Meet Bob Otterson the 12th President of Oak Grove
This past May, Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo named Bob Otterson as its 12th president following his four months as Oak Grove’s interim president. The school’s Board of Regents Chair, Sherri Thomsen, was quoted in a press release from the institution stating:
“Mr. Otterson has shown the leadership style that we were told to expect from him—strategic, participatory, people-oriented, empowering, communicative and certainly forthright, to use one of his words. His knowledge and expertise in advancement and focused leadership in education have been demonstrated in recent weeks at Oak Grove Lutheran School. The board has been energized by his work since January.”
We sat down for a quick Q&A with the new President.
Did you ever envision yourself stepping into a role like this?
I grew up as a teacher’s kid in Marshall, Minnesota. When I started high school, as a ninth grader, my dad was on one end of the building and my mother was on the other end of the building. So being in an educational setting is just a fit for me. I came out of college with a degree in communications and journalism. And I went to work at two daily newspapers in southern Minnesota and then had an opportunity to go to work at a university in the public information office. I have invested most of my career in public higher education from there.
Did you fall in love with the academic setting immediately after transitioning from journalism?
First of all, those of us who have grown up in educational households—we teacher’s kids, have an understanding of education and a comfort level with being in an educational environment more so than some other people do. My path to educational administration started as a staff member in a university relations office. And then I went to graduate school and had an opportunity to teach as a graduate assistant in journalism and communication, and then wound up taking on leadership roles in the private sector, nonprofit sector and then back into an educational environment. And I worked my way up from there. If you are a believer in the Clifton Strengths assessments, one of my strengths is that I’m a learner. That means I’m somebody who finds interest in one aspect of my work, or my life, which then leads to interest in another area. That has very much reflected my career path. Working in a university relations office, I discovered the importance of alumni relations and fundraising at a university and how those tie into a mission.
Bob Otterson’s Career at a Glance
- Former President/CEO of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota
- Former Director of Philanthropy and Mission Innovation with the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
- Former higher education positions include: University Chief of Staff. Vice President for Advancement Director of Marketing and Communications and Director of Development
- 2020 CASE District VI Distinguished Service Award honoree.
- Holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Augustana University
- Holds a master’s degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from South Dakota State University
- Completed course work for a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of South Dakota
- Twice elected as president of Lutheran congregations in neighboring states
- Over 25 years of experience in education
“Being in an educational environment, like Oak Grove, where we have children from preschool through 12th grade with parents who are engaged in their education, just feels like a natural place for me to be.”
How do you think not going directly into the academic track prepared you for it?
That’s a good question. In most educational settings, whether it’s an independent school like Oak Grove, or a college or university, the people in the highest leadership positions usually came up through a teaching path. For me, I was able to work with a lot of constituent groups, whether that’s alumni or whether that’s donors or even working in marketing communications with mainstream media, to work on messaging and sharing the stories of where I was working through media channels. I have developed an appreciation for a college or university or a school as a whole. I was able to look beyond a certain academic department or a certain academic program and see a broader picture. That has been influential for me.
And why do you think Oak Grove is the right fit for you for your next stop?
Oak Grove is what’s called an independent school because it operates independently, for the most part, from the public school districts. Independent schools share some characteristics with colleges and universities. So my nearly 25 years of a career invested in public higher education translates to a place like Oak Grove. First of all, we operate in an environment where the students and their families want to be a part of Oak Grove. Oak Grove is a school of choice. Families and students choose to be here. Oak Grove is a school of choice for teachers. The retention of our faculty from last year is about 94%.
And Oak Grove has this wonderful story that, in itself, reflects history in the Red River Valley. Oak Grove started in 1906 as the Oak Grove Lutheran Ladies Seminary, a high school for girls 14 years before their mothers could vote. That’s pretty remarkable. This school has survived and thrived through two world wars, two global pandemics, three or more conflicts in Asia and numerous 100-year and 500-year floods of the Red River. So, Oak Grove truly is resilient. Another aspect of Oak Grove that appeals to me is the school’s mission. It really focuses on nurturing students in academics, faith and service. And parts of that mission haven’t changed in 100 and some years. You can go back to the school’s catalog in 1908 and it talks about providing a Christian education for girls and power for good in the home, school, church or community at that time. I’m a lifelong Lutheran and I have always had this awareness of this special place that Oak Grove is within the education community.
