The College’s first Board of Regents meeting for the 2021-22 academic year was held over Zoom on October 14th and 15th. As the Student Observer to the Board, I had the opportunity to sit in on most of their meetings, scribbling notes and offering my input. For additional reading, please see the Faculty Observer’s report, linked here.
The first meeting I attended included reports about the current status of St. Olaf from President David Anderson ‘74 (PDA) and the President’s Leadership Team (PLT). Both parties reported that the College was generally doing well financially and receiving enough student applications. The size of the Class of 2025 is ideal, and applications are on track for the Class of 2026.
However, the reports noted that the University of Minnesota was “a threat” to the College. They also stressed the importance of visits when attempting to attract students, noting that the yield rate for potential students who had visited the College was substantially higher than those who had not. Additionally, the Board heard about the College’s effort to attract more Davis UWC Scholars, particularly as the Davis Foundation recently increased the amount of financial aid the College receives on behalf of these students. The President’s report concluded by discussing the current COVID status on campus and by describing the efforts to increase diversity among the contractors working on the Ole Avenue project.
Members of the PLT spoke in greater detail about the Ole Avenue project and reported that the project was still on schedule and within budget, despite construction material shortages across the nation. They also spoke about plans for the new President’s House, a residence to serve both as the private home of the College President and as a space to entertain College VIPs.
The President’s house, with a budget of $5 million, will be one of the few “wet” venues on campus, offering a private bar and catering entrance, with an anticipated dining capacity of 24. One Regent expressed concern about ensuring both of these construction projects included DBEs. According to the US Department of Transportation,“DBEs are for-profit small business concerns where socially and economically disadvantaged individuals own at least a 51% interest and also control management and daily business operations.” Several Regents expressed concerns about the safety of the residence and its occupants, and the discussion ended with a discussion of what architectural features they’d like to see in the residence, with several Regents noting their desires for the house to be aesthetically pleasing.
The President and PLT were asked to clarify their characterization of UMN as “a threat”. Michael Kyle ‘85, VP for Enrollment and College Relations, noted that St. Olaf cannot compete with UMN in tuition price, so the College must work on expanding its applicant pool and distinguishing itself as a unique institution. One Regent alluded to a proposed plan for improving mentoring and advising as one way to distinguish St. Olaf.
This meeting ended with a discussion about the disparities between the student experiences of white students and domestic students of color, to use the same terminology as the Board. The Board heard that the College has made a lot of progress in diversifying the student body over the past 15 years, but that when considering race, there is still a clear gap in satisfaction with the St. Olaf experience.
One Regent asked about what happens to students who choose to not return to St. Olaf after their first year. Hassel Morrison, VP for Student Life, admitted that there were a variety of reasons, but asserted that the largest factor students choose to leave St. Olaf is for mental health reasons. Morrison spoke to the work the College is undertaking to provide more resources for students, such as offering a barbershop on campus. María C Pabón Gautier, VP for Equity and Inclusion, spoke about the importance of intentionally creating communities and highlighted the various ways she was working to do so in her new role. I told the Board that I was not surprised to hear that mental health problems were the largest reason students did not return to the College, which seemed to raise some concerns among some Regents.
The next meeting was an executive session, which focused on the upcoming Presidential Search. The Student and Faculty Observers and President’s Leadership Team are not invited to executive sessions.
After lunch, I attended a plenary session, where the Board heard about and discussed a report. This report was created by the Visioning Task Force, a task force of the Board of Regents created last year. The role of this task force over the past year was to identify 1.) commitments to provide the Board with big-picture goals 2.) charges the Board will delegate to other College leadership 3.) a mission statement that summarizes these commitments and charges. This task force and report are fairly significant, as the Board hasn’t seen a comparable plan with goals and charges to achieve those goals in recent years.
The task force was guided by the following Vision:
St. Olaf College will be known as one of the country’s best liberal arts colleges, nationally and internationally recognized for excellence, academic rigor and community inclusivity, while developing and preparing students of character to lead lives of substance as contributing citizens of the world.
The task force identified four big-picture commitments and seven charges as crucial to fulfilling this vision. The entire report can be read here, but the first charge, which is most relevant to students, is:
The Task Force recommends charging the President’s Leadership Team (PLT) to develop a collaborative and comprehensive advising and mentorship model which will include a four-year, personalized development plan for each student.
