This Sunday, Southern Oregon University will reach a milestone in its history, as Nov. 4 marks the 140th anniversary of the day the school opened.
“November 4, 1872 was a pretty darn important day,” said Mary Cullinan, who has been serving as president of SOU for the past six years. “Ever since, there have been tons of changes, but the commitment has remained the same.”
In 1872, the school was begun by a small group of Ashland residents, among them the Rev. Henry Skidmore of Oregon Methodist Episcopal Church, and was first named Ashland Academy. In the 140 years since, the school has gone through a total of eight name changes, among them Southern Oregon College in 1956 and Southern Oregon State College in 1975.
The school first became part of Oregon’s then-new higher education system in 1926, at which time it was called Southern Oregon State Normal School and was attended by a total of 273 students. This was also the year Churchill Hall became the first building on the campus’s new location. Cullinan described Churchill Hall as the only historical “footprint” remaining on the campus today.
The school first made the transition from being a college to being a university in 1997, when it became Southern Oregon University.
“Moving from being a college to being a university was a huge change,” said Cullinan. “We are no longer a little college. That’s really significant.”
Cullinan described the ways in which the school transformed the cultural life of the rural community in which it started, a change Cullinan says would likely not have happened without the school’s presence.
“Our faculty was responsible for starting the Shakespeare Festival, the Rogue Opera, the Cabaret Theatre, the Rogue Valley Symphony, every cultural institution you can think of,” she said. “These have all been tremendously supported by our faculty and students.”
Jim Beaver, SOU’s director of interactive marketing and media relations, said he imagines the hypothetical scenario in which the school was never built as being “like what happened to George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
The annual summer Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the largest theater companies in America, had humble beginnings. It started out as a small summer Shakespeare program in 1935, created by faculty member Angus Bowmer when the school was known as the Southern Oregon Normal School.
The Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra, founded by Southern Oregon College music professor Frederick Palmer, made its debut performance in 1967. Nine years later, SOC music professor Ray Tumbleson created the Rogue Opera, whose purpose was to utilize local talent to present high quality opera to regional audiences. The Oregon Cabaret Theatre, which now produces over 250 performances per year, was built by Southern Oregon State College theatre professor Craig Hudson in 1982.
“We have transformed this campus significantly, but also have deeply affected the cultural institutions and life of the Rogue Valley,” Cullinan said.
In addition to founding notable local cultural institutions, SOU has also graduated notable alumni.
“We still keep in touch with hundreds if not thousands of alum,” said Cullinan, including Ty Burrell, the actor and comedian who graduated from the school in 1993 with a B.A. in theatre. Burrell has gone on to earn an Emmy Award for his role as Phil Dunphy on ABC’s “Modern Family.”
Other notable alumni include Virginia Linder. The first woman to be elected to the Oregon Supreme Court, Linder graduated with a B.A. in political science in 1975, the year the school was renamed Southern Oregon State College.
Faculty members have become immortalized in SOU history as well. A project is currently underway to have the university’s Raider Stadium running track named after Dan Bulkley, who served as an athletics coach and professor for 27 years, starting in 1950.
Bulkley, 95, still remembers the days when the school, then named Southern Oregon College of Education, had a headcount of approximately 600 students, less than a tenth of its current enrollment figures.
“I personally was looking forward to growing our numbers, but I didn’t imagine it would grow this big,” he said.
Bulkley started the tennis program in 1950.
“Then a kid wanted to start a track team in 1952, which I started and coached for about 22 years after that,” he recalled.
The highlight of his career, as well as his fondest memory, was having his track team win both the Orange Coast College state conference and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics regional district titles three years in a row between 1962 and 1964.
Bulkley retired from his coaching and teaching positions in 1980 and began competing himself in 1987, which he has continued to do to this day.
“As a matter of fact, I just got back from St. George, Utah, where I went for the [Huntsman] World Senior Games,” he said.
Bulkley advises current students to take advantage of the university’s relatively small class size.
“It was not so much important how big we would grow, but when we would stop,” he explained. “The main advantage I saw was that we did not have huge classes, just classes of about 30 where students got individual attention.”
Today there are approximately 21 students for every university faculty member, an example of “commitment remaining the same” lauded by Cullinan. The average class size on the campus today is 25 students.
These numbers have proven to be effective in producing impressive achievement test scores. SOU scored at the 98th percentile in the 2012 Collegiate Learning Assessment, one of only four schools to score at that level out of hundreds tested. MBA students scored in the top ten percent of all schools that took the standardized test for MBA students in 2012. These numbers have been partly responsible for placing SOU on some national recognition lists. This year, The Washington Monthly ranked SOU at number 192 out of its list of 682 Masters Universities.
Also this year, SOU was ranked at number 45 out of 100 on Sierra magazine’s “Cool Schools” list and at number 80 on U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of 139 regional universities in the western United States. SOU scored at the 98th percentile in the 2012 Collegiate Learning Assessment, one of only four schools to score at that level out of hundreds tested. MBA students scored in the top ten percent of all schools that took the standardized test for MBA students in 2012.
Looking to the future, Cullinan said the university faculty is excited to announce the opening of the Honors College in 2013.
“We want to draw students from around the country to a highly competitive, academically challenging environment,” she said.
Overall, Cullinan emphasized, SOU has accomplished a great deal, including in the face of challenges such as disinvestment efforts at the level of state government. She added that SOU is currently the second most affordable public university in Oregon.
“We’ve overcome challenges, we’ve had changes as we try to be a successful university without having to charge a great amount of money to come here,” Cullinan said.