Luther Alumni Magazine

A strong, bold, sustainable future

This month, as Luther celebrates Commencement and extends warm wishes to hundreds of women and men embarking on new journeys, we add another name to the list: President Paula J. Carlson. Carlson retires in June, marking the end of a five-year period during which Luther has faced challenging realities, engaged in deep reflection, planned the way forward with courage and vision, and emerged with a solid foundation upon which to build future success.

At the center of this work has been a commitment to enhancing student opportunity—through a focus on an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum; equity and inclusion; applied-learning experiences that connect classroom and real-world instruction; retention efforts centered on programs for sophomores; increased student scholarships and philanthropic support; renewed athletic facilities; and a strategic plan that positions the college for a strong, bold, sustainable future.

President Paula J. Carlson

A 21st-century curriculum

Luther’s new strategic plan—Inspired. Empowered. Engaged.—written and adopted under Carlson’s leadership, calls for an educational model that “must be dynamic and open to innovation and renewal.” It envisions Luther as “a leader in reimagining a liberal arts education for a global society.” It’s a charge that Carlson has taken seriously, supporting faculty as they’ve developed new, compelling, relevant programs to equip students to lead lives of impact in an ever-changing world.

In the past three years, Luther has introduced six new majors and minors: data science, neuroscience, visual communications, musical theatre, exercise science, and applied leadership studies. Two additional programs—identity studies and global health—will likely earn approval this spring.

President Paula J. Carlson

“The faculty has been so creative and energized in creating new programs,” Carlson says. “One goal for these programs is that they are interdisciplinary, building on strengths in established programs to venture into new, emerging fields of knowledge. In a 21st-century global society, these interdisciplinary areas of study are often the most exciting, energized spaces in new, emerging fields.”

She continues, “The world is changing; our curriculum needs and wants to change, too. The new programs are important to draw new students and to prepare students for new and emerging careers. Some of our students will get jobs as seniors that didn’t exist when they were first-years. That’s how dynamic the worlds of knowledge and work are now. It’s very exciting that Luther is so involved in these new interdisciplinary areas and is serving students in new ways.”

Carlson has encouraged innovation not only in the curriculum, but also in the ways that faculty teach and learn. This summer, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) will open its doors on the Luther campus. As Carlson describes it, “This is a place where faculty can come together to share ideas, use resources, and try things out as they prepare to teach in new curricula and in new ways. Each generation of students brings its own set of gifts, talents, and perspectives. The center will be a place for faculty to learn about new pedagogies and new ways to foster engagement and success for this new generation of students.”

A place of welcome

As a college in the Lutheran tradition, Luther is rooted in its mission “to embrace diversity . . . and to serve with distinction for the common good.” As president, Carlson’s been guided by the idea that every Luther student believes a college education will enrich their lives, and Luther, as an institution, owes them its full support in pursuit of this education. Recognizing that as our society diversifies, the Luther student body will and should diversify with it, she has worked to build more support for first-generation students and students of color. “It’s essential for us to live our mission and values, to truly be a community that champions inclusive excellence,” she says.

She’s helped the college live this mission by investing in initiatives such as College Possible’s Catalyze program, which supports Pell Grant–eligible and/or first-generation students as they navigate college life. She also created a cabinet-level position—vice president for equity, inclusion, and student success—to work with students, faculty, and staff to promote a culture of inclusion and student success across campus. Carlson has partnered with Lisa Scott, who assumed the position, to support the new and ongoing initiatives of the Center of Intercultural Engagement and Student Success—formerly the Diversity Center—as they’ve re-envisioned what the center is and does on campus.

Innovative ways of learning

During her time at Luther, Carlson has sought to increase opportunities for students to learn through engagement with the real world. The strategic plan calls for several initiatives that allow students to combine classroom and real-world experience. One of these is an experiential-learning hub currently under development in Rochester, Minn. The program in Rochester will provide internship sites, housing, and complementary coursework for students of all majors. It will be similar to the Lutheran College Washington (D.C.) Semester consortium in which Luther participates, and if it’s successful, Carlson sees opportunity for Luther to expand the model to other cities.

A second applied-learning opportunity that Carlson is excited to launch is an Innovation Incubator that the strategic plan describes as “a student laboratory for entrepreneurship and socially responsible businesses.”

President Paula J. Carlson

“It will be space on campus for students, faculty, staff, and community members to come together to invent things, make things, imagine, and create. We don’t want too many boundaries on it, because then it’s neither innovative nor an incubator,” Carlson says with a smile. “It should promote entrepreneurship, applied learning, and creativity. There’s a lot of potential there.”

It’s important to Carlson that students have these kinds of opportunities to integrate classroom and real-world learning during their time at Luther. In an effort to coordinate students’ career planning with their academic programs, Carlson has worked with Luther’s Career Center to develop a powerful model in which the center’s director partners with a new faculty position, an associate dean for integrated academic and career development. “It’s going to offer many opportunities for students to prepare for their next step after college,” Carlson says. “It’s a cutting-edge, innovative model—I don’t know of any other campus that has it. Look for very fruitful results from that.”  

Comprehensive, intentional advising

One of Carlson’s priorities when she started at Luther was to address the often overlooked sophomore year. While Paideia and other programs exist to support campus-wide learning for first-year and upper-level students, programmatic support specific to sophomores was lacking. So Carlson convened a group of about 40 faculty and staff volunteers to develop a Next Steps for Sophomores program to connect with students during this critical year. “There’s value in engaging with sophomores in that intentional way,” Carlson says. “It matters a lot to their learning, it matters to their growth as people, and it’s fundamental to their success at Luther College.”