The Board heard from the Chair and other members of the Visioning Task Force. There was a great deal of discussion about the specific commitments and charges, but most Regents seemed to be in agreement that the plan was generally a sound one, and that creating this “whole-person” education by revamping the advising/mentoring/student support systems would be a bold and advantageous decision. The work of the Visioning Task force was commended, and then tabled until the following day to allow Regents to sleep on whether or not to delegate the specifics of this plan to the PLT.
After the plenary session, the Board split into committees and continued in smaller meetings. The Board of Regents has ten committees, and the Student Observer sits on the Community Life Committee. The CLC “helps to assure that the character of the St. Olaf community embodies the values and principles articulated in the college mission”.
The Community Life Committee meeting began with a joint session with the Advancement and College Communications Committee, where we listened to a presentation from Chris George ‘94, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, and Katie Warren ‘95, Chief Marketing Officer. This presentation focused on the current state of admissions and marketing strategies, and the committees had the chance to see some of the current marketing materials the college is using. I learned that the College is currently using TikTok to recruit students, which is kind of neat. One Regent asked about the perception of St. Olaf, and specifically how the dry campus policy impacts perceptions, as many colleges with dry campuses tend to be conservative. Another Regent mentioned that they have heard that the messaging about drinking is sometimes contradictory and confusing.
After the first presentation, we left the joint session, and the CLC heard from Brandon Cash ‘16, Director of Student Activities, and Martin Olague ‘04, Director of the Taylor Center. Cash spoke about the changes to New and Transfer Student Orientations, and how programming has increased for first-years and sophomores this year. I asked Cash about programming for juniors and seniors, and he said that is an area he’d like to expand, but the office needs more resources. Following Cash, Olague spoke about his new role as the Director of the Taylor Center, and his hopes for the year ahead.
After Olague, several students from the Board of Regents Student Committee (BORSC) and other branches of SGA engaged in small group discussions about the presentations and hopes for the school year. These breakout rooms took up about twenty minutes of the seventy-five-minute meeting time. My breakout room had an interesting discussion, but I didn’t leave feeling like we really accomplished a great deal, which, to be fair, is difficult to do in twenty minutes. After the committee meetings, the Board was done with meetings for the first day. A virtual social hour had been scheduled but was canceled due to a lack of interest from the Regents.
The second and final day of meetings began with another discussion about the Visioning Task Force’s report. The Regents were all in agreement about the overall intentions of the charges, but some stressed the importance of connecting especially BIPOC students to this work. President Anderson shared his thoughts about the top charge. He believes the mentoring and advising plan is an important one, and he’s excited to begin working on implementing it.
We also discussed the phrase “Affirming St. Olaf Culture, Values and Ethos” as one of the guiding commitments of the Vision. The Faculty Observer-Elect and Associate Professor of Music - Musicology, Louis Epstein, spoke about both the positive and negative perceptions of the phrase “Ole Culture” on campus. I concurred and mentioned how many students use “Ole Culture” to encapsulate everything racist and oppressive about the College. One Regent directly asked if “Ole Culture” was a bad word. Epstein responded that it was. The discussion ended with a Regent wondering if “affirming” was really the right word for this principle, and if perhaps a term like co-creating might fit better.
The Board unanimously agreed to pass the following resolution:
“The Board delegates to the PLT responsibility for taking the next steps to implement the Vision, beginning with a mentoring and support programing developing the whole person...The Board supports ongoing development, refinement, and implementation of the full vision.”
This means that the President’s Leadership Team is officially handed the responsibility of furthering “The Vision”, with the big-picture goals already established and laid out by the Board of Regents.
After the plenary about the Visioning Task Force, the Board engaged with students and faculty in a session titled “Developing the Whole Person”: A Conversation among Regents,
Faculty, and Students. This meeting included students, faculty, Regents, and PLT members, with the goal of hearing student and faculty input on factors relevant to the mentoring and advising component of The Vision. Students were recruited from all over the College, including SOAR leaders, Taylor Center Mentors, Wellness Center Peer Educators, JCs, SGA Executives, and Senators. Breakout rooms were designed to ensure an even distribution of individuals, and discussion was guided by several questions designed to help the College begin to understand the best ways to achieve these goals.
BORSC gathered feedback from the students who participated in this session, and the general consensus is that most students felt like there was not enough time allotted to adequately relay their feelings about the important issues of campuAfter the student and faculty engagement session, the Board heard summaries from each committee chair. The Regents were pleased to hear about the state of the endowment, and that, for the first time in the College’s history, total College assets surpassed one billion dollars.
Following the committee reports, the Board moved into an executive session and I left the meeting. The next Board meeting will be in February 2022, and it is currently scheduled to be held in-person, off-campus.