2017 Fall State of the College

Service of Dedication
State of the College Address Luther College
24 August 2017

Paula J. Carlson, President

Warm and heartfelt greetings at the start of the 157th academic year at Luther College. Today, we gather to dedicate ourselves anew to our callings as faculty and staff at Luther. I am pleased and happy to greet you this afternoon at this annual Service of Dedication.

Over the summer, some powerful words about Luther’s legacy and identity were shared with me as faculty and staff thought together about Luther’s future. These words speak so clearly to who we are and to our callings as faculty and staff at Luther. I’ll begin with them today:

Luther College was founded by immigrants who had a vision for a more just society, and named for a man compelled by conscience. For both, education was the key. This is more than a legacy for us; it’s who we are.

In this 157th academic year at Luther College, the vision our founders so courageously embraced remains ours: Since 1861, Luther College has prepared students for lives that make our world a better place—lives that address disease, poverty, and injustice; lives that push the frontiers of science, industry, and technology; lives that educate and nurture our children; lives that build thriving businesses; lives that protect the earth; lives that strengthen our faith; lives that create art and music that elevate our spirit and nourish our humanity.

Luther College was founded by immigrants who had a vision for a more just society, and named for a man compelled by conscience. For both, education was the key. This is more than a legacy for us; it’s who we are.

These words are a great gift to us now as we begin a new academic year at Luther. I’m grateful to Pastor Mike Blair, Professor Eric Baack, and Dean Terry Sparkes for their contributions to crafting this powerful statement. These words are a challenge and a call to us now as we gather once again in our beautiful Oneota valley to learn in community, to nurture the potential of every student who comes to us, helping each one grow in knowledge and wisdom, helping each one develop the skills and perspective to address complex challenges and to live a life of meaning and purpose.

These words call us now to be true to our core values and principles as a college. In our life of faith and learning together at Luther, we are committed to care for each person and for the community; to seek truth, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom; to act with integrity; to embrace diversity; to foster a culture of inclusion; and to respect the dignity of each person. These core values and commitments define us and our college.

As we begin this new academic year, the news is filled with reports about the recent events at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Like millions of Americans and people around the world, I was saddened, shocked, and deeply disturbed by these events. They challenge the core values and commitments that define us at Luther.

As we begin our new year together, I unequivocally reject and abhor the racist, white supremacist, neo-­Nazi, KKK, and anti-­Semitic creeds evident in chants, posters, and statements at Charlottesville. They are antithetical to our core Luther values.

They have no place on our campus.

As we begin a new academic year in a turbulent time, let us re-­dedicate ourselves and our community to our founders’ vision of a more just society and to our namesake, Martin Luther’s commitment to be true to conscience, to live by our core values and beliefs.

We, the faculty and staff at Luther, are called to prepare leaders to serve the challenging and changing needs of our communities, our society, and our world. In this time of turmoil and change, our mission gives us confidence and hope in our calling. It inspires us to embrace boldly our vocations to teach and learn in accordance with our values of community, human dignity, justice, freedom, and service. Our vision and our commitment to our core values are much more than our legacy; they are who we are now.

Today, this Service of Dedication at the beginning of the academic year offers us time together to pause and to anticipate, to look back and to look ahead as we prepare to welcome our returning students and, this year, our 542 new students to campus. On this threshold of the new year, it is good to take this time to note the accomplishments of the year just past and to look ahead to the challenges and opportunities this year will bring.

This past year and in the year to come, the Luther College Priorities 2016-­2018 are our “north star.” The Priorities set forth our common goals and ambitions for 2016-­2018. As you recall, the fourth and final priority for this time is to create a new comprehensive strategic plan. Throughout this past year, hundreds of current students, faculty, staff, administrators, regents, alumni, parents, and friends of the college have engaged in conversations, open forums, interviews, and surveys to help create our new plan. I’m deeply grateful to all of you who joined in this important work together.

In this coming academic year, we’ll complete and launch our new strategic plan. Earlier this week, the first draft of the plan was shared with faculty and staff.

