Sammenkomst 2010

onDemand Watch Sammenkomst

May 29, 2010

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Sammenkomst, a time during Celebration weekend that we set aside as a gathering of all the reunion classes and the graduating class to hear an update on the college and to present our gifts in support of St. Olaf. We have much to do this morning, and I have a good story to tell, so let us begin.

St. Olaf remains absolutely committed to its identity as a liberal arts college in the Lutheran tradition. As a liberal arts college we seek to provide students with a base of knowledge, with skills and competencies, and with habits of mind and heart that will enable them to flourish, personally and professionally, throughout their long and varied lives. We don’t know what the world will look like when today’s graduates are in their forties and fifties; thus, it would be a mistake to say to them, “Here’s the job you’re going to have and here’s how to do it.” So we don’t.

Instead, through the general education requirements we teach students how to approach the various branches of human knowledge. In their classes we present the methodologies of the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences, the arts. We show what questions each of those disciplines can productively ask and what modes of inquiry lead to answers so that when, in future, our graduates are confronted with a problem they have tools with which to approach it. Through the major, students conduct sustained inquiry into one specific subject as a complement to the broad survey of knowledge in their general education courses. We ask students to take courses with special emphasis on writing clear, correct English prose, on oral communication, on quantitative reasoning, and on the experience of other people and cultures. We aim to send graduates into the world with a solid grounding in the disciplines, who can communicate well, who can work productively in groups, and who are equipped with tools that will enable them to continue to learn, to adapt, to lead, and to thrive.

What makes St. Olaf distinctive among the leading liberal arts colleges in America is that we do all this within the context of our historic faith tradition, committed to the Lutheran project of assisting students in discerning their gifts and talents and then helping them to discover how best to use those gifts and talents for the good of the world. I am often asked what the College is doing to nourish and enhance its identity as a Lutheran college, and there are many answers to that question. We offer daily chapel for students, faculty, and staff. We celebrate Holy Communion in Boe Chapel every Sunday that school is in session, and quite frankly the liturgy, the preaching, and the music are of the highest quality. (Incidentally, both daily chapel and Sunday worship, along with many other College events, are streamed live from our home page and archived for later viewing. If, as an alum looking back, you regret that your chapel attendance was not what it should have been, you now have one of the few opportunities life affords to go back and correct that error. I invite you to join us for those services.)

In addition to worship services led by our pastoral staff and the Student Congregation, we still require of every student a course in reading the Bible, a course in Christian theology, and an ethics course. We continue to be a leading exponent in the nation of sacred music, in public performance and in worship settings.

Important as each of these activities is, the key to our continuing Lutheran identity is the element of the St. Olaf experience that is hardest to quantify: the conversation. The College attracts students, faculty, and staff who want to be part of a conversation about ultimate questions, about personal commitments, and about how to translate those commitments into our lives. Our students are sorting these questions out for themselves during their time on the Hill, and we bring a vast array of intellectual and personal resources to help them discern their own vocations. We are rock solid on this.

Is there demand for such an education at such a college? Absolutely. From an applicant pool of 4,024 students this year (our second largest applicant pool ever), we have enrolled the largest entering class of first year students ever for next fall — 862 of them. Now, I’m not going to lie to you: it was not our intention to enroll this large a class. We had been aiming for a class more in the 775 range. When you decide how many students to offer admission to, you have to make an assumption about how many of those students will accept the offer and enroll. That’s called the yield. Our yield went up several percentage points this year, an increase that’s unheard of in these economic times. Clearly, the experience we offer is in demand by students and their families, and the value proposition we make — that this is a sound investment worth making in their student’s future — is compelling.

So, we will be full next fall — comfortably full. That’s good news. Here’s some more good news. This class is, on paper, the most academically talented class ever to enroll at the College — except, of course for yours. The average SAT score tops 1300, and the average ACT score is 29. For the third year in a row the majority of the entering class is not from Minnesota. We will always have many students from Minnesota and the surrounding states, but one of the ways you can provide students with an enriched learning environment is to draw your students from all over the country. We are now firmly a national college, which means that the majority of our students come to us from other states. After Minnesota, the state to send us the most students for next fall is Illinois. We also have significant representation from Wisconsin, Iowa, California, Colorado, and Washington state. We will have 27 full-time, four-year-degree-seeking international students in next year’s entering class a 70 percent increase from just two years ago. The America our graduates will be working and living in when they are my age will be much more diverse by race and ethnicity than it was for any reunion class here today, so it is essential that their St. Olaf experience include a learning environment enriched by the presence of domestic multicultural students. Our entering class for next fall is the most diverse in our history, with 128 multicultural students enrolled. And, perhaps most remarkable of all, the class is evenly divided between men and women. An imbalance between men and women enrolled has been troubling residential liberal arts colleges for some years now, and I am very pleased at our success in recruiting such an accomplished, and balanced first-year class for next fall.

All these changes! Would you recognize the place if you returned to campus on the first day of class next Fall? Of course you would. Fully one-third of the class was preceded at St. Olaf by another family member — a grandparent, parent, brother, or sister, 15 percent are students who are from the first generation in their family to attend college, and 41 percent of those who identified a religious affiliation self-identified as Lutheran. Most importantly, this is class of talented, accomplished young men and women who don’t want to attend any college: they want to attend this college, to learn in community with others here on Manitou Heights. You would recognize the vibe the minute you set foot on campus.

