"Air Apparent" by President Scott R. Olson
Delivered Aug. 17, 2015, by President Scott R. Olson as part of Winona State University Welcome Week.
This lighthouse shines with a common spirit born of our nature, a spirit of learning, a spirit of community, a spirit of sustainability, a spirit of diversity, a spirit of the future, a spirit of Winona, a spirit undaunted, a spirit rising up in rapture, a spirit of Winona State University that blows like a cyclone, a lighthouse that was, that is, and that always will be.
Lake Pepin doesn’t have a lighthouse, but they have a lot of sailing. Most Minnesota lakes don’t have a lighthouse, but the inlet from Love Lake to Gull Lake has two tiny lighthouses that come up to my chest. Love Lake is a little calm pond where the boats are stored overnight during the big Gull Lake ILYA Sailboat Regatta.
The only time I ever won a sailboat race, it was by mistake. Now before you imagine anything grand, how many of you have seen the sailboat that’s moored off the Lake Lodge in East Lake Park? That’s a type of boat called an X-Scow, sixteen feet long with a centerboard, a main sail, and a jib sail but no spinnaker. You can race them until you are sixteen. They’re a lot of fun and you should give that one a spin … I think it costs $5 for the training and then it’s free to use.
So I used to race one of those but I was really lousy at it, always finishing at the back of the pack or dead last. When you race sailboats on a lake the first leg of the race goes straight into the wind. A sailboat can’t sail directly into the wind of course so you have to “tack” which means making a series of zig zag moves until you round the buoy.
So during this one race we got way off track. Everybody zigged when we zagged and we were way off in the wrong place, becalmed and bereft. The other boats were hurtling toward the buoy and there we sat, and it looked not only like a loss, but a “DNF” – a “Did Not Finish” situation.
The Qu’ran says: It is Allah Who sends the winds which stir up clouds which He spreads about the sky however He wills.1 I don’t think there was ever any divine interest in my sailing career, but the wind is not a fixed thing. That day, there was a powerful and dramatic wind shift, one that moved the wind to our side, allowing us to trim our sail to a beam reach while putting all the other boats in a situation where they were heading straight back into the wind again after all their zigging. This catapulted us past that first buoy with a huge lead, giving us an unsurmountable advantage for the remaining three legs of the race. We won that day, certainly by mistake, never to win again … because of a powerful invisible thing.
Surely there are ubiquitous invisible things that guide us: the scientific method; the first amendment to the Constitution; argumentation theory; narrative structure; shared governance; professional codes. What about the unique things that, while invisible, guide Winona State in particular?
That sailboat race showed me the power of being a contrarian when you have the right information and the right conviction. Okay, I was an accidental contrarian, but a contrarian none the less – and to this day I’m always looking for such maneuvers.
My reason is that the unseen is generally more important than the seen. The wind could not be seen; the wind shift could not be seen. There is a deep tradition in thought about things Seen and Unseen, both philosophical and spiritual, beginning with the Platonic forms and permeating the Canon. For example: The things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.2
Last year we talked about the importance of building things out of the earth – the terra firma – with our hands. You will see a lot of the visible effects of our work this year. But what I want to talk about today is how the unseen spirit of WSU – that wind in our sails – is much more important and eternal.
2. Things Invisible
So, an invisible thing, a change in the wind direction, became the most important thing. What is it that defines WSU’s spirit? What is the air that WSU breathes?
I’ve been seeing and reading a lot about invisibility this summer. Sue Storm was transformed into the Invisible Woman in that new Fantastic Four movie. El Chapo disappeared, as did the plot of True Detective Season 2. I’m reading Jill Lapore’s feminist history of Wonder Woman, where so much is unseen … most obviously that she flies in an invisible airplane, but also her close connection to activist Margaret Sanger. I re-watched Excalibur wherein Merlin summons things in to being by evoking the breath of a dragon: “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha.”4 Best of all, Pixar’s Inside Out shows that the unseen emotions of joy, anger, fear, disgust, and especially sadness drive what we do. Did anyone see this? It was a beautiful contrarian film about the need for sadness. In our case, this is partly a sadness that our dream of access, opportunity, and success for all still eludes us, still just a hope, still just a dream.
These invisible forces drive us, motivate us, and focus us. We believe equity is a human right don’t we? And yet, that Promised Land still evades us. We are still in a wilderness.
The invisible stuff is magic, and that’s what you do, all of you, pure and simple: magic. It has sustained us through some challenging times. Our enrollment is relatively stable – no small feat these days, and sadly nothing to relax about. Our budget will be balanced again this year but we sadly had to raise tuition to do so. FY15 was a record fundraising year – nearly $5.2 million in gifts, the highest ever other than the Light the Way campaign, but sadly we need even more.
