August 25, 2015
SJU senior Jake Schultz: Hi, I'm Jake Schultz, a rising senior here at Saint John's University and I'm the editor-in-chief of The Record. I'm here with Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath, about to start his second term as president here. Thanks for joining me.
SJU President Michael Hemesath: It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for your interest.
Q: So before you became president, Saint John's had only had monastic presidents. It was operated by the abbey, our football and our basketball coaches were absolute legends and since then all that has kind of changed in varying degrees. How have you been able to balance all of this change while keeping tradition?
A: You raise a really good question. There have been significant changes in my first three years. I would step back from the specific changes and note that in addition to being the first lay President the other thing that happened right around the time that I became president was that there was a legal separation between the Abbey and university, and that took place in the summer of 2012. That was a long time coming, a lot of folks who were involved in the university had been planning on this transition for a number of years and that happened to take place, it was a bit of a fluke that it took place exactly when I was becoming president as well. But, I think what that change says to me was that individuals involved in the university have been thinking about our future for a long time. We have a lot of people that are deeply committed to the institution, and they've been thinking about what the right futures for Saint John's for a long period of time and this legal separation between the Abbey and University was part of that long-term thinking. I think that just says to me that the people that are involved in Saint John's University are always thinking about the future. We have a great historic tradition that's very important to us, but from the very beginning the monks that started this place were thinking about the future and I think that the way in which we were thinking about the legal relationship between the Abbey and University was just one little way in which lots of people before me built and continue to think about the important tradition we've had going forward. So in a lot of ways I guess the simplest way to say this, I don't have a particular significant role in preserving that tradition. I'm only one of hundreds or thousands of people who were involved in that preserving that tradition going forward, and so I don't feel like I've done anything particularly to keep that tradition going. I think I follow in the footsteps of lots of folks who've taken that role very seriously for a long period of time.
Now, having said that, there had been some really significant changes as well that don't happen every year. When John Gagliardi retired in my first year, that was a very big change. Anyone that's at the university for 60 years and then steps down, there's going to be a change, especially for someone as important as John was with the community and with his role with athletics and his incredible national reputation. That was a big deal. On the other hand, John built a tradition and a framework for a great student-athlete experience at Saint John's, and it was simply a matter of finding a coach that could step in and pick up that mantle. No one is going to replace John Gagliardi, but we certainly had a number of candidates who were very committed to the student-athlete experience at Saint John's in a way that John was. I think in Gary Fasching, we have the perfect candidate to replace John and to step in and make that student-athlete tradition continue to be a hallmark of the Saint John's experience.
And exactly the same thing was true when Jim Smith stepped down this year. Jim was a mere 50-year coach, a 51-year coach, but he was also a big part of building that student-athlete tradition over lots and lots of years, and Pat McKenzie is going to continue that tradition. Both Pat and Gary were hired not only because of their knowledge about their sports and their ability to put winning teams on the field and on the court, but equally important hiring them was to hire them to provide a student-athlete experience at Saint John's that is exceptional, that creates and develops great character, great young men that we send out into the world to do great things as we've been doing for decades and decades under our previous coaches.
Q: You mention the student experience. As a Saint John's student, you can't avoid talking about the (College of) Saint Benedict campus as well. How do you think the relationship between Saint Ben's and Saint John's has evolved, even in your three years here?
A: That's a great question. I think that one of the things you have to remember is the relationship between Saint Benedict's and Saint John's is relatively new in the history of Saint John's. We're 150-plus years old, and the relationship with Saint Ben's is roughly 50 years old, so I think what's interesting from my perspective is thinking about how that relationship has changed over the last 50 years and how we have moved from sharing classes and sharing a little bit of faculty back and forth to a fully integrated academic experience for our students.
