"Terra Firma" by President Scott R. Olson

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

1.    Poor Yorick!

From afar they have seen us – they see our flame through the clear prairie air, our fiery sun rising 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.  How did we come to provide such light?  How can a tower stand so high that its light can be seen from far away?  The taller a tower must stand, the stronger its foundation must be.  It cannot wobble or tilt.  It needs to stand on terra firma.  And if it does stand on solid ground, then builders can keep adding to its height.  My question today is, what are we ready to build with our hands?

I’m told by an emerita faculty member that a cave up on Garvin Heights was used as a mine 800 years ago.  Mounds builders dug into the earth and made tools of the flinty substance they extracted.  All these years later, it is our hands that must tend the earth, our hands that must uncover the bedrock, our hands that build the tower.  So, now it is for our hands to shape the future.  

It’s natural to worry about the future.   For one thing, we may fret that the projects are too big, that the tower needs to reach too high, and we won’t be here to see them through.  Hamlet’s dilemma, played out on this stage not long ago, caused him to fret about the future, about his own ontology:

     What if this too, too solid flesh should melt
      Thaw and resolve itself into a dew?i

Or we might worry that our hands aren’t as skillful as those that came before us, or do we worry that things will just go wrong, that we will get deterred or distracted? 

     What if this cursed hand were thicker than itself?
      Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow?

Well, I am here to say that none of these things will stop us.  Winona State University will prosper for another 150 years.  Why?  Because we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves.  The tower is so high than none of us were here when its foundation was laid.  None of these eyes saw the bottom.  And none of these eyes will live to see the top.  So our time here should be inspired by the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

     Make the most of what we yet may spend, before we too into the dust descend.iii

To do so we must not lose sight of who we are as we forge the future.


2.    A Forgotten Mechanism

Have you heard of the Antikythera Mechanism?  It was a sophisticated Greek analog computer from 100 BC or earlier, probably Corinthian.  It was found in 1901 in the remains of an ancient shipwreck.  It’s been studied and studied and we’re still not entirely sure how it worked.  Reconstructions are beginning to reveal how complex, sophisticated, and elegant this beautiful device was, a computer over 2,000 years old.  Please look it up to see how sophisticated it is – it’s beyond my powers to describe.  The science journal Nature has published much of the work about the Antikythera Mechanism.   You can learn plenty from nature.  Cicero’s 1st century BC treatise De Re Publica describes such devices, implying that ancient computers may have been more common than we have realized.   There’s an engineer named Andy Carol who built a working model of the Antikythera Mechanism out of Lego blocks and there is a short movie of it on Vimeo!vi

The mathematics behind this thing are elegant and beautiful.  What it reveals is that the ancients knew more than we give them credit for.  They often knew the way, even if we are prone to forget it.  And that is true of our ancestors, too – those who founded WSU and those who followed them.  Just look at our annual university themes, themes that should resonate as things true to our past, present, and future.  Last year, our annual theme was “Civic Engagement.”  This year, our annual theme is “Sustainable Futures” – and I encourage all of you to get engaged with it.  Next year our theme will be “Equity and Diversity.”  These things become annual themes because they resonate as part of our essence, part of who we have been, who we are, and who we will be.


3.    A Remembered Mechanism

Two years ago we had campus-wide conversations about our hopes and dreams, and to me they seemed to gather around five concepts all beginning with the letter “P”:  programs, people, price, place, and pride.  Last year we organized a shared governance structure to ask how those five concepts might be addressed through our actions. So, we asked questions like these, which correspond to programs, people, price, place, and pride:

  1. How can Winona State University continue to lead the region with the highest quality programs?
  2. How can Winona State University serve its people: promote diversity, inclusion, and civility so that we are the most welcoming and engaged campus in Minnesota?
  3. How can Winona State University control its price: manage our costs and find additional revenue streams so that WSU remains affordable and high in value?
  4. How can Winona State University engender this place: serve beautiful southeastern Minnesota and in turn make use of everything this region has to offer our students?
  5. How can Winona State University help students, alumni and alumnae, and our communities feel the pride we feel in WSU?

This morning students, bargaining unit leaders, and COA members reviewed a short list of ideas for action that emerged from the “Hopes and Dreams” process and the 5-P structure.  A first pass at these ideas was brainstormed last spring by the Long-Range Planning Committee and since then by the Cabinet and Deans.  We will all have lots of opportunities this fall to review them as they proceed through the Meet and Confer process and are shared across campus.  