President Paula J. Carlson

Carlson envisions that ultimately Next Steps for Sophomores will be just one piece of a larger comprehensive advising program that will include experiential learning, the Career Center, and other initiatives to help students think more intentionally about their learning and prepare more purposefully for their futures by bringing together curricular and co-curricular activities, on-campus and off-campus learning, and academic and beyond-the-classroom experiences.

A refreshed athletics program

Carlson’s presidency has meant great things for Luther athletics. In the past five years, Luther’s baseball stadium, softball stadium, and outdoor tennis courts have been renovated; Legacy Field has been outfitted with top-of-the-line blue synthetic turf; and plans have been completed for renovation of the indoor facilities in the Regents Center.

President Paula J. Carlson

Carlson admires the motto of the Luther athletics program—Mens sana in corpore sano (A healthy mind in a healthy body)—just as she admires the people who participate in it. “The distinguished history of Luther athletics and the legends who have been coaches and faculty in it are a signature piece of the Luther College community,” she says. Carlson’s tenure saw the first endowed coaching position in Luther history when an alumna—a member of the college’s first women’s cross country team—and her husband contributed $1 million to establish the Kent Finanger Endowed Chair for Women’s Cross Country and Track and Field.

Impactful giving

Philanthropic giving is thriving at Luther. In the past five years, Luther donors have contributed nearly $90 million in gifts, pledges, and planned gifts. Notably, the number of endowed scholarships has increased to 838 (including 150 new scholarships during the past five years), with 54.2 percent of the college’s overall endowment earnings earmarked for student scholarships. “The love of Luther alumni and friends of the college is deep and powerful. The philanthropy that people have shared with the college has impact every day for faculty, staff, and especially students. It has been moving to me to be a part of that,” Carlson says.

President Paula J. Carlson

She finds endowed scholarship support “particularly heartening now because that makes a Luther education available to more and more students. As we think about Luther’s tradition of enrolling first-generation students and expanding the diversity of the student body as our society diversifies, it’s important that we have scholarship funds that can enable students to come to Luther and thrive here.”

She continues, “In the future, there will continue to be financial and demographic challenges facing higher education. Having significant endowment support is essential for the college to thrive in the years ahead. During these past five years, the Luther community has shown its commitment to the college. The gifts are significant, and they will have a significant impact on Luther’s future—they will make the difference.”

A roadmap to guide us

Luther’s progress over the past five years didn’t happen without a plan. In fact, Carlson led two strategic planning processes during her presidency. The first, Luther College Priorities, was a “bridge” plan during her first years in office. The second—Inspired. Empowered. Engaged.—sets institutional goals through 2023.

President Paula J. Carlson

About creating the plans, Carlson says, “In a place where learning is at the heart of things, it’s exciting to be learning about our learning. That’s essentially what we do in a strategic planning process. We learn together about what we need and want the college—this place of learning—to become in the future. During both planning processes, I was impressed with the community’s robust engagement. The Luther community cares about the college in a deep, deep way. That’s a distinctive thing about this community. The deep care. The deep love. And the robust engagement.”

Asked where she hopes the college will be in 10 years, Carlson doesn’t miss a beat: “I trust that Luther will be rooted in its mission and living its values, educating students—mind, body, and spirit—in the creative, committed way it has throughout its history. I trust, too, that Luther will continue to adapt and innovate—inspiring, empowering, and engaging new generations of students to thrive, serve, and lead in an ever-changing world.”

From the Board

The Board of Regents thanks Dr. Carlson for her leadership and passion over the past five years. She has consistently demonstrated a willingness to put Luther first and partner with the board in courageous conversations as we face our reality and determine a path to sustained future success for Luther. . . .

During Dr. Carlson’s tenure, we’ve experienced some of the highest fundraising years in Luther’s history, including the launch and growth of our annual Giving Day. She set forth a vision for the integration of people and place with the establishment of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Sophomore Initiative, and the partnership with College Possible. Most importantly, she led the development of Luther’s comprehensive strategic plan: Inspired. Empowered. Engaged., outlining a bold path forward for Luther. . . . Understanding the importance of evolving our curriculum to compete, Dr. Carlson worked with faculty to establish competitive interdisciplinary degrees, such as neuroscience and data science. As well, she continues to support the evolution of Luther’s strengths outside of the classroom, including enhancing the role of athletics in driving enrollment and establishing an endowed fund to support music and Christmas at Luther.

We’re grateful for Dr. Carlson’s grace, passion, and resiliency and want to thank her, and the cabinet, staff, and faculty, for setting a strong foundation for Luther’s future. We know she will forever be a part of Norse nation and an ardent supporter of Luther College.

—Wendy (Jaycox) Davidson ’92, chairperson
J. Robert Paulson Jr. ’78, vice chairperson

New Scholarship

The Dr. Paula J. Carlson and Rev. Dr. Thomas H. Schattauer Scholarship was established last fall by a generous donor couple in honor of President Carlson and her husband. The scholarship recognizes Carlson’s courage, equanimity, and wisdom and thanks her for her stewardship of the Luther College community and mission. It will be awarded to qualified incoming students with demonstrated need for financial assistance, specifically to cover unmet financial need, and is intended to be renewed each year the student attends Luther.