in that way.”

She served in that role from 2010 to 2014, when she was named provost, a position that is the second highest position at the university, under the president.

“Provost is really inward-facing, it’s really about being here day-to-day,” Walsh said. 

Walsh was provost during the presidencies of the late Mary Cullinan, Roy Saigo, Linda Schott, and Bailey.

Walsh said she isn’t sure what resonated with the four presidents to allow her to stay on during each of their administrations, but hopes they felt she was competent, held the trust of the faculty, and that she was an asset to the university.

“(As provost), you have a pretty important seat at the table, but I think every president I’ve worked with has always been inclusive in terms of bringing people together,” Walsh said. “I’ve always felt that I had input and a seat at the decision-making table. I think if you don’t do that as a president, you do so at your own peril.”

In contrast with the role of provost, presidents of universities are tasked with external-facing duties, such as off-campus meetings with legislators and governors, according to Walsh.

Asked whether she ever thought about applying for the top job of president, Walsh said,

“I was just an interim president here for two weeks while Rick (Bailey) was coming. I let him know that that wasn’t my cup of tea, but I was happy to do it for two weeks.

“I love working with the faculty closely, I love working on problems and problem-solving here on campus,” Walsh said.

Walsh noted that institutional knowledge, which has served her well during her time at SOU,  isn’t always a good thing because it can be harder to have “fresh eyes” for projects.

“That was always something that I was mindful of, don’t be closed off to things, just because you saw it happen 20 years ago, and it didn’t go well,” she said. “Key was, always respect the knowledge and innovation of your faculty and staff. If you just think you’ve seen it all or done it all, then I think we don’t serve our students well. 

“I never felt like I knew it all or had all the information,” Walsh added. 

One of the key projects Walsh worked collaboratively on was a major transformation of general education curriculum, a process that started four years ago.

“The first two years was getting buy-in and hearing people’s ideas of what would or would not resonate with students and we had 20 students on the committee,” Walsh said. “What we’d had for 20 years wasn’t working for them.”

The general education curriculum now has fewer credits, more relevant to their lives, cutting-edge and innovative, versus a curriculum that was once primarily discipline-based.

It’s these kinds of problem-solving endeavors that Walsh seems to have enjoyed most during her time in administration.

“I realized when I was a chair (of Communication) that I loved solving problems and that excited me and I felt like I was really accomplishing things, you could see visually that you’d solved a problem.”

She’d have plenty of problems to solve during her time as an administrator, too.

Walsh said she didn’t have her eye on leadership positions from the start, but drew inspiration from those who helped her navigate her career path. 

“I was encouraged by people who mentored me to take on a little more,” Walsh said. “They saw potential in me.”

Sara Hopkins was provost and one of Walshes mentors while she was a professor.

“She saw some potential that maybe I didn’t see,” Walsh said.

“When I started out (in administration), it was a lot harder to kind of get those inroads without mentors,” Walsh said. “Now … some trails have been blazed behind you.

“I’ve always wanted a challenge,” she added. “If you like challenges, you just kind of go after the next thing.”

For women coming up in administration, she has some advice:

• Don’t be afraid to take some risks

• Try to let go of self-doubt

• Find good mentors

Jon Lange, who taught at SOU for 35 years and has known Walsh for about the better part of four decades, noted that Sue’s path reflects a “very obvious rising through the ranks” from undergraduate to graduate student and then to professor and administrative roles. 

Lange saw Walsh’s strengths up close as a strong researcher, in addition to her role in advising and teaching.

“At SOU, it’s mainly teaching focused, which is good, but faculty are expected to have a strong research program, and if you’re going to move from assistant to associate to full professor, you have to have that, and she did indeed,” Lange told Ashland.news. “After a while, she became chair and was a very good chair of the Communication Department, which is a tough job. There’s a lot of different people, with a lot of different expectations, of course.”

“She became, eventually, full provost, which is just such a hard, hard job. It’s harder in my mind than being president of a university,” he added later in the interview. “She has to be responsive and responsible to all the faculty and tenured faculty, especially — you know, they’re a very privileged group and they act like it. You as a faculty member have a lot of privileges, and if things don’t go your way, if there are budget cuts or you aren’t promoted or if there’s some administrative action that does not go your way, the target for that is the provost. And so you have to be able to have really thick skin, you have to be able to see the big picture, and this is true of Sue.”

After all of that, patience is key, according to Lange, due to the need to manage a lot of different interests.

