Luther President Torgerson calls on college to exercise its ‘abilities’

August 28, 2009

College’s outlook strong despite faltering economy and demographic challenges

Luther College President Richard L. Torgerson delivered his 1lth annual state of the college address Aug. 27, telling an audience of about 500 faculty, staff, regents and community members that the college will have to exercise its many exceptional “abilities” -- including accountability, connect-ability and sustainability -- to weather a looming “ability” -- vulnerability to the world’s deepening economic crisis and the related transformation of American society.

President Torgerson spoke at the service of dedication that marked the start of Luther’s 2009-10 academic year.

There is much good news to report as the college begins its new year, President Torgerson noted, including the enrollment of 706 new students, an increase of about 40 over the previous year, and the return of 89 percent of last year’s freshman class for their sophomore year, one of the best retention rates in recent history for Luther. Of the new students, more than 100 are American students of color and international students, also one of the highest recent numbers in the college’s initiative to increase ethnic, national and cultural diversity. 

The enrollment growth portends a year of relative financial stability for Luther in a time of economic volatility, President Torgerson said, but he cautioned that the college must not become complacent because it is clearly vulnerable to the economic threats of the recession.

President Torgerson quoted an article in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education that stated, “It’s different this time. This is not the recession of the early 1990s, not the aftermath of the tech-bubble burst, not the downturn that overtook the American economy and psyche after September 11. The still-unfolding economic crisis is bigger, more fundamental, and for good or ill, transformational for all society. Yet the reaction in higher education has been, for the most part, strikingly timid.” 

Luther must not be timid in employing its abilities to cope with that social transformation and take advantage of potential opportunities, President Torgerson said.

“Any thriving organization should have many ‘abilities’ that enable it to have faith that it has a vibrant and hopeful future as it fulfills its mission,” he said. “An ‘able’ place will act, revise, reflect, learn, and act again as it responds to its challenges and opportunities.”

 He noted that Luther’s vulnerability is in large part the state of all higher education institutions as evidenced by colleges and universities across the country enacting hiring and salary freezes, reducing or eliminating retirement contributions, increasing health care deductibles, requiring non-paid furloughs, eliminating sabbaticals, adopting salary reduction programs, restricting travel, increasing teaching loads, and dropping sports.

 “Fortunately, these actions are not part of the Luther story and are not in our current planning,” he said, but Luther’s greatest vulnerability is related to its need to enroll 700 new students each and every year in a time of great financial challenges confronting students who want to attend college.

“If you graphed Luther’s eight-year enrollment history you would see a line as volatile as the current stock market,” President Torgerson said. “It is time to break that cycle.”

He said Luther must employ new enrollment strategies and initiatives to meet the challenges. “Being aware of how vulnerable the higher education enterprise is need not paralyze us,” he said. “Rather it should spur us to be smart, bold, and focused.

“I believe Luther is positioned well,” he said.  “We have a practice of prudent budgeting, a faculty and staff with an exceptional work ethic, and a campus-wide commitment to the Luther mission.  Being aware of our vulnerabilities and having the ability to respond appropriately is a measure of institutional strength.”

 “Perhaps the key question before us is, ‘What should we be doing today to position Luther to continue to thrive when the economic upturn happens?’”  

President Torgerson said a second critical “ability” is accountability. He said faculty and staff must ask themselves, “What are students in your classes going to be learning this semester?" and “How are students going to benefit from your programs and services this semester?” and most importantly “How will you know and measure it?

“Accountability is related to assessing student learning,” he said. Traditionally Luther has fared well in studies that measure student writing, critical thinking, and civic engagement. A randomly selected group of last year’s Luther seniors scored in the 98th percentile on the Collegiate Learning Assessment.  But the college must ensure that tradition through regular assessment at the department and program level.

 “In addition to assessing student learning and evaluating institutional performance, accountability also refers to the way Luther presents itself in the marketplace, a marketplace that grows more competitive every year,” President Torgerson said. “As our ability to communicate the value of the Luther experience grows each year we must enhance our ability to deliver on two important student desires: the desire to belong and the desire to do something significant in the world. 

“Our messages need to convey Luther’s distinctiveness with integrity and ingenuity,” he said. “Telling the Luther story has never been more critical, and it will keep us less vulnerable.”

President Torgerson said Luther’s third important “ability” is connect-ability. “Colleges that thrive will be colleges that have the ability to connect.”
He spoke about the role of connect-ability in building and sustaining the college’s internal community and his intention to strengthen that aspect of his administration.

“Connecting externally is another dimension of the connect-ability theme,” he said about the importance of connecting with peer institutions, alumni, parents, friends, advocates and stakeholders in new ways. 

“How can we extend the important Luther quality of community beyond the campus? Certainly technology, media, and social networking can help, but in the final analysis connect-ability is about building relationships. It is all about Luther’s human face.

“The most powerful thing we can do to attracts students, faculty and staff to this place, and to bring alumni and parents back to this place, is to let them know that they belong. It’s the personal interaction that we remember most after we leave a place. Connect-ability is about strengthening and sustaining community – internally and externally.

“The final ‘ability’ we must keep before us is sustainability,” President Torgerson said. “With each passing month the commitment to sustainability becomes more apparent and more integrated into the life of the college. 

“Each time I walk or drive onto the campus I marvel at the beauty of this place and the commitment given to caring for this place. The summer’s completion of the campus roadways and the new campus signage project have added to this beauty.” 

He listed several ongoing initiatives intended to fulfill the college’s sustainability commitments outlined in its strategic plan:

•    A $45,000 grant from the Rocky Mountain Institute to initiate a comprehensive and sophisticated approach to energy conservation and management.
•    A Sept. 8 meeting with the Winneshiek County Planning and Zoning Commission to request a permit to erect a wind turbine that could supply a third of the electrical energy consumed on campus each year.
•    An invitation from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program to establish a permanent conservation easement on 160 acres of college land to restore and maintain native biodiversity on campus lands.
•    Partnering with Sodexo to pursue many new food and nutrition initiatives, including expanding Luther’s commitment to take the lead in working with local growers to make greater use of locally grown foods.

“Vulnerability, accountability, connect-ability, and sustainability.  These ‘abilities’ will keep us mindful of our mission as we launch this 149th academic year at Luther College,” said President Torgerson. “I have every confidence we will thrive.”