Scott Olson

"Alchemy" by President Scott R. Olson

Delivered Aug. 16, 2017 by President Scott R. Olson as part of Winona State University Welcome Week. 


First – thank you Senator Miller and Representative Pelowski for your unwavering support for the Education Village! Our vision is nothing less than to prepare the finest teachers and for Winona to be a Mecca for excellence in education. Already we are referring to Wabasha Hall and Cathedral Elementary as the Education Village. Most of the buildings on campus have names connected to WSU or Winona except for one notable exception: Pasteur. Pasteur would seem not to have a direct connection to Winona and WSU. Or does it?

Louis Pasteur wanted to bring seemingly magical things into the realm of science – to tame the magic in the world around us. He gave us practical technologies like pasteurization, of course, but also microbial fermentation and vaccination, and he gave us theoretical innovations like the theory of germs. He grew crystals to study asymmetry.

As a young man he was very creative: Pasteur painted watercolors by the Cuisance river, yet was driven to understand the chemistry of the paint he was using. (1) Arts, and science, and clinical practice came to define his innovative career, just as they define us. By the time Pasteur practiced science, its precepts and practices – the Scientific Method – were beginning to take hold. But a few centuries earlier, the line between science and magic was less clear.

According to Bruce Moran’s Harvard University Press book Distilling Knowledge, the origins of chemistry are in alchemy. Although alchemy was about magical things, some of its goals and methods were similar. We have to keep in mind what the pre-modern mindset was like: what was perceived as the nature of reality, what was accepted as fact without examination, and so on. According to Moran, Alchemists created “operations like distillation and sublimation” (p. 5) and is the source of the idea that “the generation of things comes from their elements” (p. 23). It did not seem magical to those of its time period, according to Moran; rather, it made perfect sense in its historical context (p. 25). The alchemists planted ideas that grew into science. (2)

Alchemy goes back a long way. There was a first wave of alchemy that dates back thousands of years BCE but that is scarcely remembered because in 292 CE the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the destruction of all alchemical books up to that time. Early alchemists derived from Aristotle the notion that the elements of earth, air, fire, and water combined to make hotness and coldness, dryness and wetness, and that these could be combined and recombined to make all things (pp. 25-26). Though this looks nothing like the periodic table we use now, the underlying idea is the same: these elements combine in different ways to make different things. What an innovative and creative insight!

A second wave of alchemy arises 800 years later, in part through the publication of The Alchemy of Happiness, a text on Islamic philosophy and spiritual alchemy by Al-Ghazali. In this second incarnation, the most common obsession of Alchemy was turning lead into gold. In contemporary times, to us, this idea of manipulating elements to turn lead into gold doesn’t seem all that different from turning straw into gold … in other words, nothing but a fairy tale, like “Rumpelstiltskin.”

But this is not how it was seen at the time. The boundary between magic and science that seems so clear to us was not quite so well defined back then. Alchemy had several goals that certainly sound magical to us now:

  • Spontaneous wealth, through get-rich-quick schemes, such as the aforementioned growing of lead into gold, or other “base” metals into “noble” metals just like Pasteur later grew crystals – for real;
  • Spontaneous health, through remedies able to cure any disease; and – while they were at it --
  • Immortality, through the creation of a magical potion.

So, healthy and wealthy but not that wise I guess.

Despite all the advances in the thousands of years since alchemy began, we human beings are not that different. We still have confidence men and women peddling get-rich-quick schemes, we still have pseudo-scientists touting panaceas to cure any disease, and we still have mountebanks promising immortality. Thanks to science, though, we have better ways of thinking critically about such claims. Once that pivot from magic to science began, it couldn’t be stopped – the change came like a river flowing, like a train going, like a tree growing. Magic … made science.

Once upon a time, back when I was a professor in Connecticut, I taught a critical thinking course, and I began each semester with a magic trick wherein I pretended I was psychic to get them thinking. I would ask for five student volunteers. They would draw anything they wanted on a note card, seal them in an envelope, and then like Karnak I would divine what each of them had drawn. I’m not really psychic. I have no real magical powers. But today, I’d like to argue that figurative magic is real. I’d like to claim that you are all alchemists capable of the most extraordinary figurative magic: that you indeed turn lead into gold, make the world healthier, wealthier, and wiser, and that you confer immortality.

Alchemists played with the elements. As we know, the classical Empedoclean elements are Earth, Air, Fire, and Water? As you know, I equate these elements metaphorically with our hands, our spirits, our hearts, and our minds. What do YOU recombine with earth and air and fire and water? What do YOU do you’re your hands and spirit and heart and mind?