3. To the Contrary
So this is no time for complacency, no time to let out the sail and luff, no time to stall. As I said earlier, that sailboat race showed me there is power in being a contrarian – in not following the herd. Yet, Higher Ed can be faddish. For example, there are many who say that the whole future of higher education will be entirely online: that students will be learning in their pajamas, logged in to MOOCs in their parents’ basements. Or at least that’s what they say will be available for the working class and maybe the middle class – only the 1% will have access to something like this, they say. Many say that place will no longer matter in higher education. Many say that we should only be preparing students for the workforce, not for life, not for citizenship.
This a common flaw in thinking. It assumes that new things will inevitably replace older things. But the evidence tells us that often the new doesn’t actually replace the tried and true, but merely supplements it. The new often liberates the tried and true to become even more personal, more meaningful, more artistic, more bespoke. For example, from my discipline, television did not kill the movies as many predicted it would. Television allowed the movies to become something richer. Nor has the internet killed television, despite claims that it would. It allowed television to become The Wire – a far cry from Father Knows Best. In a higher Ed context, we might say that the way that Plato learned from Socrates is still a great way to learn.
So I’m for digging deeply into those things that have always made us great. Let’s follow our spirit rather than follow a fad. Don’t get me wrong – there is a time and a place for these innovations, and indeed WSU offers online options and prepares students to be superb leaders in their chosen professions. But we do so much more than that, and should not be limited to that. But we will have to fight to keep our spirit true.
I believe our strongest future is deeply tied to this place – to southeastern Minnesota, to Winona, to Rochester. Our best and brightest future will be found by making use of those things are special and unique to our communities, not by unplugging from them. 150 years from now, I believe students will still come to Winona State to live and learn in and with community. And even in that distant future we will provide access and opportunity to a superb residential education to those who wouldn’t have it otherwise. If you agree with me, then together we need to spend time laying the groundwork for that world, just as those who came before us so wisely prepared WSU for the great work that you do.
We need to make visible containers these attributes – make things concrete and not just figuratively, like our allegorical lighthouse – for the invisible magic they will conjure to emerge. It’s a way of saying: “The Warriors are here, the Warriors are staying, the Warriors are getting stronger … deal with it!”
That’s where you will see me spending most of my time, not in trying to make WSU like every other institution of higher education, but helping us to be even more distinctive and distinguished than we are now in ways true to our spirit. My main job is to drive resources to you with the help of the legislature and donors and then get out of the way for you to do your good work.
So if place matters, we have to find those ways that WSU can be like no other institution. You will see a lot of manifest things coming into being this year and in the years to come: buildings and projects and so on. You have already noticed some of this. It can’t happen for every program all at once, but all will benefit.
You have noticed a new Kryzsko. You have heard about Laird-Norton and maybe seen it. The legislature has already given us $6 million for the Education Village thanks to Rep. Pelowski and Senator Miller, and we will be back there for another $25 million this session. Those cranes over the railroad tracks signify that the tunnels are finally underway. The College of Business is getting a new Engagement for Innovation Center and a new Psychology lab is just about finished in Phelps. Impressive, manifest things, all – things that can be seen. But these are just the boxes that contain the real work, the magic, the invisible stuff, the unseen innovation and creativity and learning. These are just containers for ethereal, ineffable Hopes and Dreams.
4. The 5P Priesthood
I have called on you before to be agents of Winona State. You so well embody the spirit of this place that I’m now persuaded you are a sort of secular priesthood. It’s a priesthood of five “P”s – of people, of programs, of price, of place, and of pride:
- I see before me magicians who attract and retain great students and colleagues;
- I see spellbinders who keep our programs intellectually rich and challenging, and wizards who add new programs that extend our craft even further.
- I see alchemists who strive to keep a Winona State education affordable and accessible;
- I see prophets of place. There is something mystical and spiritual about Winona itself, and perhaps something a little more scientific but nonetheless awe-inspiring about Rochester;
- And I see conjurers of a force called Warrior Pride – utterly invisible but utterly palpable, a force like no other.
Each of us is called to be a cleric in this project: the enhancement and advancement of our people, programs, price, place, and pride. I realize I am speaking about a secular thing in spiritual terms but I don’t really know how else to talk about it, and I hope I give no offense.
Everyone here – every bargaining unit member, every shared governance leader, every administrator, every politician, every volunteer, our student Senate president – has taken a leap of faith: that students will fulfill their hopes and dreams. You do this at great and heroic sacrifice to yourselves, and new dreams are being born and realized every day thanks to you. And that is a sacred thing even if the way we go about it is secular.
