S.2 E.7: “Serving and Advancing the College”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus trustee John Hallberg.
Posted on August 10th, 2020 by

Recently retired CEO of the Children’s Cancer Research Fund and Gustavus trustee John Hallberg, Class of ’79, recalls his undergraduate years and discusses his work and vision as a member of his alma mater’s Board.

Season 2, Episode 7: “Serving and Advancing the College”

Transcript:

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Colleges and universities depend, of course, on students, faculty, administrators and staff. Less visible though also critically important to the success of those institutions are their boards of trustees. Several years ago, as a member of the Gustavus faculty senate, I had the opportunity to meet and work with one of our trustees, John Hallberg, on the Gustavus board’s institutional advancement committee, which he led. Eventually the two of us began meeting occasionally for early morning conversations over a breakfast nosh at some of the excellent bakeries here in Minneapolis to talk about Gustavus, higher ed, current events and history. Stimulating conversations that I am happy to say have continued even after our formal work together ended and are now extending to this podcast.

While being a trustee of a college or university demands considerable time, most trustees have full time careers, as well. In his case from 2006 until his recent retirement from the position, John was CEO of The Children’s Cancer Research Fund here in Minnesota. Before that he had extensive experience in private sector leadership positions at General Mills, Encyclopedia Britannica and Getty Images. John is not only a trustee of Gustavus but also an alum, class of ’79, who went on to earn his MBA from the Wharton School of The University Of Pennsylvania. He is, in my estimation, a model trustee. Dedicated, well-informed, open-minded, creative in thinking through challenges, and humane. That he has a fine sense of humor, wears nice ties and enjoys history are additional pluses. I’ve learned a great deal from him about advancement work, the private and nonprofit sectors and what being a higher ed trustee entails. And for all these reasons, he’s been on my list of interviewees for this podcast from the start.

John welcome. It’s great to speak with you even in the absence of the croissants and other baked goodies that accompany our in person conversation.

John Hallberg:

Greg, thanks. And thank you for that wonderful introduction. I don’t know that I warrant all of that, but it’s great to be part of this podcast. Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

You’re quite welcome. Great to have you. I thought … you were born in Minnesota and I thought we could start with a basic question. Why Gustavus? I mean Minnesota is blessed with so many fine schools. Of course, The University Of Minnesota and other liberal arts colleges. What led you to Gustavus as an undergraduate?

John Hallberg:

It’s a really great question, Greg. And that decision was made 45 years ago, right? So my memory is a little bit fuzzy on it, but like many students, when I was a junior in high school, I believe it was, I’d taken the PSAT, remember, that you could take. And I was a national merit runner up or something like that. I scored well. So by virtue of that, I started to receive literally five to 10 college mailings a week. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, places all over the country I’d never heard of. And I knew I wanted to be local. I knew I wanted to be small. It was a different day and age then. You kind of did this on your own. You know, I did this a few years ago with my kids and we’d get on a plane and travel.

And honest to goodness I think it was when I walked onto the Gustavus campus, a, it was a beautiful day and the campus looked great. So the decision making of an 18 year old man, you can figure that out. So a, like I said, it was a sunny day. B, they allowed freshmen to have cars on campus. And I didn’t have a car, but I thought, well, that’s a good thing. And it just resonated with me as I walked on campus. I think you kind of go through this process that says, do I see myself here? Do I belong here? And I just felt like I did. And it was absolutely the right choice.

Greg Kaster:

I think what you just said is so true. I’ve talked to … That’s happened to faculty too, as they’ve talked about their experiences, where they went for undergraduate, even graduate school education. But that feeling of this is me, this is where I see myself and I feel comfortable, et cetera. And we try to arrange those nice days of course for all admissions visits.

You didn’t know what you were going to major in … well your major was econ or whatever it would have been called. An econ financial management. But you didn’t know that, is that right?

John Hallberg:

Yeah, I really didn’t. And again, it was a long time ago, so I think I came to campus rather, and really just started to take all the prerequisites, right? That you have to have to get through. And so you took those science courses and religion courses and just kind of across the board. And I think it was probably spring of my freshman year or maybe fall of my sophomore year where I said, “Okay, this is the path I want to go.” And I think at the time, Greg, I think econ was the big major to have out of what was then the econ management department. So I pursued that and I think probably had an accounting minor. Took a lot of that, of those courses rather. And it worked out really, really well.

