State of the College Address 2013

Strengths in Change

The State of the College Address
Luther College, August 29, 2013
David L. Tiede, President for the Interim


Thank  you, Chair Paul Torgerson, and thank you Sandy Lee, and Marilyn Roverud for representing the Regents in this opening gathering.  My wife Muffy and I also thank Luther College and the city of Decorah for your hospitality. May all who are new to the student body, faculty, or staff experience the same warm welcome. Luther College is a better community because you came! You belong!

After fourteen years of President Torgerson’s excellent leadership, I have had two months to learn what is happening at Luther. These weeks have been a “focused visit,” and I have been listening for stories, reading files, visiting as many offices as possible, and hanging out at coffee. And our 2500+ students are now arriving! The best part of what we do is about to begin. I am still finding the buildings and struggling to learn all of your names. How dare I give this address?

But the “State of the College” address is an annual event on Luther’s stage, and I am cast in the role of President. So, I wrote this speech. That thought is both terrifying and exhilarating!  My stage directions were articulated by our Chair Paul Torgerson in the first five minutes of my six interviews last spring. He got my attention when he said, “We can’t afford to waste this year!” Oh really? And Regent Peggy Ettestad said, “This interim can be our ‘inflection point.’” That means marking and pointing Luther’s trend line toward our 10th presidency!

In my first public communication, I quoted a campus leader who told me, “The trains run on time at Luther!” I sincerely meant to commend Luther’s administrative discipline, especially in finance, enrollment, and services. But one of our historians observed that the same was said about Mussolini! Sorry!

The train metaphor may also imply that the tracks ahead are already laid, while Inflection points mark changes in dynamic contexts, more like calculus than arithmetic. Play with the words with me for a bit. Let’s try a nautical metaphor.

“Luther runs a tight ship!” Trust me! Schools can’t move confidently into the winds of change without reliable counts of the dollars and the scholars, and once again our fall enrollment has outperformed our budget model. Fabulous!

We have had only 9 presidencies in 150 years, and as we anticipate our 10th president, the State of the College is good! Soli Deo Gloria!

But strong winds are now blowing in the seas into which Luther is sailing. The interpreters of the future of higher education propose that schools need to look out to the year 2020 and envision how they will be playing at strength.

So this interim, this inflection point, is an exercise of strengths in change.  Strategic prioritizations and actions lie ahead in the 10th presidency. But, to sustain the nautical metaphor, even in this interim we will steer into the winds, seeking our course and empowering the search for the leadership we need.

Our questions are:

  • What are the turbulent winds ahead?
  • How will Luther’s strengths carry us?
  • Where and how will we need Luther’s 10th presidency to lead us?

These, of course, are not new questions. An emeritus professor recalled decades ago when President H. George Anderson warned our business model was not sustainable. And President Torgerson repeatedly alerted Luther College to the impending “sticker shock” in tuition pricing. So let’s not get rattled. It's not all new.

But let’s not be in denial either! And we are not! Faculty, staff, Regents, parents, grads, and students keep sending me articles about change in higher education that they found in the newspapers, airline magazines, and on the web.  Last week, President Obama weighed in on the affordability of higher education. Game on! This discussion is not confined to us or our industry. It has gone viral.

President Torgerson commended a 2013 book by the Editor at Large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled College (Un)bound. This volume could help us at Luther because the author does not pretend to have the answer. Instead he surveys the innovations that are being developed in dozens of institutions, some very unlike Luther, others comparable to us. His subtitle points to what matters to us: “The future of higher education and what it means for students.”

Associate Dean Jeffrey Wilkerson and Dean Kevin Kraus have gathered faculty teams to scope out five disrupters of our status quo. At tomorrow’s faculty meeting, they will lay out a consultative schedule with faculty, staff, and students pointing toward a workshop with Regents on October 26. Regent Peggy Ettestad is working with them. The five disrupters higher education are identified as:

  1. The student cost and debt spiral
  2. The digitization of learning
  3. The regrouping of American communities, including faith communities
  4. The changing profile of prospective Luther College students
  5. The measurement of educational excellence by learning results

How real, how significant are any of these for us at Luther College?  What information do we already have in our administrative intelligence? And where are educational innovations underway? Without doubt, listening to faculty, staff, and students will help us recognize remarkable steps Luther College is already taking.

The promise lies in exercising Luther’s strengths to carry us into the future!

In his May commencement address, Regent Arne Sorenson challenged us to be bold. Right on! Luther’s interim is not about holding on until heroic help arrives. The state of Luther College means we expect our 10th presidency to lead us into the turbulent future of higher education, boldly adapting in renewed excellence.

