Saint John's Campus Interview

15-16 March 2012

Liberal arts under threat?


Good afternoon.  Thank you for joining us on this beautiful afternoon I know that after a MN winter, even a mild one, the opportunity cost of being inside on a lovely spring day is high.  I promise to try and make your choice worthwhile, or as an economist might say, a rational one!


The Future of Higher Education?

Who is Salman Khan?  If you reply that he is a famous Indian actor deemed "the best looking man in India" by People magazine (#7 in the world), I will exempt you from your Cultural Course requirement in the Common Curriculum, though I want you to substitute another humanities or social science class-maybe Ec 111 Introduction to Economics. 

The Salman Khan we are interested in here today is an educator, a Bangladeshi-American MIT graduate who, while working for a hedge fund, started tutoring his cousin in math over the internet in 2004.  As word spread and demand for his services grew Mr. Khan quit his day job and started Khan Academy on You-Tube in 2006.  It now features more than 3000 videos on mostly math and science topics.  Khan was a pioneer in online education.

Khan Academy is one small part of the growing on-line and distance learning movement.  Among the big players are University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, Walden University, and Capella University, based here in Minnesota.  I suspect you know many of these names. 

Recently some traditional universities have put their toes in the water too.  Most significantly, I think, was the launch of MITx, MIT's on-line learning offering.  The first course, Circuits and Electronics, started March 5th.  MITx will eventually offer a certificate program, to provide a recognized credential to its students.

Some important observers of the educational scene think these new on-line models represent what business leaders call "disruptive change" or might lead to what economists call, with a nod to Joseph Schumpeter, "creative destruction."  Specifically no less an observer than Bill Gates said in 2010, "Five years from now, on the web, for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the worldIt will be better than any single university."  Now one might legitimately question whether college drop-out Bill Gates has the credibility to comment on the college experience, but surely he is not alone in envisioning this brave, new educational world.

Well, with all due respect to Mr. Khan, MIT and Mr. Gates, I very strongly disagree with their implicit assumption about the purpose of education.  These new models and their champions take a very narrow and instrumental view of higher education, suggesting that education is primarily, or even exclusively, about improving a student's job market outcomes.  These new models of distance and on-line learning do represent new possibilities, especially if I am a smart Uzbek student with no chance to study abroad or I am the parent seeking a better life for my child in Bihar, India, or I'm a working adult in the United States.  BUT if I am a smart, motivated high school student, anywhere in the world, the very best holistic  education is and will continue to be at a residential liberal arts college.  To repeat, I strongly believe that the finest education available in the world for the foreseeable future will be at places like Saint John's University and the College of Saint Benedict. It takes much more than a good internet connection to provide a great education-people and place matter.

What these new models miss are two important things about higher education:  first, much academic learning takes place outside the formal classroom and second, that in a truly holistic liberal arts education a tremendous amount of learning is not purely academic.  So, as an economist, I would never ignore what might be characterized as the purely economic ROI of an undergraduate education, there is ROI beyond the economic - and the very best undergraduate education offers both.

Think about a typical CSB/SJU education.  As important as the class room experience is, so much of the learning takes place during office hours, in informal interactions, at public events on campus, in dormitories, on playing fields, in labs, in the Abbey Church, on study abroad programs, in practice rooms in the BAC, on service trips, in the Arboretum, during work-study jobs, etc. etc.  I am sure together we could list a dozen more off-line experiences that make up the finest holistic liberal arts education that those of you in this room provide.  What I believe is crucial to emphasize is that people and place are essential to a superb liberal arts education.

I think that it is probably hyperbolic to say that residential liberal arts colleges are under immediate threat, but I certainly think they are underappreciated, given that a mere 3% of undergrads choose them, and going forward, those of us who love these institutions will need to continue to make a strong case for them in the face of increased competition.  That is what I want to do as the President of this University and a partner in the coordinate relationship with the College of Saint Benedict.


The Liberal arts Journey

Permit me to give you a brief overview of my ongoing liberal arts education, and my education about the liberal arts, that I think will provide some insight into my desire to be Saint John's University's next president.

This education began about 35 years ago and I would break it into four parts.

Part 1.   The awakening.  (with apologies to Kate Chopin). 

I would give my callow 17-year old self some credit for good intuition.  As I looked for colleges, I knew that I wanted close interactions with faculty and small classes, so despite very little exposure to residential liberal arts colleges, I only applied to such institutions.  Through some quirky and fortuitous events that I won't bore you with now, I ended up in Collegeville in the fall of 1977 where over the next four years my world was transformed by the monks and faculty-who in some important cases were one and the same.  I began to understand what a true broadening liberal arts education was all about, to explore what vocation meant, and to think hard about what it meant to me to live a meaningful life.  

