Opening Banquet

August 30, 2007

Welcome everyone! 

Our festivities tonight mark the opening of the 133rd year in the life of our college. We are the inheritors of an extraordinary legacy. More successfully than any other liberal arts college in America, St. Olaf College has found a way to embed a liberal arts education that demands the highest levels of academic rigor into a campus environment shaped and enriched by our identity as a church-related college, by the Christian faith of many of the members of this community, and by a shared commitment by all the members of this community — whether Christian or not — to promoting and participating in an ongoing conversation about matters of values and vocation. As the inheritors we are called to be the stewards of this legacy and creators of the College’s future. I am going to describe tonight a number of projects and initiatives that lie before us in this and the coming years. Each of them merits our thoughtful consideration, but our best collective thinking must be brought to bear on the cumulative effect of these decisions upon our identity and mission. I have heard the role of a college president described as that of a “Vision Keeper,” but in truth in a sound and mature organization everyone is a vision keeper, and so as we begin this new academic year I ask that we each resolve always to think about the little decisions we make every day in the context of the legacy we are both preserving and creating for the next generation of Oles.

First, though it may seem paradoxical at the opening of a new year, I want to take a moment to note that we begin this year “impelled,” as the college hymn has it, by the successes and momentum of the previous one. Because of your hard work and support, and the support of thousands of faithful friends, St. Olaf College flourished last year. A national pool of 4,248 students sought admission to the college. Despite the size of the pool, we succeeded in our goal of bringing in a smaller first year class, and if we replicate this achievement over time that will result in a smaller student body. The new first-year students this fall number 754 versus 793 last fall. In the last fiscal year we raised, from all sources, $21 million. Our endowment today is valued at $315.5 million versus $265.5 on this date a year ago, an increase of $50 million. We broke ground for the new science complex and, on the strength of our fundraising, made the decision to build the entire science building in one phase rather than in two and to open it in the fall, 2008. Our wind turbine, capable of generating a third of the electricity needed to operate the campus, rose gracefully into our western skyline. The renovation of Boe Memorial Chapel, including the new Holtkamp organ, provided us with arguably the most beautiful and welcoming collegiate worship space in America. We weathered a punishing hailstorm. The faculty revised — and reduced! — its governance structure. We recruited and hired a new Vice President for Advancement and College Relations, an Ole parent, a man with broad and deep experience in higher education both as a faculty member and an administrator, and a prodigious fundraiser: Michael Stitsworth. And while all of this was going on, three thousand Oles were housed, fed, taught, advised, counseled, and nourished in both their spiritual quest and their vocational discernment. We ended the year with positive net income from operations, as we had planned, which we intend to invest in the renovation of the old science building. Most of all, we remained focused. This was a year of positive energy and forward momentum. It is easy for a complex college like St. Olaf engaged with as many constituencies as we are on- and off-campus to disperse its energy everywhere but on its core mission. We did not let that happen this year, and we must not as we go forward. To each of you who last year combined energy with focus on what really matters to the College, a heartfelt Thank You.

To continue in retrospective mode for a moment, let me comment on all of the cranes on campus. The hailstorm last summer damaged every slate roof on campus. Fortunately, we have excellent insurance coverage, and we will be able to repair or replace the damaged roofs. We still do not have a total damage figure from that storm as estimates continue to be refined, but our insurers have given us $3.5 million as a down payment on our loss, and we are using those funds to repair the roofs. The power plant roof and the roof on Skifter Hall have been repaired. We had hoped to have the Thorson and Mellby roofs entirely replaced before students returned, but the work has been more complicated than anticipated. Our plan now is to finish the east side of Mellby, restore the grounds, and then send the roofers away to do the west side later. We’re planning to complete the west side of Thorson and work on the grounds before students arrive, then complete the east side — already largely done — after the students are in place, working on a daily schedule with Residence Life. We have just begun work on Boe Chapel with a goal of completion in October. We expect to tackle the roof on Buntrock Commons next summer. The good news is that all of these buildings will have new 100-year roofs. Moreover, the older buildings (Thorson, Mellby, Skifter) were not insulated when they were originally constructed, and we have been able to insulate them as part of the repairs. This will reduce utility costs and further reduce the college’s carbon footprint — two good things.

