After more than a year on the job, Brian Bruess was inaugurated Friday (Sept. 22) as the first joint president of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. While the concept of having one person oversee both institutions is new, it’s only the latest in a long line of communal relationships between the schools that since early last year have been known as “Strong Integration.”
They share a commitment to The Rule of Saint Benedict, guiding principles in effect at Saint John’s since its inception in 1857 and at Saint Ben’s since it was founded in 1913. As early as 1955, the institutions began to coordinate activities, eventually including joint faculty, shared classes and increasing collaboration.
“At every step, the purpose was clear – to preserve and protect the profound manifestation of each school’s mission,” Bruess said during a ceremony at a crowded Saint John’s Abbey and University Church that installed him as the 17th person to lead Saint Ben’s and the 19th to guide Saint John’s. “The holistic development of students, missions that today remain unchanged. Together, our future as Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s has never been brighter. What is that future? And what does it mean to flourish?
“First, let me tell you what it’s not. Strong Integration is not a merger. It is not a precursor to a merger. Nor is it an exercise in institutional symmetry … Our unwavering focus and vision is to offer a renowned learning experience inspiring students to become empowered and principled graduates who change the world. What we are doing is assertively – and with love, vision, compassion, and collaboration – doubling down on our commitment to shaping and delivering an increasingly sophisticated, powerful, integrated, and contemporary student experience.”
Bruess, who previously served five years as president of St. Norbert College after 22 in executive roles at St. Catherine University, went on to say CSB and SJU will continue to be unapologetic about their mission traditions. Those include educating students who will lead and help solve the “wicked problems of this complex world,” and “always doing so with Benedictine values as their compass.” He said the schools will never compromise on their “foundational values of liberal arts, residential, Catholic and Benedictine” and how they are uniquely suited to women and men.
Those Benedictine values include community living, justice, awareness of God, stewardship, moderation, seeking counsel, hospitality, the dignity of each person, listening and humility. As an example of how they work together, and those involved with both institutions interconnect, he directed the audience to turn and view the front of the church with its honeycomb of stained-glass windows (178 feet wide by 65 feet tall) and 430 glass-and-concrete hexagons.
“Since joining this community and while preparing this address, I have learned more about honeycombs than I ever imagined was possible – and it’s a tricky metaphor for me, because I’m allergic to bees,” said Bruess, who earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology from St. Norbert (’90), and subsequently a master’s and doctorate from Ohio University. “Honeycombs are flourishing and productive communities – the homes and food containers of hard-working bees … no doubt, bees triple-major in art, math, and physics! (And) together, a series of hexagons creates so much more than the sum of its individual parts. It becomes a system of sheer strength … a structure of awe, beauty, and remarkable efficiency.”
In that way, Bruess alluded to how the mission traditions of CSB and SJU combine to create something far greater than the sum of their individual parts. They are “where students learn how to think, not what to think.”
The last inauguration at Saint Ben’s was in 2014, and there hadn’t been such festivities at Saint John’s since 2012. Many students were in the audience as classes were canceled for the afternoon. Participants from most clubs sat in seats on either of the lower level, dignitaries and other attendees flowing through the middle to the back of the sanctuary, and student-athletes filled the balcony. More than two dozen delegates of colleges, universities and associations across the nation also attended in full regalia.
The installation ceremony began with an academic processional to The Mace and the Medal. LeAnne Matthews Stewart ’87, chair of the schools’ common boards of trustees, offered a welcome. Karen Rose, OSB, prioress of the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict, delivered an invocation and was among a dozen speakers to offer greetings.
