St. Olaf's mission statement is concise and challenging:
St. Olaf, a four-year college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, provides an education committed to the liberal arts, rooted in the Christian Gospel, and incorporating a global perspective. In the conviction that life is more than a livelihood, it focuses on what is ultimately worthwhile and fosters the development of the whole person in mind, body, and spirit.
Now in its second century, St. Olaf College remains dedicated to the high standards set by its Norwegian immigrant founders. In the spirit of free inquiry and free expression, it offers a distinctive environment that integrates teaching, scholarship, creative activity, and opportunities for encounter with the Christian Gospel and God's call to faith. The college intends that its graduates combine academic excellence and theological literacy with a commitment to life-long learning.
St. Olaf College strives to be an inclusive community, respecting all our differing backgrounds and beliefs. Through its curriculum, campus life, and off-campus programs, it stimulates students' critical thinking and heightens their moral sensitivity; it encourages them to be seekers of truth, leading lives of unselfish service to others; and it challenges them to be responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the world.
Every once in a while, the college pauses to consider the deeper meanings embedded in its mission. At its centennial, the college published Identity and Mission in a Changing Context to explain more fully its commitments and challenges. Twenty-five years later, the context continues to change. The world has changed greatly. The Cold War has ended, and the nations of the world are muddling into a new world order of economic globalization. The Reagan Revolution has changed the face of American politics, and of federal aid to education. A new wave of immigration is making America as diverse and interesting as ever, with challenging problems and opportunities. Scientists have just mapped the entire human genome. Environmental issues have come to center stage.
American higher education has also changed significantly. Young women have very different expectations of education than they did in 1974. Racial and ethnic minorities are taking advantage of increased access to higher education. Within the academy, there have been challenges to the canon of the disciplines, and there have been a variety of pedagogical innovations, some of them connected to new technologies. Colleges have become more complex institutions, and they involve more people in time-consuming administrative and support services. In America today, colleges and universities face unprecedented problems of cost and accountability, and these sometimes strain our ability to provide high quality face-to-face education to our students.
In some cases also, expectations for higher education have changed: many students (and parents) focus on the instrumental effects of higher education, especially on the undergraduate degree as a credential for a career. Many of these students want double (and even triple) majors as a way of certifying the breadth of their academic interests. Prospective students are interested in the quality of instruction at places like St. Olaf, but they're also interested in the quality of our facilities for academic, residential, social, and spiritual life.
Since 1974, the people of St. Olaf have changed. From 1974 to the early 1990s, while the student body remained roughly the same size, the faculty grew; since then, faculty size has contracted, with all of the pain and conflict that such difficult decisions invariably entail. There are fewer Lutherans on the faculty and in the student population than in 1974. Our student body is geographically more diverse than in 1974, though we are still not as culturally diverse as we'd like to be. Today's students come with greater needs than before, causing increased need for counseling and tutoring programs.
Not surprisingly, St. Olaf has responded to these changes by changing. Since 1974, we've rewritten the mission statement to emphasize our developing commitment to global citizenship and stewardship. The faculty continues to reshape the curriculum to respond to the changing (and unchanging) needs of our students. Since 1974, the college's off-campus contacts have multiplied, and our overseas programs have become national models. Since 1974, the college has added interdisciplinary programs in Women's Studies, American Racial and Multicultural Studies, and Environmental Studies, among others. We've revised our general education requirements, and added new general education programs. We've initiated the Great Conversation, to help students become conversant with the Western tradition, and both an Asian Conversation and American Conversations, to help students see the world from different perspectives. Recently, the college concluded thirty successful years of innovation in the Paracollege. Since 1974, all of us have had to adapt to the demands of computers, discerning how to make them useful to our historic goals. Since 1974, we've built a music building, a massive addition to the library, an administrative wing, two residence halls, a college commons, and lots of parking.
In this changed (and still changing) context, we're thinking about our mission again--not to change it, but to reaffirm its validity for the 21st century. For a long time, St. Olaf thrived on the ethos of a Lutheran Norwegian-American community. With a more diverse faculty and student body, however, this ethos needs the support of logos. People who haven't grown up in the academic tradition of the college need to understand it, and they need see how the tradition might possibly grow on them. This document, therefore, is a reflection on the St. Olaf tradition, and on the way we embody it--creatively and faithfully--today. It's an attempt to capture the ethos of St. Olaf College in words, to say why we act the way we do.
