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A history of St. Olaf Presidents


As St. Olaf College prepares to welcome Susan Rundell Singer as the college’s 12th president, I thought it might be of interest to reflect quickly on some of the 11 other presidents who have led the school through its first 150 years.


The first president of the College, Thorbjorn Mohn, was, as his name suggests, born in Norway and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. An active member of the church, President Mohn began his tenure at the college when it occupied a public school building in Northfield, rather than its current location on the Hill. An ordained minister, he spent his years occupied with the church allegiances of the college. Although St. Olaf was founded with a religious purpose in mind; it did not actively affiliate with a denomination until a few years after its founding, at which time the Norwegian synod adopted it as its chief college.


The next president, John Kildahl, was another Norwegian by birth. He shared many similarities with his predecessor, such as his alma mater Luther College in Iowa, and his being ordained as a minister of the Lutheran Church. During his tenure the college recruited some of its most renowned professors such as Ole Rolvaag, class of 1905, and F. Melius Christiensen.


The third president, Lauritz Vigness, only served between the years of 1914 and 1918. Part of the briefness of his tenure is a result of tense relations with the student body due to patriotism on campus with the outbreak of World War I, clashing with the very Norwegian atmosphere of the administration and faculty. Lauritz also presided over the formal accreditation of the school. 


One of the most notable in the history of the school is the fourth president, Lars Boe, class of 1898. Boe was also an ordained minister, and prior to St Olaf, he was involved in governing the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. He also had a stint in the state legislature while at Waldorf College. Boe was president for all the interwar years and his efforts to reshape the college led to the construction of numerous buildings including Holland Hall.


Clemens Granskou, class of 1917, presided during the College during World War II, at which time nearly all the male students departed and the college played host to a naval flight school. He continued his leadership in the post war years until 1963. Also an ordained Lutheran minister, he was a missionary in China in his time for several years before the war. He received an honorary doctorate from Carleton College.


Sidney Rand, became president of St. Olaf following a period as a pastor, religion professor at Concordia College, and president of Waldorf College. It was during his tenure that the 4-1-4 calendar was instituted. Following his St. Olaf years, he served as Ambassador to Norway under Presidents Carter and Reagan.


Harlan Foss, class of 1940, also served on its staff as a religion professor prior to becoming president. He is the only St. Olaf president who formerly held a faculty position at the College. 


Melvin George is the first president to not be an active clergyman of the Lutheran tradition. His academic background included a PhD in mathematics from Princeton University. In contrast to his predecessors, he did not seem to have many connections to St. Olaf or Minnesota prior to becoming president.


Noted Reformation scholar Mark Edwards became president in 1994. It was under his leadership that St. Olaf completed Buntrock Commons and first adopted a diversity initiative in its plan for the 21st century. Edwards had an impressive academic pedigree, completing his education at Stanford and teaching at the Harvard Divinity School before coming to St. Olaf.


Rev. Dr. Christopher Thomforde was a professor and chaplain at multiple schools prior to his presidency. It is notable that he taught European medieval history at Tunghai University in Taiwan. Another interesting fact is that he played basketball while completing his undergraduate degree at Princeton.


With that we are brought to the beginning of our current President’s term. Back in 2006, President David Anderson ’74 became president of St. Olaf. It will be interesting to see what the next century of presidents bring to campus, and it is well worth our time to look back and reflect upon how far we have come.

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