2013 State of the University Address

State of the University

April 18, 2013 

Almost exactly a year ago I was immensely fortunate to be offered the chance to return to Saint John's as president.  I was deeply honored to have an opportunity that I had not even dreamed possible.  Over the past year the pleasures of returning to this exceptional community have exceeded even my high expectations.

One of the obvious questions that came up during the search process and often subsequently is, "What is my vision for Saint John's University?"  In a world of higher education that often feels like it is undergoing fundamental change and sometimes feels like it is under siege, it is obviously important for us to have a vision for the future and a plan for how to achieve it, but it is equally important to be sober and thoughtful as we craft that vision and not be swayed by the passions of the moment.  

Of course we need to anticipate the future and understand what the next generation of students will want and need, but we must start with our values, remember our history and understand our strengths.

When I applied for this job, an important attraction was what I had experienced here as a student: Saint John's showed me what I was capable of and opened up opportunities that I never knew possible.  Saint John's was a transformative experience for me.  This was the vision of undergraduate education that I both experienced here and brought back to Saint John's when I returned.  

But of course, any vision requires the work and support of the whole community, so one of my first jobs was to see how my vision aligned with that of the rest of the community.  Toward this end:

•1.      I have had the opportunity to meet with many of you on campus-students, staff and faculty.

•2.      I reviewed our strategic plan and our campaign documents.

•3.      I have talked to many students, prospective students and parents.

•4.      I have met with alumni from around the country and world.  

What I have discovered is a powerful consistency in the understanding of the mission of Saint John's.  The community here and beyond Collegeville believes that the undergraduate experience at Saint John's is about transforming our students to help them lead lives filled with success and meaning, however they define those terms.  And that this transformative outcome is based on four essential characteristics: we are a residential, liberal arts college, in the Catholic and Benedictine tradition.  

My experiences over the past nine months have provided powerful evidence of the importance of each of these characteristics in that transformative education--both for our alumni and for our future students.  Let me turn briefly to each of these parts of the Saint John's experience.

Residential community

Among the most active conversations in higher education today is what role technology in general and online education in particular will play in the future, but these conversations all too often ignore how much education takes place by bringing students together into a residential community.  Place matters, as a review of some of the recent successes of our students reveals.  Among the many extracurricular successes our students have had this year:

•1.      A case study team placed third in a national competition in Washington D.C.

•2.      Earlier this year The Record won several awards for college newspapers.

•3.      The ROTC Fighting Saints coed marathon teams took 1st and 2nd in the recent Army Baatan Marathon in New Mexico.

•4.      The Saint John's hockey team won the conference title and advanced to the NCAA tournament.

I could go on, but the point is that the learning that was part of all these activities took place because we brought students together into a residential community.  

As impressive as these achievements were, the most powerful evidence of the essential role of a residential education came as a result of John Gagliardi's retirement, which prompted many conversations with alumni about John.  To a man, what alumni talked about was not their on-field success, as impressive at it was, but about what playing for John taught them about life and about the deep friendships they formed on John's teams.  

Collectively these experiences provide powerful evidence that a residential community is at the core of the transformative educational experience we provide.

Liberal Arts  

A second important thread in conversations about higher education, especially in the midst of our economic slowdown, concerns the future of the liberal arts.  Many educators and policymakers are suggesting that students need vocationally focused education to train them for specific jobs and careers and, by implication, that a broad-based liberal arts education does not serve students well.  Again, my experiences over the past year argue strongly against this notion.  

•1.      This fall CSB and SJU were honored with the Senator Paul Simon Award for Comprehensive Globalization, which recognized the importance of helping students explore the wider world that they will be working and living in.  Off-campus study does not focus on specific skills but many students and alumni have talked movingly about their experiences abroad that changed the direction of their professional lives and, more importantly, how they viewed the world.  

•2.      A Florida alum told of working on a governor's education policy panel that was narrowly focused on vocational training, yet he related how at his engineering and construction company the top four positions are held by liberal arts graduates.  

•3.      Another alum, a professor at MIT, stated that what his liberal arts education at Saint John's taught him was how to move across disciplines, adapt to changes in his profession and straddle the fields of engineering, media and literature.  

•4.      Finally, the biggest news story this year with a Saint John's connection offers further evidence of the value of the liberal arts.  The appointment of Denis McDonough as President Obama's chief of staff garnered over 800 media stories, topping John Gagliardi's mere 600+.  Denis was a history and Spanish double major at Saint John's, not exactly a vocational degree, yet his liberal arts experience has helped prepare him for success at the highest levels of government.  