Driving our priorities in the new plan is a renewal of our commitment to excellence and to community. We aim to build on Luther’s strengths with renewed energy and innovation. The new plan will

  • challenge us to enrich and deepen our culture of creativity and innovation in both academic and co-­curricular programs;
  • it will challenge us to bridge the divide between campus and the world, ensuring that our curriculum and programs are infused with real-­world experience and global perspective;
  • it will call us to be a community of inspired, engaged, and resilient individuals empowered to serve and thrive in an ever-­changing world;
  • it will call us to champion an authentic culture of inclusion, fully respecting the human dignity of all people;
  • it will extend our commitment to environmental sustainability with an expanded vision of stewardship of all our resources;
  • and it will call us to re-­focus on what it takes to be a thriving campus community—on the hard work of listening and caring and building the future together.

As we have worked together on the new strategic plan over the past year, we have been ever-­mindful of the challenges we face in the current environment for small, private liberal arts colleges. Those challenges are significant, and they have meant lower enrollment not only for Luther over the past five years, but for many of our peer institutions in the Midwest. Our new plan must address these four challenges:

  • First, the number of 18 year-­olds has declined and will remain low for a number of years.
  • Second, affordability continues to be a serious concern for many families, who have seen their household incomes stagnate and who were deeply affected by the Great Recession.
  • Third, competition with public colleges and universities has intensified for private liberal arts colleges, especially over the past three years.
  • Finally, the value of a liberal arts education is being questioned and scrutinized in new ways. Prospective students and their families no longer come to us certain of the enduring value of residential liberal arts education.

In our strategic planning process, we aspire to think creatively and innovatively to meet and overcome these challenges. We aim to renew and revision our programs to serve the needs of students today. And we aim to help students and their families see the great and life-­changing value in a Luther education. Our new plan is growing from clear-­eyed realism about the challenges in our environment but also from deep confidence in the transformative education we offer to students.

At the faculty meeting tomorrow and in staff meetings early next month, we’ll begin discussion and review of the first draft of the new plan. I look forward to engaged discussion with all of you as we together shape the completed plan in the coming weeks.

As we anticipate - with excitement - the completion and launch of the new strategic plan, I want also to celebrate with you what we’ve accomplished over the past year with our Luther College 2016-­2018 Priorities plan.

Priority I

Our focus in Priority I is Luther’s rich tradition of excellence and innovation in both our academic and our co-­curricular programs. For this Priority, we committed to enhance and expand students’ integrated learning experience with particular attention to the sophomore and junior years.

I want to highlight today four particular accomplishments we’ve had in our work on this Priority:

  • New, interdisciplinary majors
  • Our Career Center’s new programming and opportunities
  • Our sophomore year initiative
  • Renovations to our athletics facilities

Our new, interdisciplinary majors in data science and neuroscience are attracting significant interest among both current and prospective students. Enrollments in courses for these majors are robust for the coming fall semester. Thank you to the faculty who created these new majors, and thank you to faculty who are exploring other potential areas for new, interdisciplinary areas of study. I look forward to the proposals you bring forward this year.

The second accomplishment I want to highlight today for this Priority is the on-­going creative, innovative work our Career Center staff is doing to bring new opportunities to our students as they discern their vocations and careers. I encourage you to check the Center’s webpage frequently to learn about the new programming and opportunities the Center now offers. And please encourage students to engage with our Career Center staff “early and often.”

In Priority I, we committed to focus particularly on the middle years for students at Luther. This past year, faculty and staff worked together to create an innovative set of programs and opportunities for sophomores. Many thanks to the many of you who participated. Over the past two years, more than 50 faculty and staff joined planning groups and helped to launch these new programs for sophomores.

