October 6, 2006
By David R. Anderson '74
President, St. Olaf College
Friends, thank you all for coming to this celebration of our college. Presidential inaugurations aren’t, or shouldn’t be, all about the new president. Rather, they represent ceremonial moments during which the institution reflects on its identity, its moment in time and its future. This is why I chose as the theme for this weekend “Honor the Past, Celebrate Today, Embrace the Future.” More about that in a moment.
First, however, I offer some welcomes and some thank you’s. Welcome to Bishops Usgaard and Nycklemoe. Thank you for your presence here. Your role in our ceremonies bears witness to the living and abiding connection between St. Olaf College and the faith we profess, the faith that anchors our works and days. Welcome to the St. Olaf College Board of Regents, and thank you for your faithful stewardship and generous support of our college. Welcome to Mrs. Lois Rand, and Presidents George, Edwards and Thomforde for your presence here tonight. Each of you embodies important moments in our collective history. Our college would not be in the strong position it occupies today if it weren’t for your service. Thank you for being here.
Welcome to the distinguished delegates from other institutions of higher learning. You honor us with your presence at our ceremonies. I offer a particular welcome to my friends, colleagues and mentors from Denison University, busy people who have come a long way to be with Priscilla and me this weekend.
The distinguished faculty of the college processed into the auditorium tonight in their academic garb, which identifies their field of study and their most advanced degree. I am fond of noting that at colleges students come and go—as they are supposed to—and presidents come and go as the institution looks from time to time to new leadership, and at St. Olaf regents come and go according to their terms of service, but the faculty abide. The faculty of St. Olaf College collectively have given 4,984 years of service to our college. The senior faculty alone, those having attained the rank of professor, have given 2,285 years. These are astonishing and meaningful numbers. Our faculty in their academic garb embody learning, continuity and commitment. Thank you, each of you, for having answered the call of your vocation and for your service to the college. The staff of the college enable teaching and learning to happen. They bring us new students and keep in touch with graduated ones. They disperse financial aid, manage our accounts, invite and steward gifts to the college, send us abroad and bring us safely home again, care for our bodies and souls, keep us on time and on task, prepare our food, care for our buildings and grounds, manage our technology and tell the St. Olaf story—in short, they do it all. Thanks to each of you for your fine work.
Welcome St. Olaf students! I suspect that you had other options for how to spend a Friday evening, so I’m delighted that you are here. This is our college—yours as students and future alums and mine as an alum—and our mutual investment in the institution and in one another as Oles empowers us to do great things for our college. St. Olaf is bigger than all of us. Together with the 33,572 living alums, the many other friends of the college and Oles who have gone before and will come after us, we are the stewards of St. Olaf’s rich heritage of faith and learning. It is an awesome responsibility that we share. Your college matters, to you and to the world. The fact that you are here tonight shows that you know that. Welcome!
I am so pleased that we were able to weave this ceremony into the larger cloth of Homecoming and Family Weekend at St. Olaf, and I offer a warm welcome, from the heart of the college, to all of the alumni, family and friends of St. Olaf students and Northfield neighbors who have come tonight. Whether you are here this weekend to reconnect with old friends—I, for example, look forward this weekend to spending time with my college roommates from whom I learned so much—David K. Anderson, David P. Anderson and those two guys who couldn’t get the name thing right, Larry Otteman and Tom Schattauer—or to visit former teachers and mentors, to make that all-important visual inspection of the first-year student you left with us two short months ago, or simply to look in on activities on the Hill we are delighted that you took time to be with us tonight. It is a cliché at colleges to refer to the sense of “community” at the institution, but at St. Olaf we truly are a community that embraces the connection each of you has with the college. Welcome.
I would like to thank the two persons who have made this whole ceremony happen: Jean Callister-Benson from the office of College Advancement, and Pam Dresow, assistant to the Dean of the College. Together with the inauguration committee, all of whom have other full time jobs at the college, they have taken exquisite care of this important ceremonial moment in the life of our college. Thank you.
And finally, I want say thank you to Professor Jonathan Hill for his inaugural address this evening. When I asked Jonathan to be tonight’s speaker I had several things in mind: First, I wanted the inaugural address to be a profound talk about the college—its past and its future and our place in it—and we have had that; second, it was important to me that the address be given by a member of the community because this ceremony is about the community; and third, I loved the fact that the address could be given by someone with whom I studied and whom I admired so much as a St. Olaf student and whose influence on my own intellectual development had been so profound. What I hadn’t taken into consideration was that I would have to speak after Professor Hill. Caught again by unintended consequences! I am sorry that you have to listen to me after him, but it’s too late to do anything about that now.