In 2020 Luther College needs to be playing its game as the premier institution in Lutheran higher education. Let me push the point. I am not a modest Norwegian. For the sake of our souls and our business plans too, we cannot accommodate to generic academic standards. In 2020, the world needs Luther College to be setting the 21st century standards for excellence in Lutheran higher education.

Now it gets more risky, even brash. As a rank amateur I need to tell you what I have heard about Luther’s proven strengths. Many of you could articulate these better than I.  I hope you will do so. But I have discerned three enduring strengths.

1) Luther College is a lovely place centered in care for our students.

This is a pervasive strength, and profound. Many schools have loyal grads, but people love Luther College. Ah, the heart has reasons reason knows not of!

In part, it is this beautiful place.

In July, the Carlsons graciously hosted a gathering of Luther loyalists.  In my remarks, presidents always make remarks, I noted that Decorah was formed by a meteor and by-passed by the glacier. Someone piped up, “And blessed by God!”

Nestled in northeast Iowa, Luther cares for the earth, nurturing the future. Faculty, students, and staff come here and fall in love with the land and Decorah. A local resident looked me in the eye and said, “God loves Luther College!” Wow!

The love is deep, centered in caring for students, taking pride in them.  “It’s face to face education,” said a professor. “I once taught in a research university, but now I am personally connected with my students for a lifetime!”

Professor Davis recently sent an email report on his fabulous underwater archeological work on shipwrecks in the Aegean. He invested half of the account gloating about the contributions of Luther student, Daniel Faas.  I quote: “He is now adept at processing geophysical data, such as sidescan sonar, phase differential signals, bathymetry, and current/depth/salinity.” You gave us great information, Professor Davis, and an even better glimpse of your regard for your student. And Daniel is one of 50 students working with faculty in summer research projects.

It’s summer. Most of the student stories I have heard have been from grads. The Weston Noble alumni choir was a love fest. And the coaches enact the script. Rene Hartl calls her softball players, “My daughters!” When several players showed up with her in the coffee shop, I asked if it is true. She threw her arms around two of them and said, “Of course, you guys aren’t there yet, but you’re on your way!” They all laughed. Beautiful!

Students love Luther because Luther loves them. This is our first strength. 

To be who we are in the 2020 world of higher education, Luther College will be centered in caring for our students.

2) Luther College is an educational portal “into a larger world!”

Jon Lund, Director of our Center for Global Learning, reports that Luther enrolls nearly 150 students from 56 countries. And 75% of our students will study abroad prior to graduation. But Luther also lives up to our mission statement in our whole educational enterprise. We are systemically networked “into a larger world.” Locally, globally, physically, and virtually, Luther is an international portal!

When my wife and I took the campus tour, our student guides informed us that Luther’s library is a global learning center, supporting student research with bits, bytes, and books. Luther’s educational excellence is engaged with the world. Paideia on this lovely campus in Decorah opens into the world God loves, the world of many cultures and religions: drawing in resources from everywhere and moving out into internships, research, service, shadowing grads, and career placement.

Two Luther grads were accosted in a foreign land by someone who had previously experienced the vitality of other Luther alums like them. He wanted to know, “How big is Luther College anyway?”

And then, “Where in the world is Luther College?” Good question!

At least part of the answer is “Wherever Luther’s people are in the world!” This is also at least part of the answer of how Luther College will play its strengths forward into the forces that are disrupting stodgy institutions. Our students, our Regents, our grads will help us be smart. In 2020, Luther College will be advancing its distinctive liberal arts mission nimbly, filling its sails with the winds of change.

3) Luther is a community of learning and a community of faith.

Luther College stood out among the elite private colleges who received Lilly grants for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, as well you should. Your deep Lutheran “take” on faith and learning is almost taken for granted, but shouldn’t be. I am eager to see how the “vocation” word continues to come alive with promise at Luther.

But Luther’s commitment to “community” has amazed me. Our orientation themes of Discover, Develop, Become are anchored in Belong.

Our student Resident Advisors get “community.” They even compose “Community Development Logs.” And our faculty understand how truly “counter-cultural” our commitment to community is!

It is pure theater for me two months in to speak to you about community, or about your global educational capacities, or about your student centricity.  I hope I am belaboring the obvious. But these strengths are not common elsewhere!

This interim, this inflection point, is an exercise of strengths in change.  The State of the College is good. We are leaning into the innovations in our 10th presidency. Somebody will get a great job. The best is yet to be. Soli Deo Gloria!