Augustana’s 24th president discusses her past, politics, commitment to the university

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin

MIRROR EXCLUSIVE Q&A  

JACOB BELGUM

jbbelgum13@ole.augie.edu

The following is an abridged version of a longer interview with future Augustana President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. It took place Feb. 23.

 

What’s your schedule between [Feb. 23] and Aug. 1?

… I’m an executive at Raven Industries, and they have been very good to me. I want to make sure that we have a nice, smooth, seamless transition there as well.

So while I will be looking to have meetings and establish relationships and deepen others that I’ve had here at Augustana previously, for the next two months at least, it will be devoted to the transition, to my team and to fellow executives and my colleagues at Raven Industries.

My family has encouraged me, rightfully so, I think, to take some time off in this transition. So late-spring, early summer, I plan to take that time [with 8-year-old son Zachary and husband Max] and go to lots of baseball games before assuming the reins Aug. 1.

Certainly during that time [I’ll be] meeting with President Oliver and his team and a lot of other people … building context even before Aug. 1 so there isn’t a lag time.

 

As an Augustana student, it seemed like Rob and Angie Oliver were omnipresent at events. Are you going to be able to live up to that standard? How will [8-year-old] Zachary fit into that picture?

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin Pullquote 2A lot of the staff I’ve met today, it seems like there are a lot of seven and eight-year-old boys in these families, so I think [Zachary is] going to make fast friends.

And Max loves all of the different types of activities on a college campus. He and Zachary have been to a few baseball games here at Augustana over the years, too.

… And, you know, managing that and wanting to be present and accessible to students and the Augustana community is important to me, and I think that with the responsibilities in this role but also the ways given the different co-curricular activities in the performing arts and athletics and all of the things that the students are involved in, it’s easier to integrate family into that life.

 

You mentioned at your staff introduction that you are good friends with Rob. How long have you two known each other? Did you know that he was considering retiring? If so, how long has this job been on your radar?

Angie and Rob, I’ve known them about 10 years. … I got to know them [through shared acquaintances] during my time in Congress.

… [They] were special guests of mine during my final debate on Keloland in the 2010 [U.S. House of Representatives] election.

It has been difficult to stay as close to [them], given our travels and some of the demands of my job at Raven … we have been in touch with them from time to time, but not so much so that I had any sort of heads-up that he was thinking of retiring.

I read that in the paper like everybody else.

… Then it wasn’t until I received an email from the search firm informing me that someone had put my name into nomination for the position, and I was very flattered and honored, but it was a very busy time at Raven as it often is, and I sort of questioned if I were up to that role.

… But the sense of calling that I felt this was and the sense that God has put people and opportunities in front of me at different times in my life for different reasons, I felt his guidance very strongly in the last number of weeks and knew that … if I wasn’t successful, it was a very good process of self-reflection and prayer and soul-searching and telling my story to the search committee … that just made me feel it was the right thing to do.

 

The Argus Leader speculated that this job could be a springboard for a 2020 Senate run, but you refuted that by saying you are “done seeking political office.” How ironclad is that guarantee?

I know some people say ‘in public life, you never say never,’ right? And yet the Argus Leader also speculated when I took the job at Raven Industries I was doing it to set up a race for the Senate in 2014.

I want to address [any speculation] squarely, to say this is not something I’m pursuing to set me up for any future political run. When asked by the Board of Trustees how long I would envision myself in the role, I told them a minimum—a minimum—of 10 years.

There’s sort of an informal practice of six-year terms; Rob hStephanie Herseth Sandlin Pullquoteas served 12 [years]. Again, I would hope that, working side-by-side with the Board, with all the faculty and staff, with the whole campus community, that I can be here well into when Zachary starts his higher education, and I think that that’s God’s calling for me now, and that’s where I’ll be squarely focused, and encouraging young people to get involved in public service, regardless of their political ideology.

… I hope young people come here and they get to know each other as Vikings first. Become friends, understand each other, learn from each other and then as they determine what positions on what issues they may have, understanding why they hold it but also understanding why someone may hold a different view.

That will lead to constructive dialogue and discussion so that people can work more collaboratively together to find solutions to complex policy problems. That’s for those who want to go into public service.

Then you have all the other students who want to be servant leaders in their chosen professions that aren’t in public life, where they’re also seeking to solve complicated problems and to improve people’s lives and to make for a better world.

