September 21, 2013
The beginning of a new academic year is an appropriate time to attend to where we are headed as an institution, the consequences of choosing that direction, whether the destination we have chosen is the right one, and what the likelihood is that we will reach it.
Where are we headed as an institution? At a tumultuous time in higher education, marked by public outcry at the cost of a college education — 57% of Americans in a recent poll said that college costs too much; deep concern at the level of indebtedness of college graduates and the impact of their debt load on their ability to transition to independent adulthood; high rates of unemployment or underemployment of recent college graduates; widespread skepticism that we in the academy appreciate the depth of these concerns or have any sense of urgency about addressing them; a President of the United States who has proposed sweeping initiatives that essentially seek to impose price controls on higher education and give the federal government vast new power over private institutions like ours; and revolutionary challenges enabled by technology to the way we have imagined teaching and learning happening — at such a time we have boldly chosen not to change in fundamental ways.
Now, I want to begin immediately to qualify that statement. I didn’t say that we refuse to change. As a matter of fact, I would argue that St. Olaf has, over the years, shown a highly developed capacity for innovation, change, and adaptation — think of the 4-1-4 academic calendar, the comprehensive international study program, the conversation programs, the Paracollege, just to name a few.
We are adapting, changing, and innovating now. The schedule of college programs and events that we stream via the Internet takes the concept of engagement with our constituencies to a whole new level. It is the envy of many other colleges and universities. This fall we are going to stream nine of the plenary lectures of the Great Conversation, and plenary lectures from the American conversation are next. Under the auspices of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, Professor Tina Garrett and a colleague from Macalester taught a calculus course online this summer. Other faculty at the College are using other digital technologies to explore new ways of teaching, so we are gaining some experience with, and ability to evaluate, the appropriateness of those modes of teaching and learning for St. Olaf. We are nationally recognized for our comprehensive program of assessment of student learning, which enables us to answer with actual data the question, “How do you know your students are learning what you think you’re teaching them?” We are also nationally recognized for the way in which we have ramped up our ability to help students discern their vocation and translate that discovery into a career that leads to financial independence, professional accomplishment, and personal fulfillment.
So change — let’s even be so bold as to call it “continuous improvement” — is happening at St. Olaf College. Nevertheless, we have made a conscious decision not to change the key aspects of our identity. We remain a residential liberal arts college in the Lutheran tradition. That means we are going to continue to offer at a very high level a liberal curriculum designed to teach through the disciplines of liberal learning such essential and transferable skills as critical thinking, the ability to evaluate and synthesize information from a variety of sources, a tolerance for ambiguity, communication skills, and many more. That means we are going to continue to bring students together as a residential community of learners and seek deliberately to assist them in developing the skills and capacities required of members of healthy families, productive workers, useful citizens. That means we are going to continue to promote the academic study of religion, to provide opportunities for daily worship and to encourage and support students in developing a clear understanding of their own faith commitments. That’s where we’re headed.
What are the consequences of that choice? For one thing, we are going to continue to be at the high end of the price continuum in higher education. In an article in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, the higher education economist Richard Vedder of Ohio University praised online institutions like the University of Phoenix for what he called their “laser-like” devotion to instruction in contrast to colleges and universities where he sees overpaid faculty, bloated administration, and unnecessary and wasteful amenities. We can take issue with all of those charges — I won’t do that now, but I want you to know that I am ready, willing, and able to do so — but he’s right in one way: our model of student development requires significant expenditures on residence halls, and athletic fields, and food services, and a chapel, and staff for all of them. It’s a choice we’ve made.
Because we’ve made that choice, we will have to be proactive about providing access to the experience we offer. Our comprehensive fee this year is $49,960 dollars. Next year it will be more than $50,000. We know that there aren’t 3,000 families in America with college-age students who are both willing and able to pay that amount per year at St. Olaf. Most American families haven’t saved that amount times four years, they can’t cash flow it from their family budget, and they can’t extract that much equity from their homes. At present, there is no other source, other than loans, to close the gap between families’ ability to pay and our price, though state and federal student aid dollars help. Moreover, we believe that a student body that comes from all points on the socio-economic scale creates the best learning environment for all students. So we have chosen to engage in tuition discounting. That means we will constantly be negotiating the trade offs between our need for revenue to provide our program at the level to which we aspire, and which our students both want and deserve, and the need to discount our price, and thereby sacrifice revenue, so that the students whom we choose, and who choose us, are able to attend St. Olaf.
Because we have chosen to be a residential college, we have chosen a path that will require us to continue to make significant investments in our buildings and our infrastructure. We will therefore constantly be negotiating another set of trade offs between the delivery today of the academic and co-curricular offerings of the College and long-term investments in the campus where they occur.
Because have chosen to remain who we are, we have also chosen to recruit and retain faculty and staff who gain satisfaction and derive energy from investing their time and effort not only in their area of expertise but also in the welfare of the whole student and engagement with each other and with the welfare of the institution as a whole and who support our identity as a college in the Lutheran tradition. So the consequence of that choice is careful attention in recruiting and hiring to faculty and staff who are not only good at what they do but who also align with our mission.