Now, let us turn to look ahead. In the last three years St. Olaf has recruited a highly competitive, geographically diverse student body while still meeting our revenue needs, preserving a significant presence in the student body of multicultural, first- generation, Lutheran, and legacy students, and elevating the academic profile of our students. The class of 2011 was chosen from the largest applicant pool ever. This class has the lowest acceptance rate, the highest percentage of students from outside Minnesota, and the best academic credentials of any class we’ve admitted. Michael Kyle and the enrollment team had a great year.  However, both he and I believe that the success of this past year points us down a path towards even more aggressive recruitment goals, so in the coming year the enrollment team will be looking to further increase and diversify the applicant pool so that we can achieve an acceptance rate below 50% and an out-of-state representation above 50%. The class of 2011 presents a combined mean SAT score of 1302, and the goal is to continue to recruit classes at or above the 1300 benchmark. If we achieve these goals but the representation of multicultural, first-generation, Lutheran and legacy students nosedives, we will have changed the college in important ways while we were looking the other way.  Consequently, I am asking Enrollment to remain vigilant as to these groups as the next class comes together. The admissions goals I have just outlined are very aggressive indeed, and I ask you all to stand ready to assist our colleagues in the enrollment division whenever they call you to be on a panel, or to welcome prospective students into you class, or to reach out to a prospective student by email or phone, or to assist them in other ways.

The decision to build the new science complex in one phase was certainly the right one, but it creates challenges. The plan had been to build the Science Complex in two phases, finishing in 2012 or later, depending on the funding for Phase II. While this was happening, we planned to set aside net income from operations each year towards the goal of amassing a sufficient amount to fund the renovation of the Science Center once it is vacated.  Until we know who will be moving to that building and what kinds of renovation it might require we cannot price that project, but knowing what we do about the typical costs of renovation per square foot and the size of the building we expect it will cost $15 to $20 million in 2008 dollars. In the original scenario, we would have amassed that sum over the next six years, and we are still on track to accomplish that goal. However, now that the Science Complex will be done next fall our funding plans no longer align with our building and renovation timetable. Unless we are willing to board over the windows and lock the doors of old science and wait for the money to be in place, we will not have the funds in place when we need them for that project. Furthermore, $7 million remains to be raised to complete the funding of the Science Complex.

So, here are the issues:  (1) what will be the source of the remaining $7 million for the Science Complex and how quickly can it be raised?  (2) who will the new inhabitants of the old Science Center, and what kind of renovations will their programmatic needs require and the budget support?  (3)  how will we bridge the funding gap in the Science Center project created by the accelerated schedule for the Science Complex?  These questions all need answers soon. The question of who will move to the Science Center particularly demands resolution this fall so that we can plan the renovation that will begin in 2009.

The timing of the next campaign for St. Olaf further complicates these questions.  The Fram! Fram! Campaign that raised $145 million concluded in 2002. The current Beyond Imagination Campaign, a targeted mini-campaign for $33 million, focuses on one capital project. The Beyond Imagination Campaign followed hard on the heels of Fram! Fram!, and the current science pledges extend over five years so that many of us will be continuing to pay them down for four more years. Nevertheless, we must start thinking now about the next comprehensive campaign for St. Olaf. I use the term “Comprehensive Campaign” to distinguish it from a “Capital Campaign.”  A comprehensive campaign, like Fram! Fram!, may include a capital component such as building renewal and equipment, but it also includes non-capital expenses, typically endowment for positions and programs and gifts for current operations. From its conception until the last pledge (not counting the planned gifts) is paid, a comprehensive campaign can take eight to ten years to execute; thus, we need to get moving to assess what those overall needs might be, to determine the willingness and ability of the friends of the College to fund them, and to move forward with the campaign. However this plays out, one thing is abundantly clear: the fundamental challenge facing St. Olaf College is that our endowment is too small to adequately to support our program and our top priority must be to increase the endowment in order to enable the college to meet the needs of its students and the aspirations of  the greater St. Olaf family.