I’ll tell you what you do: you recombine them to make magic. The gravitas of the earth – our connection to the thousand-year history of what it means to be a university. The wisdom of the air – our connection to all that’s been learned throughout human history. The passion of the fire – our connection to the love of our work and of our students succeeding. The flexibility of the water – our connection to change and our adaptability to new learning and new generations of learners. These, together, really do make magic ... make success … make gold. And we tamed it and mastered it. You planted these ideas, our predecessors planted these ideas, and they are growing. Magic made science.

What was learned through the many failed experiments of alchemy was that a systematic method was needed, what we now call the Scientific Method. Slowly, it was recognized that ideas had to be subject to controlled and replicable testing, and that our ideas should be modified as we repeatedly measure our experimental observations and seek reproducible results. That certainly characterizes what we teach each student in a laboratory in the SLC, but it also characterizes a well-functioning department, or college, or university, or system of higher education. It is the basis for learning outcomes assessment, program review, accreditation, and so on. We try something new; we assess how it’s working; then we make adjustments and improvements and keep assessing.

Indeed, “Creativity and Innovation” is our University Theme for this year! Curiosity to me means looking at the world, and imagining something different, something better, and then systematically going about trying to bring that into being. This would seem to be the very reason we are here, why you are here. Mario Livio has a new book on creativity called Why? What Makes Us Curious? in which he argues that “Everything is interesting.” (3) I don’t know if the song from The Lego Movie – “Everything is Awesome” – is exactly accurate, but everything certainly is interesting! At a university, everything ought to be interesting, and everything begs for creativity and innovation.

What’s my evidence that magic happens here? It’s abundant. Last year, the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities redesigned its allocation model, the system for distributing appropriated resources that the taxpayers and Legislature grant to us. Minnesota State decided, wisely, to use the rate of student success as a factor in divvying up the funding. The algorithm is complex, but the gist of it is that the more that a college’s or university’s students exceeded expectations for success, the larger the share of the pie that institution would receive.

It should come as no surprise to you that our WSU students had the highest success rate of all 37 colleges and universities. The expected rate of WSU student success was 89.7% -- the highest expectation among all Minnesota State colleges and universities. The actual rate of WSU student success exceeded that expectation, coming in at 91.6%, which surpassed the system average by 22.4% and about 5% above the second place school. In other words, students at WSU are the most successful, and their success exceeds expectation. As a result, we got a larger share of the allocation.

The measures also included the success rate of Students of Color, and here again WSU had the highest success rate among all Minnesota State colleges and universities at 86.9%, and a rate which continues to increase over time. Here’s the most interesting statistic of all to me from the MNSCU data. The second-best success rate for all students on the all-student metric is 86.7%. We are the best in terms of all students at 91.6%, they are the second best at 86.7% success among all students, and all the others fall behind that. The success rate specifically of Students of Color at WSU is 86.9%. So, the success rate of Students of Color at WSU is higher than the success rate of all students at the second best institution. To put it another way, statistically speaking Students of Color at WSU succeed at a higher rate than the average for all students at every other MNSCU institution. Magic made science.

The primary reason for this fantastic success is simple: it’s you, the amazing and talented faculty and staff at WSU. At your encouragement, our students take seriously our mission to be “a community of learners improving our world.” They learn. They succeed. They give back. They contribute over 200,000 hours of volunteer service to this community annually. Magic! You lead by example, serving as volunteers and community leaders in innumerable ways which are largely unseen.

But of course times are challenging: not enough resources; too much student debt; too few students. What to do? As you’ve noticed, higher education can be faddish and prone to panic. Do we abandon what we have become to follow current trends?

Here’s the radical idea: that we will preserve the opportunity for a high quality, residential, enriched, immersive, engaged, internationalized, personalized liberal-arts-college-like experience for all, regardless of their economic circumstance; that the kind of challenge and success we provide will still be an opportunity for every student despite all the pressures on us to surrender that mission. But how to preserve that? I am advocating that we preserve the WHAT by expanding the HOW and broadening the WHO.

The “WHAT” is that everyone should have the opportunity for a high-quality liberal-arts-college-like experience if that’s what’s right for them. There should not be a class system where the elites get opportunities like that, but the middle and working classes are only given limited opportunities.

We can preserve this if we get creative and innovative about the “HOW” – if we are open to online education, to growing in Rochester and other places in southeast Minnesota as our service region, to international experiences, to finding every opportunity for our students to be engaged, to be aggressive in our enrollment management strategies. These enhance but in no way replace the superb “What” that we deliver. The “HOW,” as always, means robust shared governance, strong bargaining units and administration, honest and frank and respectful debates, and a commitment to academic freedom difficult though that might be in these times.

