RECOLLECTIONS FROM ST. OLAF COLLEGE, 1970–1975
By Ron Lee
Those years were very heady times. There was so much fervor that the winds of change were almost whirlwinds. Feeding the intensity of the time, of course, were the deeply felt debates and discussions about the war inViet Nam. St. Olaf long had the reputation among Lutheran-related colleges as the most liberal theologically and probably politically as well, and the anti-war sentiments were strong. On campus there had been an intense debate within the faculty on a proposal that the college cancel the ROTC program (the proposal was defeated in two successive meetings, each time by only a two or three vote difference). The fact that the college president would not allow students to participate in these debates led to a two-day sit-in at the administration building. The bombing of Cambodia and then the shootings at Kent State led to a series of very intense “Teach-Ins” and then a moratorium on classes so students could go home to talk with their families about the moral and political issues of the war. But it wasn’t just the war that stirred us. Coming out of the cultural changes that began to emerge in the 1960s and liking to the anti-war movement was a significant shift in attitudes towards education, towards how we conducted the business of the classroom, how we viewed the traditional hierarchy of higher education, and how campus life was to be conducted. When I became part of the recruitment effort that brought Gene to St. Olaf to be Dean of Academic Affairs, I don’t think any of us, including Gene, anticipated just how lively a time it would be.
I first came to know Gene in the early 1960s while we both were at Stanford working on our doctorates in English, though we were together in only a few classes. Our principal bond came through our associations as Danforth Fellows, where we shared in the activities and concerns of that wonderful program, a program that nurtured scholarship and inspired men and women to embrace the profession of teaching. Its distinctive feature lay in the unique emphases of its criteria for selection: a particular focus on candidates who, as they put it, had “intellectual power which is flexible and of wide range, … personal characteristics which are likely to contribute to effective teaching and to constructive relationships with students, … and concerns which range beyond self-interest and narrow perspectives and which take seriously the questions with which religions expressions attempt to deal.” At Stanford I discovered in Gene the ideal Danforth Fellow.
At St. Olaf from 1970 through 1975, I had the pleasure of working closely with Gene on a number of very significant and exciting projects. I was then full-time in the English Department and Gene was heavily committed to his administrative duties as a Dean, but our common love of literature and teaching and our shared “upbringing” as Danforth Fellows held us in a close collegial relationship. St. Olaf was at this time undergoing a deliberate, planned expansion of the student body from 2500 students to 3000, and the time was ripe for consideration of new programs as well as larger issues related to the college’s identity and long-range goals. Gene quickly moved into a leadership role in these considerations, and I was happy to play a role as a faculty organizer, rallying the troops in support of the deliberations and decisions that lay before us. In his first winter on the job, Gene worked with the president of the student body to organize a faculty and student committee to plan a large “Goals Conference” to involve the full campus community. A weekend off-campus retreat was held with faculty and student leaders to plan the event. The whole faculty then voted to accept the proposal that emerged from this, and in April 1971, the All-College Goals Conference took place. It was a huge affair, incorporating a convocation, forums, panel discussions, open hearings, and debates. Discussions focused on six topics: Student Life, Admissions and Student Body Make-up, Church and Society, Governance, Curriculum and Experimental and Special Programs, and Faculty Recruitment and Development. Subsequent to the event, there were numerous discussion groups and forums, as well as opinion pieces and essays in the student newspaper. In one of those essays, “An Alternative to the Tenure System,” Gene argued for replacing the system of tenure with a much more careful and thoughtful recruitment process. His ideas for how that recruitment process might work were drawn substantially from the principles and practices of the Danforth Fellows program.
In the years 1970 through 1972, some very important conferences sponsored by the Society for Values in Higher Education (which was a kind of “alumni organization” for Danforth and Kent Fellows) were held, focusing on the topic of “New Styles of Teaching and Learning.” These conferences were held at the regional and state levels, and both Gene and I were involved in planning and participating in one or more of these. These conferences provided inspiration for Gene and me to work, on the heels of the big Goals Conference, on a proposal to create a Subcommittee on the Improvement of Teaching. It was originally to be called a “subcommittee” because certain factions wanted to understand it to be a passing or transient thing. I believe that creating this Subcommittee is one of the most important actions to have emerged from that Goals Conference. I was the first chair of the Subcommittee, and Gene and I worked closely together in carrying out the work of this new group. Notable among various projects were two big weekend retreats (St. Olaf faculty and students were really into off-campus, weekend retreats in those days!), one in the spring of 1972 and another in the spring of 1973. From those retreats came the enthusiasm and the ideas for the creation of a full-blown faculty development program at the college, for which we received significant funding from the Lilly Endowment. The supposed “temporary” Subcommittee on the Improvement of Teaching then became a prestigious, permanent Committee on Faculty Development, which to this day is a vital presence in the academic life of St. Olaf.
Gene’s love for and dedication to good teaching led to another program that was uniquely his creation. St. Olaf had then (and still does) a January Interim—a one-month academic block of time in which students take only one short and very focused course, and during which there is time for the academic community to engage in not-so-traditional discussion and interaction. Gene conceived the idea of a January Interim Lecture Series to focus on the topic “A Teacher’s Faith and Values.” In each of these lecture series, a group of eight members of the faculty or administration would give a public presentation examining his or her perspective on the relationship between personal faith and academic work. Each of these was then followed by the comments of two respondents. This means twenty-four faculty or administrators were able to share their ideas. I still have a copy of the lectures from January 1973, which contains my own reflections as one of the lecturers, and there are still occasions when I re-read them in order to remind myself of the rich abundance of ideas we shared at that time. I was honored in this series to have Gene as my principal respondent.
That half-decade of 1970 to 1975 was truly remarkable for the ideas and enthusiasm generated around the topic of teaching and learning. It remains one of the distinguishing characteristics of St. Olaf College as a first-rate liberal arts institution that good teaching, especially values-centered teaching, is its primary commitment. Gene played a very important role in helping to articulate, and then secure, that commitment.