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Shared governance and the empowering creation of new programs

Steve Bahls, President of Augustana College

When much of the country was reeling from the Great Recession of 2008, Augustana was no different. A dip in enrollment had come with a commensurate drop in net revenue. With not only the college but our students, their families, and the community at large hurting, we knew we had to respond decisively as well as creatively.

In a truly challenging moment in our institution’s history, our faculty, administration, and board came together to engage in that most delicate and important practice of institutional responsibility – shared governance. We decided on a multi-pronged approach to address both our enrollment and revenue crises, all with the underlying goals of keeping a liberal arts education vital and tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of our campus.

Our strategy was both broad and targeted: recruit more international and historically underrepresented students; recruit more “traditional” Augustana students; encourage students who might not normally have considered our institution to give us serious though; and reduce costs. To do this, we began to think in new ways about our academic and non-academic/athletic programming. We would act one student, one project at a time.

Augustana’s board rallied to the cause, donating $500,000 in start-up costs for these programs, which met strict criteria: they must be consistent with the liberal arts; they had to be deliverable, with faculty and leadership engaged and committed to creating an outstanding student experience; and they had to pay for themselves within two years, by virtue of attracting – and retaining – new students.

The ideas began to flow fast and furious, from all quarters, in response to the availability of funding. The admissions department, for example, suggested adding lacrosse as a club sport. The athletics department supported it with enthusiasm, and a community member – whose son had studied elsewhere, in order to play lacrosse at the collegiate level – donated a field.

In another instance of imaginative thinking, a music professor proposed adding ice hockey, believing it would attract pre-med students who wanted to play, but not at the Division I level. He’d done the research on recruiting and ice rental, and he was right. It was a welcome reminder to me that members of our community have many and varied interests. To paraphrase Whitman, we are large, we contain multitudes. Inspiration comes from all quarters.

Graphic design, harp, English/creative writing, and neurology – all novel programs, all drawing, and keeping, new students. So, too, environmental studies, whose impact on the community has been felt keenly since its inception. Inter-disciplinary in its outlook and far-reaching in its scope, this program is an exemplar of what we can accomplish working in cooperation, looking ahead and beyond.

The Upper Mississippi River Center at Augustana College has brought our campus community into closer relationship with aging river towns, engaging hundreds of students in local environmental, social, and public health issues identified by members of the municipalities most affected. 

Working with faculty supervision, students studying the environment, accounting, history, and math, among other subjects, have collaborated on multiple projects with city and county governments. Those partners quickly discovered that the brainpower of committed, enthusiastic young people is a nearly unstoppable force. Case in point is the two-year lead poisoning project in Scott County, Iowa.

Our students were given three charges: identify the homes at greatest risk from lead, through data collection and mapping; identify and evaluate local, non-federal funding options for remediation; and help build the public-private coalition necessary to establish a preventative lead poisoning program.

As Michael Reisner, the center’s director, put it, this is about as “in-your-face” a problem as our students are likely to see: lead poisoning rates at four times the national average, and low- to moderate-income children at significant risk. Our students have helped to tackle a seemingly intractable issue in their community, that of long-term negative outcomes for children exposed to lead paint in old housing stock.

With the dedicated efforts of more than 166 students, the Scott County Health Department is gaining a foothold against this foe, and while progress has been made, the work continues.

Our five faith commitments compel us to engage with the community in this way, as a partner and a peer, and never as merely a college on a hill. This would not, could not, have been possible without the radically creative thinking of our faculty and the partnership of our board. Our students, and the community in which they live and learn, have gained immeasurably as a result.