HECUA at 50

Honoring Augsburg as HECUA’s Inspiration

'Occupied House, help us save homes' (1)

As we celebrate HECUA’s 50 years as an organization, we are highlighting the institutions who were part of our founding, and who remain integral to our mission to this day. Throughout the next year, we will be featuring these founding institutions that created the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) and who continue to serve as consortium members today. We begin by featuring Augsburg University and the instrumental role they played in establishing HECUA.

By Colleen Bell, Professor Emeritus, Hamline University and longtime former HECUA board member

In April 1968 following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Minneapolis was one of dozens of cities on fire. Augsburg Sociology Professor Joel Torstenson recounted in his journal that during the spring of ‘68 all academic discussions came to a screeching halt and “educational business-as-usual no longer seemed defensible.” 

It was in this context that Torstenson helped to create the Crisis Colony program, an off-campus, academic experience that would become HECUA’s first program.

Torstenson, in a memoir, recounted his personal involvement in urban studies at Augsburg: “Everything I had learned from my studies there, including a compassionate concern for human welfare and social justice, prompted my involvement in the civil rights movement.” Beginning in the mid-fifties as an Augsburg delegate to a Twin Cities committee on equal opportunity, Professor Torstenson grew deeply interested in urban sociology. By the mid-sixties, Torstenson and Augsburg colleagues were asking themselves, “What is the appropriate role of a liberal arts college located at the center of an exploding metropolis?” 

This question was so compelling that Torstenson spent a year on leave pursuing it with urban universities in such cities as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. His report from that sabbatical recommended that Augsburg’s administration implement an interdisciplinary urban studies program.

It was in this context that Crisis Colony was born. Joe Bash (director of the Youth Program of the American Lutheran Church) asked Torstenson to collaborate in developing a “crisis learning experience” in North Minneapolis for college students. Bash led a course on “the church and the inner city,” Torstenson designed a course on “power and community in the modern metropolis,” political science Professor Myles Stenshoel taught a city government course, and Augsburg students who enrolled in Crisis Colony lived in various North Minneapolis buildings.

Within two years, Augsburg’s collaboration with community organizations extended to partnerships with other universities. Student participation widened and the notion of formalizing an inter-college consortium led to the founding of the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) in 1971. Joel Torstenson was HECUA’s first president.

HECUA continued to grow under Torstenson’s leadership, including the expansion of programs to other countries. In Fall 1973, Torstenson led the first HECUA program in Norway. Titled Scandanavian Urban Studies Term, the course focused on urban planning. 

Among the 23 students enrolled were Mark Sonjun Johnson and seven more Auggies. For Mark, SUST was the first of several college opportunities that broadened his scope to the point of changing his life. He’s a self-described “true believer” in the power of community-based experiential learning, global and local.

A common thread in this story is Torstenson’s preoccupation with social justice in urban communities. Many of these themes are as relevant now as they were in the 1970s.

Fifty years ago, HECUA embodied commitments that fostered profound change in students:

  • Integrating interdisciplinary perspectives
  • Experiential learning in relationship & community
  • Holistic approach (not just thinking, but also feeling, being, acting)

These principles have endured and continue to be central to change. As one HECUA bumper sticker says, “Never be the same.”

In the context of 2021, we are all being called into truth-telling and repairing our frayed social fabric. Augsburg Professor Emeritus Garry Hesser recalls another apt motto: “HECUA, now more than ever.”

Augsburg alum Mai Vang participated in HECUA’s Inequality in America program in 2013. She says, “America has a dark past and it will continue to have tough days ahead. The Inequality in America program gave me a better understanding of what being on the right side of history means. The program showed me who is continuing that fight for justice today in our local community. HECUA set a high bar for learning and I would do it over again and again if I could. It was a very meaningful and powerful personal experience for me.”

Mark Sonjun Johnson recently made a gift to endow a professorship at Augsburg in Torstenson’s name. At a point in his life where the impact of SUST is even more visible than it was to him in 1973, Mark wants to ensure that the spirit of Augsburg and Professor Torstenson’s embodiment of it live on. 

As HECUA celebrates 50 years of experiential, community-based education for justice, we honor Augsburg’s leadership in establishing HECUA, particularly through Joel Torstenson’s leadership. Augsburg’s commitment has made it possible for generations of changemakers to experience community-based education and to engage in movements for justice. Thank you, Augsburg! 


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