In 1975, a small, eight-page pamphlet was produced that is described on its cover as “a publication of Northland: A Liberal Arts – Environmental College.”
Titled Sigurd Olson Writes about Northland College, the origin of this pamphlet can be traced back to the 1973 summer meeting of the Northland College Board of Trustees. At this meeting, a report was shared with the trustees that showed student enrollment in Wisconsin private colleges had dropped from 50 percent in 1950 to 23 percent in 1972, a trend that was largely attributed to decreases in federal aid. Reflecting this trend, it was also reported that Northland College deposits by new students were down by forty students compared to the previous year. In response to this report, one of the trustees called for some “radical thinking.”
The campus community responded to this call for action, and a conversation unfolded over the next twelve months inspired by another emerging trend—in the summer of 1973, interest in environmental studies and the natural sciences accounted for at least 50 percent of the new students applying to Northland College. Recognizing the significance of this trend, Bob Matteson and others proposed that the College shift its emphasis to become what was initially described as an “environmental college.”
In this model, traditional liberal arts courses taught with a focus on environmental issues would form a core curriculum for all students, and majors would be developed that were interdisciplinary and integrated, such as “art and the environment” and “economics and the environment.” It was also proposed that the new curriculum involve students in outreach and community engagement of the sort being facilitated by the new Sigurd Olson Institute of Environmental Studies; include Native American studies as a special area of focus; and develop an athletic program that emphasized outdoor-oriented activities, such as skiing, hiking, canoeing, and camping.
Initially, this proposal was critiqued as being inconsistent with the College’s charter and as a move away from a liberal arts education toward a vocational one; however, further conversation refined the proposal to demonstrate how an environmental focus might build on and complement a traditional liberal arts curriculum, rather than undermine it. As Sigurd Olson explained in the pamphlet described above, “Many schools teach environmental subjects but we don’t know of any that are trying to unify and integrate knowledge as Northland is.”
In July of 1974, following a robust campus planning and vetting process, the Northland College Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to adopt an environmental focus for the College’s curriculum, asserting that “if any genuine understanding of the world is to develop, we must recognize the compatibility of the liberal arts and environmental studies and the necessity of seeing each as inextricably bound to the other.” As further affirmation of this decision, and upon a motion by Sigurd Olson, the Board also changed the College’s name to “Northland: A Liberal Arts – Environmental College.”