President Carlson's 2015 State of the College address


Warm and heartfelt greetings at the start of the 155th academic year at Luther College! I am delighted to greet you here today at the cusp of our new year. In the coming days, we will exchange greetings with new and returning members of the Luther College community: students, faculty, and staff. The start of the academic year is an exciting, happy time in the life of the college. With this new start, we gather anew to embrace and live the college's mission: to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning."

Today, as we look forward to greeting new members of the community, I want to extend warm and heartfelt thanks to the returning faculty and staff who so have warmly welcomed me to the Luther community over this past year—my first year at Luther. Many thousand thanks for the many ways you have helped me get to know and understand the Luther community. 

I'm grateful as well to the Decorah community for the many ways my husband, Tom, and I have been welcomed to this beautiful town. We've enjoyed getting to know people and places in this very special town.

In these past months, a number of you have asked me what my biggest surprise was this first year at Luther. Thinking back, I would say I encountered my biggest surprise in the college archives. On my introductory tour in the library last fall, the college archivist showed me sketches done by Linka Preus, the wife of one of Luther's founders. I was intrigued and delighted to see them. One sketch that particularly drew my attention was a drawing of the feast held at the dedication of the first Main building in 1865. Curious to know more about this event, I learned that between six and ten thousand people attended the dedication and about 2,000 of them stayed to share in a magnificent picnic that the people of Decorah and the surrounding area planned for the event.

With the dedication of the first Main building, Luther College set its mark in this space and claimed its place as a residential liberal arts college of the church. How wonderful that this important moment was celebrated so fully by so many! And how wonderful that the town of Decorah from the very beginnings of the college has been such an engaged partner for Luther in this beautiful Oneota valley. 

At the start of an academic year, it is good to look back at the year just past, to reflect together on the state of the college in this past year. And it's good to look ahead at our ambitions and hopes for the year we are just beginning. This afternoon, I'll look back at the key areas of enrollment, faculty and staff hiring, student outcomes, and outreach and gifts. And I'll look ahead to important parts of our work together in the coming years.


As we meet this afternoon, the 655 newest student members of the Luther community are preparing for the start of their new college career. I imagine some of them today making last-­minute purchases for their new rooms in our residence halls. Some are packing the car. Some are getting on airplanes halfway around the world. Some are saying goodbye to high school friends and neighbors. Some have already arrived. Perhaps you've seen them intensely practicing for the start of the fall sports season or setting out with faculty and staff for off-campus ventures in our immersion program.

On Saturday, we will officially greet these new students joining us for their first year at Luther.  Our new students are coming to us from 25 states and 30 other countries-­from hometown Decorah and from cities, towns, and countryside across the US and around the world.

These new students bring their experiences, energies, talents, and hopes for the future to the Luther community. I look forward to their joining us as members of the Luther community, enlivening and transforming the community as they themselves are enlivened and transformed.

Many thanks to the many of you here today who assisted with our enrollment efforts this year. Our enrollment results for this entering class are excellent. With a total of 655 new, incoming students, we have returned to the class size that has worked best at Luther for many years. Our enrollment results show that our model of education is strong. These results show that we can maintain a strong, healthy enrollment in a challenging, competitive environment for colleges and universities.

Everyone at the college is important to recruiting our incoming classes. Everyone at the college 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. Meeting with prospective students and their families, helping to prepare the campus for visit days, speaking at admissions events, welcoming visiting students to class – these things and many more are essential to enrolling our new class each fall. Many thanks for your involvement this past year, and thank you, in advance, for your continued involvement throughout this coming year.

We're already underway with recruiting next fall's entering class. Earlier this month, the campus was bustling with prospective students and their families—800 visitors in total—who were here for Iowa Private Colleges Week. The number of campus visits is an important indicator of enrolling strong incoming classes, so it’s good news that our number of visits is on the increase. Last year, campus visits increased 23% over the previous year. Compared to last year at this time, visits are up again this year. Your active involvement with our admissions team throughout the year helps prospective students see the distinctive, extraordinary opportunities available to them here in a Luther education and helps them get a taste of the warm, vibrant Luther community. Many thanks for your continued partnering throughout this year's enrollment cycle with our admissions team.