Greg Kaster:

And I know we’ve talked, you took some … you took at least one history course with my now retired professor emeritus colleague Kevin Byrne. And so we’re happy for that. What about some memories of Gustavus in I guess it would have been the mid to late seventies that you might share with us? Whether memories of particular courses, moments, classes, fond memories or not?

John Hallberg:

Well, a lot of things, Greg. There’s so much. You mentioned Kevin Burn and I did have a couple of classes from Kevin and he was so enthusiastic. He would get so wound up in class. I mean, I can remember being there and you never wanted to sit in the front row of his classes because he would get so wound up he would spit. It would come out of his mouth. He was so enthusiastic. So in this age of social distancing who knows how that would’ve gone over. But that was really great.

I had a really fond memory … you and I have talked about this, I had a couple of classes from Dr. Alexis, Gerhard Alexis who tragically passed away in a car accident way too early. And one of the classes was literally 14 people. And there’s no place to hide in a class of 14 people. And I remember once I thought I had done … well, I had done all the reading, but there was a word in there in this reading. This was American lit before the Civil War. So again, 40 years later it’s a very strong memory. And I hadn’t looked the word … I didn’t know what it meant. It was the word Ken. K-E-N. Which is kind of not used that much anymore, but it means to know or it’s knowledge. And so he somehow got to that and called on me and somehow it was revealed that I didn’t know what that was.

And he just said, as was his style, he said, “Mr. Hallberg, if you didn’t know what the word was, why didn’t you look it up?” And again, I haven’t done that since. I mean, it was a lifelong lesson that I learned. But I truly believe I went to, after I worked for a couple of years, I went to graduate school and Dr. Alexis wrote some letters of recommendation for me. And I truly believe his letters of recommendation made a difference in my applications. So those are a couple of classroom memories. And then I think just one other thing that I was fortunate enough to be involved in Student Senate. I was fortunate enough to be involved in what was then called the Union Board, which did all the concerts and movies and things like that, activities on campus.

And I just remember the great collaboration and teamwork that you had with your fellow students kind of across grades. It wasn’t just the sophomores together or whatever. It was just a different group of people that maybe you didn’t have classes with and you got to interact with them and work with them in a different way. And that was just … It was crazy long hours sometimes, right? If you were putting on a concert you were working together till two in the morning or something cleaning up and all that, but it was life changing to be on those teams.

Greg Kaster:

And that’s so important. I mean, I guess it happens to some extent on every campus, but I think especially a liberal arts campus where the, what in our day we called extracurricular, now co-curricular, those activities are incredibly important to one’s learning. And also often to what one does later in life, the skills you learn, including the people skills as you collaborate with your peers. And by the way, I didn’t know you were on the Senate. So I just learned something, all the times we’ve talked. So another piece about you that I have just learned.

What about how the college has changed? I mean, you think back to not only how it’s changed in its physical plant, which is dramatic, I would think, but even in my time … But how it’s changed in other ways, as you view it as a trustee today compared to your experience there as a student in the mid seventies?

John Hallberg:

Well, let me tell you first that the, fundamentally, the best part of being on the board of trustees, Greg, is when we are on campus for meetings, typically a Thursday, Friday, sometimes rolls into the weekend. But on Friday mornings, we have the opportunity to meet students for breakfast. Now, the breakfast starts at 7:30. Some of these students that I’ve had the privilege of having breakfast with, they didn’t have classes till … their classes didn’t start till 11 o’clock or something. And I’m like, “Why are you up at 7:30 having breakfast with an old guy?”

But that experience of meeting those students, and it’s either one on one or you’re with two students, is truly the best part. And that is probably what has changed the most, is not the breakfast, but just the breadth of experience, the breadth of activities, the level of engagement. Again, I was engaged, but I mean these students are pursuing their academic majors and minors, but they’re also doing all these other activities.

I had breakfast this last February with a young man from Africa who wants to go back with a colleague of his and build a school. Now that wasn’t even on my radar screen at age 20, right? I’d have no idea to do that. So I think it’s the depth and breadth of different experiences and interests that they bring.

