John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Southern Oregon University

Institutional Profile

Foundations of Excellence® Cohort:
2006-2007 National Select
Carnegie Classification:
Master’s L
Regional Accreditation:

Commission on Colleges and Universities

Contact Information:

Mada Morgan, Ph.D., Director of University Seminar and University Studies

Engaging the Campus Community through Foundations of Excellence
Mada Morgan, Ph.D., Director of University Seminar and University Studies

Southern Oregon University’s Foundations of Excellence® Task Force was a direct response to the University’s concern that we educate ourselves on the multiple factors that influence student success and persistence. SOU’s retention of first-year students to their second year had remained consistently around 66 percent, and the administration recognized that a comprehensive study of the campus was needed to develop a strategic plan for instigating change while acknowledging successes. SOU’s Student Affairs had initiated various changes to recruitment and retention through early registration, orientation, and advising; measuring any impact of these changes was important. Consequently, in August, 2006, Southern Oregon University officially joined the Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year with the cohort of 19 four-year institutions.


The Liaison position rested with the Director of University Seminar, the year-long, academic first-year experience. The Co-liaison positions were shared by the Vice President of Student Affairs and the Provost. This pairing of student and academic affairs was instrumental in broadcasting to the campus the importance of the study. Working through faculty, administrators, and staff who had been associated with the University Seminar and other lower-division courses, the Liaison recruited 56 members to the nine Dimension Committees. This blending of personnel contributed to the richness of the study, as each Dimension Committee had representation from the various stakeholders, and the research and reports reflected these multiple perspectives. One element was missing: student representation. Only two of the committees had regularly attending students, and more of these voices would have given valuable insight.

Student insight, however, was reflected through the surveys. SOU had excellent participation in the two surveys. SOU was on the quarter system with a starting date of late September, and to allow first-year students some familiarity with the campus, the FoE Student Survey was administered in November 2006. The survey directed to 1160 first-year students had a response rate of 36 percent. The results gave the Dimension committees valuable information from our student population. The survey administered to Faculty and Staff had an excellent response rate of 47.6 percent, with 313 responses from the 652 identified as faculty, administrators, or professional staff.

“As the various Dimension Committees worked through the questions set out by the Policy Center , other forces were determining how SOU would re-create itself as a more dynamic and “leaner” institution."

SOU elected to complete the self-study in 9 months. This choice was fortuitous, as the institution moved into an extremely difficult financial position, precipitated by loss of state funding and dipping enrollments. As the various Dimension Committees worked through the questions set out by the Policy Center, other forces were determining how SOU would re-create itself as a more dynamic and “leaner” institution. In many ways, FoE gave both direction and solace: the committee members could concentrate on both the positives and challenges of the entering students and the camaraderie of the 56 task force members helped us through a difficult period.

Areas of Strategic Action with Primary Recommendations

All Dimension Committees not only graded SOU on its performance in each area but also recommended action items. Once the Steering Committee received all reports and the valuable Policy Center feedback from Kathleen Morely, we recognized that the perceived areas of concern and recommended action items often overlapped with other Dimensions. The initial task of the Steering Committee was to look for these commonalities and to identify the primary areas of concern and need. “Areas of Strategic Action” were identified:

  • Incorporate First-Year Experience into Philosophy, Mission , and Vision
  • Commit to First-Year Experience through Institutional Governance
  • Communicate all aspects of First-Year Experience to All Stakeholders
  • Commit resources to develop faculty awareness of first-year needs and reward faculty for involvement in all aspects of FYE.
  • Improve and integrate data collection in both Student Activities and Academic Affair and track and manage enrollment in all lower division courses
  • Commit to and assess curricular reform and academic expectations
  • Define and inculcate campus and community life and values

A detailed Plan of Action was articulated for each of the strategic action areas, and specific timelines and agents were identified for carrying out the tasks.

Report Dissemination and Positive Results:

Outside influences greatly affected the dissemination of the Report. In addition to the upheaval of retrenchment and reorganization of the schools, other changes in upper-level administration occurred at the term’s end. With the university’s attention focused on re-organization, the full report was never released to the campus community. The report was distributed to the President, the Executive Council, Vice Presidents, and high-level administrators.

Major recommendations of the report have been instituted, including the formation of a first-year advisory team to coordinate efforts and to address communication to and support of the first-year students. The first action of this team was to coordinate an intensive campaign to register first-year students before they left campus in spring; a 1 percent increase in retention for Fall 2008 was registered. Other recommended actions with measured positive results were in advising (faculty members joining with professional counselors for one-on-one interactions during summer registration and orientation), communicating (emphasis on portal technology and directed communication), reaching out to at-risk students (strengthening an early warning system), and coordinating community-building activities (creating rituals and building enthusiasm for all-campus events). Although most of the elements for these initiatives were present in fractured forms on campus, the Foundations of Excellence self-study identified, strengthened, and prompted action.

The self study and self reflection required by the Foundations of Excellence served as ballast and balance for SOU through a difficult time. Noting our strengths and discovering our shortcomings have helped guide decisions and created new directions.