Renewing faith & vision: Lessons of leadership

By Jenny Collins ’05

(This article originally appeared in the fall 2006 issue of the Pilot, the magazine of University of Northwestern.)

In the 1939 classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Sen. Jefferson Smith, played by actor Jimmy Stewart, filibusters himself to exhaustion and makes a final plea with the senate: “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for!” He determines to go down fighting, rather than give up on what appears to be a lost cause.

There was a time when University of Northwestern was almost a lost cause.

In 1965, newly appointed president of Northwestern Dr. William Berntsen assumed a college with financial struggles and a chance that its Minneapolis campus doors could close for good. One year into his presidency, he made a radical, but necessary decision and in 1966 Northwestern all but closed its doors, continuing to offer just a limited number of evening classes.

But Dr. Berntsen and a dedicated group of alumni, trustees, donors and friends were determined to establish a “New Northwestern.”

And the fact that you are reading this right now shows that they succeeded. If it weren’t for dedicated followers of God with vision, determination and a commitment to prayer, University of Northwestern would simply be a memory, a faded page in a chapter of history.

It is a reality because of the never-say-die leadership of Dr. Berntsen, or “Dr. B,” as he was known to students. His task was ensuring the rebirth of a school, but he accomplished more than that. He left a model that good leadership qualities are practices of a lifestyle, not tasks of a job description. And they are qualities necessary for any leader, at any time, in any situation.

Good leaders are inspired

Beryl Berntsen said her husband’s inspiration for remaining committed to bringing Northwestern back to life came from Roger Youderian ’50 and the sacrifice of the other four men martyred in Ecuador in 1956.

“Roger Youderian had sung in my husband’s choir,” said Mrs. Berntsen. “When the board offered this school to Bill, he looked at Roger’s picture, and the tears streamed down his cheeks and he pointed to Roger and said, ‘That’s the reason Northwestern is not going to die.’”

Today Youderian’s picture hangs in the Youderian Lounge as a testimony to how the sacrifice of one inspired many.

Good leaders fight

Even the local papers thought Northwestern was destined to fail. During the summer of 1967, a Twin Cities newspaper headline referred to Northwestern as “defunct.” As a struggling school, Northwestern had many challenges to overcome, but Northwestern’s leadership and administration were committed to fight for a successful outcome.

Like any challenge in life, it takes courage to fight against the tide, to close your ears to the naysayers and pray, sometimes for something small as the faith to continue. But good leaders continue to see the big picture and fight for it, rather than flee from it.

Good leaders cast vision

During the season without a school, Dr. Berntsen continually made the “Call for a School” and wrote, “The College is needed just as surely today as it was in the days of Riley.” His writings are intentionally peppered with faith, optimism, perseverance and enthusiasm. He encouraged hope and built a sense of community, ultimately leading to the rebirth of Northwestern.

When he accepted the presidency, Dr. Berntsen assumed problems that became his to solve. It can be easy, even for leaders, to fall into the blame game and complain about circumstances, but good leaders daily choose to cast a vision rather than stones.

Good leaders remain flexible

The plan to rebuild Northwestern was to literally build a new college. In 1968 the administration purchased 117 acres of land in Plymouth to build the school. But in December 1969, as the architects proceeded with their designs and the talks with city planners came together, Dr. Berntsen received what would eventually lead to the future of Northwestern: a letter from former trustee Rev. William Murk ’26. Attached to the letter was an astonishing P.S.: Bill, I understand that a Roman Catholic Seminary on North Snelling Avenue may be closed. I know nothing about specifics of the buildings, the terms of availability, or even if it will actually be available, but it occurs to me you should investigate the property to determine whether Northwestern could indeed make use of it and, if so, make contact with their officials.

Although Berntsen records that he “took a drive through the Nazareth Hall property during the Christmas holiday in 1969,” he didn’t think it significant at the time. But on June 22, 1970, the Village of Plymouth determined suddenly that they did not want a college on the previously purchased land.

That’s when serious negotiations began on acquiring the vacant Nazareth Hall campus. Berntsen recorded that the first meeting with the trustees of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the owners of the building, took place the morning of June 23, 1970, at 8 a.m. at the Capitol Square Holiday Inn, in St. Paul.

The meeting proved fruitful and negotiations ultimately led to the purchase on November 23, 1970, of all land, buildings and equipment of Nazareth Hall for a total purchase price of nearly $2.6 million.

Finally, on September 25, 1972, classes began for the first time on the Roseville campus. With 220 students entering, it was the largest incoming student body since 1951.

When God closed one door, He opened a campus. Good leaders remain open to the surprising will of God.

Good leaders are human

Before his death in 1990, Dr. Berntsen described his first six presidential years as “demanding, difficult, lonely, sometimes extremely frustrating and disappointing. Have you ever tried raising money for a school that wasn’t there?”

That he wrestled with such emotions reminds us that even the most God-fearing of leaders are still human, not God.

Good leaders follow

The greatest leaders are the ones who decide to follow God’s leading.

“I had to pray it through and so did Bill,” said Mrs. Berntsen of the decision her husband made to assume leadership of Northwestern. “And God kept us here, and look what He did. It’s a beautiful story really. One of faith. In this, there is a lesson. To believe God.”

She shares that she and her husband, along with many others, were in constant prayer for Northwestern. And their prayers were often answered in the most unusual way.

She recalled many “miracle answers to prayer.” Especially when it came to finances.

“God causes things to happen. He brings a person. He brings a letter. He brings a check. Mrs. [Rose] Totino started by giving $1,000 and (she ended up giving) over $4 million.”

Even in its time of transition, the leadership of Northwestern never lost their commitment to excellence and their vision for the future.

Today under President Alan Cureton, Northwestern is following God into a new era in Christian higher education—by teaching and reaching the next generation for Christ. The “New Northwestern” that the past leadership fought for thrives as a Christ-centered institution, committed to academic excellence and enriching community.

The story of Northwestern reminds us that there will always be pivotal moments in life when circumstances, the voices around us and plain old common sense say to just accept the facts and move on.

But good leaders don’t just listen to “common sense.” They seek the leadership of the One who makes all things possible.

Jenny Collins is a 2005 graduate of University of Northwestern and is a communications specialist in Office of Marketing & Communications and co-editor for the Pilot magazine.