St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2023

A Lasting Legacy

When David R. Anderson ’74 arrived on campus in the summer of 2006 to become St. Olaf College’s 11th president, one of the first big decisions he faced was a looming question about how to proceed with the construction of a new science facility.

Planning for a state-of-the art complex was already well underway, but fundraising for the project was lagging. So much momentum had been lost that one option on the table was to construct the building in stages, leaving large portions of the building’s interior unfinished until a later date.

Forget about a $64,000 question — this was a nearly $64 million question. For a new president who had never led a college, finding the right answer could have been daunting. Yet for Anderson, the path forward was clear.

He rolled up his sleeves and hit the road, visiting supporters of the college across the country to make a compelling case for the new science facility. St. Olaf had long been a leader in science and mathematics education, he noted, and the college needed a facility that matched the excellence of its academic programs. The proposed science complex was designed to support interdisciplinary teaching and research, facilitate close student-faculty interaction, and provide technology-rich classrooms and laboratories for the natural sciences. It would take St. Olaf’s already strong science and mathematics programs to the highest level.

His message resonated with alumni who knew firsthand the power of a St. Olaf education. “With David’s help, we were quickly back on track,” says John Benson, a parent of two Oles and a former member of the St. Olaf Board of Regents who co-chaired the college’s campaign for the future of math and science.

Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences opened in the fall of 2008, and it has cemented St. Olaf’s status as a leading liberal arts college in STEM. Over the last 15 years, thousands of students have taken classes, conducted innovative research, and worked alongside expert faculty in the world-class facility, and scores of Oles have gone on to develop distinguished careers and become leaders in their fields.

David R. Anderson '74, known for his love of cooking and good food, pictured in the kitchen of the new residence hall that opened in the fall of 2022 as part of the Ole Avenue Project. Photo by Fernando Sevilla
David R. Anderson ’74, known for his love of cooking and good food, pictured in the kitchen of the new residence hall that opened in the fall of 2022 as part of the Ole Avenue Project. Photo by Fernando Sevilla

In many ways, Anderson’s approach to Regents Hall in the early days of his presidency served as a harbinger of how he would prioritize his work over the course of the next 17 years.

With a deep commitment to ensuring that campus facilities match the excellence of the St. Olaf experience, he oversaw a dramatic transformation of the physical spaces on the Hill. The construction of Regents Hall was followed by significant renovations of Tomson Hall, Holland Hall, and Steensland Hall, the construction of an on-campus ice arena and investments in athletic facilities, and a $60 million student housing project, among a number of other smaller-scale renovations across campus.

We have, in many ways, rebuilt the campus, preserving its architectural beauty while renewing older spaces and adding important new ones.David R. Anderson ’74

He placed an emphasis on expanding resources for high-impact experiences like student-faculty research, internships, conversation programs, and study abroad. He provided a data-driven focus on the outcomes of a St. Olaf education and oversaw an overhaul of the college’s career services. And to provide weight, gravity, and permanence to key elements of the St. Olaf experience, Anderson led the establishment of a number of centers of excellence on campus: the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, the Institute for Freedom and Community, the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion, the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community, and the Smith Center for Global Engagement.

David R. Anderson '74 in Boe Memorial Chapel. Photo by Fernando Sevilla
David R. Anderson ’74 in Boe Memorial Chapel. Photo by Fernando Sevilla

To support all of this work, Anderson kept a laser-sharp focus on the financial health of the college. He led a seven-year comprehensive campaign that raised more than $250 million and worked to significantly increase the college’s endowment so that today it funds more than 20 percent of the college’s operating budget. He also steered the college to a new admissions model that positioned St. Olaf among the leading liberal arts colleges in the country and enabled the college to compete more effectively and aspirationally for students. The result is a significantly more national, international, and diverse student body. Today, as many colleges are facing financial and enrollment challenges, St. Olaf is on firm footing.

“I’m proud that, due to the good work of many people and the generous support of many others, it’s been overall a period of steady and consistent improvement,” Anderson says. “St. Olaf was a very fine college when I became president. Together we’ve been able to build from that in ways that make it even stronger.”

This is our college, and our mutual investment in the institution and in one another as Oles empowers us to do great things for our college. St. Olaf is bigger than all of us.David R. Anderson ’74 in his inauguration address on October 6, 2006

A Long-Serving Leader
A former English professor whose expertise is 18th-century British literature, Anderson majored in English at St. Olaf and went on to earn his doctorate in English from Boston College. He also studied at Harvard University’s Institute for Educational Management and Capital University’s Center for Dispute Resolution. Anderson taught English at St. Olaf and at the University of Kansas before serving in administrative capacities at Florida Atlantic University and Texas A&M University. He was vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at Luther College and served as provost at Denison University before returning to St. Olaf to serve as president.

Addison “Tad” Piper chaired the presidential search committee that selected Anderson in 2006. “What made David stand out among the other candidates was a passion for the job, a good understanding of the challenges ahead, and a vision for how to meet those challenges,” Piper says.

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Anderson has gone on to become the longest-serving president of St. Olaf since Sidney Rand, who also held the position for 17 years, from 1963 to 1980. The only other presidents who have served the college longer are Clemens Granskou (20 years, from 1943 to 1963), Lars Boe (24 years, from 1918 to 1942), and Thorbjorn Mohn (25 years, from 1874 to 1899).

Read more about the accomplishments of David R. Anderson’s presidency and reflections from colleagues and friends here.

As he reflects on his long tenure leading St. Olaf, Anderson points to a favorite quote from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Throughout the course of nearly two decades as president, Anderson says, he worked with other campus leaders to develop a strong strategic plan and remain nimble in responding to challenges. Only now is the full impact of that work coming into focus.

“We were bold and opportunistic, and the result was that the bets we placed in the first decade led to and enabled major successes in the second decade,” Anderson says.

Vice President for Advancement Enoch Blazis says the college is in a far stronger position than it was 17 years ago.

“All of these accomplishments had challenges and were not easy. I think it is remarkable that he had the drive and the stamina to successfully be at the helm this long,” Blazis says. “His impact on St. Olaf has been consequential, and he is leaving the institution ready for the next big leap under President Susan Rundell Singer.”