Augustana College President Stephen Bahls’ mission to reach out beyond the campus — bust out of the infamous Augie “bubble” — gets serious one week from today.
Bahls and his wife, Jane, head north to the Arctic Circle for a sabbatical to provide the kinds of expansive experiences he hopes students embrace during their four years at Augustana.
In an hourlong discussion with the Times Editorial Board, Bahls reflected on his nine years at the helm of the Rock Island college and forecast more changes in store.
One of the changes Augie won’t be making is to the academic calendar. Bahls pushed hard to drop the long-standing trimester system and replace it with traditional semesters. Most faculty balked. As much as he favors semesters, Bahls said he’s more committed to Augie’s shared governance model. So when the faculty voted no, that was the final word.
“One of the challenges at institutions of higher education is that the board controls the money and business decisions. The faculty, which has extraordinary job security, many of them with tenure — a lifetime of employment — decide whether something is implemented or not, because implementation is in the classroom.”
Bahls expanded the college board of trustees from 30 to 40 members, bringing in new members whose education, careers and — in some cases, Bahls acknowledged — wealth benefit the college. The 40-member board in January conducted a goal-setting retreat in Chicago with 40 faculty members.
“If we want to maintain traditional systems of governance, which many people think are awkward — tenured faculty and a board that comes to campus three times per year — we need to be more accountable on these issues and the faculty needs to lead the way.”
Augustana just completed a four-year fund drive that reached $152 million, 50 percent higher than goal. Quad-City businesses and individuals pledged $31 million. The money is paying for more courses and faculty, and providing every student with an opportunity to apply for $2,000 to fund an overseas experience or state-side internship. That new Augie Choice program places students all over the globe, including new connections to Vietnam and the college’s 30-year history of collaborations in China.
“Every student has an opportunity to enhance their learning here with an overseas experience,” Bahls said.
More than half have.
The fund drive also will help grow enrollment beyond the current 2,500. Bahls said the college met its goal of recruiting classes with 20 percent minority students. The next goal is for 10 percent international enrollment, enhancing the school’s global emphasis.
Closer to home, Augustana is looking to draw from beyond suburban Chicago, the largest source of new students. W. Kent Barnds said the school targeted Colorado, where United flies directly to Denver from the Quad-Cities. Next year, 20 Colorado students will be attending Augustana.
Those students and others arriving in August will see more construction. The college broke ground Thursday on a $20 million student center to be attached to the library. This follows a decade of new dorms, a rec center, soccer field, baseball field and restoration and renovation of Old Main. Bahls detailed broad visions for a multimillion-dollar stadium makeover, with plazas, enclosed boxes, a new playing surface and moving the home stands to the north side of the field.
Looking further ahead, Bahls anticipates a new arts building and performance space. These dreams still need board and faculty input. But one priority will be buildings more accessible to the public. Much of the 115-acre hilly, wooded campus is accessible mainly on foot. The next construction phase will be different.
“I think you will see parts of Augustana gravitate from the center to the edges of campus,” he said. He envisions a theater and galleries closer with adjacent parking lots more accessible to the public.
Augustana partnered with a private apartment developer on a 15-unit building south of campus. The college committed to a one-year lease to place seniors, who traditionally live off campus. After that, the building will be leased privately, but intended for seniors moving out of dorms. Bahls said he remains open to other private partnerships that could encourage new businesses conducive to the college community.
For example, the college might lease apartment space for students above ground-floor retailers, providing cash flow to renovate existing buildings or build new.
“I love that neighborhood because it reflects America, in terms of racial diversity, cultural diversity,” said Bahls, whose college-owned home is on the south side of the campus. “It needs to remain a great neighborhood. We need to avoid a situation where people who own their homes feel the need to sell to landlords who will rent exclusively to students.”
Instead, Bahls envisions partnerships to encourage diversity.
“Would we make loans to employees who choose to move into the neighborhood, for their downpayment or to help renovate? That’s something to consider. How about if a widow or widower would give their house to Augustana, would we say, ‘we’ll shovel your snow, or if you need a new roof, we’ll put a new roof on it?’”
“This is a precious neighborhood with great people who have been tolerant when our students on occasion can be a little noisy at times when some neighbors, including me, already are in bed.”