Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

Augustana Observer

Road to Presidency

President Bahls speaks at Tuesday Reflection about the election results. Photo by Janie Le.

A little ways down the slough path, a long metal staircase leads to the President’s, Steven Bahls’, house. It’s passed so often that eventually it begins to fade in with the landscape, especially in the green months when it is shrouded by leaves. Glass cases in the bookshelves hold artifacts and sculptures from places all over the world; some collected by the Bahls’ themselves and some given from the school. The walls of one hallway are adorned with pictures from family travels. These personal photos lead down the hall to a closet filled with folding chairs for events and dinners held at the house—something that points to their professional and more public part of life. This home intertwines the various personal and career experiences of the Bahls’ into one cohesive story and both stand by the idea that life and a career path is not linear, but rather a collage of seemingly random experiences that all come to bare.
Both Steven and Jane Bahls grew up in De Moines, Iowa and were born in the hospital just 7 days apart. He went on to study accounting at University of Iowa and experienced first hand some of the draw backs of larger class sizes. His girlfriend at the time, and now wife, went to a smaller school, Cornell College, which he visited on weekends, “I met her faculty members and they knew her name, they were engaged in the class, she could call them up if she had questions, she was doing a ton of writing and I thought ‘wow, she’s getting a better education than me,’” said President Bahls.
One of the very constant things in his life, even in his high school days, was President Bahls’ love of debate. “We would debate colleges from all over the country and usually win, not always, but we could never beat Augustana or Northwestern. We understood why we couldn’t beat Northwestern because it’s such a huge school, but why couldn’t the big school of Iowa beat little Augustana,” said Bahls. Surprisingly, Augustana was always a part of his life, even if in the smallest ways. President Bahls’ best friends bother and best friend in law school both attended Augie and, in high school debate, the debate coach would have them visit area colleges including  Augustana. “I thought it was a beautiful campus but, at the time, I didn’t know whether I could afford it. Which is why now we are passionate about scholarships for students,” said Bahls.
Aside from debate, President Bahls, like many students now, interned with two insurance companies in Des Moines during college, although he doesn’t necessarily use his accounting degree any longer. But, as he says, the skills he learned were widely applicable even now, “The skills I gained were the ability to work with people and people who were very, very different. People from all races, all backgrounds— that’s the beauty of the workplace. You’re working with people that maybe you wouldn’t socialize with,” said Bahls.  “You get to know the vice presidents in a sense, but you also get to know the hourly employees that were making things happen and you just get a lot of respect for people. We all have the same goals: we want a decent living, we want to be treated fairly, we want to be valued and those are the lessons.”
After undergraduate studies, President Bahls went to the Northwestern law school while Jane Bahls went to get her masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Taught for 8 years college courses, first at community college followed by Alverno College in Milwaukee, where they started their family. “I took up free lance writing and that lasted for 22 years. It was wildly diverse, everything from travel and leisure, trailer life, ghost towns, to business articles,” said Jane. Eventually, this led to the two starting a column in Entrepreneur Magazine writing about law for small businesses. “We set out to be a practicing business lawyer and a college professor, but then we did these other things as well,” said Jane Bahls. “It all came to bare.”
When raising their children, the Bahls’ kept in mind the class size and other advantages they saw from small, liberal arts colleges by encouraging them to select one a school like Augustana. “It makes such a difference. People think that the liberal arts education is only acce to wealthy people and that’s not the case. The scholarships are so important,” said Jane. “I think that the connection with the faculty, which I totally appreciated when I was in college, and the small group dynamics of a classroom is transformative. All three of our kids went to liberal arts colleges and that was a terrific thing.”
Eventually, after law school President Bahls became a corporate lawyer, “I think I was a good lawyer but I didn’t find it all that satisfying,” said Bahls. “It can be satisfying certainly to help create businesses and form jobs but in a sense I didn’t know if I was contributing all that much to the common good.and I became very involved in some nonprofit work. I wanted to pursue more of a public service career.” He became a voluntary probation officer and eventually a law professor until a pivotal conversation steered him in the direction of the small college atmosphere. “So I started to volunteer as a legal council for a small liberal arts college, Alverno college, in Milwaukee where my wife taught at the time. I got to know the president and she said to me, ‘I think you’d make a better academic than a lawyer’. And they had a relationship with the University of Montana where I soon taught,” said President Bahls. “It was one of those situations where you never know when a conversation might change a life.”
President Bahls taught corporate law, agricultural law, banking law among other topics for nine years until he looking into . “I determined that there aren’t a lot of corporations in Montana and I was a corporate law teacher so I thought I had good lectures, but students weren’t lining up at my door and it was kind of lonely being the only corporate guy there,” said Bahls. “So I thought well maybe I’ll get into law school administration and I was asked by the dean to be the associate dean.” Here he learned to help students who were stumbling academically while teaching half load and getting involved in law reform until he became the dean of the Capital University law school. “The Capital University law school had Lutheran roots like augustana college so, when Augustana was looking for a president, at the time, they were looking pretty heavily at other Lutheran colleges,” said Bahls. “And I knew about a because my friends had gone there and it was just a great place.”
After a multitude of career jumps and the adjustment from a dean of a law school to the president of Augustana, the Bahls have stayed stationary for a while and rather unexpectedly.“He did not set out to be a college president and I did not set out to be a first lady, but it’s been an amazing life and we’re not done yet,” said Jane. “You will follow a winding path that will lead from one thing to another, probably within a general field, but you might shift fields entirely. What you’re learning here will prepare you even if you make a radical shift. You’ll say, wow, if this hadn’t happened, if that hadn’t happened I could never have done this amazing thing that I’m doing now.”

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Road to Presidency