Author: Cameron Judge-Becker

Revenue down, tuition up

Even as many St. Olaf students talk about the “St. Olaf bubble,” a label for the college’s apparent insulation from the rest of the world, the institution itself is often impacted by the important issues facing the rest of the nation. Currently, St. Olaf is working to address hate speech and graffiti on campus and sexual assault and misconduct while fostering an environment in which all voices are heard and valued. How the college has dealt with these concerns has sometimes been a subject of immense controversy, drawing state and nationwide press and scrutiny. However, some issues affect St. Olaf in ways that are difficult or impossible for students to see.

As debate continues across the United States on the merits, nuances and challenges of free higher education, the price tag at private liberal arts colleges like St. Olaf continues to rise. The total comprehensive fee per student, including the cost of tuition, room and board, was $52,730 for the fiscal year 2016, up one percent from the previous year. This year, the price of tuition at St. Olaf is projected to increase four percent according to Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Janet Hanson.

The rise in tuition costs is only part of the college’s financial landscape. While some students might attribute the price increase to St. Olaf’s capital investments and improvements, such as a new ice rink or a renovated Holland Hall, the real causes are more nuanced.

“The Holland Hall [renovation] budget isn’t part of our operating budget. That project is funded from a different pool of money,” Hanson explained. “The one area that we’re seeing significant increases in – and this is happening across the U.S. – is the increase in health insurance costs.” The cost of insuring St. Olaf employees has risen by almost 10 percent over the last year, and Hanson anticipates an even greater increase this fiscal year. Overall, the human component of St. Olaf – salaries and benefits for its faculty and staff – constitutes almost 60 percent of the total budget, and the college is busy strategizing how best to generate revenue and mitigate expenses without negatively impacting student life on the Hill.

Even as the Board of Regents expresses concern that expenditures have outpaced revenues, Hanson explained, the Financial Office operates under the mindset that the student experience is the top priority.

“The premise in all of this is that we maintain the student experience,” Hanson said. “It’s our primary focus and there are things that we can do that won’t impact that experience. Even with tuition going up four percent we’ve found that our discount rate is probably growing at a faster rate than any of our other expenditures.” Cost savings can be found in a variety of places, such as the utilities bill after a mild winter, faculty and staff retirements, travel and meals. But even with these savings, the college faces a complex financial future.

Normally, St. Olaf allocates between $1.5 million – $2 million for contingency. These funds can be used to pay expenses the college might not be able to plan for during the fiscal year. However, for this year, as part of the balanced budget, only $550,000 could be set aside for contingency. These funds were quickly depleted by a $700,000 faculty accrual accounting error along with legal expenses. To make matters worse, despite a strong incoming first-year class, the college saw less revenue than it had anticipated from private grants and gifts.

Despite the combination of circumstances that led to this less-than-optimal financial situation, Hanson offered a cautiously optimistic prognosis.

“The term ‘budget shortfall’ is somewhat misleading because we have taken measures to address that,” she said. “Any given fiscal year you’re going to have those budget variances and you watch them. When you find out about them you take steps to mitigate them.”

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Music major undergoes revision

As St. Olaf prepares to review and revise its general education (GE) curriculum, one area of the college has already experienced similar changes on a smaller scale. The St. Olaf music department, which is comprised of more than 60 faculty and staff and hundreds of students, recently conducted an intense review process that culminated in substantial changes to prerequisites for popular courses, more opportunities for non-music majors to participate in music courses and the addition of a new faculty member.

The changes affect all incoming first-year students and beyond, and they have the general goal of enabling students to take a variety of new courses, according to music department chair Professor Justin Merritt.

The changes have several far-reaching implications. For instance, by adding elective courses and relaxing prerequisites, the department hopes to open itself up to more non-music majors who might be unable to participate under the current structure.

“In the past, if you were interested in an advanced musicology class, you had to take two full [prerequisites] to take that class,” Merritt said. “[These changes] were implemented with the idea that students can take all these wonderful different kinds of courses, whether it’s musicology, composition or jazz history, and that they can design their own plan of study without us doing it for them.”

But opening up the department to non-music majors is only a “side benefit” of the changes, according to Merritt. Affording students “the chance to develop their plan of study with greater freedom” is the ultimate goal of the reforms.

Intrinsic to the goal of increased academic freedom is the hiring of an ethnomusicologist, “someone who studies music from a sociological and ethnographic perspective,” Merritt explained. By requiring fewer core courses for music history or theory, for example, students will be freer to enroll in the new professor’s classes.

As would be expected given the scope of the changes, the music department did not design and implement these revisions overnight.

“We had two full years of working groups that came up with different plans,” Merritt said. “We spent almost a year devising the curriculum and making sure everybody would be able to graduate, so yeah, it’s a long time coming.”

Student reactions to the changes are generally positive. Devon Steve ’17, who serves as a student representative of the music department, voiced his enthusiasm for the direction the revisions promise to take the department.