The irony of critiques of the liberal arts is that the very changes in the world that might seem to argue for more specialized training--new technologies, previously unknown industries, competition from abroad--actually remind us that the ability to adapt to change in an unpredictable future and to learn new things are among the most important skills we can impart to students, and that is exactly what a great liberal arts education does.


The third pillar of the Saint John's experience is our Catholic identity.  At first glance, the political issues in MN this fall might suggest that this has been a challenging year to be a Catholic institution, but I think there were important ways in which that experience helped strengthen our identity.  I was immensely proud of how we as a community handled the hard and often emotional marriage amendment conversation. We did well the three things that I think are incumbent upon us as a Catholic educational institution:

•1.      We faithfully and respectfully presented Catholic teaching on this issue.

•2.      We allowed all members of the community the freedom to express their views.

•3.      Possibly most importantly, we used the opportunity to educate our students with the goal of developing, in Aquinas's words, "a well-formed conscience," capable of examining and responding to the many moral challenges life will present.

I know that our position did not make every one of our alumni and friends happy, but the fact that we made individuals on both sides of this particular debate unhappy was a nice reminder of the healthy diversity in our community.  This diversity reflects the broader world and is not seen on all college campuses where orthodoxy can be enforced from the right or the left.  The way in which we lived out our Catholic identity during these conversations should make our whole community proud.


Finally, the last pillar of the transformative Saint John's experience is the Benedictine tradition that formed us and informs our experiences daily.  There are multiple facets of that tradition but the two that I want to focus on today are community and hospitality.  Again, conversations with student, staff, faculty and alumni speak to the importance of our Benedictiness in the transformative education we provide.

•1.      I have been meeting with faculty and staff throughout the year and many of you tell of knowing little of monks or the Benedictine tradition when arriving on campus with plans on staying 2 or 3 years, and now you are past 25, having found this community a very welcoming place to live out your professional lives.

•2.      I had the opportunity to meet alumni in Hong Kong and Bahamas who movingly described how monks like Fr. Tom Thole transformed their lives and futures.

•3.      I had dinner with students from South Central LA and Newark NJ who describe their experiences here in glowing terms.

•4.      At an alumni event in Boston, I recently met an alum of Turkish descent from Pakistan who described himself as the first "Benedictine Muslim."

We have been welcoming people into this community for over 150 years - people from Little Falls and Okinawa and Ripon and Nassau.  This hospitality is what makes everything else we aspire to possible.

Residential, liberal arts, Catholic and Benedictine-these traits define who we are in the past and the future.

We will obviously talk more about exactly how we will fulfill our residential, liberal arts, Catholic, and Benedictine  mission in the months and years to come, but let me just make note of several important commitments we have already made in support of this vision.  We recently authorized a capital campaign for the University in which the priorities are linked directly to the vision I have described.  Briefly:

•1.      We will make significant commitments to student development in a residential setting by significantly by upgrading our athletic facilities.

•2.      We are committed to the Learning Commons project to enhance the pedagogies that are at the core of a great liberal arts education.

•3.      When we restructured the legal relationship between the Abbey and the University the wise drafters of that agreement included a Sustaining Agreement, beyond the legal agreements, that binds us closely to the Abbey and our history.  The Sustaining Agreement commits both sides to a number of important things including the establishment of a Task Force on the Abbey-University Relationship that will explicitly strengthen ties between the University and Abbey.

•4.      We have made a number of other decisions in recent years, such as the four year residency requirement for students, establishing the Benedictine Institute, funding monks to explore roles in the University and a Benedictine preference policy in hiring that will assure that the Benedictine nature of this community stays strong.


So as we look to the future, the mission of Saint John's that has sustained us for over 150 years continues to be our vision going forward. We are a residential, liberal arts, Catholic, and Benedictine institution whose mission is to transform the lives of young men, and with our partner the College of Saint Benedict, young women.

This does not mean resting on our laurels, as we certainly have real challenges ahead (demographics, the engagement of young men, the higher education financial model) and the world around us changes constantly, but it means that we have a clear sense of who we are and what our mission is, which is a tremendous strength. We have creatively adapted throughout our long history even as we have maintained a consistent vision, and we will continue to do so.

As I look back over the past year, the single most powerful experience has been to be reminded of the consistency of our vision across students, staff, faculty, parents and alumni.  I look forward to continuing to fulfill that mission for the 21st century with all of you and the many others in the Saint John's community. Thank you.

Michael Hemesath

Saint John's University