Cheney Free Press -

By Paul Delaney
Staff Reporter 

Retention, college costs crucial to Cullinan

Final two EWU presidential candidates speak


Paul Delaney

Student retenion is important for EWU presidential candidate Mary Cullinan.

If Eastern Washington University presidential finalist Mary Cullinan were to have parents have the final say on who would succeed Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo, who is retiring this summer, she might have an inside track.

Cullinan, the current president of Southern Oregon University in Ashland, received a sound round of applause and some ice-breaking laughter during her June 4 appearance in the Showalter Hall auditorium at the final presidential community forum.

It came after telling of the goal at SOU to make sure "students never come back home to live with parents," after graduating.

Seriously, Cullinan also told the audience "Student success is the heart and soul of what we do."

That's counter she said to the one-time mission of many universities who were resistant to change and were proud of the fact that they focused on failure and how many students did not make it to graduation.

At the Oregon university, that has nearly 7,000 students and offers degrees in criminology, natural sciences, environmental science, Shakespearean studies and theatre arts programs, among others, the 64-year-old Cullinan said, "Now the focus is on student success."

But it's a much more broad timeline than just the four or five years students spend in school. "We gauge success (of students) way before college and at the other end extend beyond graduation," she said.

Cullinan grew up in Washington D.C where her father was Assistant Postmaster General under President Dwight Eisenhower. He later became a speechwriter for various senators, congressmen and other influential politicians-including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

That seemed to help jumpstart Cullinan's course of study in English at the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated in 1972 magna cum laude. She earned a master's degree in 1973 and Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1978,

Cullinan did dual-duty as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs as well as professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University from 2003-2006.

In helping improve outcomes, Cullinan said SOU has made careful study of retention trends and rates finding out "What makes them stay or leave; who do we retain or lose."

One trend she spoke about showed that students who lived or worked on campus, those more involved in athletics, drama or other activities had higher retention rates than others.

While finishing school in a reasonable time is important, doing so without a mountain of debt is also critical Cullinan said. And helping with fundraising to deflect some of the costs of attending college is a key role of a university president.

"It's a horrible burden to graduate with debt," Cullinan said. Under her watch at SOU $1 million in privately-raised funds has been disbursed to students for help with costs of college.

Paul Delaney can be reached at

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