At our leadership retreat today we talked about how strategic planning will include academic planning, and we sought the help of the bargaining unit leaders and students on how best to do that.
I’d like to focus on one aspect of it that illustrates how we need to be tied to place. Rochester has a singular clear vision for its future and it is called “Destination Medical” or “DMC” for short. We need to plug into that, and there are many ways to do so. It is actually less about medical education and more about creating a whole, balanced, vibrant community, and we can be a huge part of it. We will do a lot of this in partnership with RCTC. So I believe we will need more resources and new facilities in Rochester to do so, and we will consult with you further on that.
Here in Winona we don’t have any one, singular focus like Rochester has, and that’s fine. We’re scrappier, scruffier … a river town after all. So we may lack a singular focus, but that means we can help shape the local focus. We have taken to calling these the “Four Pillars” of Winona but don’t picture ionic columns. Think about what you would like for Winona, what kind of place you want for our students, our colleagues, ourselves.
Here is what I think. There are Four Invisible Pillars to Winona that also need to be four pillars that tie WSU to the community, making it the best possible place for our students, our neighbors, and ourselves. I’m open to discussion about these if you think I’m missing something essential about WSU, but here is what I see for Winona and for WSU.
- Winona as a Destination for Recreation, Health, Athletics, and Wellness. We already have the Integrated Wellness Center. The Tunnels uniting athletics to the rest of campus are well underway. Our outdoor adventure programs are growing. In Rochester, our Nursing students serve the community through the Hawthorne. The Cal Fremling has opened up the river to so many. In the community, Winona Health has made community wellness a major initiative. As you know, we need a new baseball field. We had two national champions! How often has that happened? But Title IX won’t be fully realized until our female athletes are celebrated every bit as much as our male athletes, and I am fixing to make that manifest.
- Winona as a destination for Entrepreneurship, Creativity, and Innovation. Winona has always been about ragtag startups becoming big successes. We need to make sure that endures. Our College of Business Engagement for Innovation Center will be open soon. How far can we take this? What about a business accelerator for our students? Can we make this “Innovation Valley”?
- Winona as a destination for the Arts and Entertainment. Between the Marine Art Museum, Great River Shakespeare Festival, Beethoven Festival, the Frozen River Film Festival, and so many other things, Winona has a strong wind blowing in the arts, exceeding every community in Minnesota but for two. If you haven’t been inside Laird Norton, we need to arrange a tour. It is beautiful. Our upgrades to the PAC are just about done, ahead of schedule, thanks to the flexibility of the faculty found within.
- Winona as a destination for Learning. The Phelps Psych Lab is just about done. The Legislature didn’t quite get to this one on its bonding list so we funded it ourselves. We train teachers within Riverside elementary school in Rochester. And then there’s the Education Village. This may be the most important thing we ever do … certainly the most important professional thing I will ever do. How many of you grew up in Minnesota? When I was a kid in Minnesota, folks would have listed the outdoors and the arts as two defining things about Minnesota, but by far the top thing they would have mentioned would have been high quality education. So, what about being a national and world leader in preparing teachers? Our Education Village be offering some significant reforms, including the recruitment of diverse teacher candidates, student teaching and other clinical experiences early in the process, technology infused learning, cultural competency, and extensive professional development, among other reforms.
These pillars signify that we will continue to try to drive resources to you. We will continue to get you the marble to sculpt, the canvas to paint, the container to fill with your ideas. We can provide the box but the creativity is yours, the imagination is yours, the hopes and dreams are yours, now unseen, but soon manifest.
The Education Village is such a container, manifest thing, a tangible thing, but the creativity of the education programs, while invisible, is the real magic. The Laird Norton building is a container, but that is nothing compared to the Center for the Arts that will abide within it. The Phelps Psych Lab and the College of Business Engagement for Innovation Center are containers, but they are trifles compared to the talented students and faculty who will spin magic within them. You have seen the cranes over the railroad tracks manifesting that after nearly ten year the Tunnels are finally underway. This is a very concrete transformation, literally so, but what intangibles will accrue when our campus is not cloven in two by those tracks? And what will it mean when we have over three acres of new, found land right on the other side of the Winona Street tunnel when Loughrey Field becomes a Loughrey Campus – a container, but of what? By the way, when we are through we will have spent about $35 million on academic learning spaces – a huge leap forward for the seen, but it is nothing when compared to the unseen glories that will happen within.
And it’s not just buildings that make the unseen seen. Our theme this year is Equity as a Human Right. Inclusion and Diversity certainly can be seen, can be manifest, but the necessary precondition is a spirit of hospitality and warmth, of openness and kindness and earnest attention, that while invisible must nevertheless be in evidence everywhere. International students and programs can be seen, but the real value is in the intangible learning that our students gain from studying abroad and that our campus community gains from having international students here. These transformations are the result of the work of all of you, and they have not all been easy. There have been challenges, but those challenges sharpen us, clarify us, and make us better.
