At the end of an interview last week, Bahls showed off one particular image: a print of Justice by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from the 16th Century. In it, Themis - blindfolded and holding her scales - is surrounded by all manner of bad behavior, including torture. "She has no idea what's going on," he said of Themis.
Bahls wants to ensure that the same can't be said of Augustana College, the private Lutheran liberal-arts college in Rock Island. The new president, who replaced retiring President Thomas Tredway on July 1, is committed to making Augustana College, its faculty, and its 2,200 students active participants and leaders in the community. There will be no Augustana ivory tower on his watch.
Bahls' tenure at the Capital University law school, also a Lutheran institution, suggests that he'll stay true to that vision.
Making a Difference
The jump from law-school dean to college president might seem odd to some people, but for Bahls, a native of Des Moines and a graduate of the University of Iowa and Northwestern University law school, it made perfect sense. Most students at law schools have already decided what they want to do with their lives; a younger student body is more malleable and open. "It occurred to me that I could have more impact with undergraduate students," Bahls said. His desire to move from law school to Augustana stemmed from wanting "to continue to make a difference."
He doesn't mean only making a difference among the student body. He wants to "help our students find ways to connect with the community."
Bahls said he has a strong base from which to work in terms of getting students involved in the community. "Our faculty has done a good job of that already," he said, citing entrance and exit surveys filled out by the class of 2003. Only 27 percent of the class expressed interest in "becoming a community leader" in 1999, but 63 percent did upon graduation. And the percentage of the class that wanted to "influence social values" grew from 33 percent at entrance to 69 percent at graduation. Surveys also show that 75 percent of Augustana students are involved in some sort of community service, for an average of two hours a week.
But Bahls' concept of service goes beyond working at a soup kitchen or volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Bahls wants his students (and faculty) to lead and organize projects, not just participate in them. "The Quad Cities ought to be our laboratory," he said.
Examples of that philosophy can be seen in Bahls' work at Capital University Law School. Students were active in assisting victims of domestic violence and helping people at an AIDS clinic. The law school also helped downtown re-development by moving from a leased building to a renovated historic building. "The law school kind of became a leader" in the community, Bahls said.
In one area, Capital's law school became a national leader under Bahls. As dean in the late 1990s, he negotiated with the Dave Thomas Foundation (the organization created by the late founder of Wendy's restaurants) for seed money for the National Center for Adoption Law & Policy. The center, which has been open for five years, works for systemic change in the areas of child-welfare and adoption law.
Kent Markus was recruited by Bahls from the office of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to run the center. Markus recounted this week in an interview with the River Cities' Reader that Bahls called him in Washington, D.C., and said, "I hear you like to run things ... ."
Markus said that Bahls heard that the Dave Thomas Foundation was considering creating a center to reduce legal and bureaucratic barriers to adoption and ran with the idea. "Steve is fundamentally an extremely entrepreneurial thinker," Markus said. "He tries to take opportunities and turn them into realities. He's a guy who tries not to let any stone go unturned."
The National Center for Adoption Law & Policy hosts a national multidisciplinary conference each year on a current issue in adoption or child welfare, provides weekly media summaries on issues and court cases to keep professionals abreast of new programs, policies, and laws, and three weeks ago launched Adoption LawSite (http://www.adoptionlawsite.org), a national clearinghouse for adoption information geared toward both professionals in the field and laypeople. Markus said the site received nearly a half-million hits in its first three weeks. In addition, the center has for the past three years run an 11-week adoption academy for prospective parents, a program that it plans to expand nationally.
Although Markus runs the center, he said Bahls took an active interest as an administrator, inquiring about its activities, attending advisory-board meetings, and asking what he could do to help. "He was a wonderful partner, and we still haven't forgiven Augustana for taking him," Markus said.
Bahls also leads by example. While at Capital, he was chair of a welfare-to-work program, a director of the Columbus Discovery Development Corporation, and a director of the Ohio State Bar Foundation. He served a year as president of the American Agricultural Law Association. The 48-year-old president, who is married with three children, is also a published photographer whose hobbies include travel, cross-country skiing, and hiking.
