Inaugural Address

President Robert C. Oliver was inaugurated as Augustana's 23rd president on Oct. 6, 2006.

To Bishop Andrea, Pastor Paul, Chairperson Jane, to our past Presidents, to our congressional delegation, our mayor, Board of Trustees members, assembled delegates, our wonderfully gifted faculty, our talented administrators and support staff; to our excellent and energetic students—
(of course the reason we are all here), to our loyal alumni, to my family from near and far, our personal friends, and friends of Augustana—

The pageantry of this day and the solemnity of this ceremony are important in the life of this institution and so very personally rewarding and humbling to me and my family. I am at the same time buoyed by the energy and hope in this room while being somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility you have bestowed upon me. I must tell you—that is if we can just talk for a minute—that I have looked forward to this since being elected in January, to having the medallion of this office draped on my shoulders, yet I have labored over the message that I am called to deliver today. I have so much to say, that words are difficult and inadequate to convey the emotion that I am feeling.

Many years ago now, one summer between junior high school years when we were living in Florida, I remember waking up early, to go outside into the predawn darkness to watch the launch of one of the Apollo missions into space. We stood out there and first heard the thunderous roar of the Saturn rocket engine, followed by that bright light ascending into the sky, lighting up the darkness as it formed its crescent path into space. It was breathtakingly powerful and beautiful.

Years later I read three books that were in some way related to this experience that served to sharpen the imagery and keep it vivid in my mind: Thomas Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Chuck Yeager’s autobiography Yeager, and Gene Krantz’s Failure is not an Option. These books chronicled the early development of aerospace research and of the space program, and of many of the talented people involved in the vision for space exploration. In particular Krantz’s book discussed in much detail the work of the ground crews and mission control staff. If you are familiar with the movie Apollo 13, Gene Krantz was the mission control officer, played by the actor with the short cropped blonde hair and the gold vest. I had the great pleasure of meeting the real Gene Krantz several years ago. His book spoke of the dedication to learning and the spirit of caring for each other that existed between those who took the responsibility for the success of the mission and the safety of the space travelers.

As I reflect on what takes place at Augustana College, it is clear to me that we too are a launching pad. The very brightest are gathered, and labor thoughtfully with much care to explore and expand the limits of the body of knowledge needed for a safe and meaningful journey. Colleagues toil with respect for each other’s special gifts that are added into the mix and the preparation for launch. Great care is taken to meet every contingency, so that all will be well. Like the team assembled by NASA, failure is not an option.

But these are not the flyers. These are those in mission control and the ground crew, making things happen, most often visible, but sometimes unseen. Every task is important, as each add to the success of the mission, and are safeguards against failure.

Along come the travelers, each unique, with special backgrounds, gifts, fears. It is up to the ground crew to help them discover themselves and kindle their passions such that they will be well prepared for the journey to come. We get to know them by name, and sometimes not-so-subtly push them to be ready, not in a centrifuge or a flight simulator, but perhaps in other laboratories. It takes years of preparation for a successful launch—about four in most cases.

Launch day arrives. As the travelers assemble, so does the dedicated team that made for the preparations. As the rocket begins its ignition, a small pit is in the stomachs of ALL those assembled. The launch is both exquisite and beautiful, and noisy and a bit fearful.

Families gather to watch the event. Laughter and celebration are present, as are tears and emotions. It is a glorious time for faculty as the travelers process through the gauntlet and exchange handshakes and hugs with those who have prepared them for launch this day.

A celebration occurs among the ground crew, much hand-shaking and congratulations are shared. There is the satisfaction of a job well done—another successful launch! After some time, it is back to the office, for another group of travelers is arriving in the fall.

In my memory of that Apollo mission launch, I remember the sky lighting up like a bright star rising in the darkness, so bright and intense. Our Augustana graduates are those stars—we get to watch them fly! WOW!

