This past weekend was spent at Luther College in the company of more than 100 alumni from a track and field program that won Iowa conference track championship titles 26 out of 30 years. The event was illuminating on many fronts.
It was right to celebrate the legacy of Luther Track and Field, especially to highlight the accomplishments of those athletes in the 1960s who earned a second place at Nationals when Division II and III were still combined.
But college athletics have changed immensely over the last fifty years. Even the formerly sacrosanct world of Division III athletics is not immune to the pressure on athletes to specialize rather than participate in college athletics.
Along with the changes in sports, there are radical contemporary pressures on small colleges in general. One Harvard University business professor, Clayton Christensen, predicts that half of US colleges will be out of business in ten to fifteen years. The disruption of so many small college educational institutions, he predicts, will come from online education.
“If you’re asking whether the providers get disrupted within a decade — I might bet that it takes nine years rather than 10.”
Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double.
In the face of such dire news, I’ve been watching my own alma mater Luther College meet the challenges of enrollment, endowment and alumni giving. There have been a number of major victories in these categories, and alumni tend to be loyal to Luther College, an indicator that also helps attract major donors.
Giving and receiving
I’m no major giver myself, but I do give annually. My donation level is not in response to satisfaction with the college. I’m just a man of normal means and give what I can. Several of my classmates and teammates are quite well-to-do, and I know they give quite a bit to Luther. Everyone counts.
But what I think the world receives from schools like Luther in return for investment in liberal arts education is something much more than how much money people make. Graduates of the college run organizations like Sodexo and even Marriott International, where Arne Sorenson is President and CEO.
Liberal arts graduates learn critical thinking, first and foremost. And I think there is plenty of evidence in this country right now that liberal arts educations are more important than ever. Critical thinking is a rapidly diminishing factor in the American context. The unhappy outcome is complicity with people and ideas that favor ugly thinking and simplistic slogans. We are rapidly becoming a nation that can’t tell morals from propaganda, and the evangelical community keen on legalistic religious rules and lean on actual conscience is all on board with this agenda. That’s a dangerous, sick sign that real education is being devalued and undermined by fascist groupthink.
Connecting the dots
You might ask, what does all this have to do with running or riding? Well I can tell you that those activities give you plenty of time to do critical thinking. I specifically recall the challenges met in taking a course titled Philosophy of Existentialism taught by Professor Richard Ylvisaker. That man did not accept the easy path to thought by any measure. If you had an idea, you had better also know how to logically defend it. That was challenging stuff when it came to concepts such as the ‘irreversibility of time’ and how we’re all locked into this race to death whether we like it or not. I’d be out there running ten or twelve miles and say aloud, “Irreversibility of time indeed…” There is nothing like being so present in a concept to learn what it really means.
So the question that brand of thinking begs is this: How are we supposed to live?
To its eternal credit, Luther College has the courage to press its students on those questions. But it also grandly supports other ways of learning. The institution is world-renowned for its music, the sciences, the arts and many other endeavors. I remain as proud to have emerged from that environment as my running career. Luther encourages all of us to become a thinking person who cares how morality is applied in this world rather shove a student through a program with only money-making on their mind.
Sure, liberal arts gets maligned as “impractical education.” Cynical people that hate liberalism as a concept––though they do not fully understand it, for America was founded on it––make fun of liberal arts majors for not turning their academic path into a career. But that is a specious claim. Nothing in this world is wasted if you truly believe in the value of education. But it is increasingly evident that too many people do not believe in the value of true education versus groupthink and raw ideology. A day spent on any social media outlet will prove that point to you. Even Linkedin, where you might think things would be better, is full of the jingoistic, banal claims of those seeking confirmation of their beliefs. That is not critical thinking in the least, and to question it is to invite a dogpile of cynicism.
So I’ve written books about experiences in religion, politics and business. One of these examined the vortex of the Conservative-Liberal divide.
What I do know is that I’ve solved problems, conceived ideas and figured out ways to implement them as a result of my liberal arts education. These include a summer reading program that increased completion rates at many libraries by more than 50%. Several even re-wrote their policies in order to participate.
I also organized an integrated marketing program designed to get regional theater companies to collaborate in marketing themselves. Every one of them originally feared giving way their contacts to the competition. Yet it all worked out to everyone’s benefit with more ticket sales and profits for the sponsoring institutions.
Coming up with solutions can require a lot of think time. I get that out on the road, on the bike, or even in the pool. So can you.
An uneven path
Even in grade school I’ve been told I was always asking questions and philosophizing. Yet as a high school student I struggled with subjects such as algebra. It made no sense to me. But English did, and biology to a degree. But that was not to be. I was a writer but not an English instructor. A nature lover but not a scientist. That’s also why you go to college. To figure out what you’re not.
Thus I struggled to make my choice of what college to attend, and Luther College came along rather late in the process. My first choice had been Augustana College in Rock Island, an option made real by invitation of coach Paul Olson (a Luther graduate). I visited the Augie campus in April of 1975 and ran a college level track workout with the team. That sold me initially.
But then the institution sent me a note that stated my high school grade average (High Cs) would mean that I would be on academic probation the first term I attended. That turned me off. So my father suggested we visit Luther College after I received a note from Coach Kent Finanger through a friend that was already signed up. Off we went to visit Decorah, Iowa together, father and son. It was rare type of trip for us in those days, but the July of 1975 proved warm and sunny, and my father warmly advised me after seeing the wild spaces around the college, “You would like it here. You can bird watch out the dorm windows.” That’s when I made my final college decision.