Maintaining and advancing our distinction and distinctiveness will not be easy or simple. Though we are in the black for FY16, there will be challenges in the FY17 budget. Enrollment has been softer the last few years. That’s why we’ve held back two administrator positions to begin saving some money. But what do we make of a challenge?
Our Department of Theatre and Dance will be producing As You Like It this Spring, a play in which Duke Senior says:
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which … bites and blows upon my body …
… Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.5
If you translate this into contemporary English, it goes something like this:
There’s gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted
I believe in a promised land.6
Maybe we can’t sail directly into a headwind, but with some thoughtful navigation and imagination we can still arrive at our destination and maybe even win the race. So I will need your help in three ways:
One, I will need your creativity to fill the containers to the brim – to take your creativity and innovation and prove to the world that WSU is deserving of all we have, and can be entrusted with and deserving of much more. This will help us get even more new resources from our friends at the legislature and from our benefactors.
Two, I need you to keep telling the story about how WSU is magical, is different. We sure show beautifully on a tour, but I need your help in telling the world that the most truly amazing thing about WSU is not found on a tour – it’s the spirit you all bring to your craft every day. And please tell the story about each other – certainly about the great work you do, but also the great wok everyone here does. Please tell the whole fantastic story, especially as it relates to getting new resources, especially as it relates to the Education Village.
Three, I need you to strive to make WSU, Winona, and Rochester more welcoming, hospitable places to all. We can’t fulfill our other dreams if we fail to do this. I’m so proud of those of you already doing this, like the Para-to-professional program in our College of Ed. We need more creativity like this!
If indeed equity is a human right, and access and opportunity and success at WSU is something we want for all our students, then what will you do this year, what will you do this month, what will you do this week, what will you do today to make Winona and Winona State a more welcoming, hospitable, supportive place?
5. Loud Sounding Wisdom
Nietzsche saw air as a kind of higher and more subtle matter, the stuff of human freedom. Surely we will build a campus ready for the future. I’m reminded of the words to that hymn “Earth and All Stars” by Herbert Brokering and David Johnson: It speaks first of the seen:
Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test-tubes …
But then it trumpets the unseen:
Knowledge and truth, loud sounding wisdom …8
We will do marvelous things through knowledge, truth, and wisdom!
Ithuriel was a sefiroth who served the angel Sephuririon. Ithuriel’s spear was like Wonder Woman’s lasso, a device that compelled the truth. According to Milton:
… Ithuriel with his spear touched lightly; for no falsehood can endure touch of celestial temper …9
I think that spear is the university mace that our faculty president wields during commencement – symbolically a force no falsehood can endure. The mace represents the power of the faculty as truth-tellers.
Some say Hegel and Nietzsche are opposites, but there’s room for both. Let’s use our breath to speak the dialectical truth on campus in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. There is a wind blowing down this valley. It’s not the foul words and foul wind that Beatrice heard from Benedict on this stage a month ago, but a sweet wind, a true wind, a clarifying wind.
There is a breath on that wind, a word, that we can all here if we listen, and its words are clear and it speaks one simple truth, one simple promise, one article of faith, to one thing constant ever10:
This is the place where students, regardless of their means and station, will receive the finest education possible.
A simple thing to say, a difficult thing to do. Yet we will be one place, come flames or high water or earthquakes or tornadoes, that keeps that promise.
We will be the place that keeps that faith, abides that wisdom, and tells speaks the truth. You are the clergy of this secular spirit. You are its evangelists. So please go forth. If our thoughts and passions and beliefs and actions align, nothing can stop us. If our minds and our hearts and our spirits and our hands work together, we can achieve anything. And like the air spirit Arielle, let us drink the air before us.11
1 Qur'an, 30:48.
2 2 Corinthians 4:18
3 Lepore, J. (2015). The secret history of Wonder Woman. New York: Vintage.
4 Excalibur (1981), a film written by Rospo Pallenberg and John Boorman.
5 Shakespeare, W. As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 1.
6 Springsteen, B. “The Promised Land,” from LP Darkness on the Edge of Town.
8 Brokering, H. and Johnson, D. (2006). “Earth and All Stars!” From the Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pew Edition, Augsburg Fortress Press.
9 Milton, Paradise Lost, iv 810-813.
10 A reference to the song “Sigh No More” from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, performed at Winona’s Great River Shakespeare Festival in 2015.
11 Shakespeare, W. The Tempest.