But wait-- that is not all…..they do come back. One of those glorious moments is when our travelers return, some after having been gone for a long time, many after having accomplished amazing things. They tell us about their journeys, and how their preparation was important and valuable to them. It is exciting and fulfilling time, to hear about their exploits and to know that the mission was a success. When they come back to the “cape” for a visit, it is indeed a very special occasion.

It is a very special opportunity to be part of a launch team. Perhaps it is because I have only been a part of a few missions here at Augustana that I find it to be so glorious. In time, after many launches, does one ever lose the sense of magic about it? I believe it is that annual celebration that keeps the magic alive, as well as many other rituals of celebration that we engage in. These rituals of celebration remind us of the privilege we have to be engaged in what we do. Let us hope and pray that we never lose the emotion about what we do here.

Printed in your program today are important words that define the vision, mission, and values of Augustana College. It is possible to dismiss these as verbiage that every institution must prepare and print in every significant publication bearing its brand. Yet when one observes the effectiveness with which some organizations fulfill their mission, make progress toward their vision, and live their values every day, some are clearly more impactful than others. Thus there must be something more than mere words, however important and well-assembled they may be, which define even very effective organizations from those which become something distinctly more than that.

I believe a sense of great passion for the mission is absolutely imperative to organizations creating a point of inflection, where their organization begins to successfully pull away and distance themselves from other institutions which are merely very good. These are the institutions that become premier institutions. These are institutions that are referred to as possessing something included in the experience they provide that is somehow greater than the others.

A friend recently delivered to me a copy of Jim Collins’ monograph to his book Good to Great. The original book, Good to Great-- Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, was written in 2001 and became an immediate best seller for profit-seeking organizations wanting to make the leap that he describes. After that publication his research continued into and focused on the world of not-for-profit entities, and so the monograph was published last year and is entitled Good to Great and the Social Sectors—Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer. (Parenthetically: Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned the sub-title, as Augustana College has just installed a former businessperson as its President). Anyway…

Collins’ discussion revolves around five key elements: Defining Great, Level 5 Leadership, First Who, Then What (a focus on people), The Hedgehog Concept, and finally, Turning the Flywheel. If we walk through these concepts, perhaps we can get a glimpse of what will be required of Augustana College as we progress toward our Vision of becoming one of America’s Premier Church-related Colleges.

In defining greatness, he suggests that institutions must deliver superior performance, make a lasting impact, and achieve lasting endurance. As I read these descriptions, I could not help being drawn back to our mission statement and our core values. In looking at the data from our class of 2005 where nearly one in three of our graduates went on to graduate school, and of the remainder ninety-nine percent were successful in securing employment in their field of major study, perhaps we are indeed delivering performance.
But it is not only about securing a job after graduation—not that it isn’t an important part mind you—it is about building a successful life.

Hearing from our travelers some years after their launch seems to indicate that many would give us high marks there as well. So it seems to me that if we are true to our mission and execute well, we may be on the right track toward greatness. But as we all are well aware, even if you are on the right track you can get run over if you are not moving fast enough. It seems to me that defining what it will mean for Augustana College to become truly great, or one people would label a premier institution, and to achieve lasting endurance at that level, will require much more clarity in our definition, and requires us to engage in much more dialog about what this may mean to us today, and well into the future. But it also seems to me, that defining greatness for Augustana College is a reaffirmation, a recommitment, a rededication to excellence.

Collins’ discussion of Level 5 Leadership discusses a combination of personal humility coupled with professional will. Thus, his encouragement is that leadership is not at all about power, but indeed is much more complex. It would appear that Level 5 Leadership is much more about enablement than management. Max DePree, CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., sums up the job of being an artful leader in his book, Leadership is an Art: “The first responsibility of the leader is to define what can be. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.” Our Lord and Savior suggests in Mark chapter 9, verse 35:“If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

These sentiments do not apply only to the president of an organization, but to all who are called into leadership at any time by the mission of the organization and the work that must be accomplished at that moment. I believe these words admonish us to think about collaboration, cooperation, and roving leadership much more than what might be present in traditional power structures in organizations. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that traditional power structures have no place in organizations that seek true greatness. Great organizations learn to operate on trust and commitment to each other, and discover that it is a continuing and unwavering focus on the mission that will provide the cohesion while empowering members to move forward individually and collectively toward the objective. It is possible for leadership in such institutions to be so prevalent, so shared, as to become invisible, because it looks instead like service. Indeed, as the Word says, it is by serving others that we will become great, not by attempting to command it to be so.

