S.5 E.1: From Graduate to President

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews former CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota and former Gustavus President James Peterson.
Posted on October 26th, 2020 by

James Peterson, Gustavus Class of ’64, offers his memories and insights (leavened with humor) about his undergraduate experience, career in science (culminating in his position as CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota), and the challenges, responsibilities, and rewards of serving, unexpectedly, as the 14th president of his alma mater.

Season 5, Episode 1: From Graduate to President

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.

In spring 2018, William Harry McRaven, soon-to-be retiring chancellor of the University of Texas, claimed that, “The toughest job in the nation is the one of academic or health institution president.” His remark attracted considerable notice coming as it did from the retired four-star admiral who planned and directed the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

True or not, there was no denying the considerable demands and challenges that come with the job of college or university president today even before the COVID-19 pandemic and its own set of extraordinary challenges for higher education. To help us understand what the job of college president entails, I’m delighted to be joined today by our recent past president of Gustavus and my neighbor, James Peterson. Jim became the 14th president of Gustavus in 2003 and led the College until his retirement five years later, having achieved, in the words of the then-board chair, “record financial benchmarks and operations, fundraising, and advancement.”

Like several of his predecessors, he experienced Gustavus as both president and student, in his case class of 1964. Jim earned a PhD in entomology from the University of Nebraska Lincoln and subsequently was vice president for research and external relations at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, now of Drexel University. Immediately prior to becoming president of Gustavus, he served for 20 years as CEO of The Science Museum of Minnesota in Saint Paul, where among other achievements, he led the creation of its spectacular facility on the banks of the Mississippi River in the city’s downtown.

By happy coincidence, we and our spouses live in the same condominium community in downtown Minneapolis, indeed, on the very same floor of the tower that anchors the development. That and Jim’s stint as president of our condo association has allowed me to get to know him even better than when we overlapped at Gustavus. I’ve been looking forward to speaking with him for the podcast about his biography, the jobs of college president and museum CEO, and the role and importance of science. Welcome, Jim. It’s great to be recording with you from opposite ends of our building’s 16th floor.

James Peterson:

Thank you, Greg. It’s my pleasure. After that introduction, I think that’s plenty. I think we’re done.

Greg Kaster:

We want to flesh that out.

James Peterson:

I agree with you.

Greg Kaster:

Great. Thanks. I like to start with people’s beginnings, origins. If you would just tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you chose Gustavus, how you wound up at Gustavus for your undergraduate education.

James Peterson:

Sure. Well, it’s a long story, we’ll make it short. I actually grew up in Red Wing, a small town boy, a small town river rat. We lived there through some of my earlier years and then I finished high school in Superior, Wisconsin. My dad was a Lutheran pastor and that was a part of my upbringing, a middleclass kid in a mid-union state in a mid-everything. The Gustavus connection was a simpler one actually. My dad was a Gustavus graduate.

Greg Kaster:

I didn’t know that.

James Peterson:

My mother was a Gustavus graduate. My older brother was a Gustavus graduate. For me, it was at the time I think a straight-line lineage. I don’t ever remember even considering going to another school, a pretty good line sort of a thing and it turned out obviously to be a really good choice for me.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so interesting. I don’t think I knew that that so many people in your immediate family went to Gustavus. Of course, that’s also so often the story at our college which is amazing.

James Peterson:

Well, coupled that with the fact that I met my wife at Gustavus and one of my kids went to Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right.

James Peterson:

We get a lot of connections at the school.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right, your wife Susan. Did you think at all about becoming a pastor or not? That didn’t occur to you or-

James Peterson:

I think the last of your statements there was a true one. No, it never occurred to me. The last thing that I wanted to do. I started out in Gustavus with the assumption that I would be premed. I started in them taking my chemistry and biology courses and I finished chemistry and said, “I don’t think this is what I want to do.” I’d switch majors to psychology and sociology which turned out to be really good for me.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

James Peterson:

Then finally, I finished with another major in biology.

Greg Kaster:

That’s interesting-

James Peterson:

Which I think is my true love obviously.

Greg Kaster:

I didn’t know about the psych. Did you say you majored in psych and soc or just-

James Peterson:

I think I had as I remember it, Greg, enough classes for a psychology major, but I didn’t have some of the requisite class. That was a wide characterization, but I did enjoy those and I took a lot of those courses with an assumed major for a couple years anyway.