“I think it’ll be a great change because it gives first-year music majors a chance to really dive deep into the parts of music that they really want to explore, but also gives non-music majors even greater opportunity to participate in the music curriculum and benefit from the experiences that music majors have,” Steve said.

Ultimately, the changes are in keeping with the mission of St. Olaf in general, according to Merritt.

“Music is a liberal art and always has been,” he said. “This is going to give us the opportunity to have that be ever more the case at St. Olaf.”

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General Education requirements under review

The overall structure of St. Olaf’s General Education (GE) curriculum has remained unchanged for almost 25 years. While some minor adjustments occurred in the early 2000s, a new task force has recently begun the difficult job of assessing the effectiveness of the current GE structure and recommending changes.

Most courses at St. Olaf satisfy one or more GE requirement. Currently, the entire college faculty establishes GE requirements. When a course is proposed, it is accredited for a certain GE classification by the St. Olaf Curriculum Committee based on the committee’s judgement of how well the course meets the guidelines for the relevant requirement.

The current GE curriculum is divided into three general categories: Foundation, Core and Integrative Studies. Each GE requirement is understood in terms of its “intended learning outcomes,” which describe “the knowledge, proficiencies, practices, and commitments that students should develop as a consequence of their St. Olaf experience,” according to the St. Olaf webpage.

Overall, through interdisciplinary GE requirements, St. Olaf aims to ensure that its students graduate with the intellectual tools they need to navigate a changing world.

“There are areas of learning that students need to know about,” Professor David Booth said. Booth teaches in the religion department and serves on the GE review task force. “And [those areas] might show up in any department.”

GE requirements and their interdisciplinary nature are not unique to St. Olaf. Carleton College also has GE requirements divided into areas such as “Curricular Exploration,” “Global Citizenship,” or “Argument and Inquiry Seminars.” Macalester College, on the other hand, utilizes a distribution system that requires that students complete a certain number of credits across the departments. St. Olaf had a similar system until the early 1990s when GE requirements were adopted.

“[At St. Olaf], a distribution system required … that students complete a major, but then they also had to take one history course, one philosophy course, one course in social sciences, and so on,” Booth explained. “In other words, they had to take a bunch of courses distributed across the departments.”

According to Booth, such a system struggled to give students “a well-rounded experience of what life requires.” Using the example of a poet, Booth explained that under a distribution system that required an introduction to biology, a poet would be forced to enroll in a class that merely introduced students to the biology major, “laying the groundwork for a bunch of upper-level bio courses, and that’s not what poets need to know about science.” Alternatively, Booth argued that under a GE system, a poet might take a course addressing questions such as, “How do scientists form questions? How do they gather evidence? Who funds science?” In sum, “a poet doesn’t need to know the specific foundation of biology nearly as much as they need to know how the whole enterprise of science works in a modern, democratic society,” Booth said.

After several years of informal discussion among the faculty concerning the modern applicability of St. Olaf’s GE system, the Curriculum Committee, which is comprised of faculty elected to the committee by their peers, invited the entire St. Olaf faculty to vote for and adopt a resolution creating a task force to review current GE requirements and structure. The task force has five members who were elected to serve on the task force and represent the five different branches of the faculty – natural science, social science, humanities, fine arts and interdisciplinary studies. Five other members were appointed by deans of the college “to fill in gaps in that group and ensure that a diversity of the faculty were represented,” Booth said. Finally, two current students also serve in the task force.

Its mission, Booth explained, is to quickly produce “a report that will evaluate the effectiveness of the current curriculum in meeting important goals, and make a recommendation about whether or not to launch into a full-blown process of reimagining and reinventing.”

The scope of the changes to the college’s curriculum is difficult to judge this early in the process, but Booth is confident that at least some aspects will be adjusted, given the extent of change in the world in general and in the composition of the student and faculty bodies in particular.

“The things we know about have changed. Our understanding of our disciplines have changed,” Booth explained. Perhaps alluding to the HWC requirement in particular, Booth elaborated that “our sense of the boundaries between ‘Western civilization’ and the rest of the world has changed.”

Furthermore, given that almost all of the faculty has turned over since the 1990s, current St. Olaf professors did not have an opportunity to shape the GE requirements applied to their courses.

“The vast majority of the faculty, including the youngest, brightest, most energetic and capable junior faculty didn’t get their say about [GE structure], and took it as a preexisting thing,” Booth said. “All the arguments that made it seem reasonable and exciting got lost in the sands of time; it just seems like a bunch of requirements.”

While it may seem that the task force wields immense power to quickly shape the future of St. Olaf’s curriculum, Booth envisions a different picture.

“In order for this to be successful, my hunch is that no task force will make a proposal that gets adopted,” he explained. “Instead, a task force will make a proposal that will become the target of lots of rich and earnest arguing and criticism, and the criticism will come from good places … and after months of deliberation, and maybe far removed from the initial recommendation of the task force, finally there’ll be a proposal that can get basic support from the faculty.”

