On Nov. 5, the Higher Learning Commission approved an 800-page change of structure request from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. With that approval, the search began for the first person to jointly lead both institutions.
According to SJU Transitional President James Mullen, the possibilities of that presidency will prove a powerful lure.
“Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s will attract a great new joint president,” said Mullen. “The institutions are strong and respected academically. And this is an opportunity to lead in implementing a national model of governance; to be at the center of something new and innovative in American liberal arts education. That is something any strong president would find exciting. The person who is inspired by that is the person we want in this spot.”
The move to a single president is just one phase of a larger shift toward “strong integration” that began in conversations between members of the two schools’ boards of trustees in 2019.
Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s have collaborated for nearly 50 years in what was eventually formalized as a “coordinate relationship.” Under that relationship, the two were seamlessly linked in academics. Administratively, departments such as Admission and Human Resources have been coordinated for years.
But in many other areas, CSB and SJU remained proudly separate. The spirit of their Benedictine, Catholic missions as an undergraduate college for men (along with a co-educational graduate school of theology) and a college for women demand distinction.
What the boards began to ask in 2019 though, was just how many things need to be distinct – particularly at a time in higher education that demands effectiveness, entrepreneurship and efficiency? The result is a new joint operating agreement (JOA) and a commitment to strong integration in three facets:
- Unified governing boards. The two schools will continue to maintain separate boards of trustees. But those boards will be made up of a single group of members who will sit on the same committees and hold the same offices on each board.
- A single president. One leader, pulling in one direction, will let the two institutions respond much more nimbly to changing circumstances in the economy, in higher education and in the world at large.
- An integrated administrative culture. The new JOA identifies “common functions and services” that are being integrated together.
“This is the evolution of our coordinate relationship,” said Dan McKeown, chair of the SJU board of trustees. “It’s a leadership model that positions the schools to make strategic decisions to ensure the unique Johnnie/Bennie liberal arts education that was founded in our Catholic and Benedictine traditions continues and thrives in the future. And it was really made possible through a lot of hard work and enthusiastic support from our monastic communities.”
CSB Board Chair Barb Brandes is excited about the potential for this new presidency. “The way this is being structured will give that new president the flexibility to advance the goals of greater unity and shared purpose while still maintaining the distinctive character of each institution,” she said. “In particular, we are adamant about preserving and advancing the essential role played by each in cultivating women’s and men’s leadership.”
For Saint Ben’s Transitional President Laurie Hamen, this process presents a solution for a scenario she’s seen played out before.
She said, “There are colleges out there that are near one another and familiar with one another. And, in some cases, they’ve talked and talked and danced right up to the line of merger, but just never accomplish it because of the difference in their missions. And they walk away without sharing much of anything.
“But what if they had a template to follow? You don’t need to merge – there’s so much that you can do together without giving up on a distinct institutional mission. For many of them, a major reason they’ve shied away is that they aren’t sure their accrediting organization would approve it. They now have an example to look at and see, yes, this can be done. And when it’s done well here, I believe others will follow.”
Currently, a presidential search committee (made up of representatives from both boards of trustees, from both founding Benedictine communities and from both alum bases, as well as faculty and student representatives) is soliciting applications for the new joint president.
The committee will begin reviewing those applications in early-January. Candidate interviews will take place in mid-January, with finalist interviews in mid-February. In March, the boards will select their candidate of choice and submit that to the Monastery and the Abbey for approval. By late-March the hope is to have a contract negotiated and signed.
That would make it possible for the new president of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University can take office on July 1, 2022.