President Ahlburg talks Trinity, past and future


Photo by Megan McLoughlin

Photo by Megan McLoughlin
As the year comes to a close, Dennis Ahlburg, president of the university, reflects on successes, challenges and what comes next for Trinity. Photo by Megan McLoughlin.

Q: How has Trinity improved over the past five years? 10 years? 20 years? What are some major changes you’ve seen on campus?

A: I think, in the long-term, President Calgaard transformed the faculty. He brought in a more research-focused faculty. This has shown the balance between research and teaching and how they complement each other. That’s a strength of a really great liberal arts school. Dr. Brazil I think internationalized the university. It was under him that we moved from international students every now and then to having, really, a strategy, and Eric Maloof has just been a superstar in building the international student body here… If you look back far enough, I think we were seen largely as a regional university. Now it’s not perceived that way at all. It really does have a national and international standing.

Q: How are things like the Strategic Plan, the time block and curriculum change transforming the face of Trinity and how it functions as a university?

A: I think it’s very healthy that at least every ten years, if not every five years, we take a look at the curriculum and say, “˜Is this meeting the demands of the modern world? Is this delivering what our students need? Is this giving the faculty the flexibility and scope to really deliver the quality of education that they can?’ I think that focusing much more on active learning, which means moving away – not exclusively, but to a fair extent away – from the lecturing model because we know that people can’t learn just from that…

Just reading a book, listening to someone, watching a lecture, is fine, but as soon as you walk out you think, “˜What on earth did they say?’ But if you are applying it in a real world setting, either in a lab or in San Antonio or in Nicaragua or wherever, that’s when you really starting putting in hooks that give meaning to what you’re learning. There is just the beauty of knowing something, but to me it’s much more meaningful when you actually do something with that knowledge… They are really exciting developments.

Q: Do you have any specific hopes or preferences for the curriculum change and where it’s going?

A: I think we have a very good model that’s out there. My sense is that there is a majority faculty support for it. The faculty have to deliver it. My hope was that our faculty – who are incredibly creative – by talking to each other about the overall curriculum and not just their course, which is what faculty are paid to do, that they would develop something that works far better for Trinity than what we currently have. So, rather that just saying it’s going to be this or it’s going to be that, they are the ones who have to deliver it so it has to be their creation. I think for some folks moving to a 4:4 from a 5:5, they aren’t sure if it would work. You could say, “˜it works in place X or place Y,’ but they have to feel that it works here.

It’s a bit of a tradeoff in how deep you can go versus how broad you can go… My preference has always been to get beyond the basic stuff and get really into the more intriguing details, and I think they can do that if they aren’t trying to cover as much ground. And also, students can learn some of this stuff by themselves. You don’t have to stand up there and tell them things that they can read and pick up some along the way.

Q: What is the status of the time block idea?

A: I think where we are on that – and check with Mike Fischer – [is that it’s] being considered further. That is all I will say.

Q: What do you think the university can improve on as a whole?

A: One of the things that we are looking at is career services. Coming from a business school background, I guess I’ve been more aware of the fact that in any movement from graduating to the next phase of your life, it is helpful to have a plan and people who are guiding you and at least thinking about you. In fact, we do that incredibly well on a one-to-one basis rather than having an institutional strategy for this. As with many liberal arts schools, we have under-funded it. If you ask most students where it is, they would say “I have no idea”. That is not unique to Trinity, but I think particularly now with the job market at least seeming to be more difficult.

It’s incumbent upon us to put more resources into there and change the model to one that is more in line with what the faculty is doing, which is coaching students and mentoring students rather than counseling students. I think I said today, not having a job is not a disease; you don’t need to be counseled… And the connection with the community? We’ve been connected to the community, but that’s not been the perception. To make that again, that is an institutional priority that fits in with the experiential learning, but it also signals our community in particular.

Q: Do you have any hopes for the Trinity student community in the future?