At Saint John's and Saint Ben's, students have exactly the same academic experience and academic opportunities on the two campuses - excuse me - they have exactly the same academic experience available on either campus for Johnnies and Bennies. I think that's an essential part of what we do for our students. I think that's an essential part of what we do for our students. I think that our students wouldn't come here if they did not have a chance to have that fully coed academic experience where they have women in their classes from the Johnnie perspective, and they have men in their classes from a Bennie perspective. I think we've worked to make sure that experience is identical between the two institutions, and I think it has made us a stronger academic institution because of that.
In some ways, the history of Saint John's has been experienced over the past 50 years has been a movement from this shared classroom experience early on and a little bit of cross registration to this fully integrated experience - that's the model has been driven by academics and then the goal of having identical academic experience across the two institutions. Now having said that, I think we've also done a number of other things that have been very successful at making the relationship work better together. Admissions now, as you obviously know, is a completely integrated department. We recruit Johnnies and Bennies together; we do some marketing and communications things together; and we even do some student development things together. We have separate things on the two campuses but we also do some joint student development programming.
I think the relationship is as strong as it has ever been. I think our new partner at Saint Ben's, in President Mary Hinton, is exceptional. I think she gets the Saint Ben's experience and understands the nature of the relationship incredibly well. She's picked it up so quickly, and I've been very impressed as a Johnnie who came back who felt like he had some inside knowledge about this, I just have been really impressed at how quickly she has picked up on the unique nature of this relationship and how important it is for Johnnies and Bennies to have both that shared experience, especially in the academic side, but also to have a separate men's experience at Saint John's and a women's experience at Saint Ben's. So I think that that piece is as healthy and as good as it has ever been to these institutions, and Mary and I are committed to making that an even stronger relationship.
There's no question we will still be a college for men and a college for women. We're two separate institutions. We have our own identities, our own histories, but it's absolutely the case that we're better together than we could ever be apart and the future looks very bright I think for our unique model to provide this opportunity for a coed and a single-sex experience on the two campuses.
Q: One foundational movement we've been trying to make is with Alcuin Library. It's something that has been around for a while. Now, we're actually starting to see some changes. So, how do you think this whole learning commons and really the whole movement with the library, how do you think that is that going to affect students and what is truly going to make it different?
A: That's a great question and a really important question. I think we're in the middle of the capital campaign as you probably know, and our primary academic goal, our primary academic objective of this capital campaign, is the renovation of Alcuin Library and the building of the Learning Commons addition to Alcuin Library. That is something we've been talking about for literary a decade and has been going on for that long. But, we've decided that the two projects have to go together. We had talked at one point about separating them, but now it's clear to me that when I came to this campus, when I came back to this campus, one of things that had changed when I was a student was that we had an academic center in Alcuin Library.
When I was a student that is where you went to study. If you were going to do academic work, you went to Alcuin and the women from Saint Ben's did as well because they didn't have great library facilities at Saint Ben's in the late 1970s and early 1980s. What's happened now are two things: One, Saint Ben's, of course, has gotten better library facilities, so they've got a good space in Clemons Library for academic activities, and secondly, technology has changed to the point that a lot of students can get access to information in incredible ways just sitting in a dorm room with a Wi-Fi connection and a great laptop. That's wonderful, I think that that has leveled the playing field between universities like the University of Minnesota that have great research libraries, and places like Saint John's and Saint Ben's, who have great college libraries but don't have a research library. The reality now is the gap between the information available for a University of Minnesota student and a Saint John/Saint Ben's student has shrunk significantly, but we need a physical space to take advantage of those technological changes that have benefitted our students.
So, we need a physical space to get Johnnies and Bennies back into Alcuin and back into this new space in the Learning Commons. It is one of the ways that were saying to the world that we're absolutely committed to the residential experience. You need to come to campus, to learn in a community, but that learning doesn't just take place sitting in a dorm room. We need what I've been calling the academic heart and soul of the institution. That is what Alcuin Library and the Learning Commons will represent once we complete those projects. It is a signal that the academic pieces, first and foremost, is what we're all about here, so that's why it is our primary priority for this capital campaign, not our priority, but I would say it's our primary priority above and beyond anything we're doing with other campaign priorities. And, the other thing that I think it's really important is that when families come to visit the campus that they get the chance to visit this place that is an academic center for the institution and so we want to bring young men out of their dorm rooms and into this academic space where they will get a chance to work with library professionals that are there happy to work with them right now but they just don't come in as readily. And, to also have access to spaces where students can work together in groups. One of things that has changed from when I was a student is that there is a lot more group learning going on and a lot more assignments that are given to students that require group efforts and the Alcuin space just isn't the best place for doing that kind of group work right now, and that's what the renovations are going to undertake.
