Lessons from the Old Oak:
The Foundation and Future of Linfield College
Opening Convocation Address
Thomas L. Hellie, President of Linfield College
August 29, 2007
Every year is important at Linfield College. But this year will be remarkable for several reasons. First of all, we will complete the college’s self-study report, which leads to our 10-year reaccreditation. We have reason to be proud, since the report will demonstrate our academic quality.
This year we will also undertake the next steps in strategic planning for the college. Last spring we approved new foundational principles for Linfield College. Now we will begin to put those principles into action. There is exciting work to do.
But there is a third reason that this year is notable. It marks the 150th anniversary of Linfield College, our sesquicentennial.
The old oak has long been Linfield's emblem. It has been a majestic presence here since before the college was founded. Our oaks symbolize our history, our foundation, and the many people who have created, served and led our college. Just as there are many oaks in the grove, so have there been many people who have sacrificed and dreamed to make Linfield better. These people have been our heroes. Some of their names are known to you because you see them on the sides of our buildings: Rutschman and Elkinton, Walker and Riley, Bull and Northup.
On January 30, 1858, the Oregon Territory granted a charter to a new college in McMinnville. Initially known as The Baptist College in McMinnville, and then as McMinnville College, the name was changed to Linfield College in 1922 to honor George Fisher Linfield, whose widow made a transformational gift to the college. Although our formal anniversary is Jan. 30, we will honor our anniversary and our heritage throughout this year.
Dr. Marvin Henberg, professor of philosophy, has authored a new sesquicentennial book about Linfield entitled Inspired Pragmatism: An Illustrated History of Linfield College. Not surprisingly, the book records many changes over the years. For example, we now allow dancing on campus! And, a woman now chairs our Board of Trustees!
There have been countless other changes since our founding. We are now much larger, both in acreage and in population. Our academic programs have grown to meet the needs of our society and our world. We teach courses not only in McMinnville but also in Portland and beyond. And while we are certainly not as wealthy as we would like, things have improved since 1970 when the chair of the board of trustees announced, “I would guess that Linfield’s chances of surviving its 13th decade as a viable private college are about 50-50.” Times were tough then; thanks to sacrifice, hard work, and good leadership, they are much better today.
I am pleased – and relieved – that we will not only survive our 16th decade, we will flourish. Last year Linfield’s total net assets increased by nearly $12 million and our endowment stands at around $75 million, thanks to wise investment of our resources, careful management by our staff, and generous gifts from our alumni and friends. I hasten to add that there is considerable work to be done, but much has changed for the better since that ominous statement 37 years ago.
Some things have not changed at Linfield, however. Even at our inception, we were a college that was willing to enroll students of modest means. About 20 percent of this year’s freshman class are the first in their family to go to college. I am proud of that fact. We have always been an egalitarian community, a place where family wealth or social class does not determine your place or status. A college where you are judged by your character, not your wallet. We also retain a central precept of our American Baptist origin: freedom of conscience. Just as America’s first Baptist settlers came here to escape religious dogmatism, so do we honor and encourage each individual’s search for truth. No two Linfield students are exactly alike, and it is our goal to help each of them find their identity and their calling while they are here.
And finally, our college has always linked the practical to the theoretical. Dr. Henberg writes, “Inspired pragmatism… emphasizes practical wisdom at the same time that it honors the force and persistence of idealism. Linfield’s story provides a superb example of this philosophy in action. Its future remains secure so long as it finds inspiration in what is useful and usefully seeks inspiration.”
Perhaps it is coincidental that we used the term “foundational principles” to document our goals in the strategic plan that we approved last spring. But these principles grow out of the foundation that was set by the Linfield community, past and present. It is not surprising that the principles combine inspiration and pragmatism. We aim to strengthen multicultural diversity and global study; to strengthen experiential learning and research; and to find more ways to integrate learning of all kinds. We also plan to protect and bolster our financial resources; to support and enhance our human resources; and to preserve and develop our physical resources.
Even as we celebrate our first 150 years, we must build on our foundation to meet the future.
During orientation, I attended a reception for multicultural students and their parents. There wasn’t enough room for all of us to sit. We have one of the most ethnically diverse freshman classes in Linfield’s history – and while we need to build on that success, I am proud of our progress.
I am also proud of the remarkable progress we’ve made with diversity initiatives on the Portland Campus. In fact the federal government is so impressed by what we’ve done that we just received a grant for more than $750,000 to expand the program.
I am equally pleased that we not only continue to enroll international students, we are also building a faculty who have experience all over the world. Some of them were born in other countries and came to Linfield; others have studied and taught at foreign universities. We are expanding our student recruitment efforts in new parts of the world, we are looking for new international university partners, and we will continue to participate vigorously in the Fulbright Program.
I continue to encourage Linfield students to take advantage of the study abroad opportunities that already exist. There will be no better time in their lives to do this; and there may be no experience that is more important to their future.
International study and experience can be traced back more than 100 years at Linfield. In many ways, the same is true for experiential learning. As I have met with Linfield faculty and students, I have discerned a common theme. We are here not only because this is a great college, but also because of this location. We have a professor who is writing about the West and another doing research on local immigrant communities. One faculty member is conducting research in the schools while another is advising local businesses. A professor has started a scientific research company, another is providing medical support to the poor, while yet another is engaged in theological discussions at a local monastery. There are many more examples, with virtually all of the professors involving students in their work.
