Alma Mater 
If my 23 years as a senior administrator in higher education has taught me anything, it’s this: to be a leader on a college campus, whether as president, faculty chair, dean or director, is to be a magnet for nasty emails, angry letters, vitriolic blog posts and acerbic face-to-face interactions. Some are one-line zingers, others are exhaustive diatribes. Some are mildly amusing, and others are somewhat disturbing.
So, today, I decided I would address this problem with a Presidential Decree: Henceforth, I will receive no more nasty emails. This decree covers all condescending letters, nasty blog posts and unsavory editorials. You heard me correctly: they are herewith and forever after banished.
How can that be? Simply put: “Nasty” is in the eyes of the beholder. And if I as the receiver refuse to regard a communication as nasty, then it follows that I will receive no more nasty communications. Instead, I will regard these emails, letters and other interactions as evidence of strong passions. And usually these strong passions are outward signs of deep love and respect for Augustana — even though they may lead the holder of those passions to conclusions other than my own.
Let me give you a few examples. Shortly after coming to Augustana, a faculty member frustrated about collapsing enrollment in his classes notified me that I was a “bean counter.” True, my undergraduate degree is in accounting, and I am a CPA, so at first, I thought it was a compliment. Perhaps he was saluting me for keeping the college’s finances strong. But the academic dean informed me it wasn’t a compliment. The faculty member was saying I cared more about the college being financially viable than the courses he wanted to teach to tiny classes. He was passionate about his subject and upset that students were not.
So this year, instead of getting upset about emails like this, I will take them as evidence that people care deeply about what they do and are passionate about this college. I will remember the words Daniel Webster spoke about his own alma mater; “It is, sir, as I have said, a small college, but there are those who love it.” I will be patient and keep lines of communication open. I will understand that these emails are often sent from the sender’s frustration, which usually has little to do with me as a person.
Further illustrations followed my decisions to open the chapel of Augustana — a Lutheran college — to same-gender weddings and to encourage readings from the Koran at our Baccalaureate worship service before graduation. I expected a torrent of nasty communications, but in both cases received only a few. Regarding the Koran, one elderly alum told me he would donate only in Muslim dollars — whatever those might be. Many told me that I was turning my back on Christianity and the college’s Lutheran identity — never mind that both decisions actually emanated from the theology that informs our Lutheran identity. Though I have a thick skin — as all leaders must — some of these comments have been frustrating and hurtful.
So now, when I receive unfair comments like this, I take a different approach:
- First, I make the choice not to become frustrated, hurt or angry.
- Second, I understand that these comments say more about the commenter than they do about me. As often as not, the source is someone who is grieving some loss. The loss of a perceived past when persons with other sexual orientations, from different religions or holding differing world views could simply be ignored or hated into marginalization. Or, in the professor’s case, mourning classes that students were, by-and-large, not interested in.
- Third, these people are passionate about Augustana. Now, since passions are woven from our own stories, they are woven from our past. And that means these passions are most often about the way Augustana was or the way we remember it to be. Those are two distinct things, but both are different from the Augustana of today, just as the world in which Augustana operates and to which it is accountable has changed. And yet these passions, born of yesterday, result in fervent feeling for the Augustana of today.
- Fourth, I try – in most cases – to start a dialog. The person who told me his donation was going to be in Muslim dollars was shocked when I called him. “Bob (I have changed the name), what do you mean by Muslim dollars? What do you really mean? Did you know the Lutheran expression of higher education is to reach out to people of all beliefs, challenging them to deepen their faith?” Did I change his mind? Probably not. Will he be more reflective about the issue in the future? Perhaps. Will he be more careful before he fires off angry letters? I'd like to think so.
- Finally, I will not be intimidated by those who send these emails. Yes, some are bullies. Most are simply wearing their emotions on their shirtsleeves. I will not let attempts to intimidate cause me to lose my integrity or act in a way that is not in the best long-term interest of Augustana.
Leaders in higher education are magnets for criticism, some fair and some unfair. We all receive, in this less civil society, too many indecorous, condescending or overly aggressive emails, letters, blog posts and other communications. But how we react to them is our choice. It is our decision to escalate or engage.
Or we could rise above it. We could view it as an opportunity for dialog, and who knows… maybe even consider a change in our position.
Steven Bahls, President