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Mission and history

Augustana College, rooted in the liberal arts and sciences and a Lutheran expression of the Christian faith, is committed to offering a challenging education that develops qualities of mind, spirit and body necessary for a rewarding life of leadership and service in a diverse and changing world.

The words of Augustana’s mission statement reflect both tradition and vision. Founded by Swedish Lutheran settlers in Chicago in 1860, Augustana has grown from a small school educating Swedish immigrants into a highly selective college of the liberal arts and sciences. The College honors its roots and its affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. At the same time, Augustana’s rich liberal arts environment is enhanced by diversity.

Augustana continues to do what it has always done — challenge and prepare students for lives of leadership and service in our complex, ever-changing world.

A history of Augustana through its eight presidencies

Augustana, an independent, selective college of the liberal arts and sciences related to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, traces its roots to the Old World universities of Uppsala and Lund in Sweden. Graduates of these centuries-old seats of learning founded Augustana in order to train Lutheran pastors, teachers and musicians for the growing settlements of Swedish immigrants in this country. Under the leadership of its eight presidents, this mission has evolved in step with the integration of the immigrant community into American society, and today Augustana is considered one of the nation's leading liberal arts colleges.

Augustana was founded under the auspices of the Augustana Synod, a national Lutheran church body then comprised almost exclusively of recent Scandinavian immigrants to America.

The school's first president was the Rev. Lars Paul Esbjörn (1808-1870), who — having previously served as chair of Scandinavian language and literature at the young Illinois State University in Springfield - opened the Augustana Seminary in a small frame building in Chicago on September 1, 1860.

In 1863, Esbjörn returned to Sweden and the early leaders of the Augustana Synod decided to move their school to an agrarian setting. In response to an offer of land from the Illinois Central Railroad, Augustana relocated to Paxton, Illinois, under the presidency of the Rev. Dr. Tuve Nils Hasselquist (1816-1891).

A graduate of the University of Lund, he served as Augustana's leader until his death in 1891. Hasselquist strove to solidify the school's place in the life of its church. By 1875, when the initial dream of creating a Swedish pioneer community in Paxton proved to be unrealistic, Augustana moved to Rock Island, a more central location among the growing number of Augustana Synod congregations. During these years the institution began to develop as a liberal arts college. At the time of the move, the faculty included eight professors and enrollment totaled 90 students; two years later, the first class to receive the Bachelor of Arts degree was graduated.

Dr. Olof Olsson (1841-1900), a clergyman, teacher and musician, became Augustana's third president in 1891. He, too, had been educated in Sweden, receiving his Ph.D. from Uppsala University. He brought to the presidency a strong emphasis on academic freedom, which was a boon to Augustana's development as a liberal arts college. Olsson accepted the call to the college presidency only reluctantly, because of tenuous health and a significant challenge which faced the college in the form of competition from colleges in maturing Swedish immigrant communities in Minnesota, Kansas and New Jersey, each of which had been founded by regional conferences of the Augustana Synod. The resulting decline in support for the Rock Island school meant considerable trials for its leaders, and the strain became too much for Olsson. He was given a leave of absence for health reasons in December of 1899 and died soon after.

His successor was Dr. Gustav Andreen (1864-1940), who became Augustana's youngest president when he was called to the school in 1901 at the age of 37. Having graduated from Augustana in 1881, he was the first alumnus to serve as president. He was also the first to have his Ph.D. from an American institution, Yale. He left a promising career at New Haven in order to accept the leadership of the financially struggling college and theological seminary in Rock Island.

Andreen's exuberant vitality stood in contrast to the frail health of his predecessor, and during his 35-year presidency he devoted his considerable energy to securing the fiscal health of Augustana. Five new buildings were added to the campus and an endowment was established, thanks to his tireless travels to Synod congregations across the U.S. and Canada. In the last years of his presidency, Augustana faced the loss of its accreditation due to substandard facilities for science instruction; but in spite of the Great Depression, he secured funding for the then state-of-the-art Wallberg Hall of Science.