These ideas attempt to focus our 5Ps into specific actions we will take.  In doing so, we must ensure that we are always being true to who we have been and relevant to where we are going. You will be able to find these ideas on our website soon, but to give you a preview, they follow six basic topics which derive from our 5Ps, which cut across the planning topics.  Briefly, the planning topics are:

  1. Student Learning: namely, a topic that organizes ideas for offering innovative and high-quality learning;
  2. Student Success: giving every student the opportunity to succeed;
  3. Stewardship of Place: caring for and learning from the people and environment in our communities in a sustainable way;
  4. Inclusive Excellence: a category of ideas for being a welcoming campus to all;
  5. Relationships: creating an atmosphere that maintains civility and respect and promotes participation amidst debate and disagreement; and
  6. Access and Opportunity: a topic which gathers ideas for serving students in the best ways for them while keeping WSU affordable and high in value.

Within each of these topics are numerous ideas about how to get that goal done.  These are doable.  They are doable because they are logical extensions of things we have done before.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great lover of nature, once said:

      What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.vii

This is not some mysterious, lost, and forgotten device whose utility is unknown.  These goals are our nature.  If we succeed, then our hands will ensure that this citadel of learning will continue to shine here in southeastern Minnesota.


4.    Our Nature

Our university theme this year is sustainable futures and it’s really what we are talking about: the intersection of where Mother Nature meets our nature.  Our nature had better be aligned with Mother Nature.  

On a walk in the Krueger woods with Neal Mundahl, I saw this illustrated.  For those of you who are new here, the Krueger Woods are a part of our WSU Arboretum and it forms a bowl beneath Garvin Heights Lookout.  Well, on this walk, Neal revealed to me what happens when our nature is not aligned with nature.  Effluvia was encroaching, buckthorn and ginseng that have no place there were transforming that habitat into something it was not meant to be – vestigial ideas from a bygone time.  But through the careful tending of our students, our faculty, and an emerita or two, the woods are returning to their proper state – nature returning to its nature through our nature.

What is our nature?  Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his “Meditations”:

      The thing: what is it in itself, in its own constitution?  
      What is its substance and material?  What is its nature?viii

What is our nature?  What is our substance and material?  What are we in ourselves?  Marcus Aurelius goes on to say:

      All things are change, yet we need not fear anything new.
      All things are familiar to us.ix

What better place to stand when facing adversity and change than to stand on solid ground, to stand on the essence, on the “thing-in-itself,” what Immanuel Kant would call the “ding an sich”?x   The caretaking of our WSU arboretum shows that an un-weeded garden that grew to seed for things rank and gross in nature to possess can be brought back to a kind of Eden.   So, in our time, will we be arboretum gardeners and tower-builders?  

Our nature is to seek that terra firma.  Our nature is to build on that solid ground.  Of course, gardens and towers and solid ground are not something we can take for granted.  In a literal sense, Winona is a silty island in the Mississippi and as such the ground here has always been shifting, unsettled, and moving.  In a figurative sense, the state and federal environment for higher education has been shifting, unsettled, and moving.  If we want to build something that will last 150 years or 300 years we need to ensure that the ground underneath us is solid.

     … like one who built an house, and dig-ged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat
     vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.

In the face of those shifting sands and rising waters, we have found some permanence. Our nature, our essence, has been, should be, and will be a continuous strand back to our beginning.  Nature evolves, of course, but the DNA always remains traceable back to the origin.  We have found a way.  Our nature is terra firma. Our nature is solid ground.

But we should not take this for granted, so it must be remembered.  Here’s a quote from that other version of Hamlet, the one with the lions.  You know: the one where the uncle kills the father and marries the mother and tries to exile the son, but the ghost of the father appears to the son and tells him he needs to reclaim his birth-rite … except they’re all lions.  

      MUFASA:    Simba, you have forgotten me.  You have forgotten who you are.  Look inside yourself.  You are more than what you have 
                           become.  You must take your place … remember who you are!

So who have we been?  Do we remember?  How can we be what we are meant to be if we do not remember who we are?  I believe that there is no path to our future that does not begin from the solid ground on which we stand.


5.    Where we Stand

There are things we will always be.  There are things we will always do. And then there are things we need to focus on now, for a time.

For one thing, we have always served the under-served.  We recognize our “First Gen Warriors” at commencement now and they are more than half the class. This means we are still what we have always been – a pathway to fulfilling hopes and dreams.  If you are relatively new here, I want you to take pride in that mission above all other missions!

