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Inauguration address: President Andrea Kathryn Talentino

Augustana College President Andrea Kathryn Talentino delivered her inauguration address on Oct. 15, 2022, before the crowd of students, alumni and employees on the campus Quad.

Good afternoon, faculty, staff, students, trustees, family, friends, delegates and special guests.

Thank you for being here on this special day for Augustana. It was amazing to me, as I contemplated this moment, this day, to think that it has only happened eight times previously. I am humbled to stand here as just the ninth person to lead this great institution and to think of the distinguished leaders before me. It is a small but mighty group, and I am honored to stand in their company.

I want to extend my deepest thanks to my family and friends who are here and have been so instrumental in helping me arrive at this day. My husband, Tom Tarnow, deserves special thanks for being an extraordinary partner and supporter, which includes mundane tasks like doing all the laundry and more existential support like always being willing to explore and shift and change.

I also want to take a moment to recognize some important people who could not be here but were equally instrumental — my mother, Win Talentino, who raised me with a liberal arts focus, Jancy Dorfman, who taught me that good leaders listen, and Dick and Barbara Rosecrance, who supported me throughout graduate school and made me and ultimately Tom and my children part of their family.

What is the value of education?

Now I’m going to pose a question that has become commonplace. What is the value of education? There was a time when this would not have seemed a reasonable question, but as technology has changed our world, making information more accessible and easily shared, and allowing people to spread their expertise widely, and cheaply, the question has become more compelling. Especially since, at the same time, colleges and universities have gotten more expensive and, from some perspectives, more inaccessible.

There are two ways to answer, and both are essential. The first focus is the perspective of Augustana College, and the second is the perspective of our wider society.

Fortunately, Augustana makes this question easy to answer. I could start with the liberal arts foundation, which all of us value, or with the principles of Lutheran education, which focuses on purpose. Some of you have heard me speak before about the importance of an education with purpose, one that is not solely or even most importantly about us as individuals but is about what we do with what we learn. At the heart of that purpose is the essence of Augustana, transformational engagement, the process of becoming which leads to individual and social development.

Augustana was founded in 1860 to ensure that there would be enough pastors and teachers to serve the growing Swedish immigrant population. The Midwest was seen as an Eden of sorts, far more hospitable than some of the rocky and rural areas of Sweden. Land was cheap and fertile, and the U.S. also offered political freedom and a promise of a life far different from the repressive monarchies and rigidly hierarchical states of Europe. The transformation of Augustana from that limited beginning to, within 25 years, a school that advanced education in the liberal arts and graduated its first female is emblematic of the transformational ethos that is at its heart.

Transformation at Augustana

The single most common story I have heard from alumni, from people on campus, and from people who know of the college, is the story of transformation through Augustana. Students who came not expecting or believing that they could make a difference and went on to great things. Staff who have found a community that they never envisioned. Business leaders around the Quad Cities who brought in Augustana students as interns or workers and made lifelong connections.

Many alumni have told me stories of how they arrived at Augustana, not sure of their abilities or their dreams, and they found curiosity and courage in their time here. The college taught them lifelong habits, as one alumnus put it, of looking around the corner to see what could happen next, and being open to chance and change as they charted their personal and professional path.

Transformation is our single greatest competitive advantage and something that Augustana creates at a higher level than any institution I have known. While many places might have similar courses or co-curricular programs, the combination at Augustana, the closeness of the community, and the opportunity and support to try anything, coupled with the advice of all of you, the employees, create a result that is different from other places.

That transformation is essential to recognize because it shows why an Augustana is so valuable. I can, of course, absorb information through a YouTube video. During the height of the pandemic, my husband learned how to fix the dishwasher and install a toilet through YouTube. Any of my students could pull up a discussion of the "Prisoner’s Dilemma" on the web rather than listen to me talk about it in class.

But what really is, education? Absorbing information is certainly part of it, and a primary focus of those who suggest that college is an unnecessary and excessively costly proposition. Why spend money and time to get information when you can read it or watch it? But information is the smallest part of education, and by far the least important part. Most importantly, information on its own is not transformational.

Where education happens

Rather, Augustana is transformational because it understands that education happens everywhere — in a classroom, on a playing field, in the ensemble room, in the residence hall and the dining hall and the library, and on Viking Plaza. It is a culture and a tone of experience and expectation, of listening and thinking and developing ideas, that is not reducible to any piece of information or even a single interaction. It takes place over time and through connection to others, and it is how all of us grow and develop into who we are.

Augustana alumni have gone on to lead Fortune 500 companies, play in the Super Bowl, win the Nobel Prize, save lives, and extend assistance to those in need. Most of them did not know, when they came, all that they could be or even fully who they wanted to be. But this community gave them the confidence to embrace their curiosity. The challenges and the friendships gave them the assurance to define their own moral compass and seek to impact the world. And the names they cite who were essential to that transformation — Parkander, Ballman, Olson, Conway — often did not do their most important teaching in classrooms. The stories alumni cite are from the in-between times. After class or athletics practice. During an informal advising session. In a moment when the student wondered aloud whether to make this or that choice.