A 1915 Augustana alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Conrad Bergendoff (1895-1997), succeeded Andreen in 1935 and guided the college for 27 years. Holder of an M.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.Div. from Augustana Seminary, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and a Th.D. from Sweden's Uppsala University, Bergendoff became recognized nationally as an educator and internationally as a theologian. Bergendoff's tenure was highlighted by dramatic growth of the campus, the enrollment and the strength of the faculty. Six major buildings were erected during his presidency, but no achievement was of greater satisfaction to him than the securing of an Augustana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1949 - just 15 years after the threatened loss of accreditation for lack of science facilities. Today, roughly a tenth of American colleges and universities can boast the Phi Beta Kappa distinction.

In 1962, Dr. Clarence Woodrow Sorensen (1907-1982) became Augustana's sixth president. An alumnus of the University of Chicago - where he also earned the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees - Sorensen's academic career had made him an internationally-respected scholar, having written extensively on geography and international relations, and having earned the status of Fellow in the Royal Geographical Society in London. During his tenure, the enrollment doubled in size and several new buildings were added, including the Roy J. Carver Center for Physical Education and the John Deere Planetarium. The former Augustana Book Concern, which relocated in a merger precipitated by the creation of the Lutheran Church in America [see Augustana and the Church], was purchased by the college and was later renamed Sorensen Hall.

On July 1, 1975, Dr. Thomas Tredway (b. 1935) became president after having served for five years as dean of the college and 11 years as a member of the history faculty. A 1957 graduate of Augustana, Tredway earned his M.A. at Illinois and his B.Div. at Garrett before completing his Ph.D. at Northwestern. While his tenure may be remembered for the unprecedented growth of academic facilities - including the College Library, the Science Building and the Franklin W. Olin Center for Educational Technology - a more lasting legacy is the strengthening of Augustana's faculty and academic program as well as the college's endowment. As Tredway observed in a President's Report from the 1990s, "No amount of new construction or success in fundraising will compensate for an inferior academic program. We do well to remember that a college is really about teaching and learning, about faculty and curriculum and students." In recognition of his service - particularly in bolstering Augustana's focus and status as a college of the liberal arts - the College Library was dedicated as the Thomas Tredway Library in 2003.

Augustana's current president, Steven C. Bahls (b. 1954) was installed in ceremonies held on October 10, 2003. A graduate of the University of Iowa and the Northwestern University Law School, Bahls had previously been dean of the Capital University Law School, the only such institution among the 28 colleges and universities affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Since coming to Augustana, Bahls has overseen development and adoption of an ambitious strategic plan designed to advance the College's position among the nation's premier liberal arts colleges. The plan's title, "Authentically Augustana," was chosen in part, according to Bahls, because, "The primary and clarion values of Augustana are the values associated with authenticity - truthfulness, excellence, genuineness, and faithfulness."

Within the first years of Bahls' presidency, a document entitled The Five Faith Commitments of Augustana College was created to articulate the historic and ongoing relationship between the College and the Lutheran Church, and provides context for the missional priorities of Augustana, including ecumenism, global focus, personal piety, servant leadership and social justice. Curricular enhancements have included Senior Inquiry and an overhaul of the General Education program at the College. To assist in the implementation of the strategic plan, Authentically Augustana: A Call to Action - a $100 million comprehensive fundraising campaign - was launched in 2008 with advance gifts exceeding $80 million.

Physical development of the campus during the Bahls presidency has included creation of a Campus Master Plan, setting forth capital priorities for the next two decades. Construction to date has included the Duane R. Swanson Commons and the Dorothy Parkander Residence Center, as well as the renovation and transformation of the former Carlsson Dormitory into Emmy Carlsson Evald Hall, a new home for the academic departments of business, accounting, economics, education and psychology.

