One of the most challenging aspects of life on the road doing admissions work was feeling disconnected from the core mission of Luther College. It all seemed abstract out there in the field; showing photos ins a binder, talking with kids and parents, and standing there at college nights wondering who might come along. What I did realize was that Luther’s growing fears about enrollment and funding were pressing. As admissions counselors, we were called upon to be the cure.
Yet no one really had that conversation with us, at least not with me. Perhaps the senior admissions counselors knew what the numbers meant, but those of us just starting out in the admissions game were given some near-term numbers, our quotas, and little else to go on. Go get it done.
I felt a parallel between that circumstance and all the running I’d done. Distance runners in the 1970s and 80s were running blind, in many respects. We had no technology or data to measure our efforts other than a watch and a resting heart rate. The training strategies now available simply didn’t exist. Of course, there were evolving “theories” about training. Some, like Arthur Lydiard, advocated Long Slow Distance while others like Brooks Johnson at Stanford insisted that running long and slow was a waste of time.
So we picked and stole what we could from the prevailing theories. Most of the time––in track especially––we made it up as we went along. Steal a workout concept here. Borrow a training schedule there. Hope that your coaches knew what they were doing. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t. For most of my four years, we just ran hard every single workout. That wasn’t the best approach, but it’s all we knew how to do.
That “run hard all the time” was how it felt out in the admissions world as well. Throughout February and early March of 1980, I went all out on the high school visits and college nights. Then I’d drive back to Luther and work in the office on Saturday, meeting students and parents, leading campus tours, and making follow-up phone calls with prospects I hoped to meet in the following weeks. I drove thousands of miles to reach students in all kinds of situations, from rural homesteads to inner-city tenements in the space of a single day.
Yet in mid-March, when I got back to Luther, I was pulled aside by the director of admissions who had a message for me. I journaled: “I got a talking to from (name redacted.) He asked me if I “was really in the game.”
Surely he was getting pressure from the higher-ups to make the numbers that year. Like all small colleges operating during the crunch of a recession, Luther was facing tough economic circumstances in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As documented on FederalReserveHistory.com, “The economy was already in weak shape coming into the downturn, as a recession in 1980 had left unemployment at about 7.5 percent. Both the 1980 and 1981-82 recessions were triggered by tight monetary policy in an effort to fight mounting inflation.”
I understood why the director of admissions had that conversation with me, but I got the feeling he still categorized me as the guy that couldn’t navigate a stick-shift car up a hill––as if that was all he needed to know about my problem-solving capabilities. But I looked at the job from a highly objective and analytical viewpoint. I understood quite well that I was a rookie admissions counselor taking over the territory of a guy that was successful in that role for ten years. I knew it was a big task to do better than he had done. From the outset, I was running just to keep up with the past pace.
My numbers to that point were decent, but not superior to prior years. So I kept up the spin cycle of weekly trips to my territory, meeting new prospects (juniors) while encouraging high school seniors to get their applications submitted and their deposit fees in. More than any other territory in the Luther domain, recruiting students in Illinois and Chicago was a complex process. I visited Lutheran churches to meet with pastors, and followed up with guidance counselors after my visits. I was making connections and building relationships. It all takes time, and I knew that.
Spoke in a wheel
Years later I had an incident that served as a perfect metaphor for my admissions experience. I was out cycling on a 60-mile ride when one of the spokes in my bike wheel snapped. It rattled for a few hundred yards before I figured out what was making the noise. I tried to keep riding, but the entire wheel started to shimmy and go out of shape. At that point, the bike was unsafe to ride. I never knew that a single broken spoke could undermine an entire wheel. That’s why bicycle maintenance before a ride and tying your shoes before a run is so important. Success––even basic survival–– is about taking care of the small things the best way you can. As an admissions counselor, I was one of the spokes in the big wheel of Luther College. The college had made some big changes, but I’m not sure they understood all the pressures it was placing on the spokes in the wheel.
I tried to be honest with myself about my performance. “Come to think of it,” I wrote in my journal. “I treat this (job) like I used to treat basketball––I play how I like and don’t sense the concept of the game. I wonder, does Elly? Even Mary?”
I was referring to two fellow “freshman” admissions counselors. Years later I learned that the President of Luther College invited them in to discuss their admissions experience and how the department could be improved. They pointed out inefficiencies in the recruiting process and proposed changes that the college made the following year, including a salary increase. The most significant change made from year-to-year in the Illinois territory was a return to the policy of allowing the Chicago market admissions counselor to reside in the market rather than driving back and forth every week. That took the pressure of a critical spoke in the wheel. I was glad about that for the guy that followed me in the role.
In the city
I spent the third week of March meeting with students in Chicago’s inner-city schools followed by college fairs at night. “How frustrating,” I wrote. “School visits were the pits.”
It was tough getting inner-city kids to attend a college six hours away in rural Iowa. In particular, it was difficult to get the parents of young black women to consider sending their daughters so far away. I met many athletes interested mostly in our football and basketball programs, but they’d walk away upon hearing that Division III offers no scholarships. Who could blame them?
