"Lux Aeterna" by President Scott R. Olson

Delivered Aug. 19, 2013, by President Scott R. Olson as part of Winona State University Welcome Week.

1. Prometheus

The flame has burned for 154 years and the flame burns still.

A few weeks ago my wife Kelley and our daughter Katie and I were in New York to see the premiere of a play written by my friend Andy, whom you might have met at the inauguration. Katie wanted to see Rockefeller Center so we took her there and at the heart of that art deco splendor was that supine Prometheus, eternally bringing fire down to mortals like us. That fire is, of course, enlightenment, wisdom, learning. Prometheus paid a price for doing that, and he also assigned to us a solemn duty: to ensure that this flame would never go out, or his courage was all for nothing. Will we let it go out?

Last fall, Professor Don Lovejoy conducted our wonderful student symphony in a piece called “Lux Aeterna” composed by Yo Goto. There’s another version by Elgar. “Lux Aeterna” means eternal light, never-ending flame, and this is what Winona State University represents to me, and to the world. We proclaim it atop our very logo. And we here, we happy few, we are the ones who stoke the fire.

2. Shared Flame

We stoke the fire together. What I love about WSU is that we come together here as equals, defining and sharing our destiny together. Meet and confers are held face to face. The Cabinet meets around an Arthurian roundtable, sometimes even Meet and Confer around that table, as equals, and every one of our voices should be heard there. That’s what the Hopes and Dreams exercise was all about – about letting the spark in each of us help kindle the fire. I am new here, but this has been your home for a long time. The only lasting agenda won’t be my agenda, it will be our agenda.  

I want us to be known as the preeminent shared governance university. This will require a leap of faith and trust. Are we ready to jump? It takes a leap of faith to get things going; in your heart you must trust.i

3. The Firebird

We have come through some difficult times. Despite the adversity, the students still come, sometimes with “nothing in their bellies but the fire down below.”ii Prometheus was immortal. Every day he is reborn. I think that Winona State University is immortal. Like a Phoenix, a firebird, we arise from the ashes and we are born again.

There’s a beautiful hymn by Rory Cooney based on the Magnificat, and it goes like this:

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.iii

Our world is about to turn. We are pressured on several fronts: funding, affordability to students, opponents to our mission, changing demographics, expectations for higher quality and greater responsiveness. If we ignore these, we can expect our support to diminish. If we respond, if we keep faith, we can expect our support to increase. The world is about to turn – let’s turn it our way.

We don’t have forever to figure this out. The public, the legislature, our students, and our community want solutions now. Why the urgency? Look around. The forces of diminished funding, affordability to students, opponents, changing demographics, and heightened expectations have led to conflagrations in many states.  Will these forces burn us up too? Or will they forge us into stronger steel?

Our future is not out there somewhere. Let’s turn in to our truest self, our proper place, our destiny. Let’s rise to our purpose by doubling down on what has made us exceptional, excellent, and distinctive. Now is the time. Let’s be knights on a quest, and our holy grail is light, the flame. Our journey will be going deeper into our true self, our inner fire.

The feminist Vassar astronomer and first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Maria Mitchell looked up at the heavens and discovered comet C/1847-T1, the first woman to discover such a thing. It was a kind of eternal firebird in the heavens – something that poetically rises and falls forever. She was given a medal for this, and on the medal it said: “Non frustra signorum obitus speculamur et ortus." That is, “we do not watch the rising and falling of the signs and the stars in vain.” If we study the signs carefully, we can discover how to rise.

Stravinsky’s ballet “L’oiseau de feu” (The Firebird) was based on a story by Polosky. Polosky described the home of the firebirds thusly: “Behind massive walls … gardens surround a palace all of glass, where firebirds sing by night, feasting on golden fruit.” Winona State University will be like a transparent palace, welcoming to all, lush with beautiful gardens, where we feast on the purest gold there is. You know what that gold is. Your hopes and dreams are born of our flame.

4. Phlogiston

Folks used to think that the underlying structure of fire was an element named phlogiston, which was also supposed to cause rust. It’s weird how alchemists thought the source of illumination and the source of decay were one and the same. That theory was disproven in the middle of the 18th Century, but the notion of an underlying structure remains figuratively true: if you want to shine a bright light, you need a structure.  

I’ve listened for a year and I believe we are proud, we are hopeful, we are courageous, but we need a structure to plan, to discuss, to debate our future. There is no shortage of ideas here! That’s a sign of health. But how should we sift, sort, prioritize, and realize those ideas?

You might remember a Moodle I sent you last spring that analyzed the frequency of every word in every one of your suggestions and what was the “largest” most frequent word? The word is “Students.” Bravo, Winona State! You got it right!