The Augustana Agenda
The Augustana Board of Trustees in March voted to hire Bahls after a seven-month search process. The search committee included seven trustees, three faculty members, one student, and one member of the community.
The college first hired a Washington, D.C., based consulting firm - Academic Search Consultation Service - to assist with the process. The committee then drafted a prospectus (available online at http://www.augustana.edu/board/prospectus.htm) with the dual purpose of describing Augustana and setting out the board's goals for its new president. In winter, the search committee met in Chicago to interview finalists. Bahls was the only candidiate invited to campus, and he visited Augustana on February 18 and 19.
The process was largely secretive. Kirby Winn, Augustana's director of public relations, said the search committee will not discuss details of the search, including how many people expressed interest in the job and how many people were interviewed.
Furthermore, Augustana is not making public the terms of Bahls' employment, including his salary. That information will eventually become public record from the college's not-for-profit tax forms. (In the 2000-1 academic year, for example, Augustana President Tredway earned a salary of $220,728.)
What has been public is the board's to-do list for Bahls. And while his accomplishments at Capital University and his vision for Augustana are impressive, trustees have given him a more traditional agenda for a college president. Bahls also has a good record in those areas that will be important to the Augustana Board of Trustees.
One of the highest-profile projects assigned to Bahls will be increasing the college's endowment. His commitment to the task - which could very well be his legacy - suggests that he plans to stay at Augustana a long time.
The endowment is currently about $74 million - of which Augustana spends 5 percent each year - and he wants it to grow to $200 million. That would generate $10 million each year. The Augustana endowment would focus on three areas: capital projects, faculty chairs, and financial aid. "Think of the financial aid we could provide," Bahls said, adding that the endowment is at least a 10-year project. At Capital, Bahls spearheaded a three-year, $12-million capital campaign to fund a new home for the law school in a historic building.
Improving diversity is another task being assigned to Bahls. Augustana's student population currently includes 7 percent racial minorities, and he said the school ought to "reflect the nation's diversity." He said Augustana also needs to attract more students from outside the Midwest. At Capital during his tenure, the percentage of racial minorities who enrolled grew from 6 percent to 12 percent.
Part of Bahl's job will be defining how Augustana measures how successful it is at achieving some of these goals. Augustana has conducted planning over the past three to four years, but that "plan flies at the 50,000-foot level," Bahls said. "We need to bring it down to the thousand-foot level." For example, Bahls said one of his charges is to help Augustana maintain academic excellence - a vague, nebulous goal that needs benchmarks before it can become meaningful.
Other board goals include implementation over the next two years of a first-year curriculum that emphasizes analytic thinking and links between disciplines. The faculty will also be considering whether to implement a "capstone" requirement - a research paper, service project, or thesis that needs to be completed before graduation. In addition, the board wants its new president to boost Augustana's national and international profile.
Unlike an endowment or diversity, though, community involvement by students and faculty is more difficult to measure. Bahls said the college can look at the percentages of students and faculty involved and the quality of that service, but a better test might be community perceptions of the college. "I'm curious to see what our neighbors think," he said.
Community involvement, Bahls stressed, is not merely an altruistic impulse. "It's the right thing to do , but it's also the prudent thing to do," he said. "Our interests are pretty closely aligned with the community's."
Augustana employs 600 people, and if Augustana can make the Quad Cities a better place to work and live, it will be easier to attract high-quality faculty and workers. And many small liberal-arts colleges have struggled because of the deterioration of the neighborhoods around them, Bahls said.
And there might be a selfish reason for building a better community. When asked about his long-term ambitions, Bahls hinted this would be his last job. "I don't want to move again," he said.
If Bahls does finish his career at Augustana, he will be one in a line of long-serving presidents. Counting Bahls, Augustana College has had only eight presidents since its founding in 1860. Bahls' predecessor took office in 1975.
But Bahls doesn't seem the type of person for whom tenure is important. He'd rather be judged by his accomplishments.