The end of an era

PLU's campus

Photo: John Froschauer/PLU
Pacific Lutheran University was founded by Norwegian immigrants in 1890 in the Parkland neighborhood of Tacoma, Wash.

After decades, Nordic Studies program begins its final year at Pacific Lutheran University

Assistant Editor
The Norwegian American

At the end of March, Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma, Wash., concluded a months-long review of its academic programs. The final decisions by the Board of Regents resulted in the elimination of two majors, three minors, and a master’s program, which alongside other cuts will equate to about 36 full-time-equivalent positions. Among the programs cut are the Nordic Studies major and minor.

The elimination of the Nordic Studies program is a major cut at PLU, where Norwegian language and study of the Nordic region have been taught for several decades. The program will remain through the 2021 – 2022 academic year, so the current majors and minors can complete their degrees, but beginning in fall 2022, it will no longer be possible to take Nordic Studies or Norwegian language courses.

“[This decision] has dramatically altered the study of Norway and the Nordic region at PLU,” said Troy Storfjell, professor of Nordic Studies and director of the Scandinavian Cultural Center (SCC) at PLU. “All that will be left on the academic side are a few remnants from my 25 years of teaching in the field.”

This decision comes after several years of financial challenges for PLU and other small colleges and universities across the country. Currently, the higher education landscape is facing substantial demographic shifts, with a contraction in undergraduate populations. In the last 10 years, PLU has seen a 16% decline in traditional undergraduate enrollment, and this decrease is expected to accelerate over the next several years in accordance with dips in the birthrate following the 2008 recession.

rune stones at PLU marking royal visits

Photo: John Froschauer/PLU
PLU has been honored by several visits from Norwegian royalty. These visits are memorialized on a set of metal rune stones in the middle of campus.

Part of the university’s approach to the academic review is to prepare for the ramifications of these demographic shifts in advance to preserve PLU and its liberal arts foundation. However, the COVID-19 pandemic also plays a significant a role in these decisions. The webpage for the joint-faculty committee that undertook the academic review states, “Universities nationwide are facing rising costs, decreasing revenue, and a smaller pool of applicants. COVID-19 has certainly accelerated our need for a long-term solution, and there is reason to imagine that the pandemic may change the immediate plans of students who would otherwise be college-going…”

But alongside these major shifts in the higher education landscape sits a question of curriculum. “With the rising costs of tuition, students are less likely to take courses they don’t need for their majors, and fewer and fewer of them end up in our classes,” said Storfjell. There is no language requirement for students at PLU, and without the certainty that students will be in those classes, language programs have suffered the most in budget cuts. Alongside the Nordic Studies program, the German and Classics programs have been discontinued as well.

a rune stone with the following carving "Visit of HM King Harald V of Norway, May 23, 2015"

Photo: John Froschauer/PLU
In May 2015, King Harald made a visit to PLU.

With language learning not being prioritized, students miss out on important academic experiences. The benefits of learning another language go far beyond learning to communicate, though that in and of itself is incredibly useful.

“You also learn about the cultures that use the language, about your own native language, and the very nature of language as a meaning making system,” said Storfjell. “Learning a second language is a great way to de-center English and expose yourself to the real diversity of human experience as mediated by and encoded in different linguistic systems. It is an incredibly important intellectual activity and one that everyone benefits from.”

With the changes to the academic offerings, Storfjell will be teaching in the Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) program, an interdisciplinary program he helped create as a Sámi scholar, starting in fall 2022. “I will include some Nordic texts and films that I have taught or researched in my new courses, and one of my old courses—Sámi Film and the Indigenous North—will be transferred to the NAIS Program, where it will continue,” Storfjell explained.

He hopes that a few of his colleagues who had previously taught courses in the Nordic Studies department will incorporate Nordic materials in their courses. “But,” he notes, “that is no replacement for a major. This really is the end of an era.”

Along with his movement to teaching in the NAIS program, Storfjell has also become the director of the SCC. “The good news is that the SCC is still here, and it will take up the mantel of examining the university’s Norwegian/Nordic heritage and its ethical implications,” said Storfjell. “And the ethical implications are key. We don’t simply want to uncritically celebrate all things Norwegian or Nordic. Instead, the SCC will work to help the PLU community wrestle with questions like, ‘What does it mean to be a university founded by Norwegian settlers on Indigenous land and serving a diverse community?’ and ‘What sorts of responsibilities and obligations does PLU have because of this history?’ … Who we are and where we are matter, and our history comes with responsibilities and obligations.”

Viking ship prow at PLU

Photo: John Froschauer/PLU
A Viking ship prow is one of PLU’s prominent pieces of art, a reminder of the university’s roots.

While these questions will guide the SCC’s work, they will also keep exploring and learning about the Scandinavian region. “And there’s a lot to learn,” said Storfjell. “For one thing, the Nordic region is much more diverse than people imagine. In addition to the five states, there are three autonomous regions and two Indigenous peoples—Sámi and Kalaallit (Greenlanders). There are also a large number of ‘historical’ ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, as well as a vibrant multicultural population including more recent immigrants from around the world and their descendants. The Nordic region isn’t just white and Lutheran.”

Though there is much change going on at PLU, there are still educational opportunities for students who are interested in Scandinavia. PLU has three semester study abroad programs in Norway (Oslo, Bø, and Vestfold). These programs cater to students from a range of disciplines, from political science to business, global studies to kinesiology. PLU also partners with programs at the International Summer School in Oslo and at DIS Copenhagen, both of which have many modes of study as well. Students on campus are very lucky that Storfjell will remain at PLU with the SCC and as a professor in the NAIS program. There is still much for both students and the wider PLU community to learn about the Nordic region and Nordic heritage, and he will continue to guide these discussions from his new positions.

“As a Sámi scholar, I am grateful to be able to continue teaching in an area that is so important to me. I believe that Indigenous studies are absolutely essential as a bare minimum for any university situated on Indigenous land,” said Storfjell. “But I am also sad that my time teaching in Norwegian and Nordic Studies is coming to an end. I have been so fortunate to teach hundreds of wonderful students at six universities during my time in this field … though I know my time of interacting with outstanding students is far from over. There just will be a lot fewer vocabulary quizzes.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Courtney Olsen

Courtney Olsen is a writer based in Tacoma, Wash. She is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and the University of Oxford in England and has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2020. A historical fiction enthusiast, she spends her free time working through her ever-growing reading list with a cup of tea in hand.