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SOU hopes initiatives will help make it a 'destination campus'

Southern Oregon University officials are planning several initiatives next year they hope will distinguish the school from others and attract students from near and far to a "destination campus."

"We have to set ourselves apart," SOU President Mary Cullinan said in a recent interview.

Among the new ideas being launched this fall is the House Program. In these collaborative learning environments, 50 students will work as a team in each "house" on specific regional issues.

The two houses that will begin in the fall, the Green House and the Social Justice House, will work on hunger issues and homelessness issues, respectively.

George Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., said he was "enormously impressed" with the initiatives that will be tried at SOU, particularly with the house idea.

He said colleges and universities lose about 50 percent of their students between the first and second year. A principal cause is that many feel no connectivity or a sense of belonging to the school, said Mehaffy, who visited SOU to see and discuss its plans in November.

The House Program will connect students to other students and to issues they are passionate about, he said.

Creating connectivity and finding a way to retain students were two goals that came out of a capacity study led last year by Jim Klein, provost and vice president for academic and student affairs at SOU. Klein said the House Program and an Honors College are two initiatives officials hope will provide the necessary connections.

The Honors College will be linked to the workforce. It will admit 25 new freshmen each year until it reaches a cap of 100. Each of the students will have a professional mentor in the community who will help chart a career course and build a connection to the community, Cullinan said, adding the concept is unique.

"I don't know of any honors college in the country that has this focus," she said.

SOU is experimenting with other ways for students to find work experience and to build a connection. The school will add 50 new on-campus jobs to the already 1,100 it has, Cullinan said.

"This is huge for us," Cullinan said.

In addition to helping a student pay for school, the jobs provide a bond to campus, and many will be in professional settings that will allow a student to gain experience.

"We have to prepare our students for the workforce," Cullinan said. "If you come to SOU, you're not going to move in with your parents when you graduate."

Additionally, SOU will start a program in winter 2014 directed toward professionals in the Rogue Valley who may have gotten sidetracked on their way to a degree. The program, called "Hawks" (named after the school's red-tail hawk mascot), is planned for about 25-40 people and will be based at the Higher Education Center in Medford.

The president said the program will allow many in the Rogue Valley who did not finish college a chance to earn one in a way different than the traditional model, and may include granting college credit for work experience.

The university's administrators and faculty also are preparing to rank each of the school's 300 academic and non-academic programs. Research is now being gathered by two teams of SOU employees and will be posted on a website in May, Cullinan said.

Lower ranking programs may be merged, consolidated, outsourced or eliminated, according to Cullinan.

It's an attempt to determine the university's strengths and priorities.

"The important piece is to get a ranking," Cullinan said. "If we are going to be distinctive, we need to have priorities."

She will receive recommendations in June and said she will discuss action to take during the summer and into the fall.

Finally, SOU must find new ways to remain financially sustainable and affordable, Cullinan said. She said the school must attract out-of-state and international students, as well as those taking online courses and in graduate programs. SOU is currently the second-least expensive school in the Oregon University System.

"We don't want to lose that affordability," Cullinan said.

Mehaffy said there are 415 schools in the ASSCU, most described as regional comprehensive universities, and all are attempting to adapt to economic, technological and global issues.

"I would say that Southern Oregon is certainly in the category of those leading the work of transformation," Mehaffy said.

Vince Tweddell is a freelance reporter living in Talent. Reach him at vince.tweddell@gmail.com.