Faculty and Staff Hiring

At this dedication service each year, we welcome new faculty and staff to the Luther community. This year is notable for the number of new faculty and staff joining the community. In the life of institutions that have long histories—as Luther does—occasionally there's a year like this one when the community receives many new members. Last year, the college offered a retirement incentive to faculty. This year, that incentive combined with the usual changeover in a faculty and staff of nearly 600 people. Together, they are resulting in an unusually high number of new faculty and staff beginning their vocations at the college this academic year.

As we prepare to welcome new faculty and staff to Luther, I want to express our deep gratitude to faculty and staff who retired this year after long, distinguished service to Luther and to Luther students. The twelve faculty members who retired last May had together served 347 years at Luther. Their commitments to teaching, to learning, and, most importantly, to Luther students are exemplary and inspiring. The staff members who retired over the past academic year shared the faculty members' deep commitment to Luther and to Luther students. Over many years’ service to the college, these staff members worked with diligence, devotion, and creativity to assure that the college’s programs, services, facilities, and finances meet the highest standards of excellence.

As we conducted search processes for our new faculty and staff members this year, it was again and again clear to me that prospective faculty and staff—like prospective students—value Luther’s mission, identity, and core values. We were pleased to attract very strong candidates for each of our faculty and staff positions, and I’m very happy today to welcome these new faculty and staff to Luther.  

In a short while, my colleagues on the Cabinet and I will introduce each of you to the community gathered here. I look forward with eagerness to the ways you will bring new perspectives, energies, talents, and strengths to the community. Your gifts, talents, and experience will enliven and transform the Luther community even as you are yourselves enlivened and transformed as you pursue your vocations here at Luther.

Student Outcomes

In a few days, our newest incoming students will begin their journeys toward becoming the newest members of the Luther alumni community. As Luther students, each will learn, grow, face challenges, and make choices about their future. Our mission at Luther commits us to "learn in community, to discern our callings, and to serve with distinction for the common good." As our new students begin their college careers at Luther, we know that they, like thousands of Luther students before them, are embarking on a journey to learn, to discern their callings, and to set out on their careers.

Our Marketing and Communications team shares information about our new graduates on the Outcomes page on the college's website. Among the wealth of information and stories gathered on the Outcomes webpage, I'd like to cite in particular the Post-­Graduation Activities Reports. For each of the past ten years, our Career Center has surveyed new alumni and prepared reports on the paths our new alums set out on after graduation. With information from 89% to 95% of new alums each year, the reports show that within months of graduation, "Luther graduates […] consistently found employment, entered graduate school, and […pursued] volunteer opportunities" such as Lutheran Volunteer Corps and Americorps. The most recent two reports are typical: in the classes of 2013 and 2014, 99% of respondents were employed, attending graduate or professional school, volunteering, or intentionally not seeking employment. The vast majority of our graduates reported that in their first destination after college—job or grad school—they were in positions and doing work related to their career goals.

In addition to reports like the Post-Graduation Activities Report, the Outcomes page includes profiles and interviews with Luther alumni who've graduated in the past couple of decades. These alums' stories bring color and contour to the impressive data gathered on the Outcomes page. I urge you to view these profile and interview pages, too.

Outreach and Gifts

This past year, alumni and friends of Luther were very generous in their gifts to help the college thrive in its mission. Gifts to the college this past fiscal year totaled $14.9 million, the second largest annual giving total in the history of the college. I am deeply grateful to the alumni and friends of the college who are so generous in their support of our shared mission to serve students at Luther College.

During the past few years of presidential transition here at Luther, the college has conducted a fundraising campaign called "Sustaining the Mission." The generous giving of alumni and friends this year enabled us to surpass the campaign's $30 million goal before our anticipated completion date of December 31, 2015.

Many hearty and heartfelt thanks to our donors. And many thanks, too, to our development team for their commitment, diligence, and care as they reach out to alumni and friends of the college to share the Luther story and help us engage with them in support of the Luther mission. I want to offer special thanks to Keith Christensen, who served as Luther's vice president for development for the past fifteen years. The Luther community will long benefit from Keith's devoted service to the college, and we wish him well in his new position at the Mayo Foundation.

