A Strong Sense of Place

Reverend Jesse Jackson speaks on campus

Brand Story – Southern Oregon University celebrates its sesquicentennial with an eye on both its history and future.

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This year marks 150 years of education at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. SOU opened as Ashland Academy in 1872, formed by citizens who wanted to create a local center for higher learning. The school now offers undergraduate and graduate programs in 37 disciplines to aroud 5,000 students, as well as certificates and micro-credentials that indicate a learner’s proficiency in key competencies. It also provides professional development, lifelong learning, pre-college and youth programs both in person and online.

“The vision for us moving forward is based on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism and collaboration,” SOU President Dr. Rick Bailey says.

Throughout its history, SOU has attracted people who wanted to better themselves and give back to the community, and who were drawn to the area’s splendor and expansiveness. Early college brochures used poetic language to tout the beauty of the land and the school’s proximity to wonders such as Crater Lake, the Cascade and Siskiyou Mountain ranges, and the Rogue River.

“There’s a sense of place here,” says Maureen Flanagan Battistella, co-author of Southern Oregon University (Campus History). “Unless you’ve lived here and experienced the sunset, experienced the winds, slept on the mountain or hiked these mountains, you can’t understand how unique and different it is.”

SOU Stevenson Parade CarStevenson parade car

SOU 40s Football1940s football team

Appreciation of the outdoors and southern Oregon’s landscape has been a continuing theme at SOU. Geology professors in the 1920s led field trips to Crater Lake and various mountains – Lassen, Hood and Pitt (now known as McLoughlin) – giving students a firsthand understanding of the volcanic forces that shaped the land. Later, in the 50s and 60s, skiing entered the SOU curriculum and students had the opportunity to learn about resort operations at Mt. Ashland.

The Rogue Valley also offers ample opportunity for students to pursue a variety of snow, mountain and water sports. Students in today’s bachelor’s degree program in Outdoor Adventure Leadership and Master of Outdoor Adventure and Expedition Leadership also spend extensive time in the field, planning and executing multiple national and international expeditions. Students who study outdoor leadership gain skills in exploration, independence, safety and relationship building, and have gone on to professional roles as teachers, climate change activists, forest managers, sustainability advisors and regional water masters.

Values of sustainability and diversity are woven into the school’s academic programs and campus life. SOU was recently certified as the nation’s first Bee Campus USA, which recognizes a commitment to conserve native pollinators; is a Tree Campus USA for its strong forest management and sustainability; and has LEED Gold-certified campus housing. A five-acre organic farm lets students take the lead in producing sustainably harvested food for the campus and offers volunteer and research opportunities for students and the wider community.

“SOU is small enough to be nimble but big enough to create opportunities,” Battistella says. “Students and faculty are able to pursue their interests, create projects and make change. Some of those projects have larger consequences on campus.”

SOU 50s Cheer car1950s cheer car

SOU surfboard

In the 1970s, for instance, Rosemary Dunn Dalton started Women in Transition, which offered women shelter from domestic violence, defensive training, childcare, food, shelter and skills-based learning. Women came from Portland, Seattle and the Bay Area because SOU offered a safe space to learn and grow. The program grew into SOU’s Women’s Resource Center and then broadened to become the Social Justice and Equity Center, which today supports queer, trans, femme folks, women and survivors.

SOU faculty and staff have built community partnerships that provide local and far-afield experiences. The school’s internship program connects students with local employers, such as Lithia Motors, Amy’s Kitchen, and various publishers and forest management companies. International exchanges, both academic and athletic, occur with Guanajuato, Mexico; the University of Winchester in the UK; and Dankook University in South Korea. And a partnership with Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory – located on leased SOU property – offers internships at the world’s only laboratory dedicated to wildlife law enforcement.

“Students there gain an element of understanding of the natural world that’s very rare and specific,” Battistella says.

SOU 50s Classroom1950s classroom

SOU Julie Brown 80sJulie Brown visits in 1980s

A liberal arts education develops the whole student while also preparing them for the work world. Over the last two decades SOU expanded their computer labs so students could grow their tech skills. Today, the school is increasing its technological offerings even more and helping students build skills needed to compete in the local and global marketplace, such as the ability to think critically, communicate effectively, understand diverse perspectives and collaborate across disciplines.

“I think SOU is an ideal learning community with a big world view that’s small enough to care,” Battistella says. “Larger institutions sometimes struggle to move that ship. We’re small enough to be nimble but big enough to create opportunities.”


Brand stories are paid content articles that allow Oregon Business advertisers to share news about their organizations and engage with readers on business and public policy issues.  The stories are produced in house by the Oregon Business marketing department. For more information, contact associate publisher Courtney Kutzman.