Greg Kaster:

That’s interesting. I can see we can talk-

James Peterson:

That’s why John Kendall was my advisor, as a psychology professor.

Greg Kaster:

John who is a great psych prof who was president when I interviewed at Gustavus more than 30 years ago. He was the president. I met with him.

James Peterson:

There’s more to the story, but John Kendall is in no small measure responsible for my being president at Gustavus. We can do that later.

Greg Kaster:

When you think back to Gustavus, are there particular experiences, memories, professors, classes, good experiences, bad doesn’t matter, that come to mind? Obviously, one good one is you met Susan there.

James Peterson:

Indeed, yeah. Susan was a theater major at the time, something that I can’t imagine I would ever date because I thought those people were strange and different, but we got together because of an introduction of her cousin actually who was at Gustavus. I think our sophomore year we started dating and obviously worked out pretty well because it’s quite a few years later.

Greg Kaster:

If I’m remembering correctly that you were a homecoming king and queen or not?

James Peterson:

Freshman homecoming king. How’s that for a distinguished position? It was fun though.

Greg Kaster:

What are some of your fondest memories of the place apart from of course meeting Susan?

James Peterson:

Sure. Well, as a student, it was a fun place to be. It was an easy place for me to be because of, well, the culture at the same time was the same culture that I came from and classwork was relatively easy for me for a while until I realized, which was a difficult realization for me that I didn’t learn in high school how to study very well. Gustavus for me was a mixture of learning experience about how to learn which is one of its greatest gifts obviously is why we think it’s so important for the students to be there. That was a big deal for me to become face to face with the fact that I never learned how to learn.

Greg Kaster:

That is still true why-

James Peterson:

It’s a big deal for students coming in. I have learned that from them too.

Greg Kaster:

It’s still true. It’s still true to me. I think we know how well one does in high school. You think you’re ready and then there comes that shock.

James Peterson:

A lot.

Greg Kaster:

I think he said it so well. Well, it, any good school and Gustavus certainly does that, teaches you how to learn. Obviously, you did learn how to learn. You graduated in ’64. Then did you go right on for the PhD in entomology or-

James Peterson:

No, I finished school and I went into teaching. I taught in Peoria, Illinois. I graduated in January of my senior year. With a lack of something better in mind or no concrete in mind, except that Susan and I were going to get married that summer, I started off teaching in Peoria, Illinois. My first job, an incredible learning experience for me. The school was primarily black and lots of disadvantaged students in school. For a small town white kid from Minnesota, it was a big change for me. I learned a huge amount there. I’ve been always grateful for the experience that I had.

Greg Kaster:

I assume-

James Peterson:

[crosstalk 00:09:34] after we married and we taught there for two years. Then I taught in the Osseo system at Brooklyn Park for a little while and then I started graduate school from there.

Greg Kaster:

Were you teaching history or English? Was it science, I assume, some kind of science?

James Peterson:

I was hired as a biology science teacher and then I got down to Peoria and found out from the principal on my first day there that I also had a class in general science and a class in remedial reading and a class in first year Latin.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

James Peterson:

Jump in. Start swimming.

Greg Kaster:

Had you already taken ed courses at Gustavus or did you have to do-

James Peterson:

Yeah, I did have an education degree [inaudible 00:10:29].

Greg Kaster:

Well, so then entomology, how did you get interested in bugs or insects?

James Peterson:

Well, my interest actually comes from insects that are in the water. My interest is really and my professional interest was in aquatic biology. Entomology was my way into the water so to speak. The opportunity to go to graduate school came from an offer from the University of Nebraska for an assistantship there, which was about studying insects in the rivers and streams in Nebraska which may seem a strange place to study the water, but there turns out to be a lot of water there, much of which is in irrigation ditches where I did some of my work.

Greg Kaster:

What are some of the insects that are in? I’m trying to think. I think of bodies of water, I think of mosquitoes, but what else are we talking?

James Peterson:

I’m going to bring a book over to you and show you the fascinating world of aquatic insects. Dragonflies spend most of their life in the water. Damselflies. Beetles, big and small. Water striders, the one that live on top of the water and in fast moving rivers and streams. Especially there are a host of bugs that most people never see and don’t even know are in there.