Part 2.  Education about education beyond the Pine Curtain

After graduation I left Saint John's for Harvard where I met some incredibly smart and interesting people and got a great economics education, but I also got a further education about the liberal arts.  Specifically, I began to understand that I had taken some things for granted at CSB/SJU.  A Harvard education, as fine as it was, was not the student-focused education that I received at CSB/SJU.  I came to appreciate more deeply my undergraduate education and the faculty who were so clearly dedicated to my learning.  I certainly don't want to be overly critical of my HU education, but a research university education, even for undergraduates, is simply not the same thing as a residential liberal arts education.   Despite strong encouragement by the faculty to consider research university options, I left HU knowing that my calling was in undergraduate liberal arts.

My first job after graduate school was at Tufts University, a place that has many characteristics of a residential LA college.  I had a great experience there as my colleagues were generous and helpful to a new faculty member and the students were smart and hard-working, but I also continued my own education about the LA.  It did not take long for me to realize that Tufts was not truly a LA college.  It has multiple professional schools and other graduate programs, including a master's program in economics.  It became clear that there were many competing demands for resources, not a shock to an economist, but that more problematically, there were multiple and often contradictory missions for the institution.  This is certainly not an uncommon challenge in complex organizations, but I wanted to be at a place with more clarity of mission-to provide a superb undergraduate residential liberal arts education.  When I went on the market, the job market gods were very good to me, and I ended up getting a position at Carleton College in lovely Northfield, with the added bonus of bringing this Iowa boy back to the Midwest.  (Something I would never have envisioned as a plus when I was that callow 17-year old teenager.)

Part 3.  The life of a professor.  Thus began stage three of my ongoing education about the LA, that of being a professor.  On most days, when all went well, I had the pleasure and privilege of being part that transformative magic that is a residential liberal arts education at its very best.  This part of my professional life is very familiar to the many faculty and staff in this room, and I won't belabor it.  Though at times I missed the Catholic/Benedictine tradition that was so important to me at CSB/SJU, Carleton, with its clear mission of providing a superb undergraduate education, was an incredible place to teach.  I had experienced the educational vocation that CSB/SJU had encouraged me to seek.

Part 4.  The administrator's broader vision.  I could have happily continued in this vocation of focusing on the immediate education of my students, but, as often happens to faculty at liberal arts schools, I soon had the opportunity to take on a variety of administrative roles.  I found that I both enjoyed taking a broader institutional perspective and also found that I had a talent for administration.  I found it rewarding to help hire colleagues that would shape the future of the institution, even if it also meant making the occasional painful decision that the match was not right.  I enjoyed thinking about how to allocate scarce resources to best meet long run strategic goals.  When I was elected faculty president and became a member of the college president's cabinet, I got to participate in long run budget choices-in good times and bad (good times are more fun!), I helped with hiring senior staff, I got to help set strategic priorities for Carleton, I regularly interacted with trustees and donors,  and, what was especially enjoyable, I was required to think about the long run future of higher education and in particular the future of residential liberal arts colleges in the changing economic, political and educational landscape.

Part 5.  My liberal arts journey has now brought me back here, to the place that shaped and shapes me, where I want to return the gift by helping shape the future of Saint John's University at this crucial time in its history.



It would be deeply hubristic to come before you offering a fully formed vision for the future of Saint John's and Saint Ben's.  At a minimum, President Baenninger might have a little to say about the latter!

But I can say this: my aspiration as the president of SJU would be for CSB/SJU to be recognized as a place for a superb holistic LA education within the Catholic/Benedictine tradition where our graduates would not only be recognized for their human capital but also for their character

To make this aspiration a reality, there are four pressing issues that I would want to address soon as the next president of Saint John's.

Priority Number 1 would be Admissions.

•a.       Part A of the admissions challenge is Domestic.  I love MNs despite the jokes they tell about Iowans, but the simple demographics of high school males in MN means that we cannot continue to count on the entering class being 80% Gophers.  We must increase our draw beyond our historic market.  I want that student in the western suburbs of Chicago have his Uncle suggest SJU/CSB when he mentions Mac, Grinnell, SOC and Carleton.  I want the high school counselor in Boston to mention SJU and HC in the same breath when a student says he might be interested in a small school.  I want a pacific northwest neighbor to mention SJU when Gonzaga or Reed or Whitman are mentioned.  Our name recognition must move far beyond MN.

•b.      Part B of the admissions puzzle is the international question.  What is the right percentage of international students at our institutions?  It is currently 6-7%.  What would it take to get to 10%?  With 1.2 B Catholics in the world, surely that represents a market that Catholic liberal arts institutions might profitably explore, to benefit more international students, to provide diversity on our campuses and to fill our classrooms.

