The Rev. Joseph Henry Skidmore wouldn't recognize the old place today.

The Rev. Joseph Henry Skidmore wouldn't recognize the old place today.

Back on Nov. 4, 1872, the Methodist minister was the president of the Ashland Academy, which opened its doors to provide a place of higher learning in Southern Oregon.

Tuition per term was $4 for primary, $5 for preparatory, $6 for sub-junior and $8 for senior, according to the 2002 book "Remembering: A History of Southern Oregon University," written by emeritus professor Arthur Kreisman.

The small academy, which also offered language classes for $3 a term back in the day, would morph into what is now SOU, albeit it took more than a century and nearly a dozen name changes. "We're a wonderful story about a group of people in 1872 realizing they wanted to have higher education opportunities in the Rogue Valley so the residents wouldn't have to make that long trek up to northern Oregon," observed SOU President Mary Cullinan.

The school, beginning with only a handful of students in a small building that looked remarkably like a typical Methodist church, now is spread across 175 acres with nearly 7,000 students. There has been a bit of a tuition hike: Full-time undergraduate tuition is $7,521 per term for residents and $20,238 for nonresidents.

While 70 percent of the student body is from Oregon, students from 35 countries are expected come winter term, Cullinan said. The school has 143 international students.

One of seven institutions in the Oregon University System, SOU consists of the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Business and the School of Education. It also is the home of Jefferson Public Radio and the public access station Rogue Valley Television.

In addition to the main Ashland campus, classes are available at the school's satellite campus in downtown Medford, as well as online.

The university, with a total annual revenue of $92.1 million, offers 36 majors and more than 100 areas of study.

"We were founded to train teachers," Cullinan explained. "That was our original mission. We still train the majority of teachers in Southern Oregon.

"But we also a train a huge number of business owners and bankers — the business community is fueled by our graduates," she added. "And we are the spirit behind the tremendous arts community in our region."

In 1935, a faculty member named Angus Bowmer created a summer Shakespeare program that blossomed into the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the largest theater companies in America. Since then, the school has helped create the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Rogue Opera.

Some of the school's history is just plain unusual. For instance, in the summer of 1953, a butterfly collector — lepidopterist — named Vladimir Nabokov rented the home of SOCE professor Arthur Taylor. When he wasn't hiking the hills above Ashland in search of butterflies, Nabokov worked on a novel, "Lolita," which was published in Paris in 1955.

The school's notable graduates include Ty Burrell, Emmy Award winner for his role as Phil Dunphy on ABC's "Modern Family"; Paulann Petersen, Oregon poet laureate; Mark Helfrich, offensive coordinator for the University of Oregon Ducks football team; Virginia Linder, the first woman elected to the Oregon Supreme Court; and Michael Geisen, 2008 National Teacher of the Year.

Medford resident Mike Finley, 65, earned a degree in biology in 1970 from what was then Southern Oregon College.

"Several of the professors I had there made a huge difference," he recalled.

A graduate of Medford Senior High School, Finley chose the school because of its proximity to the apartment he was living in above his parent's garage in Medford. He drove to school in a 1962 Volkswagen Bug.

"It was local, and I didn't have a lot of money," he said. "The cost was only $125 a quarter."

Finley now is the president of the Turner Foundation Inc., based in Atlanta, and the former supervisor of Yellowstone National Park.

"Over the course of my two careers, I have been engaged in negotiations, court settlements and difficult planning issues with opposing parties, many with degrees from Ivy League and more prominent schools, and I never felt lacking in any way," Finley said of his college education in Ashland. "I had no trouble understanding any of the issues I've faced."

Flamur Vehapi, now 28, arrived in the Rogue Valley from war-torn Kosovo in 2005 to attend Rogue Community College. He transferred to SOU, where he graduated in 2010 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. He has since earned a master's degree in conflict resolution from Portland State University and now teaches at RCC.

"I really enjoyed my experiences at SOU, especially because I was very involved with the community there," said Vehapi, author of the poetry book "The Alchemy of Mind." He is working on another book of poetry.

Dan Bulkley, 95, who coached track and cross-country at the school from 1950 until he retired in 1979, originally came to the school because of its size.

"It was a small college when I arrived, only about 600 students," he recalled. "That's one reason I liked it so much. "We had some great kids over the years — it was a very enjoyable experience," he recalled. "Every now and then I run into one of my students. It's always nice to see them again."

Meanwhile, Cullinan predicts the university will continue to draw students from the region and beyond.

"We are going to continue to grow incrementally," she predicted. "We have to continue to balance the needs of Oregon students with out-of-state and international students.

"We've come a long, long way, but we still have a regional community that understands the importance of higher education," she added.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or