Four weeks ago, when Southern Oregon University’s director of facilities management and planning, Drew Gilliland, needed help planning for an outdoor classroom space that will be included in SOU’s still-under-construction athletic facility, he knew just who to call.

A member of SOU’s Strategic Planning Committee, Gilliland had recently served on one of seven Professional Learning Community groups tasked with answering a question or set of questions as part of the university’s ongoing strategic planning project. Gilliland reached out to the members of his own PLC, which examined campus learning spaces, and asked for their input.

Vincent Smith, an associate professor of environmental science and policy and one of two co-chairs heading up the 10-member “Learning Spaces” PLC, offered his own views on the topic, as did the group’s other members.

“My feedback,” he said, “had a lot to do with, is that space accessible, is the location accessible to all of the students on campus? Would there be shading available, for example?”

Thus, when the $29 million facility opens next January, the first student to read a chapter or two under a well-placed shade tree or bang out a Writing 121 final from the comfort of a park bench will almost certainly be among those benefiting from SOU’s strategic plan, a five-stage project whose purpose is to identify the university’s goals and directions.

Modeled after the College of William and Mary’s strategic planning effort that began in 2008, SOU’s own version was described as “transparent, collaborative and iterative,” by president Linda Schott during her first State of the University address, delivered Nov. 15 in the Stevenson Union’s Rogue River Room.

“What I particularly like about it,” she said, “is it’s not a plan that we spend a lot of work on for a year and then it sits on my shelf in the president’s office and nobody thinks about it until NWCCU [Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities] says, 'Oh, you guys need a plan,' and so we rush around and we do another one seven years from now. We don’t want that kind of plan. We want a plan that’s a continuously improving plan which will bring continuous improvement to our institution.”

The process, laid out on a strategic planning-dedicated web page on the SOU website (www2.sou.edu/strategic-planning), is broken down into five stages. The first, in which the committee examined what a sustainable, productive future looks like, has already been completed, and the second — “Building on what we learn, analyze our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; then articulate our vision for the future, our clarified mission, and our guiding values” — is supposed to wrap up soon and be presented to the SOU Board of Trustees.

Stage 3, the formulation of “draft goals,” will be tackled this summer, followed by the finalization of goals and the formulation of objectives to achieve those goals (Stage 4), all of which must be approved by the Board of Trustees in January. The final stage is an annual assessment and review.

“The actual plan will be official in January of 2018, but that doesn’t mean we won’t start implementing some of the better ideas that emerge earlier,” said Strategic Planning Committee chairman Jon Lange, a recently retired communication professor.

Ideas such as?

“Well, we’re always looking at ways to improve our curriculum, improve retention and completion, improve sustainability, and make decisions in policy that will enhance equity, diversity and inclusion,” Lange said. “So we’re always doing that and we’re going to start looking really hard at improving those pathways and identifying and following others.”

The work involved in Stage 2 could have a significant impact on SOU’s evolution.

Each of the PLCs included seven to 10 members — faculty, staff, students, board members, donors, alumni and community leaders among them — who worked together to answer the critical question posed to them. Those questions were: Who are the learners of the future? What does current research tell us about how humans best learn? How are learners being taught before they arrive at SOU? How will rapid advances in technology change our pedagogy and our work? How do we prepare graduates for a life of work when many of our graduates will work in jobs that don’t yet exist, and how will employment change in this region and beyond? What are the economics of higher education in the future, and how will it be funded and sustained? What kinds of spaces or physical facilities will be most appropriate to learning in the future?

Smith said his group met four or five times in person and dozens of times electronically in their attempt to predict the future of physical learning spaces.

“There were casual discussions in the beginning,” he said. “It was really, truly a learning community, almost like a book group. And then as we got into it we began finding research on the subject and sharing it with each other and we all read what others had found and then began drafting up summaries of the material that we were researching. In the end, we identified themes …that were more present in all the work that we were looking at, and then we developed a summary of that that would be available to the president and executive cabinet and others who are looking at how we might develop in the future.”

The 20-page report, along with the other reports, is available on the strategic planning webpage and includes a seven-page appendix with photos and video links. One of those videos highlights an active learning center at Purdue University and zeroes in on the traditional boxed-in classroom approach, stating: “540 sq ft for 35 students is 15 sq ft per student.”

A photo shows a single performer standing before an audience in a space similar to Ashland’s own The Bricks downtown space where The Green Show is staged. A caption reads: “There is a tremendous opportunity for this in Raider Village. The concept of a built-in city square or seating area. A round arena to promote informal gathering outside and outdoor lectures.”

“The most interesting thing,” Smith said, “was how much research was available on a very specific subject, such as, ‘What is the best way to develop a learning space in higher education?’ To me, that was a very specific question, and I was surprised to find that there are entire fields of research and entire journals devoted to that very subject.”

The other PLCs filed similarly thick reports, with the group in charge of the report titled “How Our Learners Arrive,” delivering the most robust packet at 38 pages.

Smith said at least for his part, the second phase of SOU’s strategic planning was a huge success.

“What I got out of it was probably what those who created the process wanted,” he said, “which is to have a not just anecdotally answering what we think we ought to do but recognizing that there’s a lot of research on these subjects already. We shouldn’t be recreating the wheel here, we should be looking at best practices nationwide or internationally … and then working and looking at specifically what we do next with that research.”

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.