Greg Kaster:

What were you looking for when you were studying these insects?

James Peterson:

My assistantship was actually paid for by what was then called a Wide Area Spray Program. It was a huge insecticide control program that was being done in Central Nebraska and they needed someone to look at the side effects of this pesticide application on creatures in the water. That’s what paid my assistantship to join this large group of people to study this whole environmental impact of the insecticides. It paid my salary along with being on the side, someone who went out during the summer to look for corn borers. Every graduate students that went through the University of Nebraska was required to go look for corn borers. It was a very unpleasant task, especially for one with no interest in corn borers.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great though. I love that. That’s a state’s commitment to its chief agricultural product-

James Peterson:

Absolutely. What took me through graduate school was a bunch of courses in aquatic biology with a concentration in entomology.

Greg Kaster:

You said, from there, you went to DC.

James Peterson:

I went from there actually to do postdoc work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. An incredible experience to look at lakes and streams and the effects of manipulations to improve lakes and lake reclamation projects. It was a great experience for me. That was a two-year extension of my research interests in the water. Then in DC from there to do national water policy work for a couple of years, also on an eye-opening experience as you can imagine …

Greg Kaster:

I can imagine.

James Peterson:

… for someone right out of research. I’m being told by the folks that I worked with in Madison, “Well, if you go take this job in Washington, you’ll never get back into research. That will take you somewhere else.” I said, “No way. I’ll be back,” and I never went back obviously. I never went back to research career. That actually took me to Philadelphia where I took this position as a head of research at a museum in Philadelphia, the Academy of Natural Sciences. That was my continued move away from active personal research by continuing engagement in research that I love to be a part of.

Greg Kaster:

I want to come back to the museum work later. Let’s fast forward to your becoming president of Gustavus. First of all, I’m just curious how that felt, having gone to Gustavus all those years before. Go ahead.

James Peterson:

It was a remarkable experience obviously, an incredible privilege for me, a unique one to go back to your alma mater and to take that kind of a position. I was obviously honored to do that. I was in the process of thinking about retirement from The Science Museum because I’d been there for a long time and it was time to move on and I thought maybe toward retirement, but that was when one day in church, John and Joanne Kendall, former president and his wife, and my advisor when I was a student there came to me after church and said, “There’s this position open at Gustavus and I think you ought to think about it.” Well, it turns out that Kendall had done that for a lot of people along the way, not for that job but for suggestions on things that they might do and things that needed to be done.

I dismissed it a number of times actually and thanked him for even thinking about that. Well, [inaudible 00:15:58] on me and then a couple other people started to talk to me about that and eventually, it got to an application and there I was.

Greg Kaster:

You were there. What do you think about that opening quote by McRaven? Is it the toughest job? How tough of a job did it turn out to be? What were its chief challenges for you?

James Peterson:

Yeah, it’s a bit it’s a big question, supporting question. Certainly challenges are true for people in any kind of business these days, but the challenge really is on the high level of expectations for a lot of constituencies and a lot of money, financial things and a very diverse program coming from The Science Museum, for instance, far more constituencies than I’ve ever faced before in a management job, students and parents and the faculty and alumni and the athletic directors. There’s an awful lot of people who have a stake in the success of a college and they all need time and they all need attention. They all need to be working together. Bringing all that together, it’s not an easy job. It’s a different kind of a job again because, coming from a different kind of an institution, you have a different financial model than any institution I’ve been a part of.

Greg Kaster:

How is it different?

James Peterson:

Well, there’s lots of different components to it as to how you put together all the different components of a student experience. One of them is the whole business of financial aid and admissions and putting together a new class and trying to figure out with scholarship money and financial aid and work study programs and parental support obviously and how you can put together a financial package that’s affordable, especially these days as costs continue to rise for the student and affordable for the college because every student, well, almost all the students at least at Gustavus during my time there and I think that probably is still the case all of them have financial aid of some sort.

Greg Kaster:

Right, that’s still the case.

James Peterson:

[crosstalk 00:18:41] scholarship money to be raised and to be provided.

Greg Kaster:

That would be very different, I guess.