Our wonderful theater department will be doing a Stephen Sondheim musical this year which contains these lyrics, which describe us pretty well:

      Rich man, poor man, black or white,
      Pick your apple, take a bite,
      Everybody just hold tight to your dreams.
      Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.

Before my ancestors arrived here this land belonged to the Mdewakanton Dakota, but there were folks here before then … even in the first millennium.  And the hopeful still arrive, the African-American students, Somali students, Sudanese students, Karen students, Hmong students, Latino and Latina students, and hundreds of others.  Serving settlers, explorers, pioneers … serving the original Americans through the newest Americans … has always been a part of who we are and it must be so moving forward.
We were built on a frontier of abundant resources that needed to be respected lest they be depleted.  That was true then and it is true now.   So, a second place we have always stood is in a position of respect for our physical environment and respect for the need to build communities together.  I think our ancestors in Winona – mounds builders, Mdewakanton Dakota, Europeans, Africans, Asians – would not have survived here if they had not respected this place and built a community together.  

An example of building a community together goes right back to our founding moment as the first normal school west of the Mississippi and the fourteenth in the nation, really bedrock for us. We were built for training teachers who were new to this wilderness. We need to be that still – we need to stand on the idea that education is the greatest pathway to the good life, to wisdom and freedom, to virtue and community, and to prosperity in every sense.

We need to serve everyone who shares this dream, but I am sorry to say that we are not doing as well as we should be.  For example, our significant gains in student success – whereby more students have been able to persist and graduate -- have not been shared by all!  In fact, Winona State’s own local achievement gap has widened even as our retention rates have climbed.  Students of color continue to find the pathways here more difficult than students of other backgrounds.  I hope we all agree that this is unacceptable and that every WSU student deserves the same chance to succeed.    I don’t doubt that we will figure this out.

Your fundamental nobility, that of all of you, every single person who is here, is that you have dedicated your lives to this purpose: to helping others achieve their dreams. There is no nobler purpose to which you could have dedicated your hands and your time on this earth. So let’s re-double our efforts and commit to the notion that every one… every single one … deserves the opportunity to earn their dream.

We are inclusive by nature. This is solid ground. There are things we will always be. There are things we will always do. And there are things we need to work on now, for a time. 


6.    Bedrock

Here are some other things in our nature that WSU represent bedrock for me:

  1. We have been and will be a premiere undergraduate learning environment with outstanding liberal arts and sciences and professional programs -- a place where the traditional college education can be had of the highest quality but at an affordable price.
  2. We have been and will be a provider of high quality distinctive graduate programs that serve our students and their communities.
  3. We have been and will be a national leader in how best to infuse technology into the classroom in ways that enhance learning.
  4. We have been and will be a national leader in serving the community and learning from doing so.
  5. We have served Rochester for nearly 100 years and will continue to do so in ways that complement rather than compete with what we do in Winona.

Those are things that natural for us.  But there are also things we need to work on right now, urgently, for a time.

So let’s go back to our five themes, our 5Ps, to see what requires our attention.

  1. In terms of our theme of Programs:
    1. We have the planning money for our Education Village, thanks to the wisdom of the legislature and the leadership of Rep. Pelowski who carried the ball on this in the House, the leadership of Senator Miller in the Senate, and the support of Rep. Davids and so many others.  We have the funding, and we have an idea.
    2. Now, what if we became an international leader in preparing teachers?  We have been that before.  With this amazing faculty, not only in the College of Education but also in all of the content disciplines, I believe we can be this again, be the standard by which teacher education is measured.  I believe this is in our nature.
  2. In terms of our theme of People:
    1. We now have our KEAP Center, a place meant to support the diversity that increasingly defines us, a place that will nurture students of all backgrounds to help everyone who wants to succeed.  
    2. Now what if the first words folks think of when they think of Winona State are words like diversity, civility, transparency, and respect?  We have the intellect, we have the communities, we have the will … can our people serve and be served as we have never done before?  I believe this is in our nature.
    3. In terms of our theme of Price:
      1. We have our tuition freeze, thanks again to our legislature and to our governor and through the focus of the House Higher Education Committee and a shared vision by others in government.  In a lot of states, tuition freezes were actually harmful to higher education because they weren’t funded, but not here!  This makes it possible to better serve our people, our programs, and our place with pride. 
      2. Now, what if every student who is able to attend WSU sees no financial barrier to their success?  What if through our own cautious budgeting, what if through identifying new sources of revenue, what if through the leadership of our WSU Foundation Board and the generosity of philanthropists, WSU is seen as affordable and attainable by all?  I believe this is in our nature. 
    4. In terms of our theme of Place
      1. Through the generosity of donors, we now have our state-of-the-art floating classroom, the Cal Fremling, and our Arboretum, and an endowed Arborist to see to it that our nature and Mother Nature are aligned…
      2. Now, what if we become the national leader on how place and learning can be intertwined?  What if we model how a university and its communities can be inextricable, each learning from and serving the other, resulting in an environment in which learning is ubiquitous for all?  I believe this is in our nature.
    5. In terms of our theme of Pride
      1. We already have the best image in Minnesota State and one of the best in the region.  When our Chancellor came here for our Foundation’s 50th Anniversary Gala, he called us “the jewel in the Minnesota State crown.”  
      2. Now, what if we become the reputational leader throughout the region and nationally?  What if each one of us, whenever we travel in the region or the nation or the world, encounter others who say “Oh, you go to Winona State?  Cool!” or “Oh, you work at Winona State?  That place is awesome!”  I believe this is in our nature.

