Luther College enters era of change in a position of strength

President Richard Torgerson delivers State of the College address as he begins his 14th and final year

Luther College is strong at the start of this 2012-13 academic year Luther President Richard Torgerson said in his annual state of the college address Aug. 23, but in this era of change and challenge in higher education Luther will have to seek creative solutions to maintain its stability and preserve its character as a traditional liberal arts college of the church.

Beginning his 14th and final year as president of Luther, President Torgerson addressed about 500 members of the college and community assembled in the Center for Faith and Life. The college will formally begin classes Wednesday, Aug. 29.

"For 14 years I have wanted to stand before you and simply say, 'The state of the college is good: we have a strong entering class, the finances are strong and residence halls are full.  Let's go to work!' But I know you want more.

"While Luther enters this new year as a institution that by many measures is well positioned and strong, remarkably strong given the currents and stresses buffeting all of higher education, I want to share some of my hopes for the year ahead," he said.

"For higher education watchers this has been a most interesting summer," President Torgerson said. "Public college and university boards are becoming more activist while being chided for lack of transparency, for-profit colleges are under fire for poor performance and excessive student loan default rates, and in Congress, where partisan paralysis rules, the answer to the cost of college and rising student debt is to be found in e-learning and online courses.

As a counterpoint to the uncertainty and instability in the realm of higher education, President Torgerson listed some of the achievements of the Luther community of the previous year that reflect its vitality and ingenuity in responding to the challenges facing higher education and its durability and resilience in preserving its character as a residential liberal arts college.

"Each summer, as we review the past year, the range of events and activities, the number of awards and recognitions received, the breadth of progress and accomplishment across the campus and I feel so proud and amazed," he said. "Luther is home to some of the brightest, most active and most dedicated people on the planet, teaching in our classrooms, mentoring our students, caring for exceptional facilities, preparing excellent food and tending to our grounds.

Student achievements topped his "touchstones" list, including Fulbright Fellowships awarded to graduates Rachel Barclay, Bianca Lutchen and Lauren Griffen; a McElroy Fellowship awarded to Dallus Wulf; NCAA Post Graduate Scholarships awarded to Kelsey Kittelson, Emma Spoon and Scott Sundstrom, bringing the Luther total to 35; Kittleson's selection for the third time as the top academic performer at the national championship in her sport of softball, and her selection as the Iowa Conference nominee for the 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year award.  President Torgerson also spoke of the adventure of seniors Joe Thor and Jeff Emerson who spent the summer with Luther professor Dan Davis on an underwater archeology expedition in the Black Sea.

"The Class of 2012 also sent numerous students off to medical schools, to prestigious graduate schools, and sent hundreds of exceptionally well-qualified graduates into the workforce in a challenging and difficult labor market. When our students achieve, we all succeed, and by that measure the 2011-12 academic year was very good indeed."

Achievements of the Student Life staff included the first 12 graduates of the Launching Luther Leaders program which develops leadership skills through participation in community service projects. And this fall the Luther Diversity Center and the Diversity Council launched the Connect for Success program to make the transition to college successful for a cohort of students who will benefit from building early relationships, identifying mentors and creating community early in their transition.

The academic achievements of the college were affirmed by a $1.5 million science education award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

"Thanks to the leadership of biology faculty Eric Baack, Scott Carlson, Jodi Enos Berlage, Mark Eichinger, the grant writing expertise of Jeanie Lovell, and the collaboration of education department colleagues this four-year grant provides the opportunity for Luther College to shape science education in this region for years to come. This is indeed a coup for Luther College, placing Luther among a very select group of 43 institutions."

Luther's Development office led fund-raising efforts that secured total gift income of over $10 million in gifts, pledges and planned gifts. The Luther Annual Fund surpassed $1.6 million, and the Norse Athletic Association exceeded $180,000 for the first time.

"I am also delighted to report that we have exceeded the $50 million goal for the Sesquicentennial Fund, four months ahead of schedule," he said "Kudos to the entire Development team."

Summarizing the college's past year's work in student recruitment and admissions, President Torgerson said, "It was indeed a good year for Admissions."

Luther welcomes 688 new students this fall, he noted, meeting or exceeding enrollment goals for the second consecutive year.  Minnesota remains the leading state in number of new students, and Luther admissions staff increased the number of new students from Iowa, Wisconsin and particularly in Illinois.

"The ACT profile stays the same as last year and our international and diversity cohorts remain strong." President Torgerson said.

The Luther campus is another hallmark of last year's accomplishments, he said, as the college strengthened its reputation as one of the most beautiful and well operated in the nation.

"The completion of the Dieseth Hall renovation brings all residence hall facilities to a first-rate condition, the best in the region," President Torgerson said. "This completes a decade-long task of providing the finest of facilities for student living.