Your response to the call to participate was, frankly, overwhelming. When Professor Ruth Kath asked faculty and staff to join planning teams this year, she and her colleagues were hoping for 20 people to say “yes.” When 40 faculty and staff said “yes,” they wanted to help plan new sophomore programs, Ruth and her colleagues re-­envisioned their teams to include all 40 faculty and staff. Your robust response to Ruth’s request is testimony to the deep commitment and care of Luther faculty and staff for our students. That means a lot. That’s the Luther difference. Thank you.

The sophomore year programs and opportunities that the teams planned are exciting. The interwoven programs and opportunities engage with sophomores as they make crucial decisions about their academic majors, potential internships, study abroad experiences, co-­curricular activities, and career choice. In the programming, sophomores will engage with mentors and peers as they identify interests and passions. They will assess their strengths and skills with new resources in the Career Center. They may participate in reflection and planning opportunities in their co-curricular programs. They may participate in intentional work-­study experiences on campus.

In select J-­term courses, faculty will integrate applied learning experiences and reflections on how these experiences help students discern their vocations and careers. Some academic advisors are exploring topics and approaches for advising that are tailored to specific questions and challenges sophomores have. We will pilot a new e-­portfolio platform that sophomores may use to gather examples of their papers and projects from the coursework, to reflect on their growth and their goals for their vocations, and to build their resumes.

Our new sophomore year initiative offers integrative, applied learning that specifically addresses questions and challenges that mark students’ second year at Luther. Again – many thanks to the faculty and staff who worked together to create an innovative, rich, robust set of programs for Luther sophomores. I look forward to the launch of the new programming this year and to the on-­going innovative work that you no doubt will continue to do to enhance and enrich our sophomores’ experience at Luther.

Finally, in Priority I we committed to finalize plans for renovating Main and our athletic facilities to foster integrative learning in those important spaces. I am pleased and happy to celebrate the renovation of four areas of our athletics facilities this year. I wish to extend deep, heartfelt gratitude to the alumni and friends of the college who fully funded these renovations. Their generous gifts will provide outstanding facilities to support our current student-­athletes’ experience and to attract prospective student-­athletes to Luther.

In April, we dedicated the renovated baseball and softball stadiums. And in May, work began on the renovation of our tennis courts and our football field. We’ll dedicate Legacy Field on September 9th, when our team will play St. Olaf. We’ll dedicate the new tennis courts on September 16th, when our team will host alumni joining them for our annual alumni meet.

Priority II 

Priority II of the Luther College Priorities 2016-­2018 focuses on fiscal strength. Our excellent academic programs, our distinctive Luther experience, and our extraordinary outcomes all rest on our strong financial foundation. In a time when all colleges and universities face financial challenges, we must identify and understand both the specific challenges we face here at Luther and the particular opportunities we can embrace to assure success in achieving and maximizing fiscal strength. I know the work we are doing in this Priority area is difficult work for our community. As we assure the long-­term financial health of the college, we are committed both to provide support and care for our people and to preserve the quality of the Luther experience for our students.

As you know, Dean Kevin Kraus and I worked over this past year with the Academic Planning Committee (APC) to move toward our target student-­faculty ratio of 13:1. After gathering input from all departments, the APC brought proposals to the faculty for removing some programs that had experienced lower student demand. The faculty voted to recommend seven of the APC’s proposals to the Board, which approved the recommendations in May. Dean Kraus is working with heads of the programs affected to assure that current students have opportunity to complete these programs. In accordance with the Faculty Handbook, we will work with any tenured faculty affected by these changes to identify a possible alternate assignment at the college.

This fall, as we continue to move toward our target student-­faculty ratio, we are offering a separation incentive to tenured faculty with at least fifteen years experience at the college. Eligible faculty received letters earlier this week. As eligible faculty make decisions about the incentive, Dean Kraus will work with department heads to assure that departments have the faculty they need to provide the excellent academic programs that Luther has long offered.

To help address challenges to our annual budget, we conducted a budget review process with all administrative departments this year. Our goal was to achieve on-­going structural savings in our annual budget. Thanks to your dedicated engagement, annual budget savings of $650,000 were identified. I’m grateful to departments for the creative, ambitious ideas and opportunities you presented in your reports and for your dedicated work as we implement many of your recommendations.