And then the other thing we're trying to do is bring some of the student services from different parts of campus into one place. The Writing Center will be there, IT Services will be there for students, access for students with special needs for learning will be there as well, English as a Second Language office likely be there as well, so our goal is to have a one-stop shop for student learning in Alcuin and the Learning Commons in a way that we don't have right now.
I'm incredibly excited about this project. We've been talking about it for too long. It's time for us to get the project going, as we have done this summer. We're still working in the fundraising piece. We still need some support from alums and friends to help us get this project going, but it's a project that has started now. We will fully begin the construction phase starting in May of 2016, and if all goes according to plan by the fall of 2017, we will have Alcuin renovated and will have the Learning Commons completed and will have this academic heart and soul for the university for decades to come.
Q: When the Capital Campaign was first announced, a big thing around campus was the fact that you come from an economic background. How has that background shaped your time here as president?
A: Well, as an economist, some people might view that as a drawback. An economist can be a little bit too focused on tradeoffs, maybe on the one hand, on the other hand but from my perspective being an economist has been absolutely essential to my role as president. We're in a time were resources are tight. Resources are always tight but I think the past five or six years with the economy has shown us that we really have some challenges in terms of our economic model at Saint John's and Saint Ben's and I think my role as an economist is to think about how to use scarce resources, how to make tradeoffs, how to talk to others about raising funds. I think that is probably helpful in these conversations as well. So, the ability to think about the broad industry, if you will, of higher education has been important - what our competitors doing, what are our potential future competitors going to do, what is technology going to do for us - all those things I think are second nature for an economist to think about, and I think that's served me very well in this position.
The main issue for an economist is how to allocate scarce resources across competing uses, some sense of the definition of economics, and I think as a college president we have the scarcity but we have lots of different competing uses, lots of places its students and faculty and staff would like to have programming improve, or have new programs be developed. The reality is we don't have the resources to do as much as we want and part of my job as leader of Saint John's is to help figure out how to allocate those scarce resources across the many competing uses we have that are academic, that are student development, that are alumni related, all those things in which places in which we can spend resources, and I have to think about and we have to think about your community how to do that well.
Q: This isn't your first time here. You're coming back after being a student. How has your perspective changed since your time as a student?
A: Well, my perspective has changed because I have gotten older. I think I've gotten ... I hope I've gotten wiser - if not, I've wasted these last few decades. I think that from my perspective there are three major ways in which Saint John's has changed from when I was a student.
First it would be our relationship with Saint Ben's. I think that's become much stronger. When I was here, Saint Ben's was definitely a little bit less strong in terms of the resources they had. I think it was a real sense that there was a kind of Big Brother-Little Sister view. Now, I think we're absolutely paired with the College of Saint Benedict. I think they're healthy and strong in ways that make us better and stronger. In particular, the women who come to Saint Ben's are as good or better academically than Johnnies are, and that challenges and pushes us in the classroom in ways that are great. That's the first way in which things have changed, the relationship with the College of Saint Benedict has gotten stronger and we are now equal partners in this relationship in a way that I think just wasn't true in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The second thing that's changed is the student body at Saint John's. I often joke that I came from Iowa as a student, and I was a diversity candidate because there were so many Minnesotans. Now, we have a much more diverse and interesting student body. Twenty percent of our students are non-traditional students, students of color or international students. We have students with much more economic diversity, much more geographic diversity, and that's all to the good of our students here. They're going to be going and working in a world that is more diverse racially, culturally, economically and religiously then was true when I went into the workforce. I think to have a student body that is representative of that diverse world is really important for Saint John's and at Saint Ben's, and in that way we have had great success in making this a more diverse place so in that sense, students here are getting a better education than I and my classmates got.
