In her first few months as St. Olaf College’s 12th president, Susan Rundell Singer traveled to the United Nations Headquarters in New York to participate in a summit exploring how colleges and universities can support sustainable development.
She welcomed Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre to campus, where he celebrated the college’s longstanding ties to Norway and spoke to students in political science, economics, and Norwegian classes about pressing global issues.
She joined presidents from other Lutheran colleges and universities across the country for a seminar focused on academic excellence, innovative leadership, and the shared values of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) community.
And she threw out the first pitch at a Minnesota Twins baseball game dedicated to celebrating St. Olaf.
Yet when Rundell Singer reflects on some of the most meaningful interactions from these early days of her presidency, she points to much simpler moments: welcoming hundreds of new students and their families to campus on a warm September weekend, chatting with colleagues while waiting for a slice of pumpkin bread at the campus coffee shop, and meeting dozens of St. Olaf alumni in Denver who volunteered to share their insight with current students as part of a career center program. These interactions, she says, underscore the key strength of St. Olaf — its people.
“I was drawn to St. Olaf not only by a deep admiration for the college’s academic excellence and global engagement, but also by its exceptional sense of community,” Rundell Singer says.
The experiences she has leaned into during these first few months on the Hill highlight the power of that intersection where the strength of the St. Olaf community meets the world’s most pressing needs. A leader in study abroad, St. Olaf challenges students to examine global issues from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives. The college’s career center is among the best in the nation in helping students discern their vocation. St. Olaf is one of the few colleges in the country that meets the full demonstrated financial need of every student it admits, ensuring that students from a diverse range of backgrounds have access to a powerful liberal arts education. And the college is guided by a set of contemporary Lutheran values — inclusivity, pluralism, living life on purpose for the common good, and caring for each other and the Earth — that Rundell Singer says serve as its north star.
“We have an amazing foundation and 150 years of momentum behind us. We know who we are. We know that we can be committed to academic freedom, we can be committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we can be a place where deep conversations about all faith traditions take place — and we know that all of those elements are mutually reinforcing,” Rundell Singer says. “That’s a combination that many institutions don’t have.”
“We have an amazing foundation and 150 years of momentum behind us. We know who we are. We know that we can be committed to academic freedom, we can be committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we can be a place where deep conversations about all faith traditions take place — and we know that all of those elements are mutually reinforcing.”
President Susan Rundell Singer
As her work gets underway as St. Olaf’s first new president in 17 years and the first woman to lead the college, Rundell Singer is eager to build on that foundation and sharpen the college’s focus on preparing students to be leaders in contributing to solutions in a new era of global challenges.
“We face pressing issues — racial and economic inequities, health disparities, energy needs, food insecurity, a climate crisis, and threats to civil society. It will take all the wisdom and courage we can muster to create a better tomorrow,” Rundell Singer says. “These issues can’t be solved by one discipline. The solutions have to be coordinated across disciplines, incorporating a diverse range of viewpoints. And that’s exactly what we teach students to do here, which is amazing. St. Olaf is positioned to prepare students to be the solution seekers for the pressing issues of our time.”
And Rundell Singer is built for the type of leadership needed to take St. Olaf into the future, Rollins College President Grant Cornwell told the hundreds of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community leaders who filled Skoglund Auditorium for her presidential inauguration ceremony on October 11.
Rundell Singer came to St. Olaf after serving as provost at Rollins for seven years, where Cornwell said she was one of the best leaders he has ever seen occupy that role. He highlighted her commitment to equity, which he noted was bolstered as she earned her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctoral degree in biology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute during a time when she was often the only woman in her courses and labs. He praised her commitment to outstanding teaching and research, noting that she was a prolific scholar during her 30-year career at Carleton College. And he emphasized the power of her collaborative leadership style, which was on full display when she directed the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation, where she led and integrated the work of 14 federal agencies.
“Susan is the epitome of a servant leader who enters every space, every situation, every relationship fostering authentic collaboration,” Cornwell says. “Everything Susan does, everything Susan is, is motivated by her commitment to student learning.”
That commitment is something that Lee Zia saw firsthand in his role as the deputy division director for the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation — a role that Rundell Singer was instrumental in helping him obtain when she became the director of the division.
“Susan already had a national reputation as a leader in undergraduate science education by that time, but she was very encouraging to me and was truly a thought partner,” Zia says. Together they worked to advance innovative programming and partnerships at NSF that are still in place today. “Whether it’s working with students, or leading a policy discussion at NSF, or partnering with the National Academies to create a study, she’s a very, very fast synthesizer of information. She has this unique ability to connect people and priorities.”
Rollins College Vice President for Institutional Advancement Laurie Houck says Rundell Singer’s ability to think in terms of networks is one of her strongest leadership qualities.
“She has this kind of magical ability to think broadly and connect people with ideas, but then delve deeply into the idea itself and think about how to create something that ultimately benefits the student,” Houck says, noting that this ability played a key role in developing relationships with foundations and friends of the college at Rollins. “Whether it’s public scholarship or community engagement with a curricular component, she knows how to think outside the box, but then bring the idea back to the box that is the institution.”
“She is insatiably curious, and her leadership style combines that with deep intelligence, empathy, and an awareness of how to create something where the whole is bigger and more successful than the parts.”
Rollins College Vice President for Institutional Advancement Laurie Houck
Heidi Schweingruber, the director of the Board on Science Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, has known and worked with Rundell Singer for nearly two decades. She says Rundell Singer is both deeply collaborative and someone willing to take decisive action and own her decisions.
“She has great ideas and also openly invites ideas from other people and will integrate them into her thinking,” Schweingruber says. “She’s genuinely excited about the world and the work, and she cares about people’s well-being.”
All of these skills and strengths are the reason the St. Olaf Board of Regents unanimously selected Rundell Singer to serve as St. Olaf’s 12th president this May.
“Her dedication to fostering an environment where collaboration and critical thinking flourish aligns precisely with our commitment to develop and prepare students of character to lead lives of substance,” Board Chair Susan Gunderson ’79 said as she welcomed attendees to the inauguration ceremony and led the formal installation of Rundell Singer as president. “Dr. Singer is known for her approachability, her genuine concern for the well-being of students, faculty, and staff, and her commitment to diversity and inclusion. She believes in the power of education to transform lives. We are excited to work alongside her to build on our strong success to shape an even brighter future for St. Olaf College.”
Watch highlights from President Susan Rundell Singer’s inauguration ceremony below.