President Karl Solibakke and Trustee Chair Chad Dayton met virtually with Strategic Director of Advancement & Marketing Communications Mary O’Brien to reflect on the challenges of the past year—and to look ahead.
Mary: What measures were taken to successfully navigate this year?
Karl: As an institution that prides itself on in-person classes, we had to develop the infrastructure to provide systematic testing for our campus community. We established quarantine and isolation spaces, as well as processes for contact tracing. We built faculty and staff response teams to undertake comprehensive planning while addressing the questions and concerns that continue to arise.
Chad: It’s an incredible story of perseverance and resiliency that continues to be written. The amount of immediate pivot and creativity is a testament to leadership, faculty, and staff.
Mary: In dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, how did the Northland community fare in comparison to other institutions?
Karl: I do feel very lucky that we are faring better than many of our sister institutions across the United States. We’re down about 6.5 percent [in enrollment] in comparison to the prior year, but the standard loss ratio among four-year institutions, such as ours, is about 15 percent.
Chad: One of the real successes we demonstrated was the interdisciplinary pandemic course in May term of 2020. I think that was a real injection of positivity. And how fitting for Northland to adopt a number of outdoor classrooms! So innovative, but also true to our core mission and the student experience we offer.
Mary: How have Northland alumni responded to this crisis?
Karl: There were major concerns from alumni about whether the institution could survive this kind of emergency, as well as concerns about the health of professors that they may have had, or people that they care about here in the area. For some of our alumni, Northland is their spiritual home, in many respects. So, not being able to come back to campus has been a loss of home for them. But the spirit they have shown and the financial support they have provided to us has been astounding.
Chad: Thanks to Director of Alumni Relations Jackie Moore’s ’05 incredible work, you can still feel the enthusiasm to find opportunities to engage and support, whatever that looks like. It’s been incredible to see everybody rally around us—from making masks to making contributions, to just checking in.
Mary: While the challenges of the pandemic are still a part of daily life at the College, what do you sense will be the lasting legacy of this time?
Karl: Without a doubt, we will change the way that we recruit. Just recently, we had 129 students registered for an online recruitment activity, ten of whom were in other countries. We couldn’t really do that in the past, but now we can. This creates a different environment around recruitment.
Mary: In 2022, we will celebrate our 130th birthday, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. What is the significance of these milestones and how do we hope to mark these occasions?
Karl: It’s 130 years of resiliency. Despite enormous odds from the very beginning, we have been able to meet every single challenge. I think this is a point at which we have to recognize that. If we’re permitted to come together in larger groups in the spring of 2022, I think that is a time that we need to take for ourselves. There’s a need to catch up, a need to be together.
Mary: If the College is going to be successful in the coming years, what is required of us?
Karl: I think we need to be nimble. We need to be absolutely clear about our identity so that there is no question on anybody’s part about what Northland is. We need to continue to build our family of alumni and make sure that family embraces us and carries us forward. They represent the most precious resource we have. And we cannot forget our students. They are the central factor, and if we forget their needs, then we will lose what it is that we represent.
Chad: From the perspective of the Board, it’s really about supporting that vision and continuing to be engaged in meaningful ways. To calibrate the infrastructures and the governance systems that will allow Karl and his successors to achieve that goal.