Luther’s new president has a warm enthusiasm and a can-do attitude. She also knows her way around a metaphor. A true cinephile, she uses the camera to describe her career trajectory: “People often ask how I went from teaching to academic leadership. I liken it to opening the aperture and using a wider-angle lens on a camera. The more I led, starting as department chair, the more I learned. And the more I learned, the more I felt called to leadership. Once I’d let all that light in and widened the angle of what I saw, my path got clearer. At this point in my career, I want to make a significant contribution to the sort of institution I’ve been shaped by and believe in.”
A combination of factors drew President Ward to Luther in particular. She’d spent time on campus during Lutheran Summer Music programs, and she’d worked with Luther faculty while developing a study-away term as a faculty member at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn. “Luther was sort of in the landscape for me. It was a place that I knew about, and I certainly knew about the education here,” she says. “It was not the case that I said I must be a college president by x year, and therefore I will apply to everything that comes down the pike—that was absolutely not the case. But when I heard about the opportunity here, my heart started beating faster.”
President Ward has spent two decades in academic leadership and is passionate about the future of higher education—specifically about “figuring out how we go from what is now almost a memory of higher education as it used to be in this country to what it will be in the future,” she says. “How the world around us will come to see higher education as something that is not just in the business of producing workers—which is also important—but is also in the business of contributing to an informed and empathetic and ethical citizenry. . . . I’m very passionate about being engaged in very intentional ways in that conversation with faculty, with staff, with the public.”
President Ward, who served most recently as provost and dean of the college at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., concedes that it’s a tricky time to be a college president: “The challenges in higher education are immense, and part of that is because the pace of change has been so quick. There’s also a lack of calibration between where parents, students, regents, staff, and faculty might be in their understanding of the need to adapt to this new time and this new environment. When you don’t have that calibration, you have this push-me pull-you sort of approach.”
She continues, “Those are hard conversations when you have different constituencies that are facing change with very different desired outcomes. To be a president in such an environment is—I wish I could say it’s more science than it is, but it’s not. It’s a lot of art.”
President Ward seems well-conditioned for the challenge. More than 15 departments reported to her at Centenary, including Academic Affairs, which housed all of the college’s academic departments, schools, and programs; Student Development; Residence Life; Career Services; and Integrated Advising. She oversaw grant processes that resulted in more than $1 million, and she was responsible for overseeing roughly half of the college’s annual operating budget. During that time, she worked with the Cabinet and the rest of the community to reduce Centenary’s operating budget by several million dollars, even while making investments in mission-specific new programs.
She also oversaw Centenary’s strategic plan, and it’s given her some guidance for how to approach the implementation of Luther’s plan. “What I’m very interested in during my first year is to take a hard look at the strategic plan and try to find where there are adjacent strands that can be braided together so that we aren’t trying to launch or implement too many things simultaneously,” she says. “I recognize so completely the many different voices from many different constituencies that needed to be a part of this process, so some of what you end up with is a plan that has probably too much in it. And that’s a good place to be. It would be really terrible if there were nothing and you had to build it up. But now we need to do a little bit of judicious pruning.”
In terms of securing Luther’s future in the competitive higher ed landscape, President Ward doesn’t believe in a magic bullet. “You hear so much in higher education about distinction and what can we do that will be distinctive. What’s the activity we can do, what’s the initiative we can do, what’s the latest shiny object that’s being discussed in higher education,” she says. “I really, truly believe that there is no shiny object—or to the extent that an institution identifies one, it will be one admissions cycle before everybody else has come up with that shiny object themselves and it’s no longer shiny. So chasing after initiatives and projects and silver bullets and shiny objects—concentrating on tactical maneuvers as opposed to a larger set of strategies—feels like a losing proposition to me.”
But while she acknowledges that it’s a challenging time for liberal arts colleges, she is heartened by the opportunities she sees—especially because of Luther’s groundedness in place. “Only Luther College is here, in Decorah, Iowa, in the Driftless Region, in this part of the Midwest,” she says. “There is no other college that occupies this place and this community. And that, for me, is where we start to mine whatever jewels we’re going to find that name our distinction.”
In this distinction, she sees the relationship between Luther and the wider community as critical: “Luther and Decorah, and the region more generally, have to make common cause with each other. And that is not just about Luther being a place where Decorah residents can come and do an activity or go to a ball game or concert—we want to be of service to this community in a real way. By the same token, I know Decorah recognizes that a lot of the population and a lot of the sort of character of Decorah is hard to imagine without Luther College. We’re interdependent whether we choose to be or not. So how can we make the highest and best use of this relationship? What can we do together both to elevate Decorah and to elevate Luther?”
And in Decorah, Ward sees a lot worth elevating. “One thing that’s delighted me is how much the kinds of things I love have grown up here. There are so many little hidden gems around every corner I just didn’t track when I was here before,” she says. “I don’t recall a town that was as activated as it is.”
This, again, fuels her optimism about Luther’s future. “There are all kinds of things that make this an attractive destination, and so when we talk about Luther and say, Well, enrollment is a challenge, and we’re a small town, and we’re kind of remote, we should avoid hand-wringing. I would not be rueful about where we find ourselves. I would want us to totally embrace that and affirm the destination that this place already is.”
Join us for the inauguration of Dr. Jenifer K. Ward!
Help officially usher in Luther’s 11th president during Inauguration Weekend, Nov. 1–3, 2019. All are welcome to attend. Details at luther.edu/inauguration.