The third way in which Saint John's has changed is really a function of the way the world has changed. I think the world is smaller now than it was when I was a student. People travel more internationally, there's a lot more international activity, international programming for students. Technology has changed - we used to do punch cards, and you'd put your punch cards together and you'd program a computer and you'd run the program and discover two hours later you made a mistake in your program and you'd have to start all over again. The whole way in which technology has changed the ability of students to have access to information, as I mentioned earlier, students now have access to better information and the best libraries in the world. You sit in your dorm room, which we want to get you out of eventually, but you sit in your dorm room with your Wi-Fi connection and you've got access to information that none of the best libraries in the world have access to. When I was a student, we were constrained of course to what existed in Alcuin Library, and that's just very different now. So, we can provide a better education for our students because of the information that's available to them through technology that just wasn't there when I was a student. It wasn't even here 10, 15 years ago, either. So it's just the world has changed and we have changed with it in ways that have given our students a better education than they would have had when I was here in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Q: Looking forward, when this term is up, how do you think Saint John's will be different?
A: Well, I think one thing that will be different is we will continue to be an increasingly diverse place. We have started to reach out geographically well beyond the Upper Midwest. We have lots of students from the West Coast and the Southwest, even some from other parts of the East Coast and the Southeast, and I hope that continues. I expect this to be even more of a diverse place three years from now.
The second thing that I think will have happened is we will have completed Alcuin's renovations and the Learning Commons. I think that will fundamentally change the academic experience of our students on campus. They will now have this academic heart and soul to go to work at and work in groups with each other in a way that just doesn't exist right now. I think that would be absolutely essential for the residential liberal arts experience we want our students to have on campus.
And then finally, I would say that our relationship with Saint Ben's will continue to get stronger. I think we will be a more fully integrated, joint experience for our students. They will still have the women's experience at Saint Ben's and the men's experience at Saint John's, but I think that the integrated academic experience that they have will be even stronger and better than it is right now.
Q: One of the things you're working on right now is Strategic Directions 2020. How do you think that will affect students, faculty and staff?
A: Well, I would say first that we offer a great experience for students right now; we're not fundamentally broken in any way, we don't have serious problems that we need to address in terms of our academic program, in terms of our educational experience for students. But Strategic Directions 2020 is designed to address a couple of significant things that I think we can improve for our students.
One, it's been very clear to me as I've talked to students and parents in the last few years is that people are a little bit nervous about what the liberal arts provide in terms of vocational opportunities. I would argue that the best vocational opportunity you can get is to have a great liberal arts education - that ability to learn and teach yourself and to be flexible is exactly what students need going into a changing workforce where it's not at all clear what exactly is going to be needed five years, 10 years, 15 years from now. What you need to be doing is to be flexible and learn on the job, and Strategic Directions 2020 addresses this by both strengthening our liberal arts commitment, and we're going to modify our distribution and our common curriculum requirements going forward to make them stronger and better for our students, but we're also trying to explicitly think about that vocational piece for students and asking what is it that our students need as they come into Saint John's and Saint Ben's even as a first-year student to help prepare them well for the job market, even as we recognize that job market is going to be changing and a little bit uncertain going into the future. So, we're going to try to make sure that the vocational piece which we address well now can be addressed even better going forward, and we're going to try to figure out how to integrate the liberal arts into that vocational piece for our students.