And then Greg, the other thing, and this is maybe generational more than any, it’s the level of possibility. And again, technology is such a great enabler, but these students can see a way to add value to the world, solve problems through technology. And they’re fearless in wanting to pursue that. And I will tell you that never would have occurred to me as a student in the mid to late 1970s on campus.

Greg Kaster:

Had activism … the Vietnam War was essentially winding down if not over in ’75. So was there any sort of activism, political activism around any kind of issues in your time there that you recall?

John Hallberg:

Yeah. Boy, that’s a great question. I don’t remember specifically. Yeah, you’re you’re right. It was the tail end of the Vietnam war. I don’t remember any major issues that we tackled as students that we were protesting about or trying to change a policy. At least I don’t recall anything on a national or global level. There might’ve been some things on campus that we didn’t like. But I’m sure there were issues. I just can’t recall anything visible that occurred.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I ask in part because I love, first of all, I love that phrase, level of possibility and I agree. It’d be actually interesting to think about the students who went to college post Vietnam, right after it was winding down, what their experience was like compared to students there in the sixties and early seventies.

But in any case, level of possibility, I agree. And there is … I mean, I think for me, what I see, I see all kinds of activism among our students, especially around climate change, but not just that. And now of course around anti-racism because of what’s happened here in Minneapolis, especially. But I think it’s not necessarily activism that’s focused on one particular event or one event in particular, like it was during the Vietnam War. But I do like that phrase level of possibility. I think you’re quite right. What about, since you already touched on this, let’s talk a little bit about your work as a trustee. What is it like to be a board member at Gustavus? What are some of your responsibilities, for example?

John Hallberg:

Well, let me first say, I, being at Gustavus was a life changing experience for me and continues to be, so the fact that I get to still serve the college and advance the college as a trustee is a gift. And to that end, really the role of the trustee … and I’ve learned a lot and I guess I’m on in my 11th year, and I’ve learned a lot about that. And we’ve seen a lot of change in that time, but it really is about resource allocation. Both obtaining resources and whether that be, as you were talking about the institutional advancement committee, whether that’s gifts to support the college or in kind resources, whatever it might be. But it’s really about resource allocation. And then it’s resource allocation against the priorities of the college. The academic priorities. You talked a little bit about how the physical space has changed.

So it’s really trying to get the inputs from the stakeholders as it relates to the academic mission of the college. That’s all from the faculty, what is it that the college needs to deliver to students to have a quality liberal arts education? And so it’s what are the needs there? And then do we have the resources, the financial resources, the staff resources to deliver against that? And then as you mentioned, do we have the physical plant research resources to deliver? What’s an example of that? Well, the college just went through this in March with COVID and the fact that all of a sudden technology … which when I attended campus was not a big deal at all versus where it is now. And so I really think that resource allocation, the priorities.

And then really we need to have a 10 year look. We need to be looking out. We’re not going to do our job. I mean, we’ve got a really good cabinet. We’ve got really great faculty members. We don’t need to be on the ground because the people on the ground are doing a really good job, but we need to be looking out five, ten years to say, “Okay, what’s higher ed going to look like?”

One thing you and I have talked about, and I’m now chair of the enrollment management committee for the board is, if you look out to 2025, there’s going to be 250,000 fewer graduating high school seniors than there are today. And that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future beyond 2025. And oh by the way, the demographic composition of that group of students is going to look very different than it has in the past. So how does the college adapt to that? And we still want to bring in 640 or 680 freshmen or whatever the number is every year. So how do we, again, from a trustee standpoint, how can we help have that long look and help provide the resources to get there?

Greg Kaster:

And what about in between board meetings? I think some people might think a trustee simply shows up, what? For a quarterly meeting? And that’s pretty much all you do. But in fact, that’s not the case. What are some of the things that keep you busy as a trustee in between board meetings?

John Hallberg:

Well, we have committee meetings in between, so we have a little bit of that, and I don’t want to speak for all the trustees. I do a lot. I’ve become a student of higher education. I mean, really Greg, you helped me with this. I subscribe to the Chronicle Of Higher Education. I get a daily email from the Chronicle, and I click on a whole lot of links and read a lot about racial injustice on campus or climate change and its impact on campus. So I really try and immerse myself to become a student of the world of higher education. I will also say, and we need to start to do more of this to be honest, I also try and be a strong advocate for the college. And that’s everything from suggesting to high school seniors that I know through my social network that they consider Gustavus to calling Rich Aune when one of those students is going to come to campus to look in on them.

