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President Osgood speaks on his journey at Grinnell

The S&B sat down with President Russell K. Osgood to discuss a variety of issues including his time here at Grinnell. What follows is Part II of Osgood’s Q&A. In this week’s edition of the Q&A, Osgood speaks on the changes made to the College—including academic buldings and dorms during his presidency, as well as additional potential revisions to the academic calendar and financial aid.

What were some of your goals when you first came into the college?

I did think the place needed to do better on diversity. There was so much rhetoric and the results were so poor, that was one thing. Second thing, we obviously had a lot of ferment of planning that started actually before I came that revolved around buildings at first and then was also about­—was the curriculum in need of augmentation or change or modernization. I think those were second and third goals. I always thought that this should be a town that contributes to the community in which it exists. A healthier city of Grinnell will be good for Grinnell College and also again it’s the appropriate thing to do. Those were probably the four biggest goals.

It’s interesting, because something came up when you were talking about your goals. In a February piece for Forbes, you advocated for fewer large-scale buildings, yet the college is finishing the construction of a $77 million athletic facility, and during your tenure, there’s been $260 million of construction.

This has been Grinnell’s history. Grinnell is not like a lot of places. We’re not a constant construction zone. We have tended to build a lot of things all at once and then not build very much. When I came in, we had essentially gone 40 years without major construction. We had done two significant projects, when my predecessor was in office. One was to start the Science Center Project, she did about half of it. The other was Bucksbaum—the fine arts center. But our facilities were in need of significant renovation. Why? For one thing, students no longer like to live in quads, so you had to add more residence halls and reduce the number of students in the rooms. I think students are right. You had to add more bathrooms.
The way people live their lives has changed. Most of our residence halls are seventy, eighty, one hundred years old. We had to modernize. A third of the residence halls are not accessible for students with a disability at all. Fourth, our class size has changed dramatically since the close of War II. We used to teach classes of 60. 70. 80. We don’t do that anymore. All of our classes are 25 or less. Our average class size is 16 […] And the shape of them is off. We no longer lecture. Most of it is discussion. Third, a lot of the legal rules, like our athletic center, have changed. Our pool is not long enough, not wide enough, to technically host a competition. Our indoor track cannot be used as an indoor track because of the design of it, which is uncorrectable. It’s too narrow and it encourages people to develop injuries because there is too tight of a turn.
So some of it was necessary. The goal of all of this was not to turn a small town in Iowa into Manhattan, but to make sure that the buildings continue to serve the needs of a residential college of about 1,500 students, and that didn’t change.
I remember one student said to me, at an open forum at the beginning of the residence halls, “Why the heck are we building more residence halls, why are we wasting that money?” So I said “how many people [are] in your freshman room?” and he said “Four,” […] I said what did you think and he said “I wanted to drop out”.
That’s no one’s fault, that’s just how society changes. When I grew up, kids shared bedrooms with their brothers and sisters all of the time. The average student who comes here has some experience, but much less experience, so that reflects itself in the kind of housing.
Having said that, we might do one or two more projects, but I think we’re going to enter a non-building period, and it should go on for a long time. Because we’ve done a lot, and it’s time to step back, not spend money on that. Absorb these new buildings.
What are we doing with our library, should it be bigger, should it be different, should it be replaced? That’s a very expensive project. Two, we need more classroom modernization in ARH and Carnegie, and more sophisticated computational labs.

In your time here, a lot of money has been put toward financial aid as well. Can you tell us why that’s been a focus?