Not every liberal arts college met its enrollment goals this year—much less exceeded them by as much as we did. But just because you hit the number doesn’t mean you can stay in business for another year. They key indicator is whether the amount left of tuition and fees paid by students and their families, after you subtract the cost of financial aid, is sufficient to run the College. We call that net revenue. Good news: the average net revenue per student in next fall’s entering class actually increased over that same number last year. Not only did that number increase on average for all students, it increased for international students and for multicultural students as well. This is a very encouraging sign. In a difficult economy, ambitiously recruiting an accomplished, diverse, national class of students, all of whom had other options, St. Olaf not only enrolled the right number of students but also generated the revenue necessary to provide the experience they seek. This upward trend in net revenue represents the path to long-term financial sustainability for the College.

But the truth is that we will never be able to charge students and their families an amount for tuition and fees that will equal the full cost of providing the experience we offer. Right now tuition and fees represent about 70 percent of the revenue needed to fund our annual budget. The next most important revenue source is earnings from our endowment, which next year will fund approximately 11 percent of the budget. Everyone knows that one result of the recession was a decline in the market value of most investments, and ours were no exception. From a high of approximately $330 million before the recession to a low of $240 at its depth, we have recovered to a current value of approximately $273 million. What should we say about the endowment? It is certainly higher than that of many other colleges, and we should be grateful for that. But it is lower than the endowment, on a per student basis, of almost every other leading liberal arts college in America, so growing that endowment is an important goal. I would encourage you to think of the endowment this way: it represents the alternative to loading more and more of the cost of college on the shoulders of students and their families. Certainly, they should pay a reasonable amount for the investment they are making in their St. Olaf education, but we are rapidly approaching in America a place where people will be unable, or unwilling, or both, to pay increasingly higher college costs. Offsetting those costs with other revenue streams, such as endowment earnings, will enable us to continue to provide an extraordinary experience without pricing ourselves out of the market.

Partners in Annual Giving, our annual fund, plans to raise $3.9 million this year. In a moment, we will hear from the reunion classes about their class gifts, and what we hear will go a long ways toward telling us whether we will meet that goal. We have reconceived and restructured the annual fund this year under Tracy Fossum’s leadership. Essentially, we have handed it to our alumni, to whom it belongs. There is a Partners Board, consisting of Oles from across the years, that will set the goals and devise and implement the strategies to meet those goals with the encouragement and assistance of annual fund staff. This is an exciting and important move for Partners, and I look forward to seeing the results in the next few years. Already, we are ahead of last year’s pace both in dollars given and in the percent of Oles giving to Partners, and that’s a good thing.

We will end this year with net operating revenue. That means that after we pay all of our bills we will have funds left over for capital projects and to cover contingencies. There is one major construction project underway at the College now: the renovation of the old science building just across the campus green from where we are now. At its last meeting, the Board of Regents named this building Tomson Hall in honors of the retiring Board Chair O. Jay Tomson ’58 and his wife Pat ’59, for their exemplary service to the College over the years and for the generous gift that enabled us to move forward with this project. I’m very excited about it, for this project gives us a once in a generation opportunity to place people and functions at the College where they ought to be rather than where we have space for them. The admissions office will move to the west end of the building by Mellby Hall. This central location, surrounded by classrooms, students, and professors — easy to find and easy to park near — will enhance their already extraordinary performance. On the same floor but at the east end of the building, by Holland Hall, we will create a new home for the Center for Experiential Learning — the enterprise at St. Olaf that helps students discern their talents, find internships, apply for post-graduate fellowships, and — most importantly — find a job after graduation. This function is absolutely critical to the value proposition we make at St. Olaf—that your student will graduate not only with a wonderful liberal arts education but also with a concrete and realistic plan for supporting himself or herself — and we will show how important that function is to the College by locating it at the very heart of campus. We anticipate number of other moves as a result of this project that will create new and better quarters in Old Main for the Religion Department, more practice rooms for our student musicians, a student services area where all of the activities that support our students come together in one place, new quarters for our language departments, and more classrooms and gathering spaces for students. The renovation is well underway now, and it will be completed by January, 2011. It is $20 million project that will be funded with a combination of gifts and revenue that we generate from operations at the college. We are still seeking approximately $4 million for the gift portion of the project.

What about the future? We are engaged in strategic planning now towards the goal of identifying those areas where we should concentrate our attention and resources. Everyone wants the College to move forward — indeed, our motto — Fram! Fram! — exhorts us to. But it’s important that we do so thoughtfully, purposefully, and strategically. The Board of Regents is leading this process. After consulting with students, faculty and staff, the Alumni Board, and Class Fund Agents, and after conducting an environmental scan that consisted of talking to business, political, and other leaders across the country to solicit their views on what the coming years will hold, the Board is focusing in on a study of three things: what steps should we take to nourish and propel the academic excellence of the college? What steps should we take to nourish and advance all those other elements of the St. Olaf experience that create such value for students and that come under the broad heading of community? And how can we best create and then communicate to external audiences the St. Olaf value proposition? During the summer and fall there will be long conversations about these subjects, and I anticipate as a result a set of concrete goals and strategies that will guide us in the next few years.

Let there be no mistake: St. Olaf is flourishing. We know who we are and what we do well. We are nationally recognized as a leading liberal arts college. We have a lovely campus in an attractive location. There is strong demand for the experience we offer. We are on a sound financial footing. We have dedicated faculty and staff who believe in the mission. And as anyone will tell you, we have wonderful students. We can look to the future with energy and optimism. The support of Oles everywhere sustains and encourages these efforts. Gifts, freely given in thanksgiving to our alma mater, made St. Olaf possible for many of us. Now is our time, our chance to make St. Olaf possible for others and to celebrate our own affection for the College. Thank you for your kind attention.

David R. Anderson ‘74