Luther College Inaugural Address
Students; Alumni; Staff; Faculty and Regents, both current and former; Former Presidents and First Spouses; Decorah neighbors; and friends, colleagues, and family, both in this space and watching online:
This moment in today’s program is called “The President’s Response.” Having grown up singing gospel music, I know that a response follows a call, and indeed I have been called to this high honor, to serve Luther College to the best of my ability as your 11th president. Thank you. Thank you, as well, to all who have worked to make this weekend possible. The theme of “always becoming” certainly applies to the rehearsals of music, to the shaping of my transition, this weekend, and the crafting of the program you hold in your hands, to the collaborations that led to the works in progress shared yesterday afternoon, to preparing food and spaces and grounds, and to planning for the hospitality to greet you all this day.
This notion of “always becoming”—in German, “immer im werden”—is prevalent in literature, philosophy, theology, and even in the description of the city of Berlin. Aristotle, Martin Luther, and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others, all made heavy use of this concept. For me, a fascination with the phrase “always becoming” underscores my scholarship, which focuses on adaptation, as well as my approach to leadership, which involves embracing questions, uncertainty, and forced detours with a sense of adventure. It assumes that I, too, am always becoming, and that conversation and collaboration are the steady, yet moving, state of forward momentum for me and for the institution I have been called to lead. It assumes an unapologetic acceptance of the fact that I, alone, do not have all the answers, and that if I do, the questions will have changed by the time I utter them. It means that I am comfortable living in beta or test mode, and that I hope my new colleagues will join me in this space.
In a series of letters that artist and critic John Berger exchanged with the painter Leon Kossoff, the two of them mused on the topic of drawing. Kossoff was anxious about a retrospective of his that was being installed at the prestigious Tate Britain gallery in London, and his refracted anxiety was leading him to consider that he, a painter, had never really learned to draw very well.
Berger wrote to him: “So-called ‘good’ draughtsmanship always supplies an answer. It may be a brilliant answer (Picasso sometimes), or it may be a dull one (any number of academics). Real drawing is a constant question, is a clumsiness, which is a form of hospitality towards what is being drawn. And, such hospitality once offered, the collaboration may sometimes begin. When you say: ‘I need to teach myself to draw’, I think I can recognize the obstinacy and the doubt from which that comes. But the only reply I can give is: I hope you never learn to draw! (There would be no more collaboration. There would only be an answer.)” –The Shape of a Pocket, p. 75
In a similar exchange of letters, the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke exhorted a young poet who was in the throes of anxiety and despair not to obsess about finding answers. “You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.” –Letters to a Young Poet, #4
In both of these examples, the hunger for answers had a proximate cause. In the case of the painter, it was the anxiety of an upcoming exhibit. In the case of the poet, it was uncertainty in a relationship. In the case of a college, say Luther College, many of the generative changes in our history were also prompted or accompanied by uncertainty or necessity or even calamity. When the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided on October 10, 1857, to found a college; when there were no buildings, and students were sent to Concordia in St. Louis in the meantime; when the Civil War broke out; when war, illness, and other causes left none of that year’s freshman class to graduate in 1865; when opposition to slavery and the closing of Concordia led to establishment of a new college in Decorah; when Main was erected, and burned, and erected again, and burned, and erected again—third time’s a charm; and when women were admitted; and when the Black Student Union was founded fifty years ago; and when we put a stake in the ground, in the form of a wind turbine and solar arrays, to lead in the area of sustainability; and when we formed a Reconciling in Christ student congregation, so that all may flourish, and to ensure that our church-relatedness was indeed a conversation that recognized that the true power of “college” and “church” or “faith” and “learning” lies in the hyphens connecting them; and when we committed to global education; and when we—as now—consider a new curriculum and the ever-present challenge of ambitions and desires that exceed resources, we did and we do so in the face of uncertainty and more questions than answers.
But not having answers and certainty did not and must not mean inaction. At every triumphant moment in Luther College’s history—the successful completion of a new building, a clean audit, a winning season on the field, a Christmas at Luther with standing ovations, the publication of a faculty member’s new book—it was not the answers that represented triumph. It was the practice of rolling up one’s sleeves, questioning, slogging, revising, imagining, hoping, and yes, trembling—to live in the becoming and to embrace the conversation with the unknown.
A couple of days ago in Chapel, the men of Norskkor sang a particularly powerful arrangement of the old hymn “Be Thou My Vision” during the service. There were many things in their performance that could have led me to tears—yes, there were tears—like the tight harmonies, or the stirring text, or the sheer resonance of the sound in this space. But what got me was watching them. There was a fellow in the back row, who practically levitated with the process of singing. On his face and in his totally embodied performance, I read his effort, and his listening to those around him, the delight in those chords not being ragged, the meaning of the text, and his astonishment at how the brave act of trusting in his fellow singers and being willing to open his own mouth to harmonize created such wall-shaking and glorious sound. It could have gone the other way. It often does go the other way. But not knowing the answer and acting in the face of the question is what led to his levitation when he heard the answer, and what led to my tears as I witnessed that moment.
Not knowing the answer and acting in the face of the question anyway, is what Rilke told the young poet to do. Not knowing the answer and acting in the face of the question anyway is what John Berger told Leon Kossoff to do when he picked up a pencil to draw without the limiting crutch of technical expertise, and when Berger said he hoped Kossoff would never learn to draw.
Friends: we do not know all the answers to the questions. What about the future of higher education? How will the changing demographics of our student population affect us? How will the Church and the College continue the conversation about its mutual mission? How will town and gown collaborate? How will knowledge and creativity be generated and shared with new technologies in the future, or old knowledge preserved or reframed so that our students can continue to learn actively, live purposefully, and lead courageously for a lifetime of impact? My invitation to all of us today and tomorrow is to act in the face of the questions anyway, heartened by the words of what Lutherans sometimes think of as the “Holden Prayer”: O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It may seem odd to conclude an inaugural address with the following words, but in addition to repeating how humbly I thank you for the call to serve you, Luther College, please hear this: I most sincerely hope that we never learn to draw.
Soli Deo Gloria.