A year of anniversaries…including mine

A message from President Steven Bahls

March  15, 2011

steven bahls

This has been a time of anniversaries for Augustana--the 150th anniversary of the college, 80th anniversary of the Augustana Choir, 50th anniversary of Centennial Hall and 30th anniversary of WVIK public radio. For me, it is also an anniversary. It has been 25 years since I began my career in higher education, first as a law professor at the University of Montana, then as a law school dean at Capital University and now as president of Augustana.

Anniversaries are a time for reflection. And I have been reflecting on the changes in higher education that have taken place in the last 25 years. Three important changes come to mind--each of which has substantially improved the quality of higher education.

From seeking diversity to cherishing diversity. In the past 25 years, colleges and universities have taken more seriously the need for campuses to better reflect on our nation and world, and during this time, we have come to cherish diversity at Augustana. We have come to realize that its primary benefit is the enrichment of the marketplace of ideas that we offer our students. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated in 1919 that truth is best reached by "free trade in ideas." Our faculty members admonish our students the same way--that before reaching a conclusion, they should fully explore the differing ideas of diverse groups.

Slowly but surely, Augustana has increased its diversity, and nearly 20 percent of the class entering in 2010 was multicultural students. Additionally, new faculty members from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa have been instrumental in helping our students build global perspectives.

From strong teaching to learning outcomes. When I started my career as a professor, it was assumed that if professors taught it, students would learn it. Today's faculty members at Augustana understand that good teaching is a necessary, but not sufficient, component of student learning. Students need to be actively engaged in their studies, and such engagement does not necessarily occur by simply sitting through a lecture, no matter how thorough it is.

Today, Augustana faculty members are engaging students in active learning as well as high-impact learning experiences--as often as not, outside the classroom. More than 40 percent of Augustana students benefits from the college's international programs. A majority of students complete a Senior Inquiry project, often working one-on-one with faculty. Likewise, students increasingly are taking advantage of our many internship opportunities, both in the Quad Cities and throughout the nation and world.

From finding and accessing information to assessing and organizing information. It is hard for me to believe that my first real exposure to the internet was less than 25 years ago, when a student explained to this somewhat skeptical professor that the "World Wide Web" was going to be the thing of the future. Many alumni remember using the traditional card catalog to assist with hours of combing through the library's resources to find the information they needed. Finding and accessing information was the coin of the realm.

Finding information today is easy. Most of the journals in Augustana's library are online and easily searchable. But when an online search becomes like drinking from a fire hose, the skills of a discriminating information consumer become essential. Assessing the validity and relevance of information, then organizing and synthesizing it effectively, are the skills required today.

Assessing and synthesizing information is impossible without strong critical thinking skills, something Augustana has always given its students. Critical thinking is at the heart of a liberal arts education. Changes in how we evaluate and employ information have made a liberal arts education more relevant than ever.

I look back over the past 25 years with a great deal of satisfaction because of these and other advancements. But I also challenge our students and our younger faculty to look ahead 25 years. What changes do they imagine will take place by 2036? How will they use their critical thinking skills to harness those changes to the betterment of the communities they will be called to lead? Based on what I see from my perspective at Augustana, they are up to the challenge.

Steven C. Bahls is the eighth president of Augustana College.