President Bahls extends his stay at Augustana

Brady Johnson

On June 6, President Bahls sat down for a virtual interview to discuss his contract extension, current plans for Augustana’s reopening and the new Presidential Racial Justice and Equity Fund. Below is the transcript of that interview.
Brady: Why did you extend your contract with the college?
President Bahls: I was prepared to announce in the month that we dismissed classes in March that it would be my intent to retire in 2021, just because 18 years is a good run for being a college president. But, the board of trustees and the full board approached me and asked whether I would delay that for a year because they wanted an experienced president to serve Augustana through the COVID crisis. After due consideration, I said I would. Their thinking was they wanted an experienced president in a year where a lot of decisions need to be made, but their view also was with the distraction of the COVID crisis that it would be hard to do a full-scale search next year. Believe it or not, it takes over a year for a search process to look for a new college president. 
Brady: What kind of projects are you wanting to conduct within the next two years?
President Bahls: That’s a very good question. The first project will be next year and that will be to hold in-person classes if consistent with safe practices, and that will be the biggest project of next year. It will be different at Augustana because we will still follow social distancing and [ask] what does this mean for sports, what does this mean for large gatherings. My goal for next year is to open because we believe in-person education is the best. We want to open in a way so the student can experience a great student experience. So we may not open in a way with very large gatherings next year, we may be social distancing. I am convinced that we can have a high-quality student experience that students are anxious to get back to [at] Augustana. They don’t want to be cooped up, so to speak, at their parents’ homes taking classes online. 
Brady: Are there any current ideas being thrown around that you guys are trying to implement that may make in-person classes a thing that can happen in the fall? 
President Bahls: Oh, sure. In other words, we have the guidance from the American College Health Association, which is the leading association that lays out guidance on how to do this safely. And there are a lot of ideas. There is a committee called the Augustana Strong, a committee of faculty, administrators and staff. They have issued… 42 pages of things we need to think about and ways of keeping everyone safe, so we’re looking at all alternatives. Now, some colleges have announced what it will look like next year, but we think that is premature. We don’t have the guidance from the state of Illinois yet and we think we should determine our regimen and how we’re going to return to school when that guidance is out. 
Brady: Going off of COVID, in what ways has it been affecting Augustana’s day to day operations and even long-term? 
President Bahls: Well, it has an impact on our day to day operations from the administrative side. We are very much preparing for the reopening of school in the unlikely event it needs to be postponed, for example, for a month or two months. We are working very hard on the administrative side in preparing to create a virtual community here in an experience that is as close as possible to live classes. From the faculty side, they are preparing their courses for live instruction, but with [a]recognition that [it all] depends upon this virus. They may have to convert to online instruction. So, essentially, they’re having to prepare their courses for both live instruction and online. So it is going to be a very, very busy summer at Augustana College as we prepare for our students’ safe return.
Brady: I noticed this morning if it’s okay with asking questions about it already, but the Presidential Racial Justice and Equity Fund. I am interested in how that came about and where the $10,000 came from as well as what kind of projects could come from this?
President Bahls: Yeah, well thank you for that question. The project is from Jane, [my wife], and me. We felt a little helpless in watching the national events and we are trying to social distance. My wife has asthma and we try to stay out of circulation as much as possible. We thought to the extent that we’re feeling hopeless here and what we can do that might be positive. I was so impressed with the work from our students [with] respect to the green initiative fund.  In terms of smaller grants, [students did] some wonderful projects at Augustana College, like the pollinator pockets being one. We asked ourselves: Can Jane and I fund the same type of project at Augustana for our students wanting to develop a grant proposal to raise awareness about racial justice at Augustana or in our Quad City community? That might be bringing in speakers? That might be convening and other types of campaigns? It might be organizing a march for example, but to me, Augustana right now has an obligation to make sure racial justice is at the forefront of our discussion in the fall and in spring. We thought that a grant program might enable students to come up with wonderful ideas to raise awareness and start talking about solutions in our broader Quad City community. 
Brady: I saw where the vice-president can run a selection committee to either approve or work on a project more before approving it. I am assuming it is a little too early for the committee to be filled with people. Is this a process that will happen in the summer? 
President Bahls: Yes, that process is underway, but I would hope we get around to giving out grants later this summer so we’re ready to get started as early as July if there are things that we can do virtually to raise awareness. But definitely by the time we get back to school. What I don’t want to happen is to talk about this for three months and then get the grants out in January. I would like the grants to start being awarded as soon as possible. 
Brady: One more before I go, a more hopeful question. What can students, faculty and staff at home right now not knowing what is going to happen the next day do? What are ways we can get together or do something to be ready when the fall term comes? 
President Bahls: Certainly to stay connected with student organizations. So we asked student organizations, be they Greek groups, coaches [or] campus ministry to try to keep programs going as much as possible. So stay connected with the website. Stay connected with our COVID page on the website. I would say and I would ask students to be willing to live with a little ambiguity here for a while in terms of the details of what it is going to look like [with] respect to athletics, choir and large group gatherings. We are not going to jump the gun and make determinations about what to do next fall until we have the guidance from the state of Illinois. Until we see the status of the virus. So, Augustana is not going to be the first school to lay out everything that is going to happen. I am a lawyer in my first life and one thing I learned in law school is you don’t make decisions until all the facts are in evidence. Not all the facts are in evidence yet. We like the trajectory of the virus decreasing in terms of numbers in the Quad City area. Rather rapidly in the state of Illinois, it is headed in the right direction. We want to see where we are in mid-summer before we announce final plans.