Now, obviously, the mission hasn’t changed, but the ways of trying to achieve that mission as best as possible have evolved over time. What do you plan to do differently than your predecessor? And what do you plan to do to maintain the high level of academics that the school has come to be known for?
Let me take this in a bit of a different direction. Oak Grove has been accredited continuously since 1926 by Cognia and its predecessor organizations. Accreditation for schools like Oak Grove assures parents and students [that the school has] the quality of the curriculum, the quality of instruction and the quality of educational environment necessary for success.
No independent school in South Dakota or North Dakota has been accredited as long as Oak Grove has. That speaks to the academic rigor of the school. Our student’s standardized test scores on North Dakota exams are higher across the board than the state average in every area. And that is an expectation at Oak Grove.
For those of our readers that might be unfamiliar with faith based learning environments, can you give them a little insight into what that looks like at Oak Grove?
The mission very simply states that Oak Grove nurtures students for academic achievement, Christian commitment and service to others. What that means at Oak Grove is that our curriculum, particularly for high school students, meets the standards that are expected out of any school in North Dakota. Part of that also includes a course in Christian studies every year and the expectation that you participate in our daily chapel and also in service to other people.
When we were scheduling photos for this, you insisted that you be photographed with your family. How important are they to you?
Absolutely very important. My wife Lisa and I have three children. Our son Paul, a graduate of South Dakota State University, works as a process engineer at Daktronics. Our daughter Maret is a graduate student in Communication Sciences at the University of North Dakota. And our daughter, Ingrid, is a student at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Both Lisa and I have invested most of our careers in education and we have always seen that [it] is a natural environment for our children. As I said earlier, I’ve been raised as a teacher’s kid, so it’s a fit for me. And we realize it with our own children, just as we do working with students at Oak Grove, or around students at colleges or universities, that each child, each young adult is different. Each of our three children have common experiences growing up but each also has his or her own strengths, his or her own interests and his or her own passions. And it’s just a delight for us to watch our children learn to understand those and find those interests and passions.
Do you think your experiences as a father have helped mold how you view the academic environment?
In part. I grew up as a teacher’s kid. I have an awareness of what happened at that time and I remember what high school was like for me. I’ve invested most of my career in public higher education, as has my wife. Because of that, we have experiences as parents that in some ways have been molded by our experiences as professionals. And in other ways, those experiences, as a professional, have been molded by our experiences as parents.
What are some of your hobbies?
Like a lot of parents, I enjoyed my time with my children as they were growing up and doing their various events— whether that was music, sports or church-related activities. Family time and travel are big for me. Outside of that, I enjoy being outside and taking part in activities—whether that’s biking or golf, my days of playing basketball are well behind me. My wife and I enjoy traveling and trying new restaurants. I enjoy checking out the regional history around places as well.
You said you’re a lifelong Lutheran- was there any point in your life where religion began to take on an increased importance?
That’s a great question. In addition to being a lifelong Lutheran, I would say that anyone working in a faith-based environment would tell you that it only strengthens his or her own faith. This happens because an environment like this provides an opportunity to think about one’s faith front and center every day as our students do and an opportunity to work around others who have similar perspectives
What are you most excited about for the school year starting?
Students, having students on campus! The hardest part about summers is that the campuses go quiet because students aren’t around. I’m looking forward to welcoming our students back!
What else haven’t we talked about that I should know?
I’m a strong believer in the role of education in shaping people. I’ve shared a quote I have had on my refrigerator with our staff. The quote is attributed to a national leader in education and says, “Show me a parent who really cares and I’ll show you a kid who can really learn.” That has resonated with me for years.
So, being in an educational environment, like Oak Grove, where we have children from preschool through 12th grade with parents who are engaged in their education, just feels like a natural place for me to be.
To learn more visit oakgrovelutheran.com