James Peterson:

[crosstalk 00:18:47] really different than other kinds of financial models. The whole business of shared governance with the faculty was a big change for me as well.

Greg Kaster:

I was waiting.

James Peterson:

“For you to bring it up.”

Greg Kaster:

The faculty there, like, I don’t know 160 constituencies right there.

James Peterson:

Well, in part, they all have their things that they’re concerned about and their departments to worry about and their own research and their teaching to worry about. Then you have the need for all of them to come together as a faculty and then you have the need for that as a group to come together with the administration and the president and the trustees. It’s a challenge for everybody.

Greg Kaster:

I would find that. That just sounds challenging. I know I would find it challenging, trying to bring as you said unity or some sense of coming together which you did. You-

James Peterson:

All were challenging with institutions these days and always. It’s how you bring everybody together to be working together in the same direction. That’s where it becomes, but it’s hard work in that kind of institution.

Greg Kaster:

You were good how you did it. You must enjoy fundraising because you were doing advancement work already at the academy, right?

James Peterson:

Yes. [inaudible 00:20:15] there.

Greg Kaster:

Is it something you enjoy or is it you just have to do it, you don’t enjoy it? I’m just curious what it’s like to do fund-

James Peterson:

It’s a good question, Greg. It’s a good question. What I enjoyed was being with people and being with alumni and visiting with them around the country to wherever they were, talking to them in my office and talking to them in their homes and talking to them at big occasions and small. I didn’t like doing that which is interesting for an introvert which I am as much as an extrovert, but there is a part of that work that that brings you together with people who care about the college, a lot fun. It’s fun talking to people and it’s fun being energized by people. Beyond just being a drain of information I need to give to them, I get stuff back again when I’m doing that. That’s the fun part of that work.

It is demanding because it’s constant demand. There’s lots of things that need doing on campus and in other venues. It would be well to be on the road all the time, 120% because the needs are great obviously and they will never go away.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I think still faculty, “Where’s the president?” I would say, no matter who they … They shouldn’t be around. They need to be away raising money, so get used to it.

James Peterson:

You and I are saying the same thing, “Where’s the president? He should be out here visiting with us.” [crosstalk 00:21:52] students by the way have some expectations about them, how much showing up for them to which are very [crosstalk 00:21:59].

Greg Kaster:

I wondered, one thing, you just said the word energetic, how you can be energized by those interactions. I can relate because I feel that talking to everyone, including you for this podcast and I find that when a class goes really well or a one on one with a student goes really well, it’s not draining. It’s energizing. That’s such a good feeling.

James Peterson:

With all due respect to you and the rest of the faculty, students were even more fun.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sure.

James Peterson:

[inaudible 00:22:33] anybody would say and I know it is for you, for faculty and other administrators as well it’s the students that bring you the joy.

Greg Kaster:

Absolutely true.

James Peterson:

No question about that.

Greg Kaster:

It’s definitely not those faculty meetings.

James Peterson:

Well, some of them for sure.

Greg Kaster:

Right. You just mentioned the student expectations of a president. That’s actually something I wanted to ask you, but I’m not sure how many listeners understand what your job, anyone who holds your job, university or college president vows with respect to students. Could you say a little bit about that?

James Peterson:

Sure. There are couple of parts to that maybe. One is as there is a constant expectation, a subtle, somewhat subtle expectation that the president will be around and will be visible and will show up. That was a really important thing for me to do. Just show up whenever you can, whenever you’re on campus. Show up at student events. I’m sure they’re on graduation day and Christmas in Christ Chapel and during the Nobel Conference and so on. You show up for those big occasions, but you show up at games when you can in the athletic department. You show up at recitals, we can do that, in the music department or at a play.

They have a big [inaudible 00:23:58] for cancer which I happen to have an interest in right now obviously for my own experience, but students put in a huge amount of effort on events like that and you really want to show up for them because it’s energizing for the president too, but it’s also great for the students to see that people care what they’re doing, other people care what they’re doing on campus.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I think that’s right. They expect you to be there.

James Peterson:

Right. They notice when you’re there, even if you don’t know that they notice that you’re there, they do.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I was talking to Steve Kjellgren who’s in charge of Dining Services. He was talking about how students lobby him and how much he learned from them and even implemented some of their suggestions. Were students lobbying you when you were president? Were they emailing you, coming to see you, making suggestions, making demands?