To me, these are things to work on today, precisely because they are true to our essence, are built on solid ground, and will seem natural and even inevitable to those who come after us, just like the courtyard or West campus or a doctoral program now seem natural and inevitable to us.

     This above all: to thine own self be true.
     Then it will follow, as night follows day:
     We cannot then be false to anyone.xv

In truth, our past has always been dedicated to the principles animating our planning ideas, those six topics called Student Learning, Student Success, Stewardship of Place, Inclusive Excellence, Solid Relationships, and Access and Opportunity.  So it is natural, it is solid ground, for our future to be dedicated to Student Learning, Student Success, Stewardship of Place, Inclusive Excellence, Relationships, and Access and Opportunity.

Solid ground is why we are looking at moving the baseball field, not primarily because the field is unsuitable for NCAA competition, though it is, but primarily because moving it helps the university find more than three acres of new land, contiguous to campus, connected by tunnels, and ready for whatever uses our descendants will see fit – new academic buildings, new student facilities, recreation and athletics, a park … whatever!  Darrell Krueger would like me to quote Steven Covey here: keep the end in mind.  Those who came before us gave us so much.  What will we leave for our descendants?

According to cultural anthropologist Wade Davis, only 85 institutions that existed at the time of the Reformation still exist today.  Of those, 70 are universities.   As a type of institution, universities are as solid as they come.  We weren’t around at the time of the Reformation but we are the oldest institution in our system, and that is because the hands of our ancestors built a foundation on which this future could be built.  Our hands should keep building on the foundation that was well-laid, assembled brick and mortar by hands that can build no more.  If we keep building, literally and figuratively, we will still be here in another 150 years.

I don’t know if our past was really a golden age, but if it was, that golden age is not lost, is not forgotten, and can be the basis for a continual return to glory.  I get to read the most wonderful promotion and tenure files every spring and this year I’d like to quote from the scholarship found in one of them.  In a paper called “Anaphora, Possible Worlds, and Temporal Schemas” in the journal Enthymema, WSU Associate Professor of English Liberty Kohn talks about the appropriation of the past for the purpose of legitimizing a future:

     The present and the future, as well as the past, are not separated…xvii
     The ideal past is a portrait of the ideal future...

We can build a future even more amazing than our storied past.  Our enrollments are among the best in the state, thanks to Barb Oertel and Carl Stange and their enrollment management team.  We now have an enrollment management plan to guide us!  Our budget is the strongest in the System thanks to Scott Ellinghuysen and his team.  The BESIs met their goal and we have a balanced budget for the biennium.  Philanthropy last year set an all-time record thanks to Ernie Hughes’ team.  Our campus is the most beautiful in Minnesota thanks to our dedicated facilities, buildings, and grounds crew and we are just getting started.  Our learning environment is rich and engaging thanks to Pat Rogers, Ken Janz, Karen Johnson, the deans, and all the teaching and service faculty.  Our bargaining unit leaders have proven to be great partners, showing civility and respect while we debate and sometimes disagree.  Our prospects are strong thanks to financial support from the legislature,  probably the best prospect in a generation.

It’s a time not to hunker down, not time to cower, but a time to hope and dream and plan and build.  So do not despair.  Do not cling to your worries.

