Proposed institute incites debate

For the first time its history, St. Olaf will have an institute. Formally announced at the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate meeting on Dec. 2, The Institute for Freedom and Community will provide a major boost for the study of public affairs. Made possible by substantial donor funding, the Institute has been a source of both excitement and controversy among the faculty.

According to Professor of Political Science Dan Hofrenning – who announced the development of the Institute to Senate and who has been one of its main supporters – this new program will both provide new opportunities for politically-engaged students and raise the profile of political inquiry on campus.

“The purpose of this project is to add to the list of wonderful things people think of when they think of St. Olaf, to add public affairs, politics and civic discourse to this list,” Hofrenning said.

One of the main features of the proposed Institute would be a Public Affairs Conversation, open to juniors and seniors. In addition, the Institute would host a yearly conference on constructive political dialogue and inquiry and would also bring in guest lecturers and visiting fellows.

Hofrenning imagines the Institute as not just a set of curricula, but rather an environment that fosters civic discourse and social activism.

“We want to include lots of debates and civil conversation,” he said. “But we also want to make a statement that at some point…there will be lots of issues where you will have to take a stand. We envisage a student that will get involved and take a stand.”

There has been some controversy regarding the Institute’s implementation, however. One issue involves the donor, Dean Buntrock ’55, who provided the majority of the money for the Institute. Buntrock has long been a financial supporter of St. Olaf, as well as a member of the Board of Regents, but was also the subject of a fraud charge by the SEC as the CEO of Waste Management in 2002.

There are also questions about the amount of faculty control on the Institute’s content. The faculty usually controls curriculum, but the Institute’s unique nature poses some distinct issues. There is no existing bureaucratic structure for assessing institutes, and some faculty are concerned about this lack of oversight.

Political Science Professor Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak believes that the Curriculum Committee should have had the responsibility of assessing and evaluating the new creation.

“This is an entirely new thing for St. Olaf,” she said. “We don’t have a process for an institute that intends to be on both the curricular and non-curricular sides of the college.”

Instead, a task force of eight faculty members has been developing the Institute since last spring, bypassing the standard elected committee structure. While the Curriculum Committee will eventually review the proposed classes, the rest of the Institute was presented to the general faculty as essentially a finished product. Some faculty members consider this a problem, as there exist several aspects of the Institute that many feel warrant further discussion, especially the presence of the word “freedom” in the title.

Freedom has a conservative connotation in current U.S. politics, and there is concern that the current title does not reflect the Institute’s mission of broad based civic discourse. Political Science Professor Kris Thalhammer articulated these concerns.

“If we want to attract speakers across a spectrum, if we really want to have people who do sophisticated analysis of all sorts of different issues, I worry that the title might send the signal that we have a particular agenda,” Thalhammer said. “If the agenda is actually to have spirited and widespread discourse, including conservative voices being heard, but not exclusively, I don’t think that’s the title I would have chosen.”

As an alternative title, she suggested, “Institute for Public Civic Discourse,” but was not sure that a change was possible.

“I’m not getting a strong signal that it’s open to negotiation,” she said.

Tegtmeyer Pak also questioned the word choice in the title and emphasized that these types of discussions could have taken place through the normal channels.

“Does ‘freedom’ in the title set us up to have to think about particular kinds of things in the classroom? That’s one of my questions,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I think it would be worthwhile to have this talked about through a normal process in the curriculum committee. So I’m disappointed that the name isn’t being treated as names are otherwise treated at the college.”

Both Tagtmeyer Pak and Thalhammer emphasized that the Institute could very well be a positive development for civically engaged students and academic inquiry. But concerns about the Institute’s implementation persist. Curriculum content should be within the domain of the faculty, and, in this case, faculty may not have been allotted the proper amount of oversight.

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