Grinnell’s history was that it wasn’t as well off as it is today. We were not need-blind. And then at some point—probably near the end of George [Drake ‘56]’s presidency—the endowment started to rise, and we started being more generous about financial aid. It’s a set of policies that we now articulate as being need-blind. When I came, those policies were in place—this tremendous consensus for those policies for domestic students. But my observation was that our students were graduating with too many loans, even with those policies. So my own focus has been to try and figure out how to push down the amount of loans, because ideally I think everyone should graduate with undergraduate college with no loans, zero, if I could control the world that’s what I would do.
You have so many choices to make in your life—[such as] graduate school, and you’re going to borrow for that. Or, you might want to go to work for Teach for America and I know you get loan deferral for that, and your life should not be hemmed in by big overhanging loans. So it’s a combination of our history and my own views. And I think it’s a broad community consensus that generous financial aid is a hallmark of this place. [With] international students, it’s more complicated. When I came here, we were covering roughly 50 percemt of the [financial] need of international students. That’s been increasing. But it’s a daunting prospect to cover the full need of all admitted international students and no one does it. We’re one of the few who does it for domestic students. A lot of our peers have jettisoned it in my time—including Oberlin, Carleton, and Macalester—those are our three biggest overlaps, and they‘ve thrown it away.

Talk about Oberlin, Carleton, and Macalester. Two of those three schools’ presidents were recently featured in the Wall Street Journal. As were you—you wrote an admissions essay, which I thought was very important for prospective students trying to get a leg up on the competition— on how to write an essay. I think that did a lot for Grinnell’s national reputation. Why did you make that decision, to write that essay?

We reach out to the national media a lot. We have a media firm in New York that advises us because that’s how people like the two of you make decisions although you may not know. A lot of students say “Oh, I don’t like [public relations] stuff,” so I say “How did you decide to come here?” and they say, “Well, I was reading this book about undergraduate colleges and it sounded like a neat place.”
Well you’re not crazy. We have to be constantly reaching out [to] all media, not just the Wall Street Journal, but digital media, the web, everything, to say, “Well, this is a neat place, if you want to come. It isn’t necessarily for everybody.” So when this opportunity came up I immediately wrote about it.

In the Forbes article I mentioned earlier, I also noticed this “three-segment academic calendar” idea. We’ve talked a little bit about financial aid and about your belief that students should graduate with no loans. To make that a more feasible idea, maybe the three-segment calendar would help us graduate earlier. Would you like to elaborate on why that would be beneficial and the specifics?

Let me just say that the president in places like this does not set the calendar, generally. It is mainly a faculty responsibility. I am not convinced, I’ll just be honest, that two fourteen-week semesters is the best way to deliver the education, forget whether it would save money, just educationally. Now, every place I’ve taught at has used the fourteen-week segment. I have done accreditation reviews at places like the University of Chicago, which has the three segments, and I’m pretty impressed with it. I would like this place to consider the calendar. If I were president still, I would not be able to and would not want to dictate the solution. But I would shorten the academic year, I think we’re here too long, I think the winter break is too long; i think it should be a substantial break but not as long as it is now. I’m not convinced we should have a two-week break in the spring. And I would look hard at, should we have a trimester approach?
But it has strong opponents, typically; interestingly I’m lead to believe in the sciences, who like the fourteen-week system better. But in the courses I’ve taught in history and political science, I think shorter courses might be a better option.

Is this something you would recommend to Dr. Kington? I know you told him coming in that you wouldn’t necessarily tell him to pinpoint that issue.

Here’s my view of college presidents—I don’t think you should stay in office for too long. I think you have a lot of power when you’re in office, and I think it’s great when someone new comes in with all new ideas. No one will ever hear what I say to Dr. Kington. And I will be honest with you, I’m not going to press him hard “do this do that.” I don’t think that’s how the system should work. I think he should come in, should listen to you guys, educate himself. He brings a whole set of life experiences different than mine, and that’s fantastic. He’s a doctor and I’m a lawyer, that’s fantastic. He’s African-American, I’m not, that’s fantastic. It would be presumptuous of me, if he called me up and said “Russell, there’s this guy named Marcus who’s driving me crazy, tell me about Marcus,” I would respond to that sort of thing, but I would be unlikely to tell him, “you should do this.” and by the way if anyone ever calls me after he decides something and says “do you think that’s a terrible idea?” you’ll never hear me say a critical word about Dr. Kington. My job is to support him completely.

Look out for the final part of this epic interview in next week’s edition of the S&B.

-Interview conducted by Marcus Eagan and Eliza-Eve Leas

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