August 28, 2008
Welcome, everyone! Our banquet tonight opens the 134th year in the life of our college. We begin the year buoyed by signs of our strength as an institution and impelled by the momentum of successes this past year. We are in the fortunate position of knowing who we are, of being free to envision our desired future, and of being capable of bringing it to reality.
Who we are. We are among the best liberal arts colleges in America, claiming our place among a select group of schools that stretches from Bowdoin in Maine to Pomona in California, from Carleton in Northfield to Davidson in North Carolina, from Oberlin in Ohio to Reed in Oregon. We share much in common with these other fine colleges. But I can count on the fingers of one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of colleges among that group whose President can utter the sentence I am about to speak: not only have we secured our place among the best liberal arts colleges in America, but we also have a living, meaningful connection with our faith tradition that influences who comes to study here, who comes to teach and work here, and — most importantly — gives shape and meaning to the campus conversation every day. We are pre-eminent in America as the college that offers both an extraordinary academic experience and extraordinary resources, borne out of our Lutheran heritage and faith, to assist students in their spiritual development and to give direction to their faith journey.
We begin this new year in a position of great institutional strength. Here are some signs of that strength. This weekend we will welcome the Class of 2012, 817 first-year students selected from an applicant pool of 3,956 students. We are a national liberal arts college. For the first time, more than half of our students come to us from outside Minnesota. We have attracted some of the most capable high school students in the country. Fifty-three members of the class are National Merit finalists, more than 80 ranked first or second in their high school class, and 58 percent of them ranked in the top 10 percent of their class. They are a diverse class. Thirteen percent of the class, or 98 students, are domestic multicultural students, and 25 members of the class are four-year-degree seeking international students, representing 11 foreign countries. Fifteen percent of the class are the first person in their family to attend college. The national reach, academic ability, and diverse character of the class has not occurred at the cost of some other attributes to which we pay attention. Twenty-eight percent of the class has parents, siblings, or other relatives who attended St. Olaf, and of the 78 percent of the class who chose to report a religious affiliation, 40 percent self-identify as Lutherans. In what should have been a challenging recruiting year because of a significant increase in our comprehensive fee, a national economic downturn, and competition for our students from some highly prestigious liberal arts colleges and some lower-priced but very good public universities, the yield on our applicant pool — that is, the number of students to whom we offered admission who actually enrolled — went up.
Another sign of strength. Last year Partners, the college’s annual fund, raised just short of $4 million, blowing past the goal of $3.75 million. During an economic downturn, and at a time when we were just completing an aggressive capital campaign during which we asked our friends and supporters to stretch in their giving, we should have struggled to meet our goal. But alumni, parents, corporations and foundations stepped forward to carry us beyond the goal. Evidently, the St. Olaf family endorses the direction of the college and the results we are achieving, and they are prepared to support the college going forward.
Another sign of strength. We completed the campaign to fund the new Science Complex, collapsing a two-phase project into one, shrinking the construction schedule by three to five years, saving millions of dollars and — most importantly — making that teaching and learning space available to our students now, not later. It was a bold decision to go forward and do that project at once, but our boldness was rewarded, and we should celebrate it with righteous pride at the dedication of the building during Homecoming and Family Weekend. Constructing the new science building in one phase demonstrated our ability to gather resources to meet the college’s needs, and that’s important; just as important, however, it demonstrated what I will call our institutional efficacy. Vast numbers of people from our partners at Boldt construction to our facilities staff to our business office to advancement to the building users had suddenly to step into high gear and do everything twice as fast while still doing their other jobs in order to complete this project on time. We can rise to a challenge: that’s a transferable quality in an institution, and it’s a great strength.
So the signs of strength include our ability in the face of serious challenges to recruit an academically gifted, national student body; our ability to gather in the resources needed to support our programs; and the institutional efficacy to exploit opportunity when it presents itself.
What does this strength enable us to do? It allows us to envision and then to accomplish our desired future. A good instance of that is the work that will be occurring in the coming years on the capital projects that are the consequence of the science complex. The renovation of Old Music has begun, and it will be completed about this time next year. The process of envisioning and then designing and renovating the old science building to house academic programs, student services, and administrative offices is well underway under the thoughtful leadership of Mary Cisar and Mark Schelske. The architects, in conversation with the design team and building users, are at the “blocking and stacking” stage — suggesting which programs will be on which floors and who will be next to whom. Soon, conversation will turn to how each user group’s space can be configured within those blocks to best suit the college’s needs toward a goal of having those decisions made within a month. Last week building users had an opportunity to see some proposed design elements of the building. It was an exciting moment. In the current thinking part of the roof makes way for an atrium that runs down the core of the building, bringing light deep into the space. There is a spectacular glass welcoming entrance — a lantern — on the west end of the building where prospective students and their families would approach from Highway 19, and another spectacular glass welcoming entrance where the main doors are now that front the campus green. The main street of the building, its east-west axis on the main floor, is a busy thoroughfare of students, prospective students, faculty, and staff. It’s where the President’s office is located, and I hope that it will be as busy as a bus depot. One floor down is an international gathering space taking energy from the many languages taught and spoken in the building. About a quarter of those of us who work at the college are likely to have offices in this building. It will be bright, vibrant and busy. And, if all goes well, it will be completed for the fall of 2010.