As we prepare for and then conduct a search for a new vice president for development, an interim advisor/consultant will work with the development team and me to assure a smooth transition in this important area for the college. I'm very pleased that Mark Kronholm will serve in this role. Mr. Kronholm has eighteen years experience as a chief development officer and vice president. For the past ten years, he has worked as an independent consultant and has served as an interim advisor for a number of institutions experiencing transitions in leadership of their development office.

Our work with Mr. Kronholm began at the start of this month. During the interim period, Mr. Kronholm will typically spend a couple of days on campus each week. I look forward to working with Mark as we continue the good work of our development team.

During this past year, the development team organized an introductory tour for me in my first year as president. On the tour, we traveled to fifteen cities across the country, and I met nearly 1,300 alumni, parents, friends, church leaders, and other admirers of Luther College. As I talked with alums gathered at these events, many asked me to bring greetings back to you—faculty and staff who made a difference for them during their years at Luther. Again and again on the tour, I was impressed by the profound gratitude that Luther alumni have for the dedicated and inspiring work of Luther faculty and staff.  From all these grateful alums: Thank you.

The Year Ahead: Strategic Initiatives

Over the past few years, the Luther community has engaged in reflection and conversation about the college and its future. During the presidential search process and the interim presidential year, the community identified the primary challenges and opportunities for Luther in the years ahead. The community examined the challenges that new technologies, changing demographics, increasing costs, and uncertainty in the national economy have created for higher education.

During my first year at Luther, we continued this important work together. In listening sessions on campus, in meetings with alumni and friends of the college across the country, and in electronic listening posts, we engaged in conversation about Luther's distinctive model of education and shared ideas to help the college thrive in the new environment for higher education.

Accompanying these conversations to gather ideas and possibilities, we conducted an in-­depth examination of important core strengths of the college. A study of the college’s key financial indicators showed that Luther continues to have a strong financial foundation, one that places it in the top tier of national liberal arts college for maintaining consistent financial strength and stability over many years. Key outcomes of a Luther education and experience attest to Luther's strong academic and student life programs. These outcomes show that Luther's curricular and co-­curricular programs provide excellent opportunities to students and prepare them well for their vocations and careers.

With confidence in Luther's core academic strengths and strong financial foundation, with our students and families who value the distinctive model of education Luther offers, with dedicated support of alumni and friends of the college, we are ready to move forward this year with strategic initiatives that assure Luther thrives in the current, changing environment for higher education.

In the first months of this new academic year, we will identify the strategic initiatives emerging from our reflection and examination as the most promising initiatives for us to pursue in the next three years. These promising initiatives grow from four key elements of the college's mission:

Community values, identity, and ethos
Academic excellence and innovation
Campus spaces and places
Stewardship and sustainability

Following our discussions in these first months of the semester, final decisions about which strategic initiatives to pursue will be made. Today, I'll offer a sampling of potential initiatives that emerged again and again in conversations and discussions over this past year.

Community: Values, Identity, & Ethos

In my conversations and discussions with members of Luther's constituencies this year, people returned again and again to the theme of community. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the college clearly value greatly the special, distinctive character of the Luther community. Echoing throughout our mission is a commitment to learning in community. The essential element of learning at Luther is that we do this together. We are enlivened and transformed by learning in community together.

A strategic initiative we're exploring to make our distinctive community even stronger is a comprehensive program for student advising. Faculty advisors serve as students’ primary guides and mentors for their academic experience at the college. In this strategic initiative, we would seek to strengthen and augment this key advisor relationship with clear pathways of support from all areas of the student experience at Luther.

A second initiative that emerged across many conversations and discussions over this past year is to harness the potential of our Centers on campus. Luther has a striking group of dynamic, focused, forward-looking, creative, and innovative Centers. The portfolios of these Centers come directly from our mission statement.

The Centers offer superb programming and learning opportunities for Luther students and the entire Luther community. This second initiative would address ways that these Centers would coordinate their programming and collaborate on their offerings to achieve even more robust engagement of the community.

