Rethinking SOU: Cullinan on the House model – “we’ve got to do this right”

Editor’s Note: “Rethinking SOU” is a multi-part series that will focus on two “change processes” happening this year at Southern Oregon University spearheaded by President Mary Cullinan. One is called “Houses,” and it will change how students satisfy their general education requirements. For more information on the proposed Houses, go to


As a core group of Southern Oregon University faculty members develop a new approach to 21st century higher education practices, one of the biggest challenges is the question of logistics. How are they going to make the Houses program work?

“Many faculty are excited about the proposition,” says Jonathan Lange, professor of human communication at SOU. “Although some of the same faculty are concerned about what looks like to be an extraordinary extra amount of time it will take to participate in the House program, as it currently conceptualized.”

Here’s a basic overview: Next fall, incoming freshmen can apply to be part of two different Houses. After several months of collecting ideas for House themes from faculty, staff and students, SOU President Mary Cullinan and Provost James Klein have chosen two of the proposals: “Social Justice” and “GreenHouse.”

Each House will have a core of faculty members from various departments who will work together to provide classes that focus in those areas – and help students satisfy their general education requirements. Each House could have up to 50 students.

(Note: The Houses are a collection of classes – not a residence or living arrangement, although that could be offered by the university in the future.)

As students in the Houses try to solve real-world problems, they get real-life experience, which in turn can lead to real jobs. And, as each House involves several departments, it will mean the university will begin moving from the current single-subject classification of the degree system to one more focused on interdisciplinary studies.

For example, the advisory board of the Social Justice House includes: Alma Rosa Alvarez, from English and Writing: Carol Ferguson, Biology; Melissa Geppert and Jennifer Longshore, Art; John King, Business; Margaret Perrow, School of Education; Jim Phillips and Jessica Piekielek, Anthropology, and Marjorie Trueblood-Gamble, SOU’s associate director of Diversity and Inclusion.

The advisory board for the GreenHouse includes: Vince Smith, Sociology and Environmental Studies; Roxane Beigel-Coryell, SOU’s coordinator for Sustainability and Recycling; Steve Kem, Physical Education; Byron Marlowe, Business; Mark Shibley and Eva Skuratowicz, Sociology.

The boards are meeting now with administrators, project coordinators and professors from SOU’s Honors College to come with a plan for how the House will be constructed.

Students have been encouraged to participate in the House project, but a Vision Committee from the Associated Students of Southern Oregon University, SOU’s student government, has expressed some concerns. In a press release last fall, the committee pointed out that none of the proposed Houses adequately addressed the overall project’s own stated interdisciplinary goals.

“It is our belief that that none of the proposals at this point are stand-alone Houses,” the Vision Committee said in their statement. They added their own recommendations as to what should be combined in order to more successfully incorporate an interdisciplinary approach.

The concern of the Vision Committee stems from the impression that several of the currently proposed Houses seemed very specific and narrow in their focus. This is why the architects of the Houses idea have stated that “pilot Houses” will be operated as a tentative test to gauge the general viability of the envisioned general structure.

Nine Houses were proposed and considered, including the “Gertrude Stein House,” “House of Capitalism” and “Mind & Body House.”

“If a house is very small, very specific, it probably won’t be one of the pilot houses chosen,” Jody Waters, associate professor of human communication, said in an interview in December. “And that has been kind of trending towards how they’re being evaluated. Ideally, I suspect that what we would want as an end point is a setup that does speak to a very large group of folks.”

Other universities throughout the country have dabbled with the Houses concept in one form or another. “There are Houses in different modes around the country,” says Cullinan. “There are Houses that are more like the Harry Potter types of houses, where you take classes with each other but you’re sort of affiliated with your house.”

But Cullinan said SOU’s model will be distinctive.

“There is nothing exactly like this. This is an SOU original idea, which is one reason we’re very excited about it.”

She emphasizes the experimental nature of the planned changes in addressing concerns.

“We’re going to assess the heck out of this. We’re going to be looking at everything,” she says.  “That’s why we’re only going to do two or maybe even one House in the fall [of 2013]. We want the House in the fall to be the House that we look at and we scrutinize so hard.”

“Yes, we may make mistakes and we may fail and try something slightly different, so the word has got to be flexible,” Cullinan says. “We’ve got to do this right.”

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