Profile -- Augsburg's Paul Pribbenow, On Reweaving the Social Fabric

10/20/2016 04:52 pm ET

As the election shows us, the country needs vision from leaders far beyond formal politics. Kettering Foundation’s College Presidents and the Civic Purposes of Higher Education Project explores how college presidents can “take leadership on themes of democracy and civic engagement on their campuses and with their stakeholders.”

Here I profile Paul Pribbenow, President of Augsburg College in Minneapolis where we have moved our Center for Democracy and Citizenship (now, the Sabo CDC) from the University of Minnesota. In our interview Pribbenow used the phrase “Semper Reformanda.” This theological term is taken to mean “always reforming,” and Pribbenow embraces transformation, a pluralistic community at Augsburg which embodies the “new America” emerging from demographic changes in the society. But he is also “radical” in the original sense of Semper Reformanda from 17th century Dutch reformers, going back to the roots. As the theologian Anna Case-Winters describes, “The impulse was neither liberal nor conservative, but radical in the sense of returning to the ‘root.’” Michael Horton elaborates, “We belong to the church and not simply ourselves…always created and renewed by the Word of God rather than by the spirit of the age.” For Pribbenow, we are “in community,” not only resisting pressures toward extreme individualism but re-weaving the social fabric and re-communalizing our institutions.

Paul Pribbenow is the oldest child of a Lutheran pastor. “We were transient, moving every three or four years, but we were always surrounded by a community. In retrospect that’s what I most value about the church, to be quite honest. They surrounded us and supported us in a way that’s still the case for families of pastors and which is an abiding aspect of my sense of what is important for how colleges engage their students, faculty, staff and wider publics.”

He went to Luther College “on track to become a pastor and started taking courses in sociology and political science.” Teachers in sociology and political science “opened my eyes to how systems work in the US.” He also got involved in field work with displaced workers in Mason City, Iowa. “I spent a week going door to door, visiting with these families. I often tell this story to students. That was the point I decided I couldn’t be a sociologist, because I couldn’t stay neutral.” Pribbenow went to the University of Chicago to study theology and social ethics, a field where value commitments are not out of order.

In graduate school he helped to develop a curriculum on world hunger for high school kids and worked with them, coming to see the value of experiential education. He also managed the coffee shop at the Divinity School named Swift Kick, whose slogan was “where God drinks coffee.” Such varied experiences led to a question: “If nonprofits are a way our society has decided to live out its most deeply held values and aspirations, whether education or health care or culture or whatever, doesn’t the quality of leadership of those organizations impact how well we can live out those values?”

So he went to work for the University of Chicago’s annual fund, discovering that he had skills in fundraising as well as in administration. He also realized that he believes in institutions. “Institutions can be healthy or dysfunctional,” Pribbenow observes, "and which path they are on makes a huge difference in how well they live out those social values." This realization led to the question shaping his dissertation, how professions can be informed by a broader sense of public good, not ignoring but going beyond narrow economic or instrumental purposes. “I tried to present an alternative way - not to deny the economics of professions but to think about professions and professional education with an epistemological shift away from the dualism of expert-amateur to a more mutual approach.”

In his dissertation he drew on the philosophy and experiences of Jane Addams, the settlement house leader. Realizing that higher education is a crucial vehicle for expressing a public good understanding of profession, he decided to aim at becoming a college president. In 2001 he was selected as president of Rockford College, the Alma Mater of Jane Addams. Pribbenow led the college in a change of its mission to become “Jane Addams' College for the 21st century.” He also got involved in the Campus Compact, the organization of college presidents dedicated to civic engagement.

He was shocked by his early experience as a president. “At my first conference I sat down for lunch with a group of presidents and thought I’m going to be surrounded by people who share my vision of college for the public good. Instead, the conversation was about presidential contracts.” Fifteen years later he still remembers how jolting that was. “In some ways I’ve spent fifteen years trying to convince my colleagues that there is a broader vision for this work.”

Paul Pribbenow came to Augsburg as president in 2006, attracted by the urban location (“though I grew up in small towns I realized I’m a city guy”) and also the college’s rich history of experiential education interwoven with democratic and Pietist themes.

During his ten years at Augsburg the school's composition has dramatically changed – from 18 percent students of color in his first year to nearly 50 percent of the entering class this fall. He sees that as a great opportunity. “Many presidents wring their hands about changing demographics,” he says, “but I see the question as how to be open to the fact that these students and faculty will come in and challenge you to do higher education differently.” Dealing constructively with a changing population means “becoming the face of the new America.”

In the capital campaign the college is beginning Pribbenow and his team are developing the idea of a three dimensional education. “We equip students to make a living - to prepare for a career or profession, We equip them to make a life, developing a sense of meaning and purpose and also agency to make a difference. And we also equip them to build a sense of community. This means fighting the trajectory of the world which is a sense of radical individualism.” Here his view Semper Reformanda comes in. “Here is the idea that makes us different from other liberal arts colleges that do a fine job of educating people to go out and get jobs. Our vision of education is grounded in the concept of vocation. Students may hear a call individually but it’s always a call in relation to the other, where one’s gifts complement another’s gifts. That’s a powerful idea which allows us to tell a story, as we’ve done throughout our history, of a democratic spirit, which is then translated into how people choose to live their lives and do their work in the world."

This suggests a different view of institutions than the widespread distrust of institutions which young people generally have today. “I’m an institution guy,” Pribbenow says. “We are seeking to give our students a way to think about how to work together - about alternative institutional frameworks, the idea that we are better together than we are on our own.”

The Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship has been doing interviews for a book on the youth empowerment initiative called Public Achievement, which we launched from the University of Minnesota in 1990. In Public Achievement, teams of children and teenagers work on a public project of their choice coached by young adults, often college students, who help them learn how to navigate their school or community environment in a politically savvy and effective way. Coaches are consistently inspired by what young people do. But those who become teachers themselves encounter “teaching to the test” and school bureaucracies which often seem impervious to change. I asked Paul about educating Augsburg students to not only aspire to community but to learn the difficult skills needed to make institutions like schools – and many others – more community-minded, democratic, and humane.

He said, “What I love about Public Achievement is that it moves from students diagnosing a problem to moving to solutions and having each others’ back. Even if you’re a leading change agent, you have to find allies. How can we come alongside our students with experiences that help them grow in this way?"

“I hope that we can teach students in systematic ways how to diagnose a problem and look for allies and build coalitions, the kinds of things that will equip them to navigate complex communities. This is what we’re doing with the citizen professional idea at Augsburg,” he said. “With our largest programs being in education and social work and business and nursing, we have a remarkable opportunity to equip people to go into institutions, understanding themselves as having a broader role than simply the technical aspect of work.”

The sense of institutions as in the process of continual change, places that can be co-created, extends to Augsburg itself. Pribbenow has written about Augsburg as a 21st century urban settlement, focusing on how the college is neighbor to its nearby immigrant communities. He also is leading the college in a regional anchor partnership, seeking to find shared value with other institutions and neighborhoods.

A new Augsburg initiative known as Act Six creates cohorts of students who get financial support and special training, and in turn make a commitment to go back into their urban communities and become leaders. Pribbenow tells a story of an African-American sophomore that he and his wife recently invited to their house, with her Act Six cohort.

“She said you guys gave me an opportunity, so I’ll take everything I learn and I promise you that every organization, every part of this institution that I'm a part of, I’ll make it better.”

Far from the entitlement consumer culture that is all too common in higher education, she is an example of students who see themselves as part of the living story of Augsburg.

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