A: I think my greatest hope is to see them see an ongoing connection to Trinity as an important part of their future, and they will reflect on how it’s possible for them to get a Trinity education. The answer to that question for every single person whether or not they had an explicit financial aid package is that somebody gave money to this institution, so that we can charge them $20,000 less than the cost of the education we paid to provide it. On top of that, we give on average $18,000 in financial aid, so we have not been explicit with students on how this place works.

At Trinity, somebody pays a good chunk of what happens here before you as a student who has not spent money on themselves to give money to Trinity, so you get this education and, not only that, but you can get this quality of education here… I think just that sense of paying it forward: “˜Somebody has paid for me, so I need to pay for the students of the future.’ That is my number one wish for our students. An appreciation of what they got here, an appreciation of what somebody contributed to allow them to enjoy that experience.

Q: What about the administration’s relationship with Greek life? It’s been a year since the incident.

A: I think the last year has been a good one. The work that Mike Fischer and the staff in student affairs have been much closer with the sororities and fraternities than they have been for a long time. I think there is a genuine belief that we are not out to get them; we are out to help, we are out to assist them, we are out to partner with them – not just those four groups, but all the sororities and fraternities. I believe that they play a very important part of the history of this institution, current state and the future.

We just have to work together. We have to involve the alumni because they have a sense of how those were and how they are seen that doesn’t always match the reality. What we want to do is bring the alumni and the current students together so there is a deep understanding of the traditions and the values of those groups, so they can be maintained and shared with the next group. It’s been a painful way to get those groups together. My hope is that it has been well worth it because the groups will come out stronger. The alumni will be tied not only with the groups, but the university.

Q: Yourself and vice president for finance and administration, Gary Logan, recently presented the planning budget to the faculty. Why the increase in transparency?

A: Because you just suspect that we are hiding something from them, and we are not. My position since I moved in with the administration is anybody who wants to see the books can see the books. It is important  that people know we don’t have a printing press [for money] in the basement. If you want us to do something, you either have to stop doing something else or get more money from somewhere. In this current environment, getting more money from somewhere is really challenging. It helps if you are thinking it would be nice to have x. My response is it is absolutely nice to have x, but where is the money coming from? Unless people understand the budget, they will not understand that there is this fundamental tradeoff. Even at Harvard there is tradeoff. They have roughly $40 billion, and we don’t have anything close to that.

Just so people understand, they ask, “˜Is this a business?’ Yes it is, it is a very unusual business of higher education. There are fundamentals like revenues, costs – and if your costs are greater than your revenues, then you’ve got some problems. We are largely a labor business. If we don’t compensate our faculty, they will potentially go somewhere else. The cost of healthcare, energy and all those kinds of things are unavoidable. Drive is behind our expense structure, students included. Because our costs are going up, if we don’t put tuition up, what are we going to cut out? Well if you don’t want anything to be cut out, then we have to raise more money.

Q: Why has there been an increase in tuition?

A: We have the new Center of Sciences and Innovation. We’ve got to pay for that somehow. Now is it fair to current students and students in the future who will use the building? Should they pay for the fact that they have more class facilities? Somebody else paid, so who is that somebody else? Clearly we are trying to raise a lot of money from donors, but that’s one source.

Another source for the new building, the technology, the little white chairs that used not to be there, upgrading in the sports facility? We will try to raise money for things like that as much as we can. In this environment, it’s tough to raise money. There are other things we could raise money for. If we borrowed for everything, that would mean the future generations would be paying for what today’s students get. We try and balance who’s getting it.

Q: Is there a tuition cap?

A: We don’t just increase it because we can. We increase it because we look at the things we want to do with the university and we look at where we can we get money to fund it. We are ten grand less than are peers, so we have a long way to go. Every magazine or guide you pick up, what do they say? Despite the superlatives, they talk about Trinity as the bargain of the century. My estimation is that we are about as ten thousand dollars below our peers, so that means we are ten grand below market. That gives us a long way to go before I think we are overpriced.