I have said before that an Augustana education is about becoming. That is the essence of transformation. You arrive as a child, at least in a figurative sense. You leave as a developed person ready to achieve your dreams. That does not, I will tell you, happen everywhere. It does happen here. And that is where both our pride and our creativity need to focus, so that we can continue that same quality of experience and becoming for new generations of students.

The world around us makes that harder, but that is our calling. We must of course adapt to that world, and it will take all our creativity and energy to define experiences for students that both maximize transformation and prepare them for the high-paced, fast-changing world they will enter.

A benefit for society

Why do we care about transformation? Because the purpose of education is to provide benefit for society. In 1860, when this institution was founded, the Civil War was starting. As some of you who have stood in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., may know, in his second inaugural address Lincoln said, “It may seem strange that any men should dare ask a just God’s assistance for wringing their bread from the sweat of another men’s faces, but judge not that ye be not judged.”

With temporal distance, we do judge, just as in the fullness of history, our own time will be judged. One of the things on which we will be judged is the scorn with which we treat education. They knew in Lincoln’s time what we have forgotten in ours — that education is essential to the development of society and the forging of the common weal.

John Dewey, a theorist and educational reformer of the mid-19th century, believed that education was essential to prepare people for a “continuous and progressive life in a society” (Perez-Ibanez, 2018). Like us, Dewey lived at a time of rapid change. The industrial revolution had upended production, distribution and communication. In the midst of this profusion of ideas Dewey considered education, and teachers, the centering force that helped students attain both social and individual goals. In his view education was explicitly NOT about the communication of knowledge, but about the development of the self within the context of the body politic, each developing from and with each other.

Most of all, Dewey saw education’s role as sparking and nurturing curiosity. Focusing on specific information and rules of thinking were anathema to Dewey as he believed they taught students passivity. Rather, he believed learning came from experience, interaction and exploration..

The concept of self and national development is closely entwined in more modern commentaries on education. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another” (1995).

As the generations pass and the peasant becomes a doctor, and in my case, the granddaughter of an electrician becomes a college president, ideas change, different people and experiences are brought into society, and our purpose and our abilities as a republic are transformed. It was education that helped bring about the end of slavery, that led to different views on workers’ rights, that gave us technological advances.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., father of the Supreme Court justice who established the basis for constitutional protection of free speech in the 1919 case, Abrams v. United States, said that “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions” (1858). His son’s own jurisprudence is evidence of this principle. Eight years after the Abrams case, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the now infamous decision in Buck v. Bell (1927), a case in which the sterilization of a woman with cognitive disabilities, without her consent, was upheld by the Court. It is something that we could scarcely contemplate now and was in fact overturned within two decades of his opinion.

What all this tells us is that education is essential. These are not easy times for higher education, particularly schools of the size and focus of Augustana who rest proudly on the liberal arts tradition articulated by Dewey and so essential to the progress of our world. Critics paint a picture of a world with professors and institutions getting fat on tuition bills and delivering nothing of value to students who struggle to survive in a shifting professional landscape. Yet a shifting professional landscape, such as the industrial revolution of Dewey’s times, is of course, precisely the situation for which higher education, particularly liberal arts education, is most suited.

Just as importantly, our time is roiled by complex social and economic questions that cut to the heart of how we prosper and who we value in society. As we confront painful realities about our past, we must also shape new directions for our national future that bring us closer to realizing the aspirational rhetoric of our founding. For “Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, freedom can neither be equal nor universal.” So said Benjamin Rush, a signer of our Declaration of Independence, who was also a physician, politician, social reformer, and in his later years, abolitionist.

Curiosity and courage

It is in precisely these days of change when flexibility is more valuable than any knowledge and creative problem-solving is a daily need, that transformation in the form of curiosity and courage is most essential. As many increasingly dismiss education as the playfield of the elite, the days ahead will not be easy. We must show that an Augustana education is precisely the opposite, the training ground of the non-elite, a place where people of great ability confront all that they can be and gain the ability to drive our nation forward.

We are swimming against the current, in a time when what we do is questioned, when there is little appreciation for the value of transformational engagement to our young people. As a result, we are abandoning the value of that engagement on the progress of our nation. Our way will get harder before it gets easier, and there is no easy path to success. It will require all of our creativity and our commitment to serving students, as well as constant effort to convey the distinction and value of Augustana.

We will need to remember why it matters that the daughter of the peasant becomes the doctor. But we will also be inspired to think creatively about what makes an Augustana education compelling, and has transformed students for 160 years, and how we make that even better.

To quote President Franklin Roosevelt, who knew quite a bit about challenge, “I measure the sound, solid achievement that can be made at this time by the straight edge of your own confidence and your resolve. And to you ... I say: The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.”

We need not doubt. The alumni gathered this weekend are testament to the strength of this institution. So to finish President Roosevelt’s comment, “Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

Thank you.

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