This document is the latest (but surely not the last) statement in a tradition of conversations about the meaning and purposes of education at St. Olaf. These discussions and debates have been going on for more than a century. Some of them are summarized in the 1999 volume Called to Serve: St. Olaf and the Vocation of a Church College. This document doesn't intend to repeat those conversations, but to say what they mean to us now. An account of our current thinking and practice, it attempts to synthesize some of the things we have in mind when we consider why we do what we do. And it hopes to provoke more conversations that keep our traditions alive--including the tradition of conversation.
We hope many people will read this document--the faculty, staff, students and administrators of St. Olaf; parents and prospective students; people interested in liberal education or Lutheran higher education; people interested in higher education generally. That's why it's written in a conversational tone. And that's why we've decided to write boldly. If you can read these documents without getting excited, we'll be disappointed. We hope, of course, that you'll be excited because the statement articulates your hopes for higher education. But we expect that some people will be excited because it doesn't. And we expect there will be arguments--good arguments, rational arguments, impassioned arguments, but still civil arguments. That's how the conversation of this place has worked for 125 years.
The "we" of this document is both individual and institutional. At one level, "we" are the students, faculty, staff, graduates, and friends of St. Olaf College--a combination and collaboration of individuals. Each of us brings different perspectives and gifts to the college, and each of us experiences it differently. "We" are Lutheran and Catholic and Buddhist and agnostic. "We" are African-American and Asian-American and Native American and Euro-American. "We" are rural and urban and suburban, Midwestern and national and international. "We" are middle-class and wealthy and poor. "We" celebrate the college's Norwegian heritage on Founders Day and Syttende Mai, but we also celebrate our heritage on the Hmong New Year and Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo. "We" are women and men. "We" are heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. "We" are liberal and conservative in politics and social values. We're scholars and musicians and athletes, dancers and partygoers. We're different and we're the same--and we're interdependent.
While there's a majority of white faces at St. Olaf, and a lot of Lutherans, there's still plenty of diversity, because none of us is just one thing. We're a patchwork of characteristics, and we shape individual identities from the ways we emphasize (or ignore) different aspects of our identity. At the same time that we make sense of our own multiplicity, we learn to be at home in multiple and overlapping groups. At St. Olaf, the white Republican from a farm family near Hutchinson majors in Social Work, and belongs to Habitat for Humanity. She rooms with a middle-class African-American student from a Democratic household in St. Paul who attends Northfield's Baptist church and plays in the orchestra. Her best friend is a Texan, a guy she met in a psychology class, who is a member of the student congregation and the student senate. His roommate plays bass guitar in a rock band when he's not in the Biology classes that make up a major part of his pre-med training. Students like these suggest the multiplicity of St. Olaf life. Abercrombie and Fitch live down the hall from Levi and Strauss; the strains of Bach and Beethoven mix with rock and rap and reggae and salsa. Such students come to St. Olaf because they and their families believe in what the college stands for and what it has to offer--liberal arts education dedicated to the goals of personal enrichment and social service. A college like St. Olaf is a place where people of different backgrounds agree to emphasize certain pursuits and purposes.
St. Olaf is where our individual "we's" come together as an institutional "we," where our diverse perspectives and gifts come together intentionally to collaborate in a long-standing tradition of educational excellence. At this level, "we" is not just the people who work at the college now; "we" is the institutional identity and mission inherited from the college founders, and creatively reformed through 125 years. From the beginning, St. Olaf College stood for something, and it still does. The collective "we" has always been intentionally involved in creating an institutional "we," and it still is. St. Olaf's mission statement is a description of the ways in which people with different backgrounds and perspectives can come to share specific goals.
This mission musing tries to be a coherent statement of our institutional goals and objectives, but it's not a complete compilation, nor is it a loyalty test. Not all members of the St. Olaf community will resonate with all parts of the college mission. Some members of the community will disagree with parts of it, and that's a good thing. Mission statements (and reflections on mission statements) are an opportunity for individuals to connect their own stories to the collective story of the college. The mission is primarily institutional, but it's also personal, and interpersonal. We piece the college together out of the patches of our individual stories. Sometimes these patches fit established patterns, but sometimes too they change the pattern, and the crazy quilt of the college takes on new shapes.