Q: The increase is effective next semester?

A: Right.

Q: What do you think about the revision of the alcohol policy Dean Tuttle is working on?

A: My approach to alcohol is that I personally drink wine. I like wine. I just think it’s part of our society. When you graduate it’s going to a part of your business experience. It would be foolish to say that there is only an upside. Alcoholism and binge drinking today is a huge issue. We have to try and develop a culture of really informed use of alcohol. If it’s something that you enjoy, like good food – great. If you become dependent on it, and think that you can drink and drive or drink and make logical decisions, you can’t. Hopefully, at Trinity, you can learn how to use alcohol sensibly, and, legally, that can only happen after 21. We respect the law. The law has made their judgment; that is what we live by. When we have courses like Wine, Dine, and Act Fine, that’s to help you develop an intelligent approach to alcohol.

We were recruiting a guy at the university that I was at before. He came in and drank to excess and behaved inappropriately at the dinner, made advances at somebody, and went out and threw up in the garden. That did not make a great impression. He did not get the job. He would never get a job ever from anybody in that room. That is the kind of thing that we want to avoid. That was just pure stupidity, and that clearly was somebody who had a problem. Like most things, there is intelligent use and excess, and, like most things, excess will get you in trouble.

Q: What it is the current situation with Monte Vista?

A: The current situation is there is a fellow called Patrick Kennedy who is still suing us. The case goes – will go – to the ninth circuit of appeals. We have an appellate lawyer that we send a large check to every month, and it is one issue that we truly do not need. It is very disappointing that this individual could not accept an agreement that the neighborhood and the city came to with us.

Q: How do you feel about how ASR did this year?

A: Fine. I would have liked to have seen more of ASR. Joe and I met with the new president and I hope that I will be meeting with ASR more often if they want to. I don’t just want to go, “˜You guys have to meet with me.’ I’m doing this job because I like it, but for the students and the faculty as well. I say as long as we don’t talk about the food in Mabee or the bollard in the road, I’m a happy camper.

Q: How do think the Trinitonian did this year?

A: I think they did great except they did misspell receive in the last issue in a headline. That is an issue Tom Jenkins had taken to task. I read it. I enjoy it. I think it’s terrific. I still wonder why it’s a paper edition and not online. Why is it both? It’s old-fashioned on paper, but I am in the minority on that.

Q: Are there any changes to future housing on campus?

A: There are developments in the neighborhoods which will increase the number of options for seniors that want to live off campus. The education business is challenging enough without expanding the housing business. I will leave it at that.

Q: How do you feel about the bollards?

A: I don’t know why people want to drive on campus. I don’t. I mean, this is a small campus. There are more cars on this campus than the entire campus of the University of Minnesota, which had 62,000 people [when I was there]. We didn’t let you drive on campus over there. I don’t know, it strikes me as weird.

Q: What do you see for the future of Trinity University?

A: Well I see that we will continue to have stronger and stronger programs. We are interviewing for the entrepreneurship program. There are fabulous ideas that will really just add another terrific dimension to what we offer. My hope is that more and more people know about us and what a good place we are. We have never really had as a priority to push, really push, our reputation. Coming from Minnesota where people are very modest and they don’t toot their own horn and that kind of stuff, I think that it’s nuts. If you’ve got a great place, why shouldn’t you tell people? It’s like having a business with a great product, but not telling anyone because they might buy it.

I called colleagues that I respect who were presidents when Trinity approached me, and they said it was a fabulous place and that I must look at it. Each time I came and saw, I liked it more and more and more dimensions to the place. Now we’re both incredible fans of Trinity. I just want more people to have that kind of journey of discovery, thinking,  “˜My god, why didn’t I know about this? Why didn’t I go there?’ Benjamin, bless him – he wants to go to Trinity and Penelope would love for him to go, as would I.