Who are we?

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

I've been thinking about this question a lot lately and I know others have been repeating this question as we struggle through the strategic planning process.

It struck me the other day when one of my colleagues, a person I know worked on the current mission statement for Luther College, answered this question by referring to the mission statement. I guess it never occurred to me that reasonable people would consider this a settled question due to the existence of a "mission statement." Maybe that is the case for some, but I think this is a question that needs to be revisited with some frequency, and the fact that this "who are we?" question keeps coming up over and over again, makes me think there is much more to talk about.

In an effort to make progress in my own mind, I copied the mission statement, reread it a couple of times and decided to take it apart paragraph by paragraph to see if that helps me.

In the reforming spirit of Martin Luther, Luther College affirms the liberating power of faith and learning. As people of all backgrounds, we embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community, to discern our callings, and to serve with distinction for the common good.

Here are the items from the first paragraph that stand out and my take on them.

  • Reforming Spirit—Yes, we must always be in a reforming state of mind. We can never say that we are good enough. We must always be wondering whether we should change with the times or resist change for good cause.
  • Faith and Learning—There is no getting around the fact that Luther is a college of the Lutheran church. We need to define what that means. I remember well, a conversation a friend (former Luther prof) and I had with a woman in a ski chalet in Colorado a couple of years ago. She made a whole bunch of assumptions about what we were like because we were a "Christian" college. Let's just say that the fact that our student congregation is a reconciling in Christ congregation would have made her head explode. Yes, we are a "Christian" college but not a fundamentalist college.
  • Embrace Diversity—I think you might be hard pressed to find a major with more diversity than CS. We have lots of international students from many different countries. I think it is really important that we have a diverse student body, but I worry that we:
    • Define diversity too narrowly: Race and ethnicity are important forms of diversity but so too are differences based on class, political ideology, and gender/sex identity.
    • Need to think through the implications of diversity carefully. If increased diversity means more financial aid and more student services to support an underprepared population, then we need the financial resources to back that up or we are just setting ourselves up for disaster.
  • Learning in community—I'm definitely an interactive learner, I need people to talk with and bounce ideas off of. Interdisciplinary programs feel more like community to me, and I would like to see more of them.
  • Discern our callings—This is a Lutheran hallmark, and I miss the sense of vocation program and the emphasis that this brought. I don't think we ever have been or ever should be the kind of Liberal Arts college that says "don't worry about jobs and outcomes, just study the humanities and you can do anything." That is not the kind of place students and parents are looking for in 2017. It is OK for us to care about outcomes and careers and helping students find their calling and vocation in life. It is also a real source of pride that Luther is the kind of place where a student can come and figure out who they are and what their calling is without getting lost in the shuffle. Many times these discoveries happen because a professor makes a little extra effort at just the right time to really connect.

As a college of the church, Luther is rooted in an understanding of grace and freedom that emboldens us in worship, study and service to seek truth, examine our faith, and care for all God's people.

  • I didn't really understand this one very well until my colleague Jim Martin-Schramm provided the following list in an email the other day:
    • Lutheran higher education offers a third way between the polarities of sectarian fundamentalism versus purely secular education.
    • Lutheran colleges see no contradiction between faith and intellectual freedom, which means no questions are considered off limits from vigorous debate and discussion—even questions about religion and the nature of God.
    • The Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith is the foundation for Luther College's commitments to hospitality and inclusivity.
    • We are freed to question the most basic and even sacred assumptions because to do so deepens our understanding of the world and our place in it.
    • A theological marker that defines Christianity in general, and Lutheranism in particular, is the notion of paradox, which enables us to resist dualistic, either/or ways of thinking and easy answers.
    • While many understand vocation as a job or career, Lutherans understand vocation as a calling from God that encompasses all of life.

As a liberal arts college, Luther is committed to a way of learning that moves us beyond immediate interests and present knowledge into a larger world—an education that disciplines minds and develops whole persons equipped to understand and confront a changing society.

  • What I hear in my head when I read this is: Life-long learning—This is a big one for me, because it's a way of life in my field. We help our students build a solid foundation in computer science recognizing that much of what we teach them, at least in terms of specific technologies, will be obsolete in a few years. They need to be equipped as lifelong learners, embracing all forms of learning including online as well as face to face.

As a residential college, Luther is a place of intersection. Founded where river, woodland, and prairie meet, we practice joyful stewardship of the resources that surround us, and we strive to be a community where students, faculty, and staff are enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning.

  • Residential, but a place of intersection—I think this word "intersection" gets lost in the woodlands….The real point of intersection is to encounter others and I would argue that in the 21st century we need to embrace encountering others in ALL ways. Face to face as well as electronically. As Friedman says, "the world is flat," and it's getting flatter. In my own research work, I routinely interact with people on other continents at all times of the day, through email, various forms of chat, and definitely face to face via Google Hangouts or Apple FaceTime. We need not fear that we will somehow destroy the residential nature of Luther College by integrating online learning as a way of enhancing and enriching the student experience.
  • Practice stewardship of our resources—I fully support our sustainability initiatives as well as our environmental studies program. But to me, we cannot lose site of the fact that the mission statement admonishes us to practice stewardship of our resources, which must include our financial resources. This means we need to think carefully about what programs should continue and what programs need investment and nurturing. Just because we have had a program in place for some years does not mean that it should be here forever and always.
  • A community enlivened by the exchange of ideas—It's too bad this one comes last, because I think as faculty engaged in shared governance we need a lively exchange of ideas. We cannot cast the administration in the role of "other" this governance cannot and should not be a we versus they contest. We need to be able to disagree, maybe even sharply, but at the end of the day we need to come together and pull in the same direction. If we can't do that, then we'll tear the college apart. The best groups I've ever worked in have had lots of disagreement—loud, marker-throwing disagreement even—but at the end of the discussion it was the best ideas that rose to the top and were implemented, and fully supported by everyone no matter what "side" they may have taken during discussion. More, at the end of the day we saw each other as people and colleagues, not as representatives of a faction or rivals.

This certainly is not the definitive answer to the question "who are we?" Each of us will bring their own experiences and ideas to their own answer. It was a fun exercise and I encourage you to give it a shot too!

Brad Miller

Brad Miller

Brad Miller is a professor of computer science and data science at Luther College where he also serves as chair of the department. Miller’s primary teaching interests include Machine Learning, Data Visualization, and Web Programming. Miller’s research focuses on interactive textbooks and has developed into the organization known as Runestone Interactive. Runestone interactive serves free, high quality textbooks in the browser to over 20,000 students a day around the world. Miller loves to cook and travel, you can read about his adventures on his blog A Reputable Journal.

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