The college wrote me a note that said, “We see that you’ve done a lot of good things outside the academic arena. We think you’ll do fine in studies.” And that came true.
I doubt that such equivocation and late decision-making happens much these days. College choices are made at the earliest possible times, from entirely different perspectives and with much more preparation. For example, my 24 ACT was nothing to brag about even back then. But it did match the average ACT for Luther at the time, if I recall. I did not even think about what the test meant until I walked in that room to fill out the ovals in a Number 2 pencil. Not exactly the way to prepare for such an important academic mark. These days, it’s almost a scientific course unto itself to study for the ACT. I never even took the SAT.
Thus it is not a cliche to state that college-related things were much simpler then. The total cost of attending Luther that first year was $3400. By the time we graduated it was $4300. My senior year the college handed me an extra $500 because I’d achieved a B average for academic performance. I wasn’t a lost cause after all.
Cycles of time
All this ran through my mind as I watched Augie Coach Paul Olson address the 100 or so alumni in the upstairs of the Luther College union overlooking the Oneota Valley. He is an English professor who quoted poetry and told interesting stories to convey his message of inspiration about his days at Luther and the value of liberal arts education and sports. His words and obvious love of language made me realize that I could have been very happy with an Augie experience as well, and would have loved his influence as a coach and a teacher. But we only have one life to live.
He also spoke of creating an atmosphere of love within a program, and that was evidenced by the gathering of men and women from Luther College track and field and cross country in that room. I glanced over at my college cross country coach Kent Finanger, a man that had tremendous influence on so many generations and literally started the women’s program in cross country. What a visionary. That program now has national champions and countless cross country and track standouts to its credit. All because he believed in the importance of opportunities for women. It started with two gals, both brave souls, and Kenton Finanger’s encouragement. One of those gals and her spouse recently created an endowment for the cross country program. Thus are foundations for the future built.
New era at Luther College
There were also new coaches to be introduced, including the young new track and field coach, Stephen Fleagle, a North Central College graduate who is bringing his wife Kristin, a successful coach from Benedictine University, into the Luther fold. They inherit world-class facilities including a 200-meter indoor track, full weight rooms and the beautiful blue oval beneath the college union that adorns the base of the Oneota Valley. Things have come a long way in forty years since I attended, and now they have a new beginning.
Those are incredible opportunities for the college. They hold promise to continue Luther’s traditions on the conference and national circuit. There have been many successes under retired coach Jeffrey Wettach, a classmate of mine from Luther, but the aforementioned challenges related to college recruiting in general are the real hurdles to success facing small colleges these days.
For me, I’ll admit those years held almost too much significance for too long. By that I mean that I perhaps romanticized the place a bit too much. Yet I’ve always been proud of my Luther experience and even served as an Admissions counselor for a year. But back then the college was in a recruiting transition process and I was required to drive 1500 miles a week during the fall and spring seasons to cover the five hours from Luther to Chicago on Sunday, hit the the city and downstate Illinois for the week and then return on a Friday. I made my student recruiting quota, but it was admittedly hell on wheels, especially for a young man 21 years of age. The very next year they returned to allowing the Illinois rep to live in the market and avoid such a draining travel routine.
Round and round
As for the Augustana College connection, our Luther team competed on Arsenal Island in Rock Island for the NCAA Division III national cross country meet in 1978 and placed second. I also wound up racing many times on the Augustana track during my college career, and got to now Paul Olson relatively well. He and Coach Kent Finanger and North Central’s Al Carius are three of the greatest college coaches of this century.
Ultimately my own daughter visited both Luther and Augie. She chose Augustana for their Communications degree. The closest she came to sports during that era was covering athletic events for the school newspaper and yearbook (she’s a great photographer) . She also bravely handled live coverage of the John Deere Classic golf tournament for KVIK, the public radio station associated with Augustana. And rocked it. More proof that a liberal arts education gives you courage to try new things.
Keep on keeping on
So we all engage with this education and sports thing in our own ways. But it was the urgent and inspiring words of my former track coach Bob Naslund that moved me quite a bit last Friday night. He believes strongly in the virtues of enabling athletes to compete in multiple sports such as football or basketball and track. He spoke passionately about the dangers of specialization at Division III colleges, where scholarships are not allowed. He lamented the trend in which the creepy jealousy of youth sports programs has crept even into the world of small college sports, where athletes are now chained to one activity these days. That’s a shame.
But Luther College is self-aware, and there are other colleges at a similar level experiencing success in track and other sports, so it remains for my alma mater to figure out how to maximize its appeal like any other business or organization. The Go Norse chant engaged by the Reunion of Champions attendees was both furious and quaint in its urgency, but we’ll see if the echoes of the past can resonate into the future.
The last day I was in town, I was reminded that things tend to carry on despite our collective worries about the future as I finished up a bike ride the last morning I was in Decorah. A group of runners was approaching me along the same road I’ve run so, so many times. I could hear their voices and laughter as they trotted along. I thought of all the times I’d run with buddies and teammates on that same road. It is those connections that form the bonds of a lifetime and makes it all a true Reunion of Champions when they all get together.