After overseeing unprecedented growth at Augustana College, and serving as one of the region’s leading Quad-Citizens, Steven Bahls is ready to step down and take a step back. On Thursday, June 30, he will retire as Augustana’s president to make way for incoming President Andrea Talentino, who assumes the role on Friday, July 1. Mr. […]
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After overseeing unprecedented growth at Augustana College, and serving as one of the region’s leading Quad-Citizens, Steven Bahls is ready to step down and take a step back.
On Thursday, June 30, he will retire as Augustana’s president to make way for incoming President Andrea Talentino, who assumes the role on Friday, July 1. Mr. Bahls, who joined the college in 2003, is not leaving campus completely, however. He will continue to teach classes at the Rock Island college.
“I started my academic career 37 years ago teaching and writing, and I am lucky to have a chance to end my academic career in the same way,” Mr. Bahls told the QCBJ. “Interaction with students keeps me young in spirit and optimistic about our future. Augustana students, in particular, are a high-achieving bunch, and they have shaped me in many ways over the past two decades, and I look forward to that continuing.”
Mr. Bahl’s commitment to the students, the college and the Quad Cities community he chose to call home for nearly 20 years are apparent in the historic changes that have taken place in both over the years.
During his tenure, for example, Augustana has seen a $150 million campus building boom; expanded its courses and programs; grown and diversified its student population; expanded student opportunities; and raised record amounts of money for scholarships. Under Mr. Bahls’ leadership, the college also increased enrollment by 10% and grew the faculty by 13%.
At the same time, Mr. Bahls took on critical community leadership roles including with the Illowa Council of Boy Scouts of America, Putnam Museum & Science Center and the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce. His roles with the chamber and other organizations designed to strengthen the region have been especially transformational in the Quad Cities.
“While Steve, Kent Pilcher and I were serving as Tri-Chairs of Q2030, the community embraced the term ‘Quad Citizen,’” said Joe Slavens, president & CEO at Northwest Bank & Trust Co., Davenport. “As the president of a highly respected liberal arts college, it is not surprising that Steve’s approach to Quad Citizenship looks a great deal like citizenship in ancient Athens. Why? Because Steve has leaned into the duties of citizenship rather than leaning on its rights.”
“He has been an active and respectful participant in public debate. Pulling us together rather than pushing us apart. He has taught so many so much while always remaining a student,” Mr. Slavens added.
“Inside the region, he has regularly and effectively assumed a wide variety of volunteer leadership roles. Outside our region, he has continually advocated on our behalf; all this for the benefit of the Quad Cities region. We are cooler and more creative, connected and prosperous because of Steve. Best of all, he has challenged the Quad Cities to become even better. How do we do that? In my opinion, by every Quad Citizen modeling their community engagement after Steve’s.”
For Mr. Bahls, that community involvement has been a labor of love.
What first attracted you to Augustana College and the Quad Cities?
After serving as a law professor at the University of Montana School of Law, I joined Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, as its dean. Both Capital and Augustana have Lutheran affiliations, so I knew about Augustana’s reputation for quality. I grew up in Des Moines, so I also knew the Quad Cities. When the opportunity to serve as Augustana’s eighth president came up, I jumped at it.
What were your first impressions of the college and the community? How do they compare to your view as a Quad Citizen today?
I knew the reputation of Augustana as a national liberal arts college, but did not fully appreciate how that reputation was made – through deeply committed faculty and a talented administrative team, innovative programs designed to meet students where they are and a wonderful relationship with the Quad Cities community that provides students internships and other opportunities to study outside of Augustana.
I remembered the Quad Cities from visits with my family in the 1970s and 1980s. I was surprised how the Quad Cities had rebounded from those difficult times and become a more diverse economy. I was also surprised with the deep optimism and can-do attitude of the community.
What are you proudest of during your time at Augustana College?
I am most proud that Augustana provides substantially more financial aid than ever, which means Augustana is affordable for more families. The increase in affordability has allowed Augustana to recruit a much more diverse class, including large numbers of outstanding international students.
When I came to Augustana, I could fit the new international students around my dining room table, and our U.S.-born students of color in my living room. This coming year we expect those two groups to exceed 300 students.
Augustana has expanded its presence and increased community partnerships. Was that by design, and why?
I made closer connections with the community a top priority, because Augustana needs a strong Quad Cities and the Quad Cities needs a strong Augustana. Augustana students have benefited from thousands of local internships, allowing them to apply their education at Augustana in practice settings. The Quad Cities play an essential role in preparing Augustana’s graduates to hit the ground running.
You have taken a leadership role in community and regional initiatives. Why?
I’ve gotten so heavily involved in community work because I love the Quad Cities.
When I came to the Quad Cities 19 years ago, it seemed like Iowa and Illinois were competing with each other to the detriment of both. Business can more easily thrive with a strong region, and having one that’s siloed into two states and multiple municipalities puts the brakes on business. Identifying as a region, and not as individual cities, allows us to think bigger for the benefit of both sides of the river.
What is your Rx for working in the future toward more cooperation and less parochialism?
Business leaders, as well as city leaders, have shown their firm commitment to regionalism. But it would be easy to backslide and start fighting over business relocation. Business and government leaders must hold each other accountable to regionalism. A good first step would be to develop a stronger riverfront development plan where each city’s unique assets can be showcased, yet connected with the region.
What are the most challenging causes you’ve undertaken? What are you proudest of accomplishing?
Within the community, taking a lead role in merging the chambers of commerce was the most challenging. But thanks to so many visionary leaders who agreed to take a risk in rethinking how chambers work, the community fully invested itself in a combined chamber that has made regionalism possible.
At Augustana, the largest challenge has been to raise the funds (over $320 million) to keep Augustana affordable to all students. Augustana alumni and the Quad Cities community believe in higher education accessibility and have made our fundraising campaigns successful.
Do you intend to stay involved in the community?
I’ll take a step or two back to make way for new leadership, but I do intend to stay involved in the community where I can make a difference.
What does Steve and (wife and partner) Jane Bahls’ next act look like?
Jane and I will split our time between Montana (the state with the best natural resources) and the Quad Cities (the region with the best human resources). I will teach at Augustana (the Art of Fundraising), complete the second edition of my book on higher education governance and help mentor higher education leaders. And I will spend more time with my eight grandchildren.
Is there anything we haven’t asked or other points you’d like to make?
Am I optimistic about the future of the Quad Cities? Absolutely, I am. The pipeline of strong, diverse leaders is full of graduates from Augustana and other area institutions who believe the Quad Cities can be better and have the drive, dedication and grit to do their part to advance the work of my generation.
Am I optimistic about the future of Augustana? Augustana’s best days are ahead. Our new President Andrea Talentino, has a proven record of commitment to outstanding student outcomes, innovation, and justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.