Augustana and the church

The Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod was established in June of 1860, making the creation of its school one of its first official acts. The name which bound them came from the seminal statement of the Reformation, the Augsburg Confession, which in Latin is rendered Confessio Augustana. In 1962, the Synod helped create the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), prompting the Augustana Seminary to move from the campus as it became part of the new Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. A second merger in 1987 established the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Today Augustana is one of 28 colleges and universities related to the ELCA. The Church-relatedness of each reflects its unique history. One facet of Augustana's connection is the composition of its Board of Trustees, which according to the constitution must reserve a significant number of seats for members of the ELCA. In 2000, the Board amended the eligibility requirements of the presidency: instead of simply "Lutheran" (thereby including church bodies with markedly different theological understandings and worldviews), the president must be a member of either the ELCA or those denominations with which it has ecumenical agreements - the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian (USA), United Methodist, Reformed and Moravian Churches, and the United Church of Christ.

Throughout Augustana's history, the Church has been a source of highly skilled students from around the globe. Of obvious note is Daniel C. Tsui ‘61, who learned of the college through missionaries in his native China, and would go on from here to win the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the fractional quantum Hall effect. The impact of such students remains profound today. Pamella Maeda (Class of 2005) is a native of Arusha, Tanzania, whose presence at the college was supported by the Northern Illinois Synod of the ELCA. And she, along with every other Augustana student, must complete a religion requirement in order to graduate.

Each of Augustana's presidents has had a role in shaping the Church relationship. As Thomas Tredway observed in a 1997 annual report: "Far from restricting us, our roots in the Church mean that we are free to ask every student to examine the fundamental questions about human existence which Christianity seeks to answer and which other great religious traditions also address. Though our civilization has long recognized such questions to be essential to a full education, the freedom to examine them is one which many secular institutions do not enjoy."

President Steven Bahls has continued this legacy with the creation of a formal document expressing the College's faith commitments with the ELCA, as well as the ways in which these commitments serve Augustana's students. These include the Center for Vocational Reflection, a program which helps students deepen their understanding of themselves and their own faith commitments. Additionally, Augustana hosts publication of Intersections, the ELCA's journal of Lutheran higher education, and its faculty, staff and students serve the church on the local, regional and national levels.

Augustana and Sweden

Augustana's connections with the homeland of its founders extend back to its very creation. The earliest major gift of support received by the college came in the form of 5,000 books donated from the personal library of King Karl XV of Sweden, along with a $10,000 subscription of support from Swedish churches and individuals. Financial support continues to the present: notable gifts from the Wallenberg Family Foundations have advanced the college in several ways, including the creation of Augustana's Wallenberg Hall recital and lecture facility. Dr. Peter Wallenberg, Sr., an internationally recognized leader in business, industry and finance, and former Chairman of Stockholm-based Investor AB, served on the Augustana College Board of Trustees from 1986 to 1994, and received an honorary doctorate from the college.

Support from the Wallenberg Family Foundations made possible the renovation of Augustana's Swenson Center for Swedish Immigration Research, which is an unparalleled repository for genealogical information pertaining to the waves of Swedish immigration which began in 1846. The Center receives visitors and queries from around the world, although primarily from the U.S. and Sweden. Its director, Dr. Dag Blanck, divides his time between the two nations.

Throughout its history, the college has also attracted exceptional students from Sweden. These have included Thorsten Sellin '15, who made his career in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is memorialized by Penn's Sellin Center for Studies in Criminology and Criminal Law; Oscar Broneer '22, whose work in archaeology remains the underpinning of our contemporary understanding of ancient Corinth; and Nils Hasselmo '61, president emeritus of the University of Minnesota and of the American Association of Universities.

Such exchange continues today, as does Augustana's association with the House of Bernadotte begun by Karl XV in 1860. King Carl XVI Gustaf most recently visited the campus in 1996, accompanied by Queen Silvia. In 2008, the college received a visit by Sweden's ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Jonas Hafström, who conferred upon President emeritus Thomas Tredway the rank of Commander in Sweden's Order of the Polar Star, a chivalric order dating back to the 18th century.

Also in 2008, President Steven Bahls traveled to Sweden in conjunction with a tour by the Augustana Choir commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lars Paul Esbjörn. He spoke at Esbjörn ceremonies in Gävle, and met with leaders of Uppsala University to arrange new forms of exchange between the two institutions. He also met with leaders of the Sverige-Amerika Stiftelsen (Sweden-America Foundation), which selects Swedish students for study at Augustana College.