First Who—Then What: Collins is suggesting here that organizations that choose greatness as an objective must be made up of people who have the right skills, are in the right roles, and who have a passion for reaching the objective. Even with a superior strategy, institutions that lack the right people will never achieve greatness. He goes on to suggest that it is as important to help those out of the organization if they are not a good fit for the tasks at hand as it is to make sure the right people are on board for the ride. This implies clear goal-setting and measurement throughout the institution, and amassing evidence of whether or not each individual, department, and program is making progress.

This is not so that we can catch people doing things wrong, but rather that we catch people doing things right, and then learn and share those best practices with others. This will also help us to amass the body of evidence that clarifies whether or not we are truly being successful in accomplishing our mission. What we have then is a community, measuring, sharing, encouraging, and lifting each other.

The Hedgehog Concept requires us to examine three issues: What is it that Augustana College is really good at, such that we can excel and truly be the best at doing it? What is it that we can really be passionate about? And what is it that fuels our resource engine?

Our alumni and students tell us that what we are really good at, and what I observe we are quite passionate about, is teaching and building relationships with individual students. Integrating Christian faith with learning and service to others is something that we excel at and are passionate about. Delivering every program, even professional programs, that are steeped in the tradition of Liberal Arts.

But what fuels our resource engine? I believe it is dreams—here we may have some work to do. It will require some significant work to dimension realistic dreams that we can invite others to invest with us in so that we can continue to create the greatness we desire. By describing and clarifying our dreams and then passionately sharing them with others, I believe we can successfully assemble the resources we need to fuel our engine of growth with quality. It is my experience that people are eager to invest where they see opportunities for great returns. Augustana is a place where the returns are indeed priceless.

The Flywheel concept is one of momentum. I am, and we all are, clearly the beneficiary of the legacies of those who have led this institution to its present state of being. I am most fortunate to accept the presidency of an institution on solid financial footings, and with recent momentum in our enrollment. This year’s enrollment success is clearly not my doing, but the work of others. So we have a solid base to build from, we have the beginnings of momentum—now it is time to turn the flywheel—round and round, gathering momentum.

This needs to occur with planning and foresight, but also with confidence and vigor, knowing that the positive momentum we are creating will carry us through whatever uncertainties lie ahead. Momentum is indeed a fabulous thing when it is going in your direction, and great organizations—those called truly premier institutions—are good at creating and sustaining their own momentum.

I believe these concepts that describe the points of differentiation between really good organizations and those that seek to become great can be a roadmap for our plan to achieve all the greatness that our Creator has put us in this time and place to achieve. I believe sincerely that we are in an organization of abundance, not of scarcity. I believe that God calls us to fan the fires of the human spirit coupled with the tremendous power in the Holy Spirit present with us, such that we will achieve things beyond what we can dream today.

One final question: For whom do we seek this objective of a premier designation among learning institutions? For whom do we seek to go from being very good, to being great? Obviously we do it for the students. But it is also alright that we do it for ourselves, and to glorify of our God. A goal such as this stands before us and proclaims that no one person can accomplish it alone. A goal such as this stands before the organization and calls its members to unleash their individual and collective creative energies. A goal such as this humbles everyone and calls upon them to grasp hands and push forth into the unknown with vigor and teamwork. Why? So that together we can attain the elusive and intrinsic reward of being part of a great endeavor, a journey to achieve a most worthy objective.

Augustana Like Always—Augustana Like Never Before

It shall be a daunting, but truly glorious journey, and I am so pleased and proud to be along with you for the ride. Together with God’s help, the Augustana Like Never Before is a dream which will come true.

Thank you.