The future of St. Olaf’s GE system might be unclear, but its underlying motives and philosophy remain the same, according to Booth.

“We want to do the best we can to figure out what students need to learn about, what skills they need, what attitudes and habits of mind they need in order to be good and do well in a world that desperately needs them to be good and do well,” Booth said. “GE [was conceived by] faculty who are motivated by loving care of students who will live in a world that is slightly terrifying.”

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New task force aims to combat racism on campus

Following several acts of racially motivated vandalism, the Student Senate voted unanimously in favor of creating a Task Force for Analysis and Action on Race. According to an email addressed to the student body from the Student Government Association (SGA) President and Vice President Emma Lind ’17 and Sarah Bresnahan ’17, the task force will “work with existing groups and efforts to create a more racially aware and inclusive campus that strives to respect the dignity of all marginalized identities.”

The task force seeks to be a “proactive, instead of reactive, body,” according to an email from its co-chairs, Nouf Al-Masrafi ’19, Eden Fauré ’17 and Marni Kaldjian ’17. Though still in its early stages, students are encouraged to email the task force ( if they are interested in getting involved or are simply seeking more information.

While some students might view the recent acts of vandalism and hate speech as the product of only a handful of students, those on the task force feel differently.

“We felt compelled to start the task force because of rhetoric and practices we were seeing on campus,” Al-Masrafi said. “Oftentimes, when acts of racism happen on campus, these incidents are treated as isolated and the fault of [a] few. However, we believe that acts such as these are the result of larger climates and racism on an institutional level.”

When discussing the task force’s goals and preliminary work, Al-Masrafi emphasized how new the group is.

“We are in the very early stages of this task force and are still in the process of forming our goals and objectives,” she explained. “Before the action part can take place, we need to do a lot of thoughtful and active listening to those around us.”

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Faculty in Focus: Professor Joshua Anderson

One of the political science department’s newest professors is Joshua Anderson. Even though he often sports a St. Olaf T-shirt and other displays of Ole pride, Anderson actually graduated from Carleton College. In fact, fellow St. Olaf professor Adam Berliner attended Carleton at the same time.

Anderson’s path through academia in general, and his relocation across the Cannon River to a professorship at St. Olaf in particular, has been quite a journey. Even before attending Carleton, Anderson knew what he wanted to study.

“I was really interested in politics and justice when I was a teenager,” he said. This interest naturally led him to the political science department.

“I found myself really enjoying the political theory classes because I felt like they were more speaking to the big picture questions about justice, equality and liberty.”

After earning his B.A. from Carleton, Anderson tried to work in politics and campaign to enact change.

“I thought that I wanted to change the world after college so I went and worked in politics for three years,” he said. “I worked for the DFL for six months after college, and all the elections I worked on we lost, so that was an interesting first experience in politics, losing these campaigns that you’re spending 80, 90 hours a week on.”

It wasn’t the electoral defeats that changed the trajectory of his career, however.

“I felt like the people I was working with didn’t care about ideas,” he said. “I got the distinct impression from doing that work that the people who I worked with were interested in winning for its own sake, like politics was a chess game and they enjoyed it for the challenge. I didn’t really feel like they were terribly interested in making anyone’s life better. And so I found myself really frustrated by that.”

Pursuing a new kind of challenge, Anderson decided to enroll in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. The work was unlike anything he had done before.

“It was a baptism by fire, reading 800 or 1,000 pages a week,” he said. “Grad school literally ruined my eyes.”

Always in search of new intellectual challenges, Anderson tried to find a new and interesting topic for his dissertation.

“I felt there was this gap of knowledge on what political scientists were doing in the United States in the 19th century,” he said. Around this time, he received an email detailing how St. Olaf needed a political science professor to teach one or two classes.

“I applied, and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

The differences between the student bodies at the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf are very clear to Anderson.

“There’s a very consumeristic attitude towards learning at a big school,” he said. “Students expect a teaching product to be produced for them and if they don’t like what they see, they get angry or upset.”

This attitude contrasts with his current students at St. Olaf.

“I really appreciate that students at St. Olaf are learning because they care, and they want to explore ideas,” he said. “That’s the same reason I went to college; because I cared about ideas as such. So I appreciate it when I have others in the classroom who seem to think similarly.”

Anderson noticed other traits that set St. Olaf students apart from those at previous institutions where he has taught.

“You guys have a real seriousness and trust that I appreciate,” he said. “I felt like at the University of Minnesota, I’d give students these books and I’d be like, ‘please read this, I swear to you it’s important,’ and I feel that with St. Olaf students I give them a book and they might say, ‘This is weird, I don’t get this, but I’ll read it anyway because I trust that it will be important and I’ll get it sooner or later.’”

When asked what his plans are for the future, Anderson expressed interest in a career in academia, preferably at St. Olaf.

“I probably enjoy teaching at St. Olaf better than I would enjoy teaching at Carleton; St. Olaf students are very polite” he said. “It was a real shock coming down here and teaching [in a place] where students would hold the door for me and other little things like that.”

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