The departure of the languages from Old Main that summer will enable us to begin preparing that lovely and venerable building for the departments of Philosophy and Religion. We will also, by then, have agreed upon how best to use the space that will be vacated in what is now the administration building and in the lower level of Boe Chapel to meet the needs of the college. I don’t know now how that space will be used, but I anticipate that at minimum it will involve the needs of music and of our advancement and college relations area. I am particularly concerned that we deliberate with utmost care about how best to use of the lower floor of Boe Chapel. That decision will communicate a very clear message about our institutional character and priorities, and it needs to be a good one. I am appointing a committee called, not in jest, the Committee of the Wise and the Good to help us think that through.
When we have completed all this renovation, we will have spectacular new spaces in which to teach and learn and support the programs of the college, and to accomplish that we will not have lost the campus design principle that keeps us clustered around our campus core, the green bound by Boe Chapel, Buntrock Commons, Rolvaag Library, Holland Hall, the old Science Center, Larson and Mellby halls.
We have the ability to plan, rather than merely to accept or to react to, our future beyond these immediate facilities needs as well. It is time to have the conversation that enables us to confirm our understanding as a community about what the main things are at St. Olaf so that we have a basis for making decisions about our funding priorities in the next comprehensive campaign and our spending priorities now. I envision a conversation that begins this year, in which everyone participates, that results in agreement on a small number of our most important priorities, a short list of actions we will take in coming years to support them, and a way to measure our progress as we go along. Rather than a bulky plan with dozens of initiatives and goals and subcommittees and metrics, I envision one that is focused, concentrated, and, above all, nimble. The Board of Regents has spent some time engaged in a process like the one I imagine for the campus this year and the result was three priorities: to advance and sustain the academic excellence of the college; to nourish and sustain the sense of community at the college; and to gather in the resources to support the college’s programs. I think this short list does an excellent job of identifying the things that matter the most at St. Olaf College, and it strikes me as a good place to start in thinking about where to focus our attention in the next three to five years. It’s easy for planning to become a time-sink. Imagine a semester-long debate about the third paragraph of the mission statement. But a productive conversation about where we should focus our time and energy to enhance the academic program, sustain the sense of community, and provide the resources to support our programs could energize us in our daily work and engage supporters in the next campaign. So I will be promoting that conversation this year.
There have been some changes in the President’s Office over the summer that create an opportunity for me to introduce two new colleagues to you. I am planning a reception to welcome them once the semester begins, but I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce them now. Bruce King has joined the President’s Office as assistant to the president for institutional diversity. After earning a master’s degree in social work, Bruce served as in a variety of roles at Hope College, Lake Forest College, Carleton College, Wesleyan University, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the Minneapolis Public Schools, and most recently as chief diversity officer at the University of South Dakota. Bruce brings experience at a broad range of institutions, a deep understanding of liberal arts colleges, and wide-ranging expertise in helping institutions find the right strategies to achieve their aspirations for a diverse learning environment. His goal, like mine, is for the President’s Office to be a resource to the whole college as we work together to achieve a level of campus diversity, especially among our faculty and staff, that will enable us to fulfill our educational mission and that characterizes the best colleges in America. He brings to this important work an optimism and a sense of humor that I think you will find infectious. His office is next to mine in the president’s area, and he will be representing our office in his work on campus.
There are more matters that fall within the president’s orbit than the president can actually attend to, so I have sought a colleague with faculty experience, administrative moxy, discretion, and great communication skills who can speak for and represent me in doing the business of the office when I have to be doing something else or be elsewhere. I am happy to introduce you to that person: Paula Carlson, the other new face in the President’s Office. After graduating from St. Olaf Class of 1976 Paula earned a Ph.D. in English at Columbia. She’s a medievalist, and she taught as an English professor at Yale, St. Mary’s College in Indiana, and the University of Dubuque, where she was an associate dean and director of a Center of Values before we recruited her to St. Olaf. She is the parent of a St. Olaf alum and a current student, and she gets higher ed and she gets this place. She will be representing the college at some off-campus events, doing much of the writing that comes out of the office, and serving on committees on campus.
Many of you had the opportunity to get to know Karen Stitsworth during this past year. Karen has some extraordinary skills and experiences, particularly in the advancement area, and I have asked her to serve in the advancement area as the liaison between the president’s office and advancement, where she will be strategizing how to make the best use of the president’s time on the road and helping us to gear up for our next campaign.
Soon we will once again have 3,000 young people in our care. When you stop and reflect on the human potential embodied in our students, it restores your faith in the future. We have the opportunity, while they are in our care — in the way we house them and teach them to live in community, in the way we provide and prepare the food they eat, in the methods and spirit of inquiry that we model for them, in the personal commitments to which we lay claim, in our own lives as people of faith, and in the ways we model healthy life habits, indeed, in everything we do — we have the opportunity, as I say, to unleash that vast human potential for their own good and for the good of the world. It is a grave responsibility but one that this college and this community has exercised with great success over many, many years. In our 134th year, let us once again embrace that responsibility and support one another in the work that we do.
David R. Anderson ’74