James Peterson:

Well, you have to let them know that you’re open too and then you have to be careful about how much time you can cost them to expect you to have because you don’t want to disappoint them and saying, “Yeah, sure my office is open, but I’m never here.”

Greg Kaster:

Right.

James Peterson:

It doesn’t take much to show up for the key discussions, to meet periodically with heads of the student senate for instance, “What do you worry about? What’s on your agenda? What can I help with? What will work? What maybe won’t work well so? Maybe what we can do differently together?” Those were good discussions. I had a few students sit-ins in my office [inaudible 00:25:40].

Greg Kaster:

Do you remember what they were about? I don’t remember that.

James Peterson:

Let’s see. Frankly, I don’t remember … No, I have a memorable one, but I don’t remember the subject and here is why, because at the time, I think a head of the student senate came to me and said, “Dr. Peterson, we’re going to have a sit-in in your office.” I said, “Okay. What’s it about?” “Here’s what our concerns are.” I said, “Yeah, we’ve talked about these before.” “We’re going to be there at such and such a time,” he said. I said, “That’s fine. I’ll be I’ll be there if you want me there.” He said, “Well, that’ll be nice.” He came with, I don’t know, maybe there were 15 or 20 students that came into my office and they sat in.

I said, “So what should we be talking about?” “Well, we’re going to talk a little bit about this and that.” I said, “That’s fine.” They were happy. They sat in for a couple hours. I said, “I got to leave.” They said, “That’s fine. We’ll leave too.” It was just that kind of gentle set in. [crosstalk 00:26:45] what they said afterwards was meant something to make sure that people were listening and that their issues were being heard.

Greg Kaster:

It’s a very gentle and cordial sit in. I’m thinking of Columbia University sit-in in 1968, anything [inaudible 00:27:06].

James Peterson:

I never faced one of those for sure.

Greg Kaster:

The other thing I wonder about is, I remember Angela Davis coming to campus and it was packed. I don’t know whether you had to sign off on that in advance or how that worked, but I think if I’m remembering correctly, you were getting some complaints by some about her presence on campus. How much of that was part of your job, parents complaining or alums complaining about this or that?

James Peterson:

You do need it sometimes to be a sounding board for those who disagreed with what was being done at the college or what the students were doing or decisions that administration was making or whatever and it was important to listen, again, because there’s so many different constituencies, they had different opinions. Decisions were made about athletic programs, but, boy, you heard about ex athletes and from alumni, from current students and athletes about that and other decisions about student life and you could hear from parents and they needed to be heard as well. Yeah, sometimes the phone was pretty busy.

Greg Kaster:

What about relations with the board? Susan was on the board, I guess, your wife, Susan.

James Peterson:

She was, before I started on there, yes.

Greg Kaster:

You weren’t on the board before, were you I think?

James Peterson:

No, I was not.

Greg Kaster:

What’s it like for a college president? Is the board overseeing you? You feel you have enough independence? I’m speaking to you specifically, but also just in general. I’ve always been curious about that relationship.

James Peterson:

Well, the best kind of relationship between board and president is obviously when you’re working together toward the same ends.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

James Peterson:

That’s not always the case. I was very fortunate along the way, both at The Science Museum and at Gustavus to have a board who felt strongly about the place that they were representing and governing because they have their role in governing as well and that they understood that role and what it is and what it isn’t. Some boards like to be really close to the organization which has some disadvantages and some disadvantages. Some are a little too standoffish because they’re not paying attention the way they should.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

James Peterson:

I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with boards that together we could make a difference and set some directions and check our goals and correct when we needed to and challenge each other as well. I think that’s part of the deal too.

Greg Kaster:

Sure. That all makes great sense, both the last part about challenging each other and what you said just a few minutes ago or a minute ago about the board knowing what its role is. I think I can imagine is really for-

James Peterson:

That’s true and [inaudible 00:30:09] because some people think you ought to be closer and some have strong feelings about something and want stronger opinions being voiced, but there is a way to do the business that is, I think, that is the more effective way to actually get things done which is what you’re there to do.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I think you’re lucky if you don’t have an overbearing board. I think that will be a nightmare. In a way, you’ve touched on this already, I realized, but if you think about what you found most rewarding about the job, what comes to mind?