A third initiative emerging in the focus on community values, identity, and ethos is renewed focus on supporting staff and faculty in their vocations at the college. This initiative would address ways that we can enhance and expand our faculty and staff development programs.

Academic Excellence & Innovation

Luther has a long history of academic excellence and innovation. Student outcomes in the Post-Graduation Activities reports speak to this distinguished history. Innovations such as Paideia, J-­term, senior projects, and study abroad programs are just the signature examples of the impressive tradition of innovation in the Luther curriculum.

I eagerly anticipate the new academic programs and possibilities faculty have discussed and will propose as strategic initiatives for the coming years. And I look forward to working with faculty and staff to develop new programs that harness energies across campus to support students in new ways. Discussions of new programming for sophomores are particularly promising, and I anticipate innovative new programming focused on our students during this important transition year.

Campus Spaces & Places

With initiatives in this area, we look to steward Luther's distinctive beautiful campus to continue to serve our educational mission, to sustain the natural beauty of the campus, and to foster the life of the community on campus.

In the spring of 2014, the Board of Regents approved moving ahead to prepare schematic designs for two important campus spaces and places: Main and the athletics areas. Last year, two committees of faculty and staff worked with architects and builders to develop those schematic designs. Many of you participated in reviews of possible designs at open houses this spring. Thank you to those of you offering input, feedback, and suggestions in these important design processes. In May, an overview of the schematic designs was presented to the Board Committee on Facilities and Sustainability, and the full Board will review the plans this year.

Stewardship & Sustainability

In the current challenging and competitive environment for higher education, it is imperative that we are good stewards of the college's financial resources, both managing our budget well each year and also reaching out to alumni and friends of the college for support to assure the college's future.

Luther has a long tradition of stewarding resources well. This tradition has built a strong financial foundation that will serve us well as we plan and manage the college's budget year-­to-­year. In the current environment for higher education, we face both short-­term and long-­term challenges as we maintain the college’s strong financial foundation and, just as importantly, as we strengthen it further so that we can assure the long-­term financial health of the college. Managing our budget wisely will assure our short-term health. Focusing our development efforts on annual giving and increasing the endowment will secure the college's long-­term sustainability.

Strategic initiatives for stewardship and sustainability will address both the short-­term and long-­term challenges we face. As we move forward this year, I will be working with the Cabinet, the College Resource Council, campus committees, and the Board of Regents to chart a course that ensures the college's financial strength this year and into the future.

In the current environment for higher education, our initiatives for stewardship and sustainability will be essential to assure that our strong scholarship program for students, our strong compensation program for faculty and staff, and our strong academic and co-curricular programs continue to flourish long into the future.

Thank you for your participation this past year in the campus conversations about strategic initiatives.  The ideas and possibilities that have emerged in our thinking are very promising for each area of focus: Community values, identity, and ethos; Academic excellence and innovation; campus spaces and places; and stewardship and sustainability. I look forward to our shared work as we move ahead with strategic initiatives in the coming months and years.

As we begin the 155th academic year at Luther College, I am excited to receive talented new students who will bring their strengths, interests, and hopes to the Luther community. I am eager to partner with new faculty and staff who will share their gifts and pursue their vocations here at Luther. I am proud of our new graduates who are venturing out to make their mark and begin their careers. And I am grateful for dedicated alumni and friends of the college who love Luther and who help it thrive.

Luther College has a long, distinguished history, and it is a great privilege to share in this story with our current students, with faculty and staff, and with alums both seasoned and new. In the days ahead, we begin a new year at Luther, receiving new students, new faculty, and new staff to become members of this vibrant, engaged community—a community shaped by our common commitment to sharing in the life of faith and learning in this special place.

Thank you for all you do and thank you, in advance, for all you will do in our life together as the Luther community grows and thrives this year and in years to come. At this time of new beginning, we gather anew—"people of all backgrounds" joining together in this beautiful place to once again "challenge one another to learn in community, to discern our callings, and to serve with distinction for the common good."

Soli Deo Gloria!

Paula Carlson