When I talk to students in Dillin Dining Hall, they tell me about their service to the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, their hiking trip in the Cascades or the Coast Range, or the internships or jobs that have provided invaluable experience.
Undergraduate research, community service and internships are already a part of life at Linfield. Our task now is to organize ourselves so that we can make the best use of our interests and resources. Ideally we will be the place of choice for students, faculty and staff who want to test academic theory with experiences outside the classroom, especially in this part of Oregon. And I hope that the hub for this endeavor will be a Linfield Regional Studies Center, in the soon-to-be renovated Northup Hall that will contain several academic departments – business, economics, English and philosophy – fostering new connections and integrating learning of all kinds.
Indeed, the third foundational principle, integrated learning, builds on the first two that I’ve mentioned. We will seek new ways to integrate theory and experience, to ask intellectual questions from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, and to work together as faculty, staff and students.
Over the last year, I have met with at least 30 groups of alumni and friends of the college. And when I’ve talked with them, I’ve noticed that when they don’t dwell on the campus or the football winning streak or even the old oak, they talk about the faculty and staff. Not about the faculty and staff as a whole, but rather about a professor or Student Affairs administrator or facilities staff member or resident adviser who became their friend or mentor and changed their life. Our greatest resource is not our facilities; it’s our community, our people. This has always been true at Linfield. Our people are our foundation.
It will continue to be our goal to attract and retain the most talented and dedicated faculty and staff. We owe it to our founders; we owe it to our students. Last spring, our trustees agreed to dedicate $1.6 million from a bequest for matching funds that will lead to the creation of one or more new endowed faculty chairs.
More recently, two alumni of the college established an endowment to reward and support faculty scholarship. For some time we have made awards to recognize teaching and service; this year, we will add a special award for scholarly potential and/or achievement. This award will not only include an honorarium, it will also provide time and opportunity for scholarship.
The special bequest for faculty chairs and the special endowment for faculty scholarship are two examples of how we must increase the financial resources of the college. In fact there is no greater need: we must raise the college’s endowment. We have made good progress. But for a college of our caliber, we must do better. We have three primary sources of income: student tuition, annual gifts, and earnings from our endowment. If we are to flourish as an institution, we must create additional endowed funds for salaries and for scholarships. In some respects, this is the most important strategic goal for the college.
In addition to these five foundational principles – global and multicultural education, experiential learning, integrated learning, human resources and financial resources – there is also a sixth: the physical resources of Linfield College.
Our history demonstrates that we, like all colleges, have never had all of the physical resources we would like. History also shows that we have made progress in certain areas of the college, most notably in construction of a new library, theatre, fine arts building, music building, residence halls and athletic fields.
It is clear that because of our strategic priorities – and because of our enrollments – we must continue to renovate existing structures and even build new ones. Northup must be renovated; our nursing program needs more and better space; our science facilities are bursting at the seams; our fitness room is grossly inadequate. These projects will be very expensive. But we are making progress. We have spent many hours on plans for Northup; we are approaching major foundations for support of the nursing program; we have sent science faculty to national workshops on science building design; we have raised some funds for a new fitness facility.
However, our physical resources are not only addressed by building projects. We also have an obligation to set an example in sustainable practices and energy conservation. Linfield already does much better than its peers in preserving and using energy. However, we can and must do more.
I am forming a special presidential advisory committee to study our current practices and develop a plan that includes reduction of our institution’s carbon footprint, development of new LEED-equivalent construction standards, and recommendations on how all of us might recycle more effectively, use energy more carefully, and reduce our impact on the natural environment. It seems appropriate that in this special year, when we celebrate our heritage, we will also focus on preserving it for future generations.
These efforts rest on the foundations of our college. Yes, we will experience change at Linfield, but our heritage remains: we will emphasize practical wisdom at the same time that we honor the force and persistence of idealism.
One evening during orientation, I heard some noise outside the President’s House. When I looked out, I saw hundreds of new, first-year students running back and forth, throwing Frisbees and chasing each other across the Commencement Green and through the Oak Grove. Their parents had left earlier that day; they had been set free. And there they were, claiming Linfield’s sacred space as their own, joining generations of students who have also run and played and dreamed and studied and worked and rested under the oaks. Some of those same oaks sheltered our founders; others have grown and flourished in subsequent years, just as our college has done.
Late this summer, I learned that the Old Oak is dying. In a way that’s no great surprise. It is hundreds of years old. It is already being supported with cables and posts. But it seems ironic that in this sesquicentennial year, our college’s symbol is entering its last phase of life.
And yet perhaps it is symbolic of something good, of the fact that there are other, newer oaks that will replace it. Every fall we experience a kind of rebirth at Linfield, with the arrival of new students, faculty and staff, joining those of us who already love this place and care so much about its future. Our founders gave us principles upon which to build. The lesson of the Old Oak is this: Nothing remains completely the same and we must accept and embrace change; but if we remember who we are and what we believe, we will prevail.