As for the “WHO” – this place was founded nearly 160 years ago to ensure the promise of the American dream to those who lived here and those who settled here, regardless of their station in life. We have not always lived up to that mission wisely or well, but look at how beautifully rich in diversity Minnesota has become! We must open our arms and adapt our systems so that we give everyone who is capable of succeeding here the opportunity to succeed here, whether they are Somali-Americans or Hmong-Americans or Dakota or Sudanese-Americans or Potawatamee or Anyuak-Americans and other African-American or Latino/Latina-Americans or Karin-Americans and other Asian-Americans or Hochunk or European-Americans or Ojibwe or anyone who is capable of succeeding here. Those first WSU students and faculty probably looked a lot like me and my family, but the future looks like the human family. Despite our exceptional student success numbers, we have a gap in opportunity and achievement, and we must endeavor to close it.

The HOW preserves the WHAT. The WHO is, frankly, a moral imperative. The HOW opens up the WHO. To do this, we must open up to greater diversity. We must provide support structures so that race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, age, and physical ability do not stand in the way being successful at WSU. But we are not there yet. Sadly, we are not there now in Charlottesville Virginia, or in Bloomington Minnesota, or in truth here in Winona and Rochester. But if education cannot end bigotry and hatred, then what can? Let’s start by improving our world right here, ensuring that we are welcoming and respectful to all.

This is our core. To preserve this core, we must be bold about offering alternative pathways. Our students aren’t all white, aren’t all young, aren’t all middle class, aren’t all native speakers of English, aren’t all American, as perhaps they once were. Serving them all as they are best served requires creativity and innovation. That’s why we are doing the Climate Survey later this fall, and I politely ask you all to help with this. Indeed, those alternative pathways do not diminish the core: they preserve the core. Serving students in Rochester and online with the same quality and care for which we are noted will serve to allow the WSU promise to flourish. We make the pivot from magic to science, from mystery to knowledge, from happenstance to system. So, I have a request of all of us. We need to turn a little more of the magic into science.

So, here are the tasks:

  1. Shape enrollment. To do so, we have engaged Royall and Company. Royall is not cheap, but they are the best at what they do, and we think this will pay a huge dividend for us. To this end, we need better diagnostics of who can succeed here. The ACT is a blunt tool.
  2. Diversify. Grow the Inclusion and Diversity Office under the leadership of a new Associate Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity. While Diversity Mapping showed us we have many good intentions and innumerable diversity initiatives, we need to be more focused and strategic on where we invest. We have a gap. Why? And what can we do to close it?
  3. Enhance our facilities to be competitive.
    a. Deliver the Education Village as promised.
    b. Open the Tunnels to keep our community safer.
    c. Open Phase 1 of the Laird Norton Center for Art and Design.
    d. Complete the Indigenous Learning Garden with the help of the Dakota people.
    e. Ensure that our facilities in Rochester meet the growing needs there.
    f. Develop a residence life plan that will meet the needs of future students.
  4. Innovate.
    a. Let’s be known as the most engaged university in the Midwest. This is a defining thing for us, and could be more defining still. The LACE committee has a number of great ideas and we will enact as many of them as possible this year.
    b. Expand our offerings in Rochester, online, in professional development offerings, and other innovations that support but do not replace our core mission.
    c. Increase the number of International students who attend here, and of our students who study away.
    d. Refresh the Strategic Framework and use data to plan our future.
    e. Define what Academic Freedom means to us.
    f. What other ideas do you have? We have done well on our Strategic Framework, but look for it to be refreshed with new ideas to further us in those same five directions.

We are university in a river town. Like Pasteur, we sit at the riverside, artists and scientists and practitioners. As the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus would have us know, rivers bring change; rivers are always change. Or as the post-Socratic philosopher Sam Cooke wrote:

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river I've been running ever since.
There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long.
But now I think I'm able to carry on.
It's been a long, a long time coming,
But I know a change is gonna come. (4)

Pasteur painting by his riverside and Sam Cooke singing by his riverside each saw that the future means being open to new possibilities. Change is coming. And we by our riverside need to be open to the change, too, while faithful to those elements that make us WSU.

Therein lies the magic. We are a Community, but the river tells us the future will be more diverse. We are Learners, but the river tells us the future will insist upon new ways of learning. We are Improving Our World, but the river tells us the future will require creativity and innovation.

Let me tell you one story that illustrates this. My sister Liz has for many years served as the volunteer adoptive mentee to a DACA student, a “Dreamer,” named Iris. Iris lives with her large family and single mother in a trailer on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. Iris will be a sophomore in high school this year. She aspires not just to be the first in her family to graduate from high school, but to be the first to go to and graduate from college. Iris plans to be a medical doctor, and my sister is serving as the success coach to help that dream come true.