“Sue was able to do all that,” Lange said.

“She was always and continued throughout her career to be an extremely hard worker, extremely diligent,” he said.

Ruggerio echoed Lange’s sentiments. 

“She invested her entire professional life and her entire adult life into Southern Oregon University,” Ruggerio said. “She has had to make some really heart-wrenching decisions, sometimes some really unpopular decisions concerning the budget, but I have never, ever in the 22 years that I’ve been an eye witness to her career, I have never questioned her deep and sincere love and dedication to Southern Oregon University. She’s given her whole life to us.”

Susan Walsh reflects on her long history at Southern Oregon University. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
‘A symbol of stability’

Ruggerio especially noted how Walsh has helped faculty navigate financial hardships at SOU, not only in 2023 with the SOU Forward Plan, but during the past 20 years Ruggerio has been with the university, which include retrenchments in 2007 and 2014.

“That Sue has been at SOU for so long was a really important symbol of stability for the university at a time when we were going through a lot of instability,” Ruggerio said. “Sue has been in administration over the terms of four different presidents. She is the consistency through all of that change and to have that consistency be somebody who knows us so well and has worked in so many different corners of campus was very important to help get us through all that change and all that evolution.”

Walsh was serving as faculty president of the union in 2007 during SOU’s first retrenchment, which Walsh recalls being hard for staff.

“We did terminate some positions on the staff side, but we did not terminate faculty positions,” she said. “We cut the budget in ways that sort of allowed us to make the cuts we had to make at the time, without harming any faculty positions.”

During the 2014 retrenchment, Walsh was provost.

“That was tougher, we cut faculty positions as well as staff and cut programs as well,” Walsh said. “That was a much deeper retrenchment.

“I’ve seen struggles financially for almost my entire time in administration,” she added. “I think the entire time, to be honest. I think that what we went through this last year with SOU Forward has really turned this ship around in significant and important ways and I think President Bailey made hard decisions. That’s not to say that retrenchment wasn’t a hard decision, it was, but this was a game-changer in SOU Forward, so I’m really excited to see what the future holds for us now.”

SOU President Rick Bailey noted that it was Walsh’s steadfast leadership and her willingness to make difficult decisions when the university announced the SOU Forward Plan in 2023.  

“As we were going through the SOU Forward process, there were decisions that were … impossible to make,” Bailey said, “because there was no way to make decisions without there being people we cared about affected.”

Bailey said Walsh really understood the gravity of the financial cuts the university was making in 2023, “probably better than anyone.”

Bailey said that it was Walsh’s firsthand knowledge and experience with a retrenchment in 2007 and then in 2014 helped Bailey’s administration “adapt” to a path forward as SOU experienced more financial struggles in 2023.

Each time, Walsh has witnessed a different approach used to address financial issues.

“When you’re just doing cuts by a thousand pinches, you really don’t address the problem,” she said. “Structural deficits … you really have to address at a deeper level.”

She also applauded revenue-generating ideas, such as plans to create senior adult housing that will also serve as freshmen dormitories.

“He’s really thinking outside the box, and I think that’ll be a game-changer for SOU, too,” Walsh said.

During the SOU Forward Plan, Bailey said it was Walsh who was able to “keep a universal, big-picture, strategic lens to the work, so that we kept our eyes on what we needed to do for our students and our community and kept us engaged at time that was really discouraging to continue in the direction we were moving.

“It truly has been an honor serving alongside her,” Bailey added. “This university owes her a huge debt of gratitude.”

Lange emphasized his desire for Walsh to enjoy retirement.

“If anyone deserves to have a wonderful retirement, it’s Sue,” Lange said. “She has worked really, really hard … in all the capacities that she was (in) at SOU.”

New provost on the job 

Shillam stepped into the role in early March and brings a wealth of experience in the health care sector. Walsh stayed at SOU for two months while Shillam was transitioning into the role.

“With Sue’s departure and her legacy of outstanding service, (they are) very, very difficult shoes to fill,” Bailey said. “I could not have asked for a better partner and guide than Sue Walsh. She understands our university better than anybody, and so to have a partner like that, especially coming in as a new president was invaluable.”

Bailey said Shillam is already providing thoughtful advice on how to move the university forward and also brings in-depth knowledge, positive, collaborative energy, that make her stand out.

“We’re very excited about Casey and her joining the team,” Bailey said. “I think she has already hit the ground running.”

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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