Sorenson honorary degree citation

Citation for Honorary Degree for Arne M. Sorenson  

Nancy K. Barry, Professor of English

May 19, 2013

If you were to look at the 1980 Pioneer yearbook senior photo of Arne Sorenson, you would see a young man who looks remarkably similar to the person standing in front of us today.  His hair was thicker and longer—albeit not as long as some of his classmates (it was 1980, remember).  What has not changed is the directness of his gaze, the openness of his face.  It is a look that says to the camera, or to any observer, “Whatever the world has to offer, I am ready to see it.”

It is not surprising that Arne would greet whoever he meets with such a stance, because he was born a citizen of the world, in Tokyo Japan, thirteen years after WWII had devastated so much of the nation and its cities.  He was born there because his parents Dorothy and “Bo” Sorenson Jr. were missionaries in Japan, where the family lived until 1968 when they moved to St. Paul so Bo could enroll in Luther Seminary.  And it’s not so surprising that from there, Arne would enroll in Luther College, or major in Religion.  Both of his grandfathers were graduates of Luther (members of the class of 1912 and 1920), as was his father, who continued his own love of global education by working for the Division of World Missions of the American Lutheran Church. 

Arne had many mentors at Luther, where he says his advisor Loyal Rue engaged him in “one of the greatest conversations of his life,” and he was also mentored by the late Harris Kaasa, and even E.D. Farwell would challenge him one-on-one in the President’s office. According to Dick Ylvisaker, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Arne was a “suburb student, bright and engaged, with a slight edginess” to him.  That might explain why Arne once released a pig emblazoned with a not-so-friendly epithet onto the center court at Warburg during a basketball game.  But it also explains why, in 1979, he travelled to Beirut despite the civil war in Lebanon, and spent the summer exploring the Middle East, learning that to wander within a different culture was the only way to know it and be known by it.

After a summer like that, law school at the University of Minnesota perhaps seemed tame, but it was enough to launch a career in Washington DC, where he earned a partnership in the firm of Latham & Watkins. During his work for the firm, specializing in mergers and acquisitions and crossing paths with the Marriot Corporation in a settlement case, he was recruited by J.W. “Bill” Marriott to join the corporation in 1996 as a senior vice-president; in two short years, he had become its Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice-president.

No doubt Bill Marriott saw in Arne Sorenson the same curious mind and razor-sharp intelligence that was honed at Luther, in both his majors of Religion and Management. One colleague at Marriott praised Sorenson as a “quick study—a man who mastered in a few short years a host of things that most people need decades to accomplish.”  It’s not surprising, with so many talents and gifts, that Sorenson was selected by Marriott to be the CEO of the company in 2012—the first in its history to come from outside the Marriott family proper. 

Arne credits the liberal arts preparation he received at Luther as part of what enabled him to achieve such success in the corporate world.  For him, it’s about being curious—from the point of view of both the traveller and the host.  In some respects, an undergraduate major in Religion is the perfect apprenticeship for a life of small and large journeys, accompanied by a corporate ingenuity that seeks to know why and how and when human beings want to travel in the first place, let alone what might happen to them once they arrive.

In 2007, he launched Marriott’s rainforest preservation partnership with the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation in Brazil as one of many initiatives at Marriott to make its hotels more hospitable to the environment, and to create among its employees and clients a sense of joint responsibility to become world-wide travellers with a lighter environmental footprint.  In the headwaters of the Yangtze River in China, Marriot encourages sustainable honey production by creating its own market within the hotels, to encourage the local citizens to make a living without deforestation of one of its natural resources. This is a challenging initiative—to create among those whose financial leverage allows them access to any place on the planet a sense of shared responsibility to ensure that very country, or city, or town they are so desperate to visit will sustain a future for the next generation. 

In addition to these efforts at Marriott, Arne and his wife Ruth, who he met here in Decorah, have partnered in numerous ways to live a life that does indeed “give back” to the world. They funded an ELCA and Lutheran World Relief initiative that fights malaria, particularly in Africa.  Closer to home, Arne and Ruth have been tremendous supporters of Luther College and its mission, with financial legacies to the College, but also, more importantly, of time—that resource none of us has enough of.  When Rick Torgerson formed his very first strategic planning committee in 2000, Arne Sorenson was part of it; in 2007 he joined our Board of Regents, and furthered his commitment to Luther by taking part in the Sesquicentennial strategic planning committee. In 2010, he even sent a personal letter to a graduating high school senior in Decorah who had been accepted at Luther, encouraging the student to attend his alma mater, a place, as Arne wrote: “where I could explore numerous academic disciplines with faculty that could know and care about me; where I could sing in a choir without being a music major; where I could explore how my developing faith fit in the world around me.”

It was true in 1980, and it remains true today.  For the graduates of the class of 2013, what better signal could we send of what we at Luther imagine as your best future than to award this honorary degree to someone who not so many years ago was sitting exactly where you are now—wanting to make sense in the wider world of what you have learned; wanting to believe what you know can make a difference in both small and large ways.  Sorenson’s success is a signal to all of us that the liberal arts cultivates a mind for exploring any thing and any place in the world with curiosity, with passion, and with deep sensitivity to the lives of others.  Mr. President, on behalf of the faculty of Luther College, I present to you ARNE SORENSON as a candidate for the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.