And so it’s really trying to be an advocate for the college. And then also I’m always trying to make connections for the college, whether it’s industry like around the placement office, for example, and the Gustavus career center and my professional network here in the Twin Cities or beyond. Can I connect people from the career center to people that I know so that more perspective employers can look at Gustavus students as a possibility? So I kind of joke about this, or not joke about it, but it’s like I should be spending a couple hours a week every week doing something to advance the college. And I try and do that.

Greg Kaster:

I think that point about advocacy is really important. I mean, of course, trustees need to raise money. You all do that, but advocating for the college and as you know, I love doing that as well. We’ve talked about that every opportunity. Whether it’s just interacting with someone who mentioned they’re thinking about going to college. “Well, are you thinking about Gustavus?” But that advocacy, I think, really can pay off in all kinds of ways for the college. What about you mentioned COVID and I would imagine the board is having some discussions about that. Could you talk to us a little bit about where both in your own personal and also the board’s thinking? Or you’re not speaking for the board on this podcast, I should have stipulated at the outset. But where is the board on this? We have, I think, a dozen committees at work trying to figure out how we can reopen safely. How much attention has the board been paying to this issue?

John Hallberg:

Well, a lot of attention, a lot of conversations about it. We had a conference call in the middle of March just around … not around the decision to shut down, but say, okay, what should we do about the … Again, around our role around resources? What should we do about refund policy for room and board and things like that. And then in our May board meeting, which was shortened, it was done as a Zoom call because we couldn’t get together on campus, we talked a lot, Greg, about okay, first feedback on how has the semester gone? Because we were drawing near the end of the term at that point.

And hearing a lot from what … Like we had Scott Bur call in from the faculty senate and talk a little, provide some feed feedback there. But then also really focused on, okay, what do we have to do as we look to the fall of 2020? And that’s when President Bergman indicated that a lot of the colleges … And I don’t know if it was at least a Minnesota private college council, but it might’ve gone beyond that, were all working together around developing strategies for reopening colleges. And I was just on a call this past week, Greg, with Rich Aune and Kirk Carlson and Tim Kennedy talking about enrollment management and TK indicated that of 132 people that Gustavus asked to be involved in committees around COVID, like how can we safely reopen and move forward and address all these issues. Of 132 people asked to do that, 130 said yes, which to me speaks volumes of the Gustavus community, that they’re willing to, in addition to their day jobs, also do this.

He was talking to … not to throw anyone under the bus, he was talking to a colleague at another liberal arts college and that person’s response was, “There’s no way that would have happened on that campus.”

So I just think again, we talked about the Gustavus community and how that’s such a big part of the Gustavus experience. Well, you know what? That goes way beyond the students, right? It’s not even as a student. It goes way beyond the students. It’s the faculty, it’s the people in the dining hall. It’s the janitorial staff. I mean, that just speaks volumes of that. So I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to open safely in the fall. But as we all know, this COVID thing is a pretty fluid situation.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And you and I have emailed like other faculty, and I had my concerns, but I’ve come around to … I just really want to go back. I don’t want to go back if I have to wear a mask and all the students have to wear masks while we’re trying to have a discussion. I don’t know.

But I really think it’s so important for civic reasons, for psychological reasons, financial reasons, all of the above that we are able to do it. At the same time we all know what 18 to 22 year olds can be like when it comes to following the rules and avoiding risky behavior. But fingers crossed.

And I do think the college has experienced as you know well, the college’s experience in the aftermath of the 1998 tornado has been a useful template for a lot of us, the way we came together. And I think we had the largest … I mean that was a devastating tornado to the physical plant. Fortunately it was spring break, so no students were hurt or worse. But I think we had the largest entering class to that point following the tornado. We all came together to work on admissions.