The other challenge was aligning kids academically with a school like Luther, where the average ACT score at the time was 24. Studies over the last four decades indicate that the ACT test has a built-in cultural bias. As chronicled on FairTest.org, “Race, class and gender biases give White, affluent, and male test-takers an unfair edge. ACT scores are directly related to family income: the richer students’ parents are, the higher are average scores. But score gaps between groups on the ACT cannot be explained away solely by differences in educational opportunity linked to social class. According to ACT research, when all factors are equal, such as course work, grades and family income, Whites still outscore all other groups. If the ACT were not biased, Asian Americans, who take more academic courses than any other group, would likely score even higher. Moreover, boys score slightly higher than girls across all races, despite boys’ lower grades in high school and college when matched for identical courses.”
When meeting with inner-city students that had less-than-average ACT scores, I’d still encourage them to apply to Luther. They’d clearly worked hard for the grades they’d achieved, and it didn’t seem to matter what some test said about their learning ability. One student had a composite score of 8, and I had no idea what to make of that test outcome. Who knows the circumstances in which that student took the test? And years later, I read an unconfirmed story that some whiz got a score of 0 on the ACT. That’s probably an urban legend, but to do that, one would need to know all the right answers in order to get them wrong. One of my best friends scored a 35 on his ACT, but I still refer to him as the “dumbest smart person I know.” He shouldn’t get too cocky, right?
Yet somehow, despite the hurdles of culture and location, we did have success enrolling students from Chicago at Luther. Today, the campus encourages and embraces diversity in many ways, including cultural, academic, sexual orientation and more. Some even say that the college has gone too far in the diversity direction. So the debate over admissions policies continues to this day.
As for my own state of mind, I was getting fed up with the insane amount of traveling to do my job. On March 24 I wrote, “This situation sucks. This job has no demands, just a complement of necessities (hassles––by my attitude) I have to leave.”
The doubts on other fronts didn’t help. My girlfriend continued yanking my chain. “(She) is half-courting it again. She shoots nothing but jumpers, saving her heart, in my eyes. Her parents think I lack ambition. Yet if I make it, they’ll say it was their way of helping me achieve my potential. They distrust me.” I wrote a few comments about her drinking, smoking, and sleeping habits, and observed: “I may not be holy, but I’m healthy. My maturity may be behind two years, but everyone is nowadays.”
There was another incident that didn’t help my attitude in late winter. I dropped into a Luther friend’s college dorm one weekend while I was in town. The Pink Floyd album The Wall was playing, and his friends were toking up and took delight in mocking me for giving in to “the man.” The implication was that I’d somehow “sold out” by going to work for Luther––or even going to work at all.
I thought to myself, “Screw them. They’ll get their turn.”
Besides, I was quite familiar with the meaning of Pink Floyd songs. During one of our college track meets at some other small school, I looked up to see a counterculture kid perched in his dorm window with his giant speakers blasting Pink Floyd’s Have A Cigar toward the stadium. The lyrics are disdainful toward businesspeople thinking they know everything yet are in many ways clueless:
Well I’ve always had a deep respect
And I mean that most sincere
The band is just fantastic
That is really what I think
Oh by the way, which one’s pink?
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy
We call it ‘riding the gravy train’
I wasn’t riding the gravy train at Luther. I knew where I was struggling, and the reasons too. Most of all, I was trying my best to be honest with myself––and with them. On April 10 I wrote, “I’ve made up my mind to leave Luther. I will try to weigh my strengths and go for a position that will contribute toward or make a career. I have not done Luther justice, although I have tried––my successes have been in the quality of my work, and quantity is what we need this year. Too bad it happened so fast. But I must be myself now, and work on the talents I have.”
Attempting to gain some normalcy through it all, I ramped up my running mileage in late March and early April with a a set of fifty-mile weeks. During that whole month, I used the time between the high school visits and college fairs to go for runs or get out birding. Spring migration was underway. It was a tremendous relief to get out in the woods in the early morning with the birds singing and forget about tracking down high school kids.
As for migration, I felt the urge to move on myself. On April 21 I returned to the Luther campus and let the director of admissions know that I’d be leaving at the end of the year. “Today I told Dave I am through with Admissions. He didn’t seem too disappointed.” I would finish out the year and fulfill my commitment of recruiting 70 students. I had not failed after all.
The Big Exhale
Feeling relieved and determined to move on once the job was done, I jumped into a six-mile time trial with some Luther guys in early May and ran a time of 33:00 with splits of 5:13, 10:23, 15:51, 24:30 (4.5). I ran decently, but was pretty tanked. I wrote: “A struggle. Glessner 30:29.” Mark Glessner was Luther’s top runner at the time.
On May 10, I watched Luther win the conference meet at home, reclaiming the title we’d lost the year before when our pole vaulter screwed the pooch by passing to an impossible height. Watching Luther win again should have felt like a vindication of some sort, but by that point, it didn’t seem to matter.
The weather was warming and my hormones were flowing. I missed my girlfriend who was busy bouncing around in her first job for the Dayton-Hudson company up in Minneapolis. To work off energy, I piled on the running miles as a way to process all that was happening.
Then I sat down for an eye appointment with a local optometrist and received the scare of my life. At first, the doctor would not tell me what was wrong.
He said, “Oh…” and stepped back from the examination. ‘
“What… Oh?” I demanded to know. “I’m not leaving this chair until you tell me what you saw.”
“Well, I can’t be sure,” he replied. “But I think you have a retinal detachment.”
I’d never heard of that. He explained that if left untreated, the lining of the eye would likely come undone and I’d lose sight in that eye. I sat there stunned.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“You need to go to the Gunderson Clinic in LaCrosse,” he told me. “I’ll call right away.”
That was how the summer of 1980 began.