This summer, Iris enrolled in our HOPE Academy and had an amazing experience. I suppose some of you had the opportunity to meet her. She now has a clear vision of the path forward, and she plans to come to the HOPE Academy again next summer and then attend Winona State University when the time comes. Iris was not born in Arizona, of course, but she has not been out of Arizona since she was two years old. So, after the HOPE academy was over, my sister wanted to show Iris around Minnesota, so my sister and her partner took Iris up to the tiny town of Nisswa – population 2,014, about five hours up from here in Central Minnesota – for a vacation.

They went in for coffee at a local coffee shop (“Mr. Baker’s”) and Iris happened to be wearing her HOPE Academy T-shirt. The barista that day was WSU sophomore Tori Senica, who spotted the HOPE T-shirt and shouted something like: HOPE Academy! That’s an awesome program! I go to Winona State and love it! It’s like going to the best private college, but affordable!

This is what I’m talking about. This is gold. Tori was a spontaneous evangelist for our mission. What would happen to people like Iris if there was no Winona State? What happens if dreamers cannot dream?
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true or is it something worse?
as the man said in his song “The River.” (5)

It is our sacred duty to continue to deliver this excellence that is Winona State, but to extend its reach so that qualified dreamers of any background can continue to dream. This is what philosopher Zygmunt Baumann meant when he said that the only transcendental postmodern truth is “being for the Other.” (6) You, all of you, have been for the Other. You have chosen these noblest professions when you could have done many other things with your life, and you have dedicated your lives so that others, some of whom you may never even know, can achieve their dreams.

The thing about dreams is that they keep growing. People keep dreaming. And Winona State is the promise of dreams fulfilled to more and more people. The river flows by us and the tracks flow by us. As the post-Socratic philosopher Curtis Mayfield once wrote, and Aretha Franklin so beautifully articulated:

People get ready, there's a train a-comin'!
You don't need no ticket, we'll just get on board!
All you need is faith to hear those diesels hummin' …
You don't need no baggage, you just thank the Lord! (7)

It’s coming. It’s growing.

Can we be true to our history and our excellence, can we continue to do and be what we do best, while adapting to the change? Given the creativity and innovation that defines all of you, the answer is yes. Like the pursuits of the alchemists, the Disney movie Pocahontas depicts the Jamestown colonists in pursuit of gold, the acquisition of which drives their leaders to homicidal madness. This is a highly problematic movie with little correspondence to historical fact, but it does have an ironic idea and a striking image near the end. The colonists come to realize that there was gold all right, just not the gold they wanted to plunder. One of the final scenes of the movie is the Powhatan people emerging from the mist and bringing gifts of golden maize – corn – to the starving settlers. This was precious gold, and it could be grown.

So, we can make gold too. We plant it. We grow it. Unlike human treasures, our gold doesn’t gain patina in some vault: it lives, it keeps growing, and it lives forever. Pasteur was above all creative and visionary. He bridged art and science and practice just as we do, and he helped create the world in which we live. He captured magic, and that’s golden.

Outside my office flies a flag proclaiming we are a Tree Campus USA. Muhammed Ali once said: “society grows great when the old plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” (8) When I was in high school I had a copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue that I studied in tremendous detail. Anyone old enough to remember that?

In it, editor Stewart Brand and anthropologist Gregory Bateson told the story about the beetle-infested oak beams in the dining hall of New College Oxford. The beams were so old and of such a great expanse that they would be nearly impossible to replace. The facilities crew knew that Oxford owned many forests and they wondered if maybe one of them happened to have some ancient oak trees that they could harvest and use to replace the beams. So they ventured out to see the forester, who said something like:

Well, sirs, we was wondering when you’d be asking …

As the story goes, when the New College Dining Hall was built in 1379 CE, someone had the foresight to plant a forest of oak trees that would be ready in time when the beams became too old and beetle-infested to continue.

All us foresters for the last 700 years knew not to cut them trees down. Them’s for the college hall. (9)

They envisioned what was coming. They used their know-how to prepare. They preserved the core of who and what they are by extruding science from magic.

Growing Gold.
Sustainable Gold.
Gold forever.
Gold for everyone.
Let’s get growing.


1. Melvyn Bragg et al (2017, May 18). “Louis Pasteur.” In our time. London: BBC radio.
2. Moran, B. (2005). Distilling knowledge: Alchemy, chemistry, and the scientific revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
3. Livio, M.
4. Cooke, S.
5. Springsteen, B. (1980). "The River." Single from the album The River. Columbia Records.
6. Baumann, Z. (1993). Postmodern ethics. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
7. Mayfield, C. (1965). "People get ready." Single from the 1968 album Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin. Atlantic Records.
8. Anonymous Greek proverb, as quoted by Muhammed Ali.
9. Brand, S., Ed., and Bateson, G. (1968). The Whole Earth Catalog. New York: Random House.