From the mandatory first-year Bible class to daily chapel time, the influence of the Lutheran church has a tangible impact on every student’s time at St. Olaf College. What is less apparent is the power that the church holds within the Board of Regents, St. Olaf’s governing body.
St. Olaf has been a Lutheran-affiliated institution since the College’s founding, and today the College’s bylaws require at least 40% of Regents — and the College President — to be members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Additionally, the bylaws state that a majority of Regents must be “members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or another denomination with which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or its successors has established full communication.” The denominations with which the ELCA has established full communication include the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church, the Methodist Church and the Reformed Church of America.
In practice, St. Olaf’s bylaws give Lutheran affiliated Regents the power to control almost all votes made by the Board, as the Board of Regents passes most decisions with a majority of affirmative votes.
St. Olaf’s Board of Regents website does not include information about which Regents fulfill the religious affiliation requirements.
Even with room for non-Christian Regents, the influence of the ELCA permeates not only the structure of the Board, but also makes Christianity a central part of the Board’s culture.
“There are times on the agenda when we pray together,” said Rev. Bill Gafkjen ’79, a current Regent. “[President David Anderson] will often say ‘As a college with the word ‘saint’ in its name, we pray together.’”
The bylaws of the College require one Regent to be “a bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or a person who is widely recognized as a thought or practice leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” That position is currently filled by Gafkjen who is the Bishop for the Indiana-Kentucky Synod.
Gafkjen views his primary role on the Board as functioning just like any other Regent, but also “to provide a connection with the ELCA and to help when necessary to help the Regents understand a little bit of what it means to be a Lutheran college.”
The role of a Lutheran institution is “engaging the big questions of life in a way that one might not engage those questions at a community college or not church related school,” Gafkjen said. “And to do that in the context of also welcoming religious diversity, welcoming cultural diversity, racial diversity and actually lifting that up.”
Gafkjen also referenced the 2018 document “ROOTED AND OPEN: The Common Calling of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities,” which “all of the ELCA colleges and universities have essentially adopted,” he said.
“The Lutheran theological roots that these schools have inherited deepen their educational purpose, inform their educational commitments and anchor their educational priorities,” the document states. “Their foundational commitments promise to make them flexible, open to change, ready to partner, institutionally curious and intellectually alive.”
And change they have.
“There was a day when colleges and universities were required to have 100% Lutheran members of their boards and faculty and everything else,” Gafkjen said. “In modern life, there’s been a move to honor more [religious] diversity. So, the fact that it’s actually less than a majority that have to be Lutheran I think is a strong step forward to open the door for other perspectives.”
The bylaws and constitution of the College are ultimately controlled by the ELCA National Church Council, which votes to approve any changes.
“What [the Church Council] tends to look for is whether or not something will change the relationship of the college with the ELCA,” Gafkjen said.
Additionally, the presiding bishop of the ELCA must vote on the College’s president.
However, aspects of St. Olaf such as curriculum and student life are under the control of the Board of Regents rather than the ELCA Church Council. Most recently, St. Olaf’s Lutheran affiliation was addressed by the Board of Regents in discussions of reforming the general education (GE) curriculum in 2019.
“[St. Olaf’s Lutheran affiliation] came up when we were working through the curriculum changes,” Gafkjen said, “and what was appropriate in terms of the identity of the College and the religion requirements in the curriculum.”
The Board of Regents ultimately approved the GE reform.
However, for students at St. Olaf who believe that the College’s emphasis on the Lutheran tradition creates an exclusionary environment, the changes made towards openness and diversity have fallen short.
In a 2018 Messenger article titled “Emphasis on Lutheran Heritage Exclusionary,” Maggie Meyer ’20 wrote that St. Olaf’s focus on the Lutheran tradition implies that “an individual can practice whatever they want, but whether they like it or not, the Lutheran tradition is still nourishing them and guiding them because it is the tradition that matters.”
Regardless if students agree with the College’s enforcement of the Lutheran tradition, they feel that they are unable to operate apart from the ELCA’s influence.
Student organizations pursuing changes that are under the Regents’ oversight are working to navigate and utilize St. Olaf’s Lutheran affiliation in order to appeal to the Board. For leaders of the Climate Justice Collective (CJC), the power of the ELCA within the Board of Regents is informing their plans to continue their push for the College to divest from fossil fuels.
“In order to pass divestment we have to appeal to the senses of the Board and the administration,” said CJC leader Abby Becker ’21, “and that requires using examples of other institutions who have also divested. And if they won’t respect our other contemporaries like Macalester or Middlebury, then they might respect other [Lutheran] groups or churches who have divested.”
While Becker pointed to the various “moral and financial motivations” for divestment, she said that the Board has not been receptive to those appeals.
“The fact that we have to go this roundabout way to get to them only reflects the way that the Board of Regents does not represent its students even though it makes all the decisions for us.” said Imani Mosher ’21, another CJC leader. “They don’t see us, they don’t hear from us.”
The Board of Regents fall meeting is being held on Thursday, Oct. 8.
Disclaimer: Anna Mulhern, writer of this article, is a member of CJC.