The second thing we want to do with Strategic Directions 2020 is to recognize the changing nature of our student body and to recognize that all of our students need to be exposed to this increasingly diverse world in which we live and have students interact with each other inside and outside the classroom in a way to provide them with that kind of exposure to diversity. And, we also want to make sure that the students that come to Saint John's and Saint Ben's who come from non-traditional backgrounds, they may be first generation students, they may be students of color, they may be international students or students from parts of the country that we haven't traditionally recruited from before, have a great Saint John's and Saint Ben's experience. I want three years from now, or five years from now, when we finish Strategic Directions 2020, that every single student at Saint John's and Saint Ben's has the opportunity for as great an experience as that traditional middle-class student from a suburb of the Twin Cities. I want all of our students to have that same kind of great experience. I'm quite confident we can do that. We provide a great educational experience for all of our students right now, but we can improve that in some ways for students going forward, and that's what Strategic Directions 2020 is designed to do.
Q: You mention the vocational aspect of the liberal arts education, and how some people have a hard time with it. Right before we came up here, I heard of a Saint John's alum, Mark Vande Hei, who is going into space (in March 2017).
A: That's an incredible story.
Q: What do you think of that, him as a person, and then alums in general?
A: Mark's story is a great little encapsulation of what the liberal arts can do for you. With a great liberal arts education, you can go off and go to space. You can be an astronaut. We don't have a major called astronaut studies. We don't have Astronaut 101. You learn how to be a great scientist. You learn how to think on your feet. You learn how to learn new things, and that's what Mark has done throughout his career and that's what's given him the opportunity to go into space a couple years from now.
I think that story can be told about thousands of Johnnies as they have gone into professional lives. We don't have a major called CEO studies, but we have a lot of alums who have become CEOs because they have gotten a great liberal arts education here and then have gone on to use that education well in their professional lives and have shown their bosses, their supervisors, how talented they can be, how much they can learn, how flexible they are. I think that great liberal arts education that we provide is absolutely the best training for students going forward if they want to have success in any dimension.
The other thing is, you may find yourself working in an area that you didn't have any idea you would be interested in when you were a student, or maybe it didn't even exist when you were a student. Think about all of our alums that are my age and older, who are now doing all kinds of things in the tech world where we used to deal with IBM punch cards. That was the world we lived in. Our great liberal arts education has provided us with a kind of flexibility to move into those positions and jobs that didn't exist before and be very successful in them. So, I remain absolutely convinced that the best possible education you can get at Saint John's - excuse me, the best possible education you can get in the world if you're smart, talented high school student is to come get a great liberal arts education at a place like Saint John's or Saint Ben's. You will be a better nurse, you will be a better doctor, you will be a better accountant for that liberal arts background than you would be if you went to a school that was more focused narrowly on vocational training.
The other thing that I would note, actually, that has changed pretty dramatically from when I was a student is that the number of our students that go on to get graduate degrees - so Mark is a great example of this, he got a great undergraduate education at Saint John's but he then went on to get a graduate degree at Stanford afterwards. That combination, a great liberal arts experience and the graduate training he got, is what has given him the chance to reach the very pinnacle of his professional life, this chance to go into space. I think if you look at the data now, something like two-thirds of Johnnies and Bennies go on to get some kind of graduate degree at some point in their lives. So, I think what we need to do is make sure we prepare students well for whatever professional opportunities might arise and whatever graduate opportunity they want to pursue. The typical Johnnie or Bennie of the future now is going to have multiple degrees - a degree from Saint John's or Saint Ben's, and then some kind of graduate degree which might allow them to focus more narrowly in a specific area that they're interested in. I think we prepare students well for that opportunity, and we send students on to great graduate programs as a result of the great preparation they get at Saint John's and Saint Ben's.
Q: Anything else you'd like to talk about in the little time we have left?
A: I would just say these past three years have been the most rewarding of my professional life. It's been an incredible opportunity to come back to Saint John's to get a chance to help your alma mater in some small way. And, the people that I've met that have helped me do this - the faculty and staff we have at Saint Ben's and Saint John's, as well as the incredible alumni body we've got, have made this job a complete joy. I look forward to a second term and making Saint John's and Saint Ben's even better places than they are today.
Schultz: Thank you very much for talking to us today.
Hemesath: Not at all, it was my pleasure. Thank you.