James Peterson:

Sure. I think relationships built because I had many and I love them, people that I worked, a privilege to work with a talented faculty or as committed as from Gustavus. Man, I’d walk out some of those meetings maybe frustrated with some of the discussions, but so impressed with the people that I worked with. That was a big deal for me with ideas and that creativity that flows around a place like a liberal arts college like Gustavus. That was a big deal for me as well. Then just some days, move in day for the freshmen, one of my favorite days of the whole academic year, a one night treat to see the enthusiasm of incoming students and the excitement for their new part of their lives and to talk to the parents moving in and out. That was days like that. The Nobel Conference.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

James Peterson:

[crosstalk 00:31:58], what a privilege to be in the middle of something like that, even though the president doesn’t have an active role in in planning or executing that conference. I got to go sit in the front row.

Greg Kaster:

Right. That’s our annual science conference sanctioned by the Nobel-

James Peterson:

[crosstalk 00:32:15] Those couple of days, that’s coming up.

Greg Kaster:

Coming up soon.

James Peterson:

Soon. A wonderful time [crosstalk 00:32:22] this year.

Greg Kaster:

Every year, we have the Nobel Conference sanctioned by the Nobel Foundation which reminds me, by the way of Nobel Conference based around science with an ethicist as well and ethics. As President, you get to go to Sweden. Weren’t you awarded some order of something from, was it, from the King of Sweden?

James Peterson:

That was an honor too. I’ll remember the name of Order of the Polar Star.

Greg Kaster:

Polar Star.

James Peterson:

Some of the recognition of the fact that I had a role, I was fortunate to play a role in bringing Gustavus back closer to our Swedish roots, not because they’re part of our history which is interesting and has been productive along the way, but to start thinking more seriously with the folks in Sweden about what that means moving forward.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

James Peterson:

What would it mean with regard to some things as simple as funding, as bringing a trustee onto the board from Sweden and we’ve had some wonderful, wonderful trustees from there and foundation support and potential academic interactions and so on. That was a part of great enjoyment for me to help to build and rebuild some of those bridges that Gustavus and the faculty has been maintaining for a long time.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I think that’s still paying some dividends. I think it was important. I was attracted to Gustavus in part because of the Swedish heritage. Given my age, when I thought of Sweden, I thought of Bergman, I thought of really cool movies and I thought of antiwar anti-Vietnam. They are all things Swedish, Swedish meatballs, come on. I was surprised over the years … I always thought we weren’t doing enough with that connection. I think we’re doing a lot more and a lot of that has to do with you. I’m curious back to your you’re growing up with a dad as a pastor and your interest in science? Do you find yourself ever having to reconcile faith and science or that just all fit together naturally for you?

James Peterson:

Yeah, I knew I had to reconcile it for me. I think everybody needs to in their own way because they’re both very real and they’re both, I think, really important, but everybody needs to find their own way in that. It was for me and I continue to work on the mystery of the faith and the mystery of the science. Yeah, that’s where I think the joining of the two is really wonderful is in the mystery because we don’t know. We don’t know everything. That’s why we have faith. We don’t know anything about science. That’s for sure. It keeps us busy. It’s important to think about it important to have your own position, but it’s also to recognize the importance for society as a whole, I think, of both of them.

Greg Kaster:

I do think that’s a distinctive part of Gustavus’ culture program approach, where the emphasis is on both, not as separate or contradictory. I love that.

James Peterson:

There is that interface to continue to reconcile between with a faith orientation of Gustavus as well as one of our core principles. We have a faith connection to our history. It’s our heritage, but we have one going forward to. I think that’s really valuable because there are some colleges that have left that [inaudible 00:36:12] by the church, but don’t honor it as much as they used to anymore. We do and I think that’s important. I like that a lot.

Greg Kaster:

Speaking of going forward, I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on, how is Gustavus different? How is Gustavus different or changing from when you were there as a student? Were there things that really, by the time you left the presidency, things that really struck you as not necessarily better or worse which is very different? I think a lot of people freeze, any alma mater, you freeze in time when you were there, but of course, it’s always changing. I wonder if you were struck by that.