Because we have chosen to be not merely another liberal arts college but distinctively a very good residential college in the Lutheran tradition, our environment will continue to be one in which study, worship, and conversation about faith are going to be part of the fabric of daily life. We have the word “saint” in our name! We come at religious dialog from a distinct perspective, the Lutheran one. As a result we are going to have ongoing tension between our commitment to the particular faith tradition in which the College was founded and to which we belong and our desire, and need, to welcome and invite dialog with the differing faith traditions of our students and staff and faculty.
We have chosen to be distinctive in another way, and that is to embrace rather than to minimize our identity as a college founded by Norwegian immigrants and still connected with that country and its people. Norwegian students study here, our students study in Norway, our faculty and staff travel and research there, our musical ensembles perform there, the Royal Family visits campus, we have the only free-standing department of Norwegian in North America, and there is in general a frequent exchange between Norway and St. Olaf. As a practical matter, however, the days are over when our students will have mostly descended from Norwegians, and so we are going to be continually negotiating between the practices and initiatives that continue to connect us to modern Norway and our Norwegian heritage on the one hand and on the other the need and desire to be welcoming and interesting to students who bring with them other backgrounds, other traditions, and other forms of nostalgia.
There are lots of other consequences of the choices we have made, and this would be a very long talk if I listed all of them, so I won’t. But there is one more set of consequences I particularly want to highlight. Because we have chosen to double down on our core strengths — liberal learning in a residential context infused with careful attention to a faith tradition and to matters of belief — it will appear to some that we are not changing, that we are oblivious to the conversation in this country about higher education, that we are in denial about the realities of our environment. The best corrective to that view is a specific set of institutional behaviors that we have already embraced and which we must continue to advance. The first is transparency — everything from reporting publicly the findings of our assessment of student learning to our students’ post-graduation plans to how we allocate our budget to support our mission. The second is accountability — holding ourselves responsible for the results we achieve, both successes and failures, and when we don’t do well at something committing to improve. The third is measuring our performance. You can’t have accountability if you don’t know what your results are over time in comparison to the results achieved by others. The fourth is a commitment to innovation and improvement. If an institution acts with transparency and accountability, having a clear-eyed understanding of its performance because it measured its results, and if it seeks continuously to improve where it can, then it can both choose not to change the key aspects of its identity and be forward-looking, adaptive, and relevant.
Have we chosen the right path, given the trade offs I have just been speaking about? I am sure that we have. Change is going to continue to be a constant in the world our students will graduate into, and the pace of that change is likely only to increase. We serve our students best by equipping them with a base of knowledge, with transferable skills and competencies, and with habits of mind and heart that will enable them to flourish over the course of their lives both professionally and personally. The eighteen-year olds who come to us as first-years, despite all of their accomplishments and promise, are not yet fully formed adult humans. Completing our rigorous curriculum, living in community with others like and unlike them, and thoughtfully interrogating their own value system under the guidance of teachers and mentors here helps prepare them to take their place after graduation in the workplace, in communities, and in families. That is a value proposition I will gladly defend any day, anywhere.
We have chosen our path. How likely are we, during the time that the welfare of St. Olaf College is in our hands, by following that path to honor the College’s past, to advance the institution now, and to enable it to flourish in an uncertain future? That depends upon us. I frankly don’t know what the landscape of higher education will look like twenty years from now, or even ten years. I suspect it will look different. There will be more types of institutions offering higher learning for different purposes in different ways, over different time frames, and at different costs. I don’t know that there will be fewer colleges and universities in the country, but I think the mix of types will change. There will be fewer institutions like ours. Overall, I think that this proliferation of options for students, if it occurs, will be a good thing for them and for the country. We need an educated workforce and we need citizens equipped to grapple with the complex issues our nation and the world will face in the years ahead.
The challenge for us is to be thoughtful enough to position St. Olaf in this changing landscape so that we focus our time and energy on what we do best while remaining relevant given the needs and resources of students and their families. The evidence of this past year, and indeed of the past seven years, is that we are correctly positioned now. We were able to enroll a Class of 2017 that met all of our goals both for profile and revenue. We were able to generate net income from the operations of the College that both supports our capital program and enables a healthy investment in the endowment. The endowment is on an upward trend, and if the markets continue to do well and our investment strategies continue to work for us we could cross the $400 million mark in twelve to eighteen months. We continue to be able to raise on average $25 million dollars a year in cash, pledges, and will commitments from those who value our mission and the way we are able to carry it out. The Board of Regents has voted to raise significant new funds in support of the initiatives in the strategic plan, and we will be doing that in the next few years. We are, as I observed earlier, adapting, changing, and innovating in ways that seem appropriate to our circumstances now. These are all good signs.
But eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. We need to continue to be watchful, to be wary, to be creative, to be far-sighted, and to be ready to respond appropriately for St. Olaf to changes in our environment when they occur.