     [And] sigh not so, but let them go
     And be you blithe and bonny,
     Converting all your sounds of woe
     Into hey, nonny nonny.

There’s a reason I’m quoting “Much Ado About Nothing” here: in eleven months, these words from Shakespeare’s play will be spoken on this stage.  We know now that these words will be spoken here at some point in the future.  A future envisioned is a future that can happen and will happen.  To translate those Shakespearean words from “Much Ado” into modern English:

     Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof;
     Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth…

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.


7.    To Be

Our ontology is simpler than Hamlet’s.  We will be.  We will endure.  We will survive slings and arrows, we will survive outrageous misfortune, we will survive every sea of troubles and we will endure and we will prosper.  It is in our nature.  It is solid ground.

You are part of something so much bigger than you, bigger than all of us.  You are a part of this land, this place.  You are part of the sustainable future imagined and envisioned at our founding, and you are part of the sustainable future we will build together.  Five generations of Warriors have invested themselves in this land and we must choose to join them.  So, as the Bard of Freehold New Jersey implores:

     With these hands, we ask for strength,
     With these hands, we ask for faith…xxi

In the praying of that prayer, it is answered.  In the act of asking, it is received.

  1. We can do this.  After all, we are Warriors … and:
  2. Warriors are brave.
  3. Warriors are proud.
  4. Warriors fight for our beliefs.
  5. Warriors stand for what we know to be right and true.
  6. Warriors lead no matter our role or circumstance.
  7. Warriors care for fellow warriors, and for all the warriors who have come before and those warriors yet to come.
  8. Warriors form a community.
  9. Warriors learn.
  10. Warriors innovate.
  11. Warriors adapt.
  12. Warriors leave the world better than they found it.
  13. And Warriors are Warriors forever.

Warrior hands can form the bricks that will last for five more generations.  Warrior hands can lay the mortar to support 300 years of history.   Warrior hands can build that tower ever higher, and all the while the lamp is still lit, shining farther and brighter with each new layer, secure on its solid ground.  

Let our hands be richly coated with terra firma!   Our past … our nature … our hopes and dreams … our hands … our future.  Let our hands build on this earth and of this earth a lighthouse, one that shines from a common spirit born of our nature, a spirit of learning, a spirit of community, a spirit of sustainability, 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 was, that is, and that always will be.

S. R. Olson
18 August 2014
Winona, Minnesota

i      Adapted from Shakespeare, W. (1603). Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2.
ii     Shakespeare, W. (1603).  Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3.
iii    Fitzgerald, E. (1859). “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.”
iv     E.g., see Marchant, Jo (24 November 2010).  Ancient astronomy: Mechanical inspiration.  Nature 468 (7323): 496–498.
v      Cicero (circa 51 BCE).  De Re Publica.
vi     See http://vimeo.com/17648733
vii    The provenance of this quote is contested.  It is also attributed to Henry Stanley Haskins, Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, anonymous, and others.  
viii   Aurelius, M. (167 CE). The mediations of Marcus Aurelias, VIII: 11.  Trans. G. Long.
ix     Aurelius, M. (167 CE). The mediations of Marcus Aurelias, VIII: 6.  Trans. G. Long.
x      Blumenau, R. (2001, July/August).  Kant and the thing in itself.  Philosophy Now.  Online version at: http://philosophynow.org/issues/31/Kant_and_the_Thing_in_Itself
xi     Shakespeare, W. (1603).  Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2.
xii    Author unknown (circa 70 CE).  Gospel of Luke, 6: 48.  King James translation.
xiii   From the screenplay by I. Mecchi, J. Roberts, et al.  (1994). The Lion King. Feature Film.
xiv    Sondheim, S. (1991). “Everybody’s got the right,” a song from Assassins.
xv     Adapted from Shakespeare, W. (1603).  Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 3.
xvi    Davis, W. (2014).  Unpublished speech at the AASCU convention in Vancouver, BC.
xvii   Kohn, L. (2013).  Anaphora, possible worlds, and temporal schemas.  Enthymema, VIII: 106.
xviii  Montague, G. quoted in Kohn, L. (2013).  Anaphora, possible worlds, and temporal schemas.  Enthymema, VIII: 106.
xix    Shakespeare, W. (1600).  Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 3.
xx     Pharell (2014), “Happy,” a popular song.
xxi    Springsteen, B. (2000).  “My City of Ruins,” a popular song.