We know that a college is the result of planning and foresight, but it's also the product of chance and serendipity. Certain individuals show up and change the ways people understand themselves and the ways they act together. An F. Melius Christiansen comes to St. Olaf to conduct the band, and decides to stay. By the time he retires, the college has established the leading tradition of American choral music. A Gertrude Hilleboe agrees to come to St. Olaf as Dean of Women until a more suitable candidate can be found. Forty-four years later, she retires, and the college enjoys a fully-developed program of residence life. A Carl Mellby shows up in 1901, with a passion for history. By the time of his retirement, 48 years later, he has taught the first courses in economics, sociology, political science, history of art, and marriage and the family, and has helped to establish strong departmental programs in the social sciences. An Emil Ellingson comes with a passion for chemistry, and by the time he leaves, the college is fully committed to a strong program in the natural sciences. A Connie Gengenbach comes in 1975, teaching in the History Department and the Paracollege, and uses her life and her writing on vocation to help the whole college understand its vocation better. In this document, we'd like to celebrate the serendipities of our history, and the ways that our predecessors have shaped happenstance into institutional form.
These traditions are renewed in each generation. If people don't show up, traditions die. If students don't audition for choir, the choirs fall silent. If nobody decides to study the sciences, the college doesn't do sciences. If faculty don't stay engaged with their students and with the whole life of the college community, the institution loses some of its personality and personability. But the story of St. Olaf College is that good people continue to show up. The women and men of this generation are already engaged in establishing the traditions of future generations. We are a community of memory and a community of hope, engaged in practices of commitment that both symbolize and substantiate our goals.
A mission statement isn't a daily planner, although it should affect our daily planning. Instead it's meant to remind us what we're doing, to keep us mindful of the purposes that sometimes disappear in the daily grind. A mission statement helps us to consider the important objectives that sometimes get lost in classes and committees and cafeterias. When we are intensely focused on the details of the task at hand, we sometimes forget the purposes of the task at hand. When we are struggling with Calculus or Spanish or Sociology, we sometimes forget why we're struggling at all. What are the big questions for which these small answers are a response? How does this all fit together? These reflections on mission can't categorically answer those questions, but they can suggest some possibilities. Documents like this one serve mainly as a reminder--a call to mindfulness of how our creative tasks fit within the larger creative task that is Creation.
A mission statement reminds us that a college education is a collective mission, an institutional mission. The mission is not what individuals do alone, but what we do together. No one person fulfills the mission of St. Olaf College, although each person has responsibility for some important parts of the enterprise. A faculty is important, but you need more than faculty to fulfill St. Olaf's mission. Students are central, but students alone don't make a residential liberal arts college. Deans and directors and counselors and clerks and custodians are essential, but not by themselves. Cooks and a cafeteria are crucial, but students don't live by bread alone. Colleges are, like other social institutions, practices of cooperation and collaboration (and sometimes contention). This mission musing is, therefore, a declaration of interdependence.
This statement describes the main goals of the college, and some of the most important practices that embody those goals. It's not comprehensive, but it is, we hope, enough. We've decided to discuss the mission of the college in three sections: one on the liberal arts, which emphasizes thoughtfulness; a second on religion that accents faithfulness; and a third on campus culture, which focuses on togetherness. Together, these practices of learning and faith and sharing develop a wide range of different "intelligences" in our students--sensitivities, skills, and perspectives that help them to become good human beings who are good for their communities. A liberal arts college is committed, first and foremost, to the cultivation of rational intelligence. But a liberal arts college--and especially a church-related and residential liberal arts college--is also committed to the practice of intelligence beyond the bounds of rational discourse--artistic intelligence, religious intelligence, embodied intelligence, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal intelligence. We're committed not just to the independent development of these intelligences, but to their integration and interplay.
At a college like St. Olaf, all of these intelligences are shaped in the direction of vocation. We believe that all of our students are gifted, and that in a gift economy, the gifted have an obligation to be givers--as workers, lovers, parents, worshippers, neighbors and citizens. In the conviction that life is more than a livelihood, and a vocation is more than a job, we focus on the ways that whole persons--body, mind, heart and spirit--bring their gifts to the world around them. As St. Olaf Regent Martin E. Marty suggests, the vocation of this school is vocation.
Although we've divided the document into sections, we obviously can't do the same with the complex synergies of a real college. Our academic life is informed by our religious commitments and by our community life. Our church relation is just that--a relationship to an academic program and a community setting. And this is not just any community--it's a learning community committed to higher education in a Christian context.
Finally, it's important to note that this is a reflection on a mission statement, not a "mission-accomplished" statement. In a world of imperfect human beings (and what other kind is there?), we know that we can't accomplish all of the goals we set out for ourselves. We know that there will always be problems and conflicts and tensions in our life together. But we also know that we won't accomplish any of them without continuous reflection and renewal. This document is, we hope, a part of that ongoing process.