The Francis Effect

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

I had the pleasure and thrill to be in Washington DC representing Saint John’s University during the Pope’s visit. It was certainly a singular privilege and honor to be with Abbot John to present an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress in honor of Pope Francis’s first visit to America. That event at the Capitol will be unforgettable, yet what was equally memorable was the atmosphere in Washington during our two day visit.

There was something about the Pope’s presence that affected people in the city and made my visit strikingly different than any previous trip to Washington.

Midwesterners often comment on their interactions with easterners when they travel to the Atlantic seaboard for work or pleasure. In my experience, the comments are mostly about Bostonians and New Yorkers, but Washingtonians are not immune from these mildly critical characterizations. The general observation is that metropolitan areas in the middle Atlantic and northeastern states feel significantly less friendly than Midwestern cities, even the biggest Midwest city of Chicago.

One must, of course, be careful about generalizations, but having lived for close to a decade in the Boston area, I find these observation to be largely on target. While personally friendly and engaging in more intimate settings, my experience with easterners in public is that they tend to be cool, focused on their own business and, while not overtly rude, certainly not particularly friendly and more than capable of looking out for their own interests.

It was against this backdrop that my two days in Washington DC were so striking.

Three experiences:

  1. Abbot John, Rob Culligan and I got up early on Wednesday to go to the White House where President Obama was welcoming the Pope. There were thousands of people waiting to be admitted to the South Lawn of the White House. Despite long lines, not terribly well run security, and a long, crowded wait once you got to the South Lawn, I did not witness a single tense or unpleasant encounter. In fact, people were offering each other advice about the fastest way to get through security. I also heard more than one person tell their neighbor in the crowd, “I’m not even Catholic, but I love this Pope.” The atmosphere was festive, and it was both an historic and gorgeous day, so maybe the aura of civility was not such a surprise, but there were a lot of people operating in very close quarters.
  2. The gorgeous weather and significant traffic made it very conducive to walking during my two days in Washington. In my various forays around the city I was amazed to have strangers on the street greet me and even occasionally offer unsolicited help with directions when I would pause at an intersection and appear perplexed. In my experience, you rarely get unsolicited greetings in big metro areas on the East Coast. People have their guards up against unwanted solicitations or panhandlers and therefore typically even avoid eye contact. But the social rules seemed noticeably different to me during those two days. Certainly not everyone greeted me as I passed them, but it felt a lot more like Minneapolis (or even Collegeville!) than I had ever experienced before in Washington (or Boston or New York), with two exceptions noted below.
  3. On Thursday morning, as Abbot John and I walked toward the Library of Congress, an African-American woman driving some kind of delivery van stopped in the middle of the block and rolled down her window. She called out to Abbot John, who was looking clerical in his robe and Abbot’s Cross, “Did you see the Pope yesterday?” Abbot John explained that we have been on the lawn of the White House and saw the Pope from afar. Undeterred, she asked enthusiastically, “What did he say?” Abbot John quickly gave her a very abridged version of the Pope’s comments about compassion and love, as drivers were waiting behind her in the street, though without honking or showing any overt signs of impatience. After the brief recounting, she exclaimed, “Thanks. That is great. Have a wonderful day!” Not your typical Washington exchange.

I had experienced similar social interactions in East Coast areas twice before.

When I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, residents in the area were extremely friendly and engaging when the Red Sox were making a playoff run in 1986 and ultimately made it to the World Series (where they famously lost to the Mets). Everyone felt like your aunt or your brother-in-law as they delighted in the Sox’s success. Camaraderie around a sports team’s success is not uncommon, but it noticeably took the chill off social relations in Beantown for a few weeks that fall.

I was in New York City a couple months after 9/11. The city felt different than I had ever experienced it before or since. The best way to describe the experience is that people were being gentle, even tender with on another. New Yorkers (and we) were still suffering together.

Though the interactions were similar, the cause and tenor were different. In Boston it was a kind of superficial fun – we were all sports fans together. In New York it was a somber wake, as we mourned. In Washington the feeling was delight, joy and hope. People seemed surprised to be so moved by this Pope. In an era of political, racial, religious, or economic divides, we seem to be delighted by the unabashed goodness and sincerity of this man, especially so because maybe we were not sure we could still feel this way.

These are, of course, only my observations – anecdotes, as it were. I have no illusions that the Pope’s visit will permanently change social interactions in Washington (or New York or Philadelphia), and it is much easier to talk about the Gospel message than to put it into public policy, where real resources and inevitable trade offs are required.

But for a couple days we seemed to be able to put aside our differences and celebrate a message of hope and compassion. If we were able to do so for a couple of days, that suggests we may also be able to do it for a longer period.

By |September 28th, 2015|Categories: History||0 Comments

PR Heaven


Above (from left to right) are the participants in the presentation the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress, Abbot Klassen; Chairman of Joint Committee on the Library Sen. Roy Blunt,; Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington; Pope Francis; Speaker of the House John Boehner; Saint John’s University President Dr. Michael Hemesath; and GHR Foundation CEO Amy Rauenhorst Goldman. 
Photo: GHR Foundation

You can probably count on two hands the schools that do not have to worry about their brand and name recognition: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton–maybe it would only take one hand. Every other college or university in the country spends significant time and treasure promoting their brand and name recognition (and the aforementioned schools surely do as well).

Schools naturally care about their reputation with prospective students and parents. They also strive to maintain the goodwill and loyalty of their alumni. And finally, the general public’s opinion of schools (and higher education in general) can matter for funding if it’s a public university, but perceptions can also matter for public policy and legislative reasons for every institution.

Schools generally consider their media presence in three distinct, though often overlapping, markets.