We got about 2,500 different hope and dream ideas from you, which is outstanding. The only problem is that we can’t implement 2,500 new programs – time, the budget, and our mission won’t allow it. So we needed to find patterns, themes, and overlapping ideas. There were so many hopes and dreams that a group of our graduate students volunteered alongside the staff of the TLT to make sense of them all, to find patterns, to see what at heart we share. They identified clear patterns, and I have spent the summer thinking about what those patterns reveal. I sent you an email about this last spring, too, but you may wish to go back and look at their conclusions, which you can find at: http://www.winona.edu/president/strategic.asp.

Given that we have finite time and money, we need to make choices. I suppose I could make those on my own and proclaim them, but I think the decisions will be better if we do this together. So, we need a structure that allows us to plan together, budget together, and evaluate how we’re doing, together. And I believe the best way to do that is to have a university-wide:
  1. Long-Range Planning Committee;
  2. Finance and Facilities Committee; and
  3. “Improvement” Committee.
We already have a university-wide Finance and Facilities Committee. Everyone here is represented on it.  Last year we worked together on the design of an Improvement Committee, or to be precise, an Improvement, Accreditation, and Assessment Committee. I am grateful to the WSU Faculty Senate for proposing a Long-Range Planning Committee. So the necessary structures are forging into place.

5. The Lamplighter

A lamplighter went out to light the torches. As she was lighting the lamps, some torches never light. This is like all those students who could be served, but aren’t. They aren’t given the opportunity. Some torches burn only dimly, flickering so none can see, changing nothing. This is like all those students who are served poorly and drop out. Some torches flash brightly and burn out. This is like following an educational fad that leads nowhere, and education has plenty of fads. But some torches burn brightly. Some torches burn a hundred times brighter. Some torches burn eternally and cannot be extinguished. We must be that torch. Whoever has eyes, let them see!  

The world needs torches. Conrad described the “Heart of Darkness.” Make no mistake – there is darkness, the darkness of ignorance, of despair, of immobility. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is a rebuttal to Conrad and describes the “Heart of Light.” Beautiful … a heart of light. The light always defeats the darkness, not always easily, not always without sacrifice, but always. The dawn always rises.  

Why did our torch burn so brightly and so long? Phlogiston? No, the tinder is ideas! We have ideas. Surplus funds are nice, but more important by far is a surplus of ideas, and that we have – thousands of ideas. I know this … I can even show it to you!

6. Lux Aeterna and Lux Nova

As we think of the tasks ahead, I suggest we think about both our Lux Aeterna and our Lux Nova – our eternal light, of course, but also our new light. Our true self is really very simple, but very beautiful. You already know our Lux Aeterna. It appears in our university motto, “a community of learners improving our world”:
  1. We shine the light of community through student and employee engagement in Winona, Rochester, and other communities.
  2. We shine the light of learning through the finest learning experiences in and out of the classroom, and with a national reputation for innovations in technology.
  3. We shine the light of improving our world through graduating students who make things better, through our efforts to be more sustainable, and through our beautiful campus.
These are our eternal lights. These illuminate all those we serve, but the world can be brighter still.  

So, I believe there is also room for Lux Nova, new light. Access and opportunity have been part of our Lux Aeterna at Winona State from our founding, but the beneficiaries of that access have changed over our century and a half. So we must provide new light by enhancing diversity, by becoming invariably hospitable and welcoming, being a place where everyone belongs and everyone can succeed. Innovation has always been a part of our Lux Aeterna at Winona State, but when we chose learning technology as one of our beacons we chose a path of continuous improvement. This was the right new path to illuminate, but we must remain a national leader in how technology enhances the learning experience.

But the Lux Nova I want to talk about today are your hopes and dreams, the lights that each of you would like to shine. It’s interesting about light: when you cluster lots of individual LEDs or pixels together and step back, the effect is of a single light, a single image, like looking at the pointillism in Seurat’s “Un Dimanche Après-midi à l'Île de la Grand Jatte” up close or at a distance, or like the individual RGB pixels on a television or computer that together form an image. Last year you showed me several thousand individual sparks. With some help from graduate students and the TLT, those individual sparks have revealed themselves to be part of our single flame.

7. Five Common Flames

So, in my analysis of the thousands of ideas you shared and having studied the work of our students and the TLT, I believe that our hopes and dreams are, at their root, about five things: people, programs, price, place, and pride.

Our hopes and dreams are about people: about civility, diversity, a more hospitable campus climate, and better communication with and amongst our faculty, staff, and students.  

Our hopes and dreams are about programs: about keeping our current academic programs strong while exploring new program offerings that are relevant and responsive, about great student life opportunities, and about the integration of learning experiences, about cutting edge technology, classrooms, and labs, about a strong athletics program, a vital WSU-Rochester, and about maintaining intellectual rigor and high academic standards.  

Our hopes and dreams are about price: about keeping WSU affordable by controlling costs, which entails reorganization, captured efficiencies, and administrative savings, but also entails seeking scholarships and other external support and exploring entrepreneurial reward systems.