Priority Number 2 would be our financial aid model

Is the balance between need-based and merit-based aid right?  We have a high and potentially unsustainable discount rate that has grown steadily over time and will top 50% next year.  Are there ways to bring this down without affecting class quality?  Can we think in creative ways about packaging aid-like offering summer research opportunities or highly-selective honors classes rather than unconstrained grant aid?  This is a key financial challenge for CSB/SJU looking ahead.

Priority Number 3 would be raising the academic profile of SJU/CSB.  Admissions data shows that our entering classes at both Saint Ben's and Saint John's have gotten stronger over time, though it must be admitted that the women continue to outperform the men academically, a separate issue.  More importantly, do students and parents know how much stronger our entering classes have gotten over time?  Do employers know about what a CSB/SJU education means, both in terms of skills and character?  How can we help them understand this?  Do graduate and professional schools appreciate what a CSB/SJU grad brings?  This is important because so many of our grads want to go on for more education and it is can be a key selling point as students and parents consider the value of a residential LA education. As an amusing and slightly frustrating aside, when I was exploring the SJU page at US News website and clicked on the "more information" link, I was taken to a link for SJU-in New York.  When the editors of US News can't keep their Saint Johns' straight, this is a problem.

Raising one's academic profile is a real challenge that all but a handful of schools face in a crowded marketplace, but a starting point would be to focus on where we have a comparative advantage.  I see three obvious academic strengths to distinguish CSB/SJU but surely there are others:

•a.      A would be our superb International Studies program-do we have the right number of students studying abroad in our globalizing world?  Give CSB/SJU comparative advantage in this area, are there other places we should have programs?   A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article noted the gap between the % of women and men who studied abroad.  Can we attract more men overseas?  This might be an area that CSB/SJU are increasingly known for.

•b.      Strength B would be our Environmental studies program and our location in the woods of Central MN.  Recognizing the importance of environmental issues has clearly been part of the strategic planning process and part of the early stages of the Saint John's capital campaign.  Given the deep concern the millennial generation has for the environment, how can we leverage this opportunity while maintaining the academic balance that is essential to any LA curriculum?

•c.       Strength C are our student-faculty relationships.  Should we encourage more capstone experiences or small research opportunities or seminars across majors?  Given that the data say men are less academically engaged than women, would more one-on-one contact get men to take fuller advantage of the LA environment?  Maybe encouraging more student-faculty contact is a step in the right direction.

By emphasizing each of these three strengths-international programs, environmental studies and close student-faculty relationships-we might better let the world beyond the Pine Curtain understand the unique the value of a CSB/SJU education.

Number 4 on my list of priorities would be to more fully use our Benedictine comparative advantage.  We might use the new relationship between the monastery and the university as an opportunity to engage the monastic community more fully in the life of the university.  For me, it all starts with having members of the monastic community living in the dormitories as part of the faculty resident program, but what are the other ways to use this rare monastic gift for the benefit of students, staff and faculty?  Should we have a Benedictine studies minor or maybe a Benedictine Heritage study abroad program?  Should we have scholarships or loan forgiveness for certain kinds of volunteer service during or after college?  How about a Benedictine themed dorm-hot Johnnie bread and scripture every morning?  We as a community would obviously need to discuss the specifics, but I do know that it is our Benedictine heritage in the woods of central MN that makes CSB/SJU not just a LA college or even a Catholic LA colleges, but a Benedictine/Catholic residential LA college-a rare offering in the higher education firmament.



Resources.  Let me close with a few comments about resources, something always near and dear to an economist's heart.  I understand that each of these four issues, as well as the many others that the community might value, very likely will take more resources.  Some might come from reallocating dollars from other uses, but certainly we will also need additional resources from alumni, parents and friends of these two institutions.  This need is particularly acute as the relationship between the monastery and university evolves. 

As many of you know, for most of our history, Saint John's has been blessed with a "Living Endowment" in the form of the many monks who worked in various capacities at the University and whose wages were largely gifted back to the University by the monastery.  That Living Endowment now needs to be replaced with a financial one.

As President, I understand that this is among the most important of my responsibilities.  This is a task I will relish both because the story of the transformative power of a CSB/SJU education is so compelling and because it is one that is deeply personal to me.

I once heard a college president call the residential liberal arts model "America's gift to higher education."  My Saint John's Benedictine liberal arts education was surely a gift to this Iowa boy that I appreciate daily.  At a moment when the future of this gift is uncertain, it would be a privilege, honor and challenge that I would energetically and enthusiastically embrace to be the president of SJU.  I want to help lead this rare institution and, with your help and the help of many others, we can preserve and strengthen this gift, this place for future generations.  Thank you.