John Hallberg:

Greg, you know what’s interesting about that … when I was on this call with TK and the other folks and TK referenced the COVID task forces that everyone is involved with, I referenced the tornado. And again, I had long, long graduated, and I was actually living in a suburb of Chicago when that happened. But TK said to your point that the response is just very reminiscent of that point in time. How the community came together. And so, yeah, I’m optimistic that the college is going to respond well and I’m looking forward to being able to welcome students and faculty back on campus.

Greg Kaster:

That would be so great. And I think I should just note, I think you said his name, TK is Tim Kennedy of marketing and Rich Aune and Kirk Carlson of admissions, all doing a great job. What about, I mean, in a way you’ve touched on this, but I wonder if you could say a little bit more about some of the challenges and rewards of being a trustee? Not only specifically a Gustavus trustee, but just in general. I mean you put in perhaps by choice, as you’re suggesting, a lot of hours. What are some of the things that … I’m sure COVID is one of them … keeps you up at night as a trustee. But also what are some of the rewards of the position?

John Hallberg:

Well as I said, meeting the students and getting engaged with them is truly a gift. I will also say building faculty relationships, and you touched on this in the intro, but I look at the time that you and Jennifer Ackil from psychological sciences and I spent together, you were the first two faculty reps on that institutional advancement committee and your involvement there and our getting to know each other personally, has for me led to so many other great faculty relationships on campus. I mean, I had a donor to my organization would come down and speak to Kyle Chamber’s class because of the connection with Jennifer.

And so like I said, I love to learn. I’m reading all the time. As you know, I’m trying to read a bio of every U.S. president. And so just the relationships, faculty relationships, and being with a bunch of really smart people keeps me challenged. It’s like, I don’t want to go into a conversation with you or Jennifer or Brenda Kelly, the provost, or Richard Leach or whoever it is and not be well-informed. You guys, you all keep us on our toes. So that’s been a big plus from serving on our board.

Greg Kaster:

Well, as you know, I love interacting with you. I love being on that advancement committee. I learned so much. Still I’m learning from you. And also I think it’s important, some schools don’t do much of this interaction between faculty and trustees. And I think actually we could even do more. Maybe we’re all busy of course, but I think that’s incredibly important. In addition to you, I’m thinking of Russ Michaletz and some others I’ve gotten to know over the years. What about … you touched on this earlier when you said one thing a trustee has to do, a board member has to do, is think sort of longterm. Think in terms of 10 years. What is your own vision of Gustavus, 10 years out?

John Hallberg:

Oh, wow. That is a really great question. I think I’m going to vamp on this a little bit, Greg. I think we need to continue to be guided by our values around justice and service and excellence. So I think to me, the vision is can we continue to provide this environment to create a place where people can come? Students, young people can come to learn how to learn, right? They’ll leave with a great education, but they’ll also have this … when they leave campus they’re so energized by the experience that they want to keep learning. Because they’re going to have to keep learning, right?

Greg Kaster:

That’s right.

John Hallberg:

Because the career they’re going to have in 15 years isn’t even invented yet, right? The world is changing so rapidly or the issues are changing so rapidly. So I just think we have to be nimble and agile, which again, the academy is not known for, right? We have to be nimble and agile, but at the same time, we need to be linked to our roots and the foundational things that got us there. So it’s like, how do you change the curriculum? I know we’re going to be launching a new gen ed curriculum, but how do you change the curriculum? How do you modify majors and minors and the courses that you offer to be sure that we’re offering those … we’re providing the insights and the tools that will be relevant in the year 2050? That’ll be here before we know it. Right? So that’s a big lift. I don’t pretend to have that answer, but it’s kind of part of the future of Gustavus and really every college.

Greg Kaster:

Well, we’ll come back to that maybe 10 years from now in another podcast episode. I couldn’t agree more with what you just said about you … hopefully you come to college to learn to learn, not just to acquire a major or a credential. It’s not just you’re coming to learn and then the learning stops at the end of four years. Far from it.

John, I wish we could continue. And I do wish we were at one of our favorite haunts noshing, but this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for all the work you’ve done for Gustavus and continue to do. And hopefully we’ll see one another soon, either socially distanced outdoors at one of these bakeries or on campus or both.

John Hallberg:

Greg, thank you so much for asking me to be a part of this. And I look forward to connecting with you, too. Thanks.

Greg Kaster:

Take care. Bye bye.

 

###

Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

Leave a Reply