With 6,200 students, 750 faculty, staff and administration, Southern Oregon University is Ashland’s largest employer, with approximately $55 million a year in payroll. Total annual revenue for the university is almost $95 million, creating an economic powerhouse for the town and Southern Oregon.

When the region's first “college” was started by the Rev. Joseph H. and Annie Hill Skidmore in 1872, only 20 years after Ashland was born, it was called Ashland Academy.

Located where the defunct Briscoe School is now, it was run by the town’s Methodist Episcopal Church. It went through nine name changes and multiple death-rebirth experiences as its mission shifted and it rode the roller-coaster of recessions.

After the college closed down in 1886 because of financial troubles, the state took it over in 1887, making it the Ashland State Normal (teachers) School. But the state didn’t fund it, so it folded after three years. The Methodists got it going again, then the state took it over again, defunded it again and it went down the tubes again, in 1909. In the flush economy of 1926, the city created the college's present site, and the state again took it over as Southern Oregon State Normal School. 

In 1945, when Elmo Stevenson was hired as the college president, enrollment had plummeted to fewer than 100 students because of World War II. The college again was threatened with closure. But by the time Stevenson retired 23 years later, enrollment had soared to 4,903.

“What saved it was the GI Bill," says Don Laws, a retired SOU political science professor who also served on the Ashland City Council. "It started growing very rapidly, and they decided to leave it open.

“It grew and grew through the '40s, '50s and '60s. I got here in ’68, when they were just starting to offer degrees in something besides teaching. We started getting students from other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Russia. That’s all gone now because of tuition costs.”

Southern Oregon State College, as it was called starting in 1975, went through sieges of budget-cutting along with voter-mandated defunding that introduced young students to the new concept of starting life deep in debt.

“It was all about teaching,” says Laws, “then the emphasis shifted, trying to be more like large universities, with professors doing research, writing papers and presenting them at conferences.”

It became Southern Oregon University in 1997 and focused on being more integrated into the regional community, partnering with Rogue Community College so those students could move seamlessly into upper division work. The two institutions built the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center in Medford in 2008.

SOU created a popular Masters in Management degree and made it possible for local residents to keep full-time careers while going to college at night and taking classes on the Internet.

“We’re really the regional university and see it as our mission to provide an educated workforce for the community,” says Joan McBee, chairwoman of the SOU Business Department. “Businesses and students gain more value from their classes when they can apply it in the workforce.”

Employers say SOU students bring a positive attitude, have good organizational skills and help them be more productive, says McBee, adding that 40 percent of students are paid for their work. SOU encourages more paid internships, she said, because tuition is so high.

SOU is the only four-year institute of higher learning along Interstate 5 between Eugene and Redding, notes Mike Beagle, director of SOU Alumni Relations.

“Where do you get your pool of teachers and business leaders?" Beagle asks. "Right here. We have 50 SOU alums in Lithia Motors headquarters. We help drive the economy of the valley and wouldn’t have the growth or population without SOU.”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.