Augustana Mourns Loss of Dr. Art Olsen

Dr. Arthur (Art) Olsen, professor emeritus of philosophy and religion and former provost, passed away on Sunday, May 4, in Sioux Falls. He was 85. During his tenure, Olsen served Augustana for more than 40 years and remained a dedicated advocate for the College even after his retirement. 

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday, May 26, at Our Savior's Lutheran Church with private burial at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Olsen earned his undergraduate degree from St. Olaf College, went on to receive a bachelor's degree in theology from Luther Theological Seminary and a doctorate in theology from Harvard Divinity School. He later served as a visiting scholar at both Harvard and Stanford universities.

He first joined Augustana in 1956. While pursuing his doctoral studies at Harvard, he took a part-time position teaching speech at MIT from 1957-1960. He then re-joined the College and served until his retirement in 1996.

Appointed by former Augustana President Dr. Bill Nelsen, from 1985-1990 Olsen served as Augustana's first Chair of Religion and Values (later named the Stanley L. Olsen Chair of Moral Values), a position made possible thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. At the same time, Olsen also assumed the post of chief coordinator/implementer of Augustana's general education curriculum, as the new curriculum moved toward implementation.

The son of Norwegian immigrants, Olsen served as a champion for sharing the Norwegian culture and heritage, organizing Norwegian language camps for children on campus, founding the annual Nordland Festival in 1975, and preserving Heritage Park, a collection of historic Great Plains buildings dating from the late 19th to early 20th century, located on campus.

Olsen was particularly active in developing and teaching courses related to questions of value. He served as director of Capstone, encouraging and supporting the development of Capstone courses as part of Augustana's General Education, and chaired the committee that helped define the College's five Core Values: Christian, Liberal Arts, Excellence, Community and Service.

During the 1990 Convocation, Olsen shared a message titled "How Then Shall We Live: A Household Perspective on Moral Issues" in which he reflected on the notion of morality:

"... the ongoing concern of Augustana College, to encourage all of us to pull together what we learn and teach in relationship to the question, 'How then shall we live?'... Do the challenges to the possibility to moral discourse make it meaningless to ask? Let us examine two of the challenges today, relativism and emotivism. For relativists, the question as stated is not capable of a meaningful answer because it assumes a common ethical ground, when in fact common ground is not possible. There are only individual grounds, individual rights, at most I might ask 'How then shall I live?' Many years ago, Protagorus made the case for relativism when he argued, that a man is the measure of all things. If true, then there cannot be collective answers, but only individual answers to this question. This is the challenge of relativism. If we accept the assumptions of relativism, than we cannot invite people to serious moral reflection without fear of imposing our biases on others or exposing ourselves to those biases of others. At best we can be neutral and acknowledge the validity of all positions. We can compare them, but not make judgments."

"...I do believe it is a noble project worth nourishing, and I can't help but think that Stanley L. Olsen would be pleased to know that his concern that we design programs to encourage students to see the relationship between what they believe and their personal and social integrity, and to integrate all of their learning, has borne fruit in this household approach to that important household question, 'How then shall we live?'"