Our hopes and dreams are about place: about enhancing the beauty of this already beautiful campus and sharing our arboretum, about modeling sustainability, about making the river an inextricable part of us, about being fully engaged in the community, and about striking the balance between Winona being Winona and Rochester being Rochester.

And our hopes and dreams are about pride: about realizing our distinctiveness and excellence and telling our story, revitalizing existing traditions and creating new traditions that fuel our mission, letting WSU be WSU.  So, people, programs, price, place, and pride … these are our hopes, these are our dreams, and we need to make our dreams come true.

We need to plan to do this, and this is the year. So I propose we ask our planning, budget, and assessment process to look at these five key areas and make concrete, affordable, measurable recommendations for investment over the next several years. Some of the ideas are already there in your hopes and dreams. If we do this, what might WSU look like in five years?

See if this is our vision. This morning, about 100 of you helped craft vision statements for who we might be in the future, and over the past hour I’ve tried to merge them into five coherent statements. Here they are:

•    Winona State University will be the epitome of a welcoming, diverse, collegial, invigorating, fun, inclusive, transparent, and civil university, developing meaningful relationships within our communities and celebrating the achievements of its members.

•    Winona State University will offer the most innovative, relevant, and highest-quality programs, engaging our students and our extended communities to recognize the world we will inherit and strive for excellence through integrated academics, cultural life, wellness, technology, scholarship, research, and civic responsibility.

•    Winona State University will offer the highest value of any university education without compromising on high quality by maintaining affordability, and by fundraising for scholarships and endowed positions and by finding efficiencies.

•    Winona State University will be the model of a well-maintained, beautiful, sustainable, engaged, safe, and healthy campus.

•    Because of our people, our programs, our price, and our place, Winona State University’s pride will create life-long relationships with students, enhance employee recruitment and retention, and foster tremendous investment from donors, alumni and alumnae, and the community.

We will quest deeper into our truest self, into the brightest flame. We will offer high-value learning experiences at the most innovative, sustainable, engaged university because we are a community of learners improving our world. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “If you can’t be the sun, be a star."

8.  The Warrior’s Flame

As King Henry the Fifth said … on this very stage I might add … “Let me speak proudly. We few, we happy few … we band of sisters and brothers … We are but Warriors. We are but Warriors for the working day.”iv  Are we warriors just for the working day, warriors for hire, warriors for a little while, or are we warriors through and through, warriors forever, warriors for life? After all, what’s a Warrior? Warriors are Brave, Proud, Faithful, Righteous, Caring, Smart, Innovative, and Adaptable. Warriors are leaders and community-builders.

Are these our attributes for today but not tomorrow? Or are we these things forever? Tomorrow do we want to flee Winona and boast about it later? Or do we want to stand and fight for our students, fight for learning, fight for Winona State? Having gotten to know you for year, I believe that you are these things always, you are Warriors forever, so I believe we are destined to be “Warriors for Life.”

We are here for no other purpose than to defend the light from all its enemies, from those who would diminish knowledge and wisdom, from those who do not value the arts and sciences, from those who trivialize the professions, from those who demonize hard-working and selfless workers, from those who would restrict learning to the few rather than the many. As Warriors, this is our solemn duty and our abiding honor. “Mark, then, abounding valor …”v Your abounding valor, every one of you, every defender of that flame!?

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters …”vi We are here for but this short time, stewards of this eternal flame, this Lux Aeterna. We must journey deeper into our truest selves. This is our quest. You are nobler than the noblest knight, nobler than anyone who fought with Henry V at Agincourt. You have chosen a nobler profession by far. You have sacrificed, you have dedicated your lives so that others can achieve their dreams. What nobler thing could you have done?

And so, on to our quest. It is our turn to carry the torch, to help it burn brighter still, and one day to pass it on. If our thoughts and passions and beliefs and actions align, we can light up any path we want to follow. If our minds and our hearts and our spirits and our hands work together, we can achieve anything. We can tend the flame, keep it bright, and pass it on to the future so that Prometheus will not have acted in vain. Whoever has eyes, let them see!

And they will see our flame through the clear prairie air, our fiery sun arising with the dawn, a lighthouse on this island, seen from every hill and valley, seen from the waters of the river, seen from the snow on the bluffs; our brilliant spirit undaunted, our spirit rising up in rapture, the spirit of Winona State University that was, that is, and that always will be.



S. R. Olson
August 19, 2013

i. B. Springsteen, “Leap of Faith.”
ii. B. Springsteen, “American Land.”
iii. R. Cooney, “Canticle of the Turning.”
iv. W. Shakespeare, “King Henry V” Act 4, Scene 3.
v. W. Shakespeare, “King Henry V” Act 4, Scene 3.
vi. W. Shakespeare, “King Henry V” Act 4, Scene 3.