St. Olaf College | News

Alumna gives $1 million to new Institute for Freedom and Community

Karen Buchwald Wright ’74 has provided a $1 million gift to support the new Institute for Freedom and Community.

St. Olaf College alumna Karen Buchwald Wright ’74 has provided a $1 million gift to support the new Institute for Freedom and Community.

The cross-disciplinary institute, which was established at St. Olaf earlier this year, aims to foster intellectual inquiry and meaningful discussion of important political and social issues.

By exploring diverse ideas about politics, economics, and society, the institute aims to challenge presuppositions, question easy answers, and foster constructive dialogue among those with differing values and contending points of view.

Wright says she was particularly taken with the institute’s goal of promoting civil discourse in a democracy.

“Civil discourse is one of the most important aspects of a civil society,” Wright says. “You can’t have a civil society in which people shout down or shut out anyone who disagrees with them.”

Through its programs and educational offerings, the institute underscores the value of having open and spirited exchanges on controversial subjects in a respectful and productive manner.

To achieve this goal, the institute will provide a program of academic coursework, public lectures and debates, scholarly and undergraduate research, and internships for students.

Wright says she hopes that the programming offered through the institute encourages students to approach all issues with an open mind and carefully contemplate new ideas.

“There’s always more to learn,” she says. “In almost everything you do in life, you will have to work with others — and the beauty of almost any group is that there will be a variety of perspectives. You need to have the ability to thoughtfully consider those perspectives in order to succeed.”

Wright herself is accustomed to exploring a wide range of interests. While a student at St. Olaf, she developed her own wildlife research major. She took a lot of biology and psychology courses, graduating in just two-and-a-half years with the goal, she says, of becoming “a Jane Goodall.”

Instead she worked for several companies in Minneapolis before returning to Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1980 to work for the company her parents established. Wright rose through the ranks at Ariel Corporation, which designs and manufactures natural gas compressors, and eventually took over as CEO and president in 2001.

Six years ago she created the Ariel Foundation, an organization focused on enhancing the quality of life in Mount Vernon by supporting education, parks, and the arts.

In 2011 she provided a $1 million gift to support St. Olaf College’s Great Conversation Program, a sequence of five rigorous courses that traces the development of literary and artistic expression, philosophic thought, religious belief, and historical reflections on Western culture into the modern world.

“I’ve been really lucky,” Wright says. “I’m the second generation to lead a successful business, and I’ve been able to take it to the next level. It’s the right thing to do to give back and make it possible for other people to have these opportunities.”