The Common Good

Leading the Way, Like Luther

Last night I had the rare privilege of dining with the president of my alma mater, Luther College, as he accepted a well-deserved Climate Leadership Award from Second Nature on the college’s behalf. 

While I’d met President Richard Torgerson a couple of times before at alumni gatherings, I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk with him about the extensive sustainability efforts that the college has undergone during his tenure. And there have been a lot of such efforts to discuss. Nor had I been able to ask him about his experience as an entomologist. I was keen to find out if his love for bugs was inspired by a great professor, as mine was by Dr. Kirk Larsen in the biology department at Luther. It takes a special person, after all, to get others excited about God’s creepy crawly little creatures and to use that excitement to launch a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship.  

Present at last night’s dinner at American University were leaders from ten educational institutions being awarded for their innovation and leadership in transitioning society to a clean, just, and sustainable future. They were chosen from the 70 charter signatories of the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).  

One of 26 colleges of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Luther College is an undergraduate liberal arts institution with around 2500-students representing over 50 countries and nearly 40 states. It is located in the beautiful bluff country of northeast Iowa, along the Upper Iowa River, where I spent many hours hiking and running with college friends, teammates, and professors. 

Since I graduated in 1999, Luther has done more in the name of sustainability than I could possibly include in this blog post. They’ve constructed and updated Baker Village, a student housing complex that uses geothermal energy for heating & cooling and solar energy for electricity. The new science facility achieved LEED Gold certification, and all new construction projects will seek to achieve LEED Silver certification.  They have a student-run organic garden, a college fleet with hybrid and biodiesel vehicles (fuel from waste oil from dining services), and a newly-installed 1.6 megawatt wind turbine that produces a third of the college’s electrical energy. They’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions by over 20 percent since 2003 and have set goals for achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, targeting 50, 70, and 100 percent carbon footprint reduction targets over the next 18 years.

They’ve even started a new solar power project called LEFSE: Luther’s Environmentally, Fiscally, and Socially responsible Edifice. (I know, I know. It’s a clever, catchy title for a college so deeply rooted in Norwegian-American history.) In addition to receiving this year’s award from Second Nature and the ACUPCC, Luther has also been recognized as one of only eight campuses nationwide to earn an “A” grade on the College Sustainability Report Card.  

When my husband and I dropped the president off at his hotel after the ceremony last night, we sat in the car for a while and talked about the college’s commitment to a way of learning that inspires students to be compassionate, responsible global citizens.  President Torgerson proudly described the level and intensity of student, staff, and faculty involvement in campus stewardship projects. I reflected on this place, this community called Luther College that holds such a special, fundamental place in my heart. 

The Climate Leadership Award that Luther received last night isn’t important to me simply because it’s in alignment with my job and interests. It’s so much more than that.  Its meaning is embedded in the kind of education I received at Luther; one that led me to understand that a career can be a vocation. A calling. A commitment that is informed by my faith, ever-evolving and responding to the joys and challenges of society and the human condition, our role in God’s world and our relationship to the entirety of God’s creation.

The president and I didn’t have a chance to discuss – explicitly anyway - our mutual love of entomology. Oh, well. Maybe at the next awards ceremony.  

Alycia Ashburn is the Creation Care Campaign Director at Sojourners. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Luther College in 1999. 

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