To that end, I plan to begin early this fall to craft a process that will enable the extended St. Olaf family to come together around directions and priorities for the future and then to begin to seek support for them. The kinds of issues I would expect this process to address include the demographics that predict that one-third of our faculty will retire in the next decade; the perceived tension between recruiting a national student body and our commitment to enroll traditionally underserved students and the competing demands of need-based and merit-based financial aid; the alignment between our wide-ranging program and our mission and resources; the challenges we face as a church-related college in maintaining our identity and mission while recruiting students in an increasingly diverse and secular society. In short, how do we maintain and extend academic excellence in the context of our traditional values? Whom do we serve and how?

The retirement of our colleague Eida Berrio left us with an important position at the college to fill. I have been reflecting and consulting with others about this position, and I have a plan for moving forward. I would like to narrow the responsibilities of this position so that the incumbent can focus on the most important needs of the College. To that end, I am going to ask other offices in the college to take on the community-related pieces of Eida’s portfolio. That means that the President’s and Dean’s Offices will collaborate to manage the Opening Banquet, Years of Service Celebration, Retirement Program, End of Year Picnic, and so forth. Responsibility for Buntrock Commons properly will be assumed by the Student Life office. Staff development programming will be housed with Human Resources. That leaves two crucial areas for the newly defined position to focus upon: affirmative action and diversity programming. Despite our best efforts and the good will of many, we are not making satisfactory progress in diversifying the faculty and staff at the college. I plan to search for a new colleague with training in, a passion for, and demonstrated success at helping an institution like ours to be more successful in achieving its faculty and staff recruitment goals. This position will also be responsible for leading the diversity programming at St. Olaf, so that part of the position remains unchanged.  To emphasize my commitment to these areas of the college, the person we hire will sit on the president’s cabinet, and I am considering whether a different title might more clearly reflect that person’s responsibilities and the institutional stature of the position. I expect to launch the search soon with the goal of hiring our new colleague this semester.

Here are a couple of fun things to start the year. The Christmas Festival will be broadcast on public television this year, and we have made arrangements for the December 2nd performance to be simulcast in high definition to movie theaters in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.  The simulcast of performances to theatres around the country has been done successfully by the Metropolitan Opera. It’s a brilliant way to make a live performance of the Christmas Festival available to the many friends of the college who are unable to get tickets or unable to travel to campus in December.  It will certainly win us new friends as well as cement our relationships with old ones. We’re eager to see how it works out.

This fall also marks the debut of the “Hi Mom!” camera in the Crossroads of Buntrock.  It’s a webcam discreetly positioned by the fireplace. A student, or any of us for that matter, can arrange with a parent or friend to be in front of the webcam at a particular time. Mom, at home, comes to the St. Olaf website, clicks an icon, and gets a live, real time opportunity to say “hi.”  Cell phones at either end would enable conversation, as well. I am looking forward to  inaugurating it with a call to my own mother in LaCrosse soon.

I approach the new year filled with energy, optimism, and a sense of urgency. The energy is borne of optimism. All of the challenges we face at St. Olaf rise from opportunities. We need to have conversation about whom we serve and how, but that’s because we have so many students and families who seek a St. Olaf education. We have funding challenges with our capital projects, but that’s because we have been able to bring them to fruition sooner than we had hoped. We need to plan, and that will doubtless generate lively debate about identity, mission, and priorities, but we have the ability to choose our future and to implement the vision at which we arrive. My sense of urgency comes from the opportunities before us. There is no reason for us to accept less than the best in anything we do, so I am eager to get this new year going and to join you in advancing the mission of this place. Thank you for your good work this past year, and thank you, in advance, for another great year in the life of our College.

David R. Anderson ’74