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Dr. Lawrence Hultgren Begins 55th and Final Year at VWU

Highly-Esteemed Faculty Member Teaches Philosophy for the “Real World”

University News | July 28, 2023

When Dr. Lawrence Hultgren joined the faculty at what was then Virginia Wesleyan College, the school had yet to produce a single graduate, the inaugural class having only enrolled three years earlier. “There were only a handful of buildings and many of the roads on campus were unfinished,” says Dr. Hultgren. 

Fresh out of graduate school with a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Dr. Hultgren had many options. At the time, Virginia Wesleyan was not yet fully accredited. Nonetheless, he came here because he wanted to become a part of something special. Somewhat ironically, he had written his dissertation on the Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who had written extensively about leaps of faith. “That’s what we were all doing during those early years,” says Dr. Hultgren, “taking leaps of faith…students, faculty, and administrators alike. There were quite a few colleges founded during those years, and many of them have since closed. Each of us were determined that this would not be just another liberal arts college.” 

In many ways, Virginia Wesleyan was a product of the times. The culture war of the 1960s, fueled by the actual war in Vietnam, was influencing an entire generation of young people who demanded to be heard. What Virginia Wesleyan offered seemed to resonate. “Our student focus was much different from many other colleges and universities where student-faculty and student-administration relationships were often adversarial,” says Dr. Hultgren. “We placed great emphasis on student engagement. Students were placed on key committees that helped shape school policy and initiatives. In fact, it was a student-led committee that chose the Marlin as our mascot.” 

Hired to build a philosophy department from scratch, Dr. Hultgren’s progressive views mirrored the cultural climate. He believed then, as he does now, that philosophy is not meant to be bottled up, restricted to the confines of theory. His view stresses that philosophy should be applied to the worlds of science, medicine, government, and commerce. 

And for every semester since the fall of 1969, that is how Dr. Lawrence Hultgren has approached his discipline, educating generations of Virginia Wesleyan University (VWU) graduates to become critical thinkers, people who can entertain many points of view, who are open to new experiences, and embrace social responsibility. “Philosophy teaches you humility,” explains Dr. Hultgren. “The more you learn, the more you appreciate how little you really know.” 

It is that personal philosophy that has guided a long and distinguished career. And throughout, Dr. Hultgren has passionately dispelled what he believes are the misperceptions about a subject that many fail to grasp. “Just about every other subject – math, science, history – we study from grade one through high school. Philosophy is different in that way. It’s first offered in college, and many students really don’t understand what it’s all about. That’s why we, as faculty members, need to help them see how philosophy, properly applied, can help them become valuable contributors to society. Much like the 1960s, we live in turbulent times that call for strong leadership, people who can help us find common ground. I can’t think of anything more important.” 

Now, Dr. Hultgren is preparing to teach his final year at VWU, having taught longer than any other faculty member in the school’s history. “I hope that whoever follows me will find this as much of a privilege as I have. Who knows, maybe they’ll beat my record! I have been entrusted with the responsibility of helping to shape young minds for nearly 55 years. Students at this age are at a stage in their lives when they are trying to figure things out, trying to figure themselves out. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”