St. Olaf College | News

Faculty seminar hosted by the Institute addresses the pandemic

“Imagine you find yourself on a sinking ocean liner. Upon arriving at the lifeboat, you discover it is more than full and cannot sustain the load. Somebody has to jump into the ocean if anyone’s going to make it. On the lifeboat are one or two people who know how to operate it. You’ve got the captain of the ship, old people, young people, middle aged people, children, parents, and grandparents. Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King happen to be on the lifeboat. Malcom X and Rosa Parks, too. In fact, so is Donald Trump, Joe Biden, scientists working on the COVID-19 vaccine, a pregnant mother, and a person suffering from the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Make the boat as big as you want and fill it up with whomever or whatever might complicate the decision-making in a way that reflects the complexities under COVID-19 medical care conditions. Somebody has got to go or everyone goes down. At least that’s the projection.” 

With this so-called lifeboat analogy, Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Edmund Santurri commenced the third day of the Institute’s annual summer faculty seminar. “Freedom, Community, and Vocation in Times of Pandemic” (July 20-23) brought together some 30 St. Olaf Faculty members on Zoom for a four-day series that considered a wide range of ethical themes raised by the pandemic and states of emergency more broadly.

St. Olaf College faculty members participate in a summer seminar led by Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Edmund Santurri (upper left-hand corner).

The lifeboat scenario above has been used for decades in biomedical ethics as a kind of analogy for considering the issues posed by scarce life-saving medical resources. Who shall live when not all can live? 

As Santurri noted during the seminar, “one can question the analogy to the lifeboat situation at certain points but it helps to focus on certain dimensions of the scarce medical resource problem.” Indeed, these sentiments were echoed by Professor Emerita of Religion Maggie Odell: “How the question of triage is addressed when COVID-19 afflicts disadvantaged groups disproportionately has continued to haunt me, and I have found Professor Santurri’s enumeration of the options to be particularly helpful as I continue to read news articles on questions surrounding the distribution of the vaccine, when there will be inevitable shortages.”

 The question of a COVID-19 vaccine, and who should get it first, was just one of the myriad questions that participants grappled with during discussions in breakout sessions. The first day of the seminar focused on themes at the heart of Institute concerns, namely various conceptions of freedom, community, and civility that remain strongly contested in our society.  The readings reflected a variety of reasonable perspectives on the pandemic on matters of great significance about which reasonable persons might disagree.

Professor Emerita of Religion Maggie OdellI came to understand the readings as a snapshot of a moment in public discourse, a clear reflection of our anxieties and fears, as well as our hopes that we could meet the challenges. I have come to see our nation’s current fragmentation and paralysis to be especially tragic. We knew the right questions to ask, we understood the challenges, and yet as a nation we still lack the purpose and will to pursue a clear course of action.

Commenting on the seminar readings, Ashley Hodgson, the Frank Gery Associate Professor of Economics and Department Chair of Economics, noted how “the discourse online can oftentimes feel like people are talking past one another. I often find myself thinking: What is someone reading that led them to that particular belief or behavior? The seminar readings showed me a glimpse into the different worlds of information and rhetoric out there. It helped to process these with other faculty, because you need a lot of different minds and different experiential backgrounds to make sense of it.”  

Associate Professor of Practice in Religion Trish BeckmanRobust, rigorous, diverse conversations with my exemplary colleagues fortifies me to do much of the other good work we do on campus. Curated readings, even when very long, make it possible to simply leap into lively exchanges. I wish we had more interdepartmental, interdisciplinary spaces for advanced conversations like this, and I’m unfailingly grateful for the resources, space, and my colleagues’ good humor and intelligence in making this one so rewarding.

Day two of the seminar focused on questions of vocation, larger religious and philosophical considerations wrought by the pandemic, and how the coronavirus has uniquely impacted higher education. The topic of vocation was selected in part to honor the memory of Doug Schuurman, a Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College, member of the Institute Director’s Council, and prolific author on Christian vocation and calling who died in February. St. Olaf Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Ed Langerak noted how “the topic of vocation became very relevant as folks reflected on the implications of their careers and callings in these unsettling and upsetting times.”

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF EDUCATION JILL WATSONThe IFC summer 2020 seminar, with its focused, dialogic atmosphere, came at just the right time — an extremely welcome opportunity for lightly structured conversations with wonderful colleagues on worthwhile topics.

Maggie Odell shared a similar perspective. “The articles on the challenges to teaching in the first months of lockdown were especially moving, particularly as I heard my colleagues reflect on their own challenges as they adapt to online teaching. One colleague who is relatively new to St. Olaf, Kyle Helms (Assistant Professor of Classics), commented on how our late colleague Doug Schuurman’s essay on the Protestant idea of vocation gave him invaluable insights into St. Olaf’s mission and purpose. That discussion was profoundly important in helping all of us come to grips with St. Olaf’s current moment.” 

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Ed LangerakWhat I appreciated about the IFC seminar this July was that we had a bundle of well-chosen readings that reflected the Institute’s themes of freedom, diversity, distributive justice, and civil disagreement from a range of perspectives and focused on the current corvid crisis. Participating in discussions — sometimes with the whole group and sometimes in small groups — with informed and perceptive colleagues from a diversity of disciplines and viewpoints was stimulating and provocative. As a retired faculty member, I felt honored to be part of it.

The fourth and final day of the seminar offered readings and discussion focused on matters of race, gender, and intersectionality as they relate to the current pandemic. Regardless of what viewpoint one holds, there is no denying that the current crisis has amplified questions about the scope of structural discrimination, the disproportionate distribution of goods, historical legacies of inequality which have starkly divided liberals and conservatives in recent years. Seminar participants explored these matters with great tact and sensitivity and in an environment where everyone felt comfortable sharing their ideas. 

Yan Pang, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music and native of China, remarked on the helpful structure and courteousness of her colleagues: “My cultural background and values even are sometimes abrasive (especially on highly controversial topics), and the seminar was an open and honest learning environment that made me comfortable sharing my viewpoint.” 

Entrepreneur in Residence and Director of Management Studies Sian ChristieThe Institute Summer Faculty seminar is always a highlight for me. I have the opportunity to read material that I would not otherwise typically read to discuss serious and important topics with my learned colleagues. The topic of ‘freedom, community, and vocation in time of a pandemic’ was timely and we discussed wide ranging issues from global responses, ethical concerns, religion and faith, race and gender to how COVID-19 impacts us as individuals and a broader community.

The Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf College has a long history of promoting civil discourse on difficult topics through both its public event offerings and previous faculty seminars, including the Spring 2020 seminar on  “U.S.-China Relations” and its Summer 2019 seminar on “Discrimination and the Search for Truth and Justice.”

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