James Peterson:

Well, times for sure are changing, everything from the campus itself to technology, which for some of us is still a struggle that we didn’t have when we were students there. [inaudible 00:37:07] across and between all the components of the college is way, way different than it used to be. Nature of some of the college experiences, everything from basic stuff like the food service, what a huge difference from when I was there as a student. More challenges with respect to some societal challenges generally, drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t that we didn’t have drug or alcohol when I was there, but drugs were not an issue when I went to college. I don’t remember anybody ever taking drugs of any sort when I was there. That’s a societal difference that we have to face these days.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

James Peterson:

I don’t think the pressures on the students are higher. I think the pressure to get into a good college, the pressure does succeed. The pressure for a job when you get out is certainly different.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

James Peterson:

I don’t know that the college experience for the student is so much different than a lot of students elsewhere. Gustavus continues to evolve. I’m not on campus anymore and I don’t follow everything that’s going on there well, but I think the nature of the student experience is basically fundamentally the same. The nature of hospitality at Gustavus as an institution is significant. I think the that old hackneyed word of friendliness and friendship is huge at Gustavus. That’s a distinguishing factor that’s more noticeable probably after kids get up and [crosstalk 00:38:51].

Greg Kaster:

I agree with that. We talked about community, but I’ve never been in a place like it where there is that, not just a talk of it, but the putting it into practice. Go ahead.

James Peterson:

I don’t know the nature of all those pressures. I know that one of the things that the students have said, kids that I have talked to who have graduated repeat the old [inaudible 00:39:25], “I was so busy. I don’t have time to do this, time to do that.” That’s a lot different than when we were students. There were clubs maybe when I was there [inaudible 00:39:37] obviously and we did some things socially, but I think the kids these days are much more purposeful about their activities and the range of their activities and huge experiential gains on their part. I love that. I think that’s really wonderful.

Greg Kaster:

That’s an excellent point. I love that, and yet at times, I think it gets a little crazy.

James Peterson:

Sure.

Greg Kaster:

You’re right. That’s a difference. I’ve seen that even just as a faculty member, things like we didn’t have email when I came to Gustavus. The pros and cons of that in terms of its impact on your work.

James Peterson:

[crosstalk 00:40:18] student events and all the things that the students are generating, not things that they decide to join, but things that they start. That’s right. I think that initiative on the part of the students is wonderful to watch. Like you, I wonder how in the world they find the time to do that.

Greg Kaster:

And study.

James Peterson:

Definitely by the way.

Greg Kaster:

By the way. Before I knew you, I’ve gone to The Science Museum in Saint Paul and just loved it. I want to talk a little bit about your time there. What are some of your memories about again the challenges and rewards of that job? I’m not sure how many of us, when we’re in a museum, realize there’s a board, there’s a CEO and you held that position for some 20 years and really transformed that place. I don’t look at the rankings, but as far as I’m concerned, if not the best certainly one of the best in the country of its kind. By the way, listeners, if you haven’t been there, get over there right away.

James Peterson:

I thank you for that.

Greg Kaster:

I think it reopen somehow, if any case with COVID, but-

James Peterson:

[inaudible 00:41:25] an amazing, amazing thing.

Greg Kaster:

It’s incredible. Both the new, well, not so new anymore, but the facility, the setting, but first of all, what drew you to that position or did someone, say it was John Kendall again?

James Peterson:

Well, the thought of coming home, if you will, back toward Minnesota was part of the draw when that position came available because I still have family here, a growing up place for me. The museum, I knew also was poised for change. It was an active place and it made some amazing forward movement in recent years, but it was really ready for a jump forward, I think, so that was attractive. The fact that it had collections and a research program, which is different than a lot of the science and technology related museums, was a part of my history and that I appreciate it. This environment here in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, generally in Wisconsin, Upper Midwest, was also I think, the kind of place where such a museum could thrive and even thrive more than it had. That was attractive as well.

Once I got here, what we also realized is that a good share of the impetus for a significant jump forward for the museum was Riverfront Development in Downtown Saint Paul. That was a major impetus for the mayor and the city council, Downtown Development Agency and some of us in the nonprofit organization and businesses in downtown came together to say, “We got opportunity here and we got to make a difference.” The mayor led that effort and The Science Museum was able to put its future into that forward mix as a new presence on the river.