That’s what’s so inspiring to me. That’s why I know it’s going to be so rewarding, because I feel that my professional and personal life experiences will help provide value to all of the other folks who are here, looking to help guide and prepare and nurture and provide a lasting sense of place and support to people who choose this for their higher education at Augustana.

 

With your background as a Democratic senator and the current political climate, could you see conservative families second-guessing Augustana as a destination? Would those concerns have merit?

Well, I don’t think those concerns have merit. I understand my responsibilities as president of Augustana University. And I wouldn’t have been able to win elections statewide in South Dakota had I not earned the support of Republican voters in South Dakota, in addition to independent and Democratic voters.

… While I grew up in a family that had a tradition of public service, and the influence of the Democratic party as well as the Norwegian heritage and the Lutheran heritage were very strong and dominant, it didn’t impede the influences of the Catholic, German and Republican party influences on the other side of my family.

… Both of their influences have guided my worldview, which is one of moderation, and being a moderate doesn’t mean you’re not passionate about certain issues, being a moderate means that you see the validity of different points of view and that you have a strength of character and integrity to acknowledge that fact and to be persuaded by one set of arguments or the other without suggesting that the ones that you’re not persuaded by should be discredited.

And so I think that as students and their families learn more about me—and I know there’s a lot out there in the public record—I think that they will become more comfortable in my approach to providing [leadership at] Augustana University that is not in any way politicized but is welcoming to students of all ideologies, of all religious backgrounds, of all life experiences.

… I believe God blessed me with a heavy dose of empathy. And I do consider it a blessing. … I’m not going to judge any student or colleague based on where they might be on the ideological spectrum politically, and I hope that no student or family or prospective student would do the same, despite the fact that, yes, I used to be a member of Congress and I affiliated with the Democratic party.

 

Why Augustana and not somewhere else?

I think [my calling] is very unique to Augustana. First, I wasn’t looking to leave Raven Industries. It’s been a very, very good professional place for me to be, surrounded by talented, dedicated colleagues. … But it is the uniqueness of mission, the Lutheran heritage, what my faith has provided as a foundation, as a source of strength, of inspiration, over the course of my lifetime, my family’s connections in different ways to the university. … So it was more the unique opportunity for [me at] Augustana, … and the fact that it’s here in Sioux Falls, where my family and I chose to live and work and raise Zachary five years ago. That was the perfect blend and opportunity. That’s why I feel it wasn’t so much a calling to do something else, it was more this opportunity, to join this particular community and family that would be good for my own [family].”

 

The “Leadership Profile” Augustana produced listed goals its president should aim to achieve. Which goal is the most important to you? Which will be most difficult to accomplish?

… There is a need for investments in technology, and perhaps there’s a sense that Augustana may be behind some of its peers in that type of IT infrastructure, in delivering services to students, in empowering faculty to deliver their scholarship in different ways, but I also think it applies to, well, how we make sure that we’ve got a healthy endowment and how we stay connected to the alumni network. … I think we also need to think even more broadly on this technological transformation to build on what’s already happening in the undergraduate and graduate programming.

Take, for instance, the role of technology in healthcare and the new graduate program in genetic counseling, so I think there’s a lot that I can bring to bear given my experiences—I’ve seen when public policy doesn’t keep pace or the wrong investments are made to keep pace with technology—same at Raven Industries and the right investments that were made.

… I think together we can figure out the right investments that are appropriate to Augustana to prospective students that can be the competitive differentiator but also empower students with the tools they’re going to need out in the workplace or out in these professions that are evolving so quickly because of how technology’s transforming them.

 

What’s something that students might not know about you that makes you interesting as a person—not necessarily as a leader or president?

I’ve got two things. First, I started playing the piano in second grade, and I wanted to go to Juilliard when I was in fifth grade. But I learned to play well enough that I made extra money in college playing the piano for the Marriott that was on campus… same with a little place downtown in Georgetown, and then at the former Hotel Washington.

… So piano is a big part of my life; it’s therapeutic for me, and I love the commitment to music and the fine arts here at Augustana.

The second thing is, while my husband and son are … big baseball fans, I grew up in a part of South Dakota where there were never enough boys for the baseball team, so I played Pee Wee baseball for the Columbia Comets, and my first job off the farm … was coaching T-ball for the Aberdeen Parks and Recreation department.

… My dad loved baseball, and Max and I, it’s one of the things that we are able to share as a couple and then as Zachary came along. … Max is now [a] coach; this’ll be his fourth year coaching SIBA, and Zachary will be playing second base again, hopefully hitting ‘em out in the outfield.

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