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Waldorf and Gustavus Adolphus confront differing views

Controversies drive student and faculty discussions at two ELCA college campuses

Controversies that arose from decisions made by leaders at two area Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) colleges show signs of moving toward resolution.
At Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, faculty members and students have complained that the school’s new president, Jack Ohle, has failed to consult the faculty before making important policy decisions. The resignation of Mary Morton, the provost and vice-president for academic affairs, in March — after Ohle took action to downgrade her role — set off a firestorm of protest.
At Waldorf College, just south of the Minnesota border in central Iowa, the recent decision by President Richard Hanson and the board of trustees to pursue sale of the school to a private online educational institution has given rise to considerable anxiety. Critics have questioned whether Waldorf could retain its sense of mission after cutting its official ties with the ELCA and becoming part of a profit-making operation.
Claude Brew, professor emeritus of English at Gustavus, reported in late June that a three-member faculty committee of which he is a part had completed a confidential evaluation of Ohle’s performance and submitted it to the school’s board of regents.
The faculty, voting 133 to 6 within a week of Morton’s resignation, demanded that the regents conduct such an evaluation immediately. The Student Senate took similar action 12 days later.
When the board refused, the faculty set up its own evaluation committee, despite warnings from Board Chairman Jim Gale, a Gustavus graduate and Washington, D.C., attorney. Professor Brew said his evaluation group met with Gale and a member of the board’s personnel committee before submitting its report. President Ohle has asked to meet with the faculty committee, Brew said, and that meeting was expected to take place in July.
Ohle also sent a letter to all members of the Gustavus community in early June. In it he acknowledged the faculty’s concerns about the future of the college. Ohle said he was working with faculty and student leaders, trustees, senior administrators, and others to “lay out a process for moving forward.” While details of the process had not been completed, the president said, “It will be designed to give all members of our community a voice and lead to clear conclusions.”
Brew said he believed the consultations described by Ohle would take place. The planned July meeting with his committee would probably be part of the process, he added.
The resignation of Mary Morton was seen by faculty members as a reversal of several years of careful planning. The new position of provost and vice- president for academic affairs was intended to signify that the person holding it was first among equals among Gustavus vice-presidents and that academics had top priority at the school.
Morton came to Gustavus a year before Ohle, during the presidency of Jim Peterson. Formerly the dean of Dayton University in Ohio, she was seen as the best person to lead the college through the infant stages of the new model of academic oversight.
Ohle’s discomfort with the concept of a provost became evident soon after he arrived on campus in July 2008, according to those familiar with the transition. Critics also said he was making a lot of decisions without the traditional “shared governance.” Some also found fault with the way he was chosen as president.
Regents had rejected three candidates to succeed Peterson before choosing Ohle, then president of Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, in April 2008. Unlike the other candidates, he did not visit the St. Peter campus for interviews prior to his selection.
Ohle’s record at Wartburg was examined by members of the Gustavus community in the months after he arrived, particularly the tight economic situation he left behind. That was partly related to construction of the three- acre, $30-million Wartburg-Waverly Sports and Wellness Center, which Ohle supported and for which, critics said, faculty input was ignored.
After Morton announced her resignation, the Faculty Senate voted to recommend that the college’s two academic deans, professors Mariangela Maguire and Eric Eliason, be considered to fill the provost post until a permanent replacement could be found.
However, the pair ended up withdrawing their names for consideration and also resigning as deans. In a letter to the Faculty Senate and other concerned parties, they said, “Given the lack of presidential support, it would be disingenuous for us to pursue a role when we do not believe we could succeed.”
Another resignation followed in late May when Hank Toutain, dean of students and vice-president for student affairs, left to take a similar post at Kenyon College in Ohio. That was the fourth of six Gustavus vice-president positions to change hands since Ohle’s arrival.
Ohle has not been without supporters on the Gustavus campus. In an interview in the Inside Higher Ed publication, Rich Hilbert, a professor of anthropology, said he was coaxed into sponsoring the faculty resolution and later regretted participating. Hilbert said he was told troubling stories about Ohle that later appeared unfounded and concluded there was a witch hunt taking place. “This guy is the one they’re going after and, as far as I can tell, he’s done nothing wrong,” Hilbert said.
At Waldorf, President Richard Hanson and the board of regents began looking for a new direction in the fall of 2008 after witnessing sharp declines in enrollment and donations. Possible mergers with other schools were considered before the leaders decided on the sale of the college’s assets to Columbia Southern University (CSU) of Orange Beach, Alabama, as the best way to avert a financial crisis. CSU is one of the nation’s first online universities.
As planning went forward, leaders of Waldorf and CSU signed a letter of intent in February to establish a formal relationship between the two institutions. In April the Waldorf Lutheran College Association, the college’s historical governing body made up of 190 Lutheran congregations, gave the go-ahead to negotiations with CSU. The vote was unanimous among the 75 congregations represented at the meeting.
In May Hanson and CSU President Robert Mayes signed an agreement for CSU to purchase Waldorf’s assets, subject to a number of conditions. Waldorf officials emphasized that the union is not a “done deal” and won’t be until the purchase of assets is completed, probably sometime in late fall. However, a number of major steps have already taken place, and officials of the two institutions are collaborating on a weekly basis.
Five new majors in Waldorf’s business program have been approved, and courses in those areas will be available at Waldorf this fall. The new majors are sports management, criminal justice administration, international management, organizational leadership, and fire-science administration.
As new majors are added in the future, some will be “blended” programs and some “hybrids.” In blended programs, the majority of courses will be taught by Waldorf professors in classrooms in Forest City with a minority taught online by teachers hired by the Waldorf faculty. In hybrid programs, the proportions will be switched, with the larger number of classes taught online.
Joy Newcom, a public relations specialist who serves as director of brand discovery and launch at Waldorf, emphasized that the identities of the two schools will not merge. “Waldorf’s identity as a private, residential, liberal arts institution remains the same,” she said. “Waldorf will continue to teach and have the same philosophical approach to teaching that it has always had.”
As for the role of religion at Waldorf, she said, “We will still offer the same number of religion courses, the same chapel schedule, and the same campus ministry organizations.”
Where Waldorf is heading into uncharted territory, she said, is its relationship with the ELCA. That tie will no longer be an official affiliation, and Waldorf will be part of a business enterprise whose top priority must be making profits.
In an article on the Waldorf-CSU proposal in The Des Moines Register, Gary Steinke, president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said he doubted that a nonprofit school could join forces with a for-profit school and still maintain its mission. “The mission of a for-profit institution is to make money,” he said. “The mission of a nonprofit is to do things that are very, very different than making money.”
The Rev. Stanley N. Olson, executive director of the ELCA Department of Vocation and Education, has been serving as an adviser to the Waldorf board during the negotiations. “The ELCA has indicated to Waldorf its desire to stay in conversation about the future of this longstanding relationship,” Olson said in an ELCA news release. “Of course, we are on unfamiliar ground, but that will bring new opportunities.”
He added: “Though the relationship would certainly not be the same as in past decades, this church remains committed to key values in higher education and to helping college and university students explore their vocations as people of faith. There is a good future for the Waldorf-ELCA partnership.”
Waldorf has been one of 28 colleges and universities affiliated with the ELCA. But, Olson pointed out, the church also supports or relates to campus ministries at several hundred public and private colleges and universities across the country.
“With Waldorf leaders, we are looking at a variety of options and staying open,” Olson declared.