That was part of the impetus where it enabled us actually to get the funds raised at that point to over $100 million which these days would have been a pretty, pretty tough thing to do.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. How-

James Peterson:

Lucky to be at the time, at a good time, but also like a lot of good fortune, it’s underpinned by doing the good work that you’re supposed to do.

Greg Kaster:

Right. How long roughly did that project take from-

James Peterson:

120 years.

Greg Kaster:

How long-

James Peterson:

No, we started the discussion, well, I’m going to say late ’80s, early ’90s maybe, the early, early discussions about, “We don’t have enough room. We ought to make some changes here somehow. Is this the right place to do it in Downtown Saint Paul?” when again the Riverfront Development arose and that arose before that time and then through that time. When we actually started working on the planning and the fundraising would have been the early ’90s, early 1990s and we opened in 1999.

Greg Kaster:

At least a decade it sounds like. 120 something years. First of all, I can understand why the job was attractive or why the position was attractive given what you said. The other thing, I just think science education is so incredibly important in general, especially now with what some are calling the war on science, which seems to get worse by the day. Growing up, we’re roughly the same generation, growing up during the Cold War, it’s going to be great respect for science and deference to science. That seems to have largely, not totally but largely, evaporated. I just wonder if you have thoughts about that, of both those thoughts about the fact that that is happening and also what we might do about it.

James Peterson:

I think it is a shame that is happening. I think also, unfortunately, part of it is coming from leadership in our country.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

James Peterson:

Part of it is wider spread than that, but I also think most people are fundamentally convinced and understand that science has value. It has value economically. It has value in terms of public interest. It has value to the environment. It has value to development of new industries and the growth of business. Sciences is going away. It may be in the media. I think the media has a role in this as well, Greg, overplayed the lack of science interest or the complete disregard of science, I think is a little overplayed. I don’t think the majority of people in this country would feel that way. Unfortunately, what’s affecting us is the visibility of those that are following this pathway of denying that it’s even valid, whether it’s valuable.

Greg Kaster:

Science deniers.

James Peterson:

That’s the most hurtful thing. If we get to a point where this country or our society generally doesn’t even believe science, then we really got trouble. I don’t believe we’re there yet.

Greg Kaster:

That makes me feel better.

James Peterson:

[crosstalk 00:47:26] it will be.

Greg Kaster:

That makes me feel better and I think you’re right. I actually think you’re right that most Americans do value science, whether they know it or not, but you’re right, it’s there. It’s not going away. If it goes away, then the economy collapses and industry, etcetera, etcetera, all the ways that science is with us. I think a place like this and the popularity of The Science Museum shows what you just said is true. The people who flocked to these exhibits around the country.

James Peterson:

What was it? Is it not also that that’s the fundamental curiosity that most people have about what’s going on around them and how the world works or where does this food come from? [inaudible 00:48:12] interesting thing about Venus or whatever? Some interest goes deeper, some is really shelled, but that’s okay. It’s that sense of curiosity that I love about the [crosstalk 00:48:25] learning I always have.

Greg Kaster:

That’s exactly right. It’s true. This may sound partisan, but it’s just a fact that the Republican Party has essentially abandoned science. I was just reading something by Naomi Oreskes who writes about this. She’s at Harvard. Certainly when we were growing up, science was bipartisan. The fact that it has become partisan is really, really unfortunate. I want to conclude by thanking you, not just for this, but thanking you for a memorable experience. You and I were with Susan and your daughter and her husband, we were out in the courtyard of our condo building chatting. At the very end, you bent down and picked something up. I thought I had dropped something and you handed it to me and your words were, “It’s a cicada.” You put a dead cicada in my hand. That was quite a moving experience which I thank you for. Thank you for-

James Peterson:

[crosstalk 00:49:33] for a while.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you so much for sharing your memories, your thoughts. You see, just hearing you talk about curiosity, I feel energized. Jim, thanks so much. We’ll see each other at the garbage station halfway between our condo unit or wherever.

James Peterson:

Good luck with this, Greg. It was nice being with you in this forum.

Greg Kaster:

It was great. Take care.

James Peterson:

Thank you so much. [crosstalk 00:49:59]. Bye-bye.

Greg Kaster:

You’re welcome. Bye-bye.

 

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

 

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