"The aquatic center construction began this week with a May 2013 projected completion date. Already this project has enlivened and energized the recruitment of swimmers and created a never-ending smile on the face of Coach Lance Huber."

College financial operations are also sound, he said, which enabled Luther to move forward with $1.9 million in deferred maintenance and facility renewal projects, adding $2 million to operating reserves and program endowments, and adding to retained earnings, which strengthens the college's balance sheet. 

Changes and Challenges

To build on these achievements and accomplishments, Luther must seek solutions to its most pressing challenges in the coming year, President Torgerson said. Those challenges include crafting enrollment strategies that continue to bring well-prepared students to Luther in a declining market of college-bound high school seniors and developing compelling communication and marketing strategies that can deliver the college's messages and information to constituents.

Luther cannot rely on strategies of the past to reach those goals, he said.

"We must do better with transfer students," he said. "More and more students are electing to spend some time at a community college to reduce the cost of college. We cannot overlook that market."

Transitioning new students to life at Luther and meeting the expectation of students so that they complete their college studies will also require new ideas. "This fall begins a new chapter in Student Life at Luther as Corey Landstrom (vice president and dean for student life) builds a team and brings his many years of experience at a variety of liberal arts institutions to Luther."

Funding college operations will also require new strategies. "Over the past 14-plus years the endowment has provided $54 million to support annual operations while gifts to the endowment have totaled $56 million. Our endowment advisor says that is indeed a rarity among his higher education clients. Today the endowment totals $118 million. Unfortunately, the endowment growth projections for the next 10 years are not encouraging."

President Torgerson said no area is experiencing more rapid change than what is happening in marketing and communication. The need for social media, print media and video production make resource allocation challenging but essential work.

"When one peruses college publications and websites it is easy to conclude we all sound alike, look alike and offer the same basic programs," he said. Luther must distinguish itself with compelling messages that are unique, distinctive and different. And those messages must be accurate and up-to-date.

"With about 197,000 pages on the Luther website it is no small task to keep those pages current, compelling and consistent," he said. And the college must wisely choose the media to deliver specific information using text, photos, videos and other images using media strategies that seem to change daily.

Marketing and communication personnel and operations are also changing, he said. Julie Shockey has been named Campus News Coordinator, Aaron Lurth has been named Visual Media Coordinator, and Rob Larson's title will change from Executive Director to Vice President for Communication and Marketing.

Hopes for the Year Ahead           

As he begins his final year, President Torgerson said, he has a "bucket list" of hopes.  All are based on the reality that Luther will continue to provide exceptional programs and learning experiences that students and families want to engage and invest in.

"We cannot expense-reduce our way to long term sustainability," he said. "Our future depends on having the very best programs we can create.

"Families and students today seek answers to two questions: 'What and how will I learn?' and 'Will I get a job that will it pay me enough to service the debt I incur?' If we can't answer those questions families will increasingly seek alternatives.

"The completion of the aquatic center will conclude a long list of capital and campus renewal projects that has resulted in one of the most up-to-date and attractive campuses in the region. With major capital projects behind us attention can be directed to building the endowment to support people and programs.

"During the spring semester we will launch the Center for Sustainable Communities. What remarkable progress and visibility Luther has received because we have made some bold decisions to enhance campus operating efficiencies and carbon footprint reduction.

"The recognition Luther attained by receiving Second Nature's 2012 Climate Leadership award is in no small part due to the vision, commitment and passion of so many on this campus. Sustainability at Luther has truly been a grassroots effort supported by students, faculty, staff, facilities, dining services and many others.

"Lastly, we must once again collectively throw our support to the Admissions team to enroll 688 new students in Fall 2013. Three successive years with that kind of yield does start a trend line that reflects favorably on this place."

Personal Reflections

"Let me close with some personal reflections," President Torgerson said. "Judy and I are eager to begin the first inning of a 10-inning (month) game in our 'final season.'

"These 14 years will have been the most remarkable of our lives," he said to faculty and staff. "You have been kind, generous, supportive and encouraging. Truly amazing! We can't find the words to express our gratitude for this experience and the opportunity to work in such a great community.

"We have lived these years convinced and convicted that Lutheran higher education and the Luther College experience is truly transformational.  We have been transformed by this journey just as we hope Luther students will be transformed by their journey.

"It is because of the work we have done together as a community -- not the work of two persons -- that Luther continues to be mission focused, strategically wiser, programmatically and financially stronger, with better equipment and facilities than any place in the region," he said. "Luther's visibility, reputation and acclaim extend well beyond our region. We have made great progress working together."

President Richard Torgerson gives the State of the College address at the Service of Dedication Aug. 23.