For Luther College, enrollment is key to fiscal strength. We are a tuition-­dependent college. Close to 90% of our annual budget comes from tuition and fees paid by our current students. This year, our enrollment results fell short of our projections. Over the past five years, the on-­going enrollment challenges we have faced have resulted in a smaller student body than we had projected and lower net revenue to fund our annual budget. Achieving strong, stable enrollment, even in a changing environment, is a challenge we must meet to assure a strong future for our college.

In our efforts to enroll a strong class, we continue to focus on engaging effectively with prospective students and on providing financial aid packages that help students come to Luther.

Thank you, in advance, for all you will do this year to help achieve our enrollment goal for next year. Your involvement makes a difference to help prospective students and their families learn about Luther and see how a Luther education would be of great value to them. Many thanks for your partnership with our admissions team throughout this year’s enrollment cycle.

Finally, in this Priority area, we set goals for our development efforts for the Annual Fund, the endowment, and alumni participation. Again this year, we met or exceeded each of the goals we set for our development efforts. I am deeply grateful to alumni and friends of the college for their generosity in supporting our students, our academic programs, and our campus facilities. Their generous gifts support us in offering our students excellent, life-­changing programs and opportunities at Luther.

Priority III 

In Priority III of the Luther College Priorities 2016-­18, we commit to fostering the well-­being of those who study, live, and work at Luther. Our mission statement’s call to learn in community, to embrace diversity, to discern our callings, and to serve with distinction for the common good shapes our goals for Priority III.

Promoting a culture of inclusive excellence is a key goal for this Priority area. I am very pleased today to introduce our new interim dean for institutional equity and inclusion, Lisa Scott. Dean Scott will serve as a member of the Cabinet. She will be a key leader and voice on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the college. She will work closely with Cabinet colleagues to promote equity and inclusion in every aspect of the academic, residential, co-­curricular, and professional life of the college. She will serve as an educator, catalyst, and leader in our learning and growing as a community of many diverse people.

Dean Scott began at Luther in early August and has already met with a number of you to begin planning for this coming year. I am so pleased to welcome Dean Scott to Luther and look forward to her important work among us.

The final initiative for Priority III is to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Our mission statement reminds us that the “reforming spirit of Martin Luther” shapes both our way of learning at Luther and the character of our community. The commemoration events and programs we experienced last semester were extraordinary learning opportunities for the thousands of people who participated both here on campus and in Minneapolis. I look forward to the events and programs that the Reformation 500 Committee, under the leadership of Professor Robert Christman, has planned for this semester.

As we anticipate the remaining programs in our Reformation 500 commemoration, it is fitting to remember again the powerful and moving words that were shared this summer and that I began with this afternoon:

Luther College was founded by immigrants who had a vision for a more just society, and named for a man compelled by conscience. For both, education was the key. This is more than a legacy for us; it’s who we are.

In the coming year, I look forward to engaging with you and the larger Luther community as we complete our new strategic plan and launch the plan’s new initiatives. I look forward to working together with you to assure that Luther will become ever stronger, ever more excellent in the years ahead. As we work together, let us be inspired by our founders’ vision of a more just society and by our namesake’s commitment to conscience.

Today, we mark the start of the 157th academic year at Luther College. Soon, our new first-­year and transfer students will arrive on campus, followed quickly by our returning students. The new year starts again—with the excitement, anticipation, promise, and hope that each new fall semester brings. Today, we dedicate ourselves anew to our callings as the faculty and staff of our beloved Luther College. We gather once again in our beautiful river valley—people from many places, people of all backgrounds—to “challenge one another to learn in community, to discern our callings, and to serve with distinction for the common good.”

Thank you for all you do in your vocations as faculty and staff here at Luther. And thank you, in eager anticipation, for all you will do for Luther College and for Luther students in our life together in this new year.

Soli Deo Gloria!