I noted earlier that the theme for this Inaugural weekend is “Honor the Past, Celebrate Today, Embrace the Future.” An inauguration offers an opportunity to reflect on the moment in time at which our college finds itself as a way of orienting us with respect to our past, our current state and our future. As I’ve been saying to groups on campus this fall, my strategy as a new president has been the same one my mother gave me when I walked to kindergarten for the first time and had to cross the street to get there: Stop, look, and listen. At this ceremonial affirmation of institutional continuity I want to spend a moment reflecting back what I have observed and heard about our identity and values
Our college is a complex institution even among liberal arts colleges, and our complexity derives from our history and our identity. We are, let us remember, a college of immigrants, born out of tensions over identity and difference, aspirations for assimilation and fears of loss of community. Well over a century ago, Norwegian-American immigrants who had settled in this part of the Midwest aspired both to provide a superior education to their own children and to educate and nurture them in the faith they had brought with them from their homeland. This sounds like a very inward-looking project, and, perhaps, in some ways it was. But their faith with its robust theology of vocation also looked outward upon the world, calling upon its followers to lead lives of worth and service to others. And so from our earliest days we have been more than just another institution of learning. We have been committed to providing as good an education as could be had, to honoring our roots, to providing opportunities for students to grow in their faith and, inseparably from that growth in faith, to helping each student understand how he or she is called upon to serve others, especially those in need. Over the past 132 years our understanding of how to fulfill these purposes has varied, but our commitment to each of them has not. Because that commitment forms the core of our values, it lies at the very heart of our identity. I affirm my own commitment to each of these core values tonight.
St. Olaf has defined the best education that can be had as a residential liberal arts education. We bring students together to this campus on a hill, place them in community with one another, and open to them the faculty and the curriculum of the college. We do this not to prepare them for any particular occupation (that’s the phrase that often garners quizzical looks from their parents and financial backers) but rather to provide them with the base of knowledge, the skills and proficiencies, the experiences, and the habits of mind and heart that will enable them to flourish in whatever future awaits them. And we do this in the most rigorous fashion. It has never been part of the purpose of St. Olaf College to settle for less than the academic best, nor should it ever be. Academic excellence informs our identity and characterizes our history, and the continued aspiration not just to be a “pretty good” college but rather to be among the very best propels our planning for the future.
Now, you could listen to presidents give inaugural speeches at America’s best colleges, and—allowing for local differences—you would most likely find a paragraph like the one I just uttered in each of those speeches. The words I am about to speak would be absent from nearly every one of those speeches. Here they come: Our academic excellence is totally consistent with—indeed derives from and exists in unison with—the profound faith commitments which define the nature of our college and inform the lives of many of the people who study and work here. That is a sentence that most presidents of elite liberal arts colleges in America today could not utter. I just did. St. Olaf was founded as college of faithful Christians, and it is one today. Not every student or faculty or staff member is a Lutheran, nor must they, nor should they be. Not every student or faculty or staff member is a Christian, nor must they, nor should they be. But the center of gravity of the college rests on the notion that we teach and learn for a purpose greater than knowledge for its own sake and greater than for ourselves. It rests on the robust worship life of the college. It rests on the joyful noise this college makes to God in the extraordinary music of this place. It rests upon the countless opportunities all of us in this place have through reading and study, our experience of the arts, fellowship and service to deepen our faith and to become more fully human. This is a distinguishing characteristic of our college, and it sets us apart from most of the other excellent colleges in America today. Let us be faithful stewards of that distinction.
I spoke earlier of the impact of the Lutheran notion of vocation upon St. Olaf. Lutherans are taught by our faith tradition to seek to discern how our particular talents enable us to be of service to others. In the deepest sense, we are taught to find our calling in life—not merely to identify service projects but to know our place in the world, the place from which we can best serve God and others. This is Vocation with a capital V, and engagement with vocation in this deepest sense is another distinguishing aspect of our identity and mission. I said earlier, and I meant it, that St. Olaf doesn’t prepare students for any particular job, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we prepare students for no job. Or, worse, not to have a job! Liberal arts colleges need to be better at preparing students from the day they come to college to plan for a meaningful and productive future. We are given by our Lutheran heritage a huge advantage over most other colleges with respect to helping our students craft their future. We are not merely given permission but explicitly commanded to provide the resources for students to prepare for lives of worth and service. Let us seize this opportunity for the good of our students, for the good of our college and for the good of the world.
I spoke earlier about our origins as a college of immigrants and of the tensions inherent in our founding and in our history between identity and assimilation. These tensions have been with us for 132 years, and they will remain with us in the future. But there is no reason for them to paralyze us or to divide us. We can honor our past and especially the Norwegian and Lutheran bonds that brought this college into being and have sustained it throughout its life without locking ourselves into some infinitely receding view of our community that, like a hallway of mirrors, shows us nothing but an infinite reflection of ourselves. Similarly, we can craft a future for our college that, based upon our vast experience with this dynamic, provides the same opportunities for other groups torn between identity and assimilation, without abandoning our identity, our heritage or our friends. A wise member of our Board of Regents has a habit, when asked to choose between options A or B, emphatically to choose “Both!” This is a no-brainer. Let us use our past to guide our future by embracing a future for St. Olaf that both remembers our heritage and employs it in service of others.
Perhaps you can see now why I called us a complex institution. We seek to combine in one college the academic excellence of the elite institutions of higher learning in America, the living and abiding connection with a faith that we proudly confess of the most centered colleges in America, the richly complex treatment of vocation that characterizes the most outwardly focused colleges in America, and all of this in an environment where changing patterns of race and class are defining new parameters in which we operate. Many institutions are working in, and on, one or two of these areas. We are working in and on all of them.
The years to come are going to be exciting. They will also be full of challenges, but that is why we have been given intelligence, energy, a sense of humor and faith. Our college has a distinctive place in American higher education, and we—all of us here tonight—have been called to help make our college an exemplar. I see this inauguration as an important turning point. OK. It’s done. No more focus on the new president. Now we focus on the work of our college. I thank you for the opportunity I have been given to serve with you, I thank you in advance for your guidance and support, and I thank you for your presence here tonight.