- Paul Cerkvenik ’81, president of the Minnesota Private College Council
- Bishop Patrick M. Neary, C.S.C., Bishop of the Diocese of St. Cloud
- Rochelle Taus Dumdie ’13, CSB alumni board president
- Rick Speckmann ’72, SJU alumni board past president
- Clair Moonen ’24, CSB student senate president
- Wes Kirchner ’24, SJU student senate president
- Carrie Hoover, Ph.D., CSB and SJU faculty senate chair
- Sucharita Sinha Mukherjee, Ph.D., CSB and SJU faculty senate vice chair
- Richard Ice, Ph.D., CSB and SJU provost
- Kara Kolomitz, Ed.D., CSB and SJU chief operating officer
- Abbot John Klassen ’71, OSB, SOT/Sem ‘77
Canaan Cooper '25 recites his original poem "Sunrise" in honor of the new president.
“You are the one God has chosen to serve in this role,” Neary told Bruess. “May you serve with wisdom and joy.”
Kirchner and Moonen took turns telling Bruess he’d already shown “the heart of a Johnnie and a Bennie,” that he was a “kind and courageous leader,” and “welcome home.”
Hoover represented the faculty in telling Bruess that, in a short time, he’d already “made it abundantly clear you’re deeply committed to the liberal arts and Catholic/Benedictine traditions.”
“Together, with your leadership, we are unstoppable,” Kolomitz added.
After readings, presentation of presidential medals by eight former leaders of the schools (the three most recent presidents of CSB and the previous five from SJU), Bruess was introduced by Andrea Lee, his former boss as president of St. Catherine University.
“I’ve had glimpses into this man’s soul, and I can tell you he’s open and wise, tried and true,” Lee, now a chaplain at the University of Notre Dame, told the audience. “I don’t know another lay person who better understands the relationship between mission and education as does your president.”
During his first year, Bruess already helped implement a new governance model for the boards of trustees, built an inaugural joint leadership team, redesigned organizational structure around student learning, implemented academic program prioritization recommendations, launched a fast-paced strategic planning process, rebuilt admission and enrollment processes – and completed an ambitious tour across the country and in the Bahamas to engage with alumnae and alumni.
“We are navigating unprecedented times,” Bruess said. “Trust has eroded … we inhabit a fractured and polarized country. Can we be the antidote to the erosion of what chips away at our humanity and better natures? Can the Benedictine charism – which Pope Francis describes as ‘a heart expanded by the unspeakable sweetness of love’ – be a part of the solution? Can we be witnesses to that love in the vision that our sisters and monks have so boldly and brilliantly modeled, stewarded, and nurtured? We can. And we must.
“At times I might seem a cockeyed optimist for my unshakable belief and confidence that together we can and will overcome the fractures, fears, challenges and hurdles we face,” he added. “But my optimism isn’t a naive brand. It is one simply and deeply rooted in our creative vision to flourish, together – our indelible core commitment to the resilient, strong honeycomb of community – the very reality that our founders and sponsors built, nourished, and tended. A powerful sense of community, one that so many joyfully call home.”
Following a hymn (Never Silent In Your Praises), the school alma maters and a benediction from Klassen, Bruess finally got to officially begin doing just that. The crowd of attendees then ventured to an outdoor champagne reception, and he enjoyed subsequent events Friday night including an artists and musicians reception at the Benedicta Arts Center at CSB. Later there was an outdoor concert by The Riverside Hitmen among food trucks on the CSB Mall.
While the main event has concluded, Inauguration Week continues Saturday (Sept. 23) – beginning with a yoga session with Bruess’ dog, George, at 9 a.m. in the front yard at Renner House in St. Joseph. At Saint John’s, tailgating for the football game against Bethel begins at 10:30 a.m. followed by a 1 p.m. kickoff at Clemens Stadium. And a student and family carnival will be from 5-9 p.m. in the parking area of the CSBN athletic complex. Events conclude Sunday (Sept. 24) with a fishing contest at Lake Sagatagan, a fish fry immediately following in the Luke Hall picnic area, a hymn fest at the Abbey Church and student masses at 6 p.m. (CSB) and 9 p.m. (SJU).
Saint John's Abbey and University Church was filled on Friday afternoon for the ceremony installing Brian Bruess as the first joint president of SJU and the College of Saint Benedict.