May 6, 2016
By Mike Killeen; Photos by Tommy O'Laughlin '13
Mary Dana Hinton and Michael Hemesath get to visit many places as presidents of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University.
But they both say that nothing can take the place of teaching in front of a classroom of students.
That was reinforced spring semester, when they co-taught a class, "Social Justice Teachings: Theology and Economics in Dialogue." The one-credit class, which met throughout the semester, delivered an introduction to the topic of social justice, and Catholic social justice teachings in particular, and asked (among other questions) what role theology and economics play in social justice.
"We both missed the classroom," Hemesath said. "We missed interaction with the students. We have certain interactions with students in our jobs, of course, but they are not always academically focused, and it doesn't have that kind of continuity and intensity."
"You can get very caught up in this job with the management, the administrative piece and the day-to-day work of the presidency," Hinton said. "As critical as that work is, it's not the same sort of life-giving work that teaching is. It fulfills a different part of your spirit."
"I consider a lot of what I do in my job as having to teach — whether it's helping educate Trustees about higher education, or colleagues understanding the college budget. But, as Mary said, it's not quite the personal, holistic experience that you have in the classroom," Hemesath said.
Seventeen students from a range of academic fields — including theology, English, political science, global business leadership, nursing and nutrition — registered for the class. They learned how economics is linked to theology and social justice action.
Hinton, who earned a Ph.D. in religion and religious education with high honors from Fordham University, said that a Fordham faculty member once told her that every budget is a theological statement.
"I think social justice and economics are inherently linked to each other, although it's not always obvious," Hinton said. "There's a perception that, with a strong spiritual life and good intentions around issues of justice, you can ignore Earthly constraints and you don't need to be worried about secular economic issues. But when you look at the social justice documents which have come out of the Catholic Church, they all have a very clear economic component.
"It's really helped the students think through the relationship between our spiritual lives and our lived experience," Hinton added.
That resonates with Hemesath, who received his master's and doctorate degrees in economics from Harvard University.
"This course, with its economic and theological perspective, acknowledges that desire on the part of those who want to have both the spiritual social justice and theological piece to their lives, but they also want to be practical. Resources are scarce, time is limited and you can only choose one career at a time, so how do you make those choices and balance them?"
Hemesath said that part of the draw for students was the fact the two presidents were teaching. Because of that, they used the final five minutes of each class session to let the students ask them anything — questions ranging from budget issues or philosophical questions to what their favorite color was.
"We tried to acknowledge that's what brought a number of them into the classroom," Hinton said. "I think that was important. But it wasn't the focus."
Both said they would be interested in teaching the class again down the road, if scheduling can be worked out.
"To be clear, we're still the president of our respective schools. That's our day job, and we know it will continue to be our day job," Hemesath said. "This works OK with the time commitment, but we want to make sure first and foremost, it's not affecting our ability to do our jobs."
Both added that they were impressed with the students in the class.
"I think it helped me have a better understanding of our students and where they come from, in ways that were very heartening and great to see," Hemesath said.
"I think the students' passion gives me hope for the future," Hinton said. "They care about the work they have been doing, and are doing in our communities. They care deeply about social justice. It gives me a lot of hope."