The local market is actually the easiest to manage. The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University get very generous and helpful media coverage from St. Cloud area media, and The St. Cloud Times particular. I’m sure St. Mary’s University gets similar support from the Winona press and the College of Saint Scholastica from the Duluth media. There is a natural and built-in constituency in the hometown area of any college or university.

At the state level, things get a little more complicated for smaller institutions. The University of Minnesota obviously attracts interest from all over the state, but smaller institutions with smaller student bodies and fewer alumni are not always an interest across the whole state. Given the geography of Minnesota, with much of the media focused in the Twin Cities, every institution of higher education except the U is competing with each other for limited media coverage. Saint John’s has done reasonably well in the state market with our strong athletic brand, many loyal and successful alums and long history, but there is still a limit in the interest in Saint John’s related stories. And, truth be told, we face challenges in competing with the much larger and Twin Cities-based University of St. Thomas. But with personalities like John Gagliardi, alumni like Sen. Dave Durenberger and Rep. Mark Kennedy, as well as faculty like Louis Johnston, Annette Atkins and Nick Hayes, I think it is safe to say we punch well above our weight in the state media market.

At the national level, it is virtually impossible for small institutions to influence their media opportunities. Even the very top-ranked liberal arts colleges that everyone in academia recognize as national have almost no national media presence. Outside of the rarified world of higher education, places like Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore are little known, despite having produced influential alumni for decades.

To get national media attention as a small educational institution usually requires luck. Saint John’s has been lucky in recent years as our alumnus Denis McDonough has served as the Chief of Staff for President Obama, often putting him in the national eye. Though, interestingly, in this case, part of the attraction to Denis’s story is that he played football for John Gagliardi. I suspect that many people, when asked about Denis’s background, are more likely to remember he played for the winningest coach in college football history rather than the fact that he graduated from SJU. But we will take that!

All of these observations about media are simply to preface what an incredible week this is for Saint John’s University in the national media–how the stars have aligned in a way that is unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon.

First, as any sentient American knows, Pope Francis is making his first visit to America this week. As of this posting, he is in Washington DC and will soon go on to Philadelphia and New York. Saint John’s University has had the exceptional opportunity to be associated with this visit through The Saint John’s Bible project. Through the extraordinary generosity of the GHR Foundation, Saint John’s presented an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress, and therefore the American people, in honor of the Pope’s historic visit. Abbot John Klassen and I were privileged to be part of the presentation ceremony in which the Pope, House Majority Leader John Boehner and the Head of the Library of Congress Dr. James Billington, among others, were present. This media exposure – and association with possibly the most popular man on the planet – should give Saint John’s unprecedented national exposure.

Second, forty-eight hours later we will get to showcase another exceptional part of the Saint John’s story. ESPN Sports Center will be broadcasting live from Clemens Stadium from 6:00 to 8:00 on Saturday morning prior to the Johnnie-Tommie football game. In another unprecedented national media opportunity, Saint John’s will be representing not only itself but all of Division III athletics, as ESPN Sports Center On the Road has never visited a Division III institution before. This manna from media heaven was made possible in part through the hard work of a number of alumni, but a Gustavus alumnus and Augsburg alumnus also played a significant role in generously helping to bring this opportunity to Collegeville. Being Benedictine to our MIAC rivals should be its own reward, but in this case it has brought us national media exposure, too!

Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez once said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I certainly think SJU community members and our alums should strive to be good, as our Benedictine heritage teaches, but this is a week where we have been lucky as well. Very lucky. And we will take it.

Every day is a good day to be a Johnnie (or a friend of Johnnies), but I hope our many alumni and friends are enjoying this sweet week in Saint John’s University’s history as much as I am.

By |September 24th, 2015|Categories: Alumni, Higher Education, History||0 Comments

The Challenges of Sexual Assault on College Campuses

The White House's "It's On Us" campaign seeks to engage college students and all members of campus communities in preventing sexual assault in the first place. Image: @jillianhiscock via Twitter

The “It’s On Us” campaign seeks to engage college students and all members of campus communities in preventing sexual assault. Image: @jillianhiscock via Twitter

Many things have changed on college campuses in the past few decades, but among the biggest changes are the polices around alcohol abuse and sexual assault.  A generation ago the former was largely treated with a “kids will be kids” attitude and the latter was either unacknowledged or ignored.

Colleges and universities have made significant strides in improving the policies in both areas. Binge drinking is now treated as a serious health hazard , and sexual assault on campus, especially when the victim is not capable of giving consent due to impairment as a result of alcohol or drug consumption, is recognized as seriously harming victims and now falls under the Title IX enforcement of the Office for Civil Rights. These two policy challenges are often closely related because the vast majority of sexual assault cases involve the abuse of alcohol and the resulting impairment of judgment.  Colleges naturally try to protect all their students from the bad choices that can be, and often are, made when under the influence of alcohol.  In the case of sexual assault, the challenge for policy makers and college administrators is to balance the rights of assault complainants and respondents.  Those who believe they have been sexually assaulted deserve to have their complaints addressed sensitively and adjudicated fairly according to policies and procedures that are clear and understandable.  The respondent deserves a due process that protects his (or sometimes her) rights to a fair hearing.

This balancing between complainants and respondents is hard enough in the case of traditional criminal legal cases, but can be even more difficult when the standards of evidence are more complicated than the criminal “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.  Most Title IX Sexual Assault policies are adjudicated on the basis of the “preponderance of the evidence” or a “more likely than not” standard of evidence, as directed by the Office for Civil Rights.

The adjudication of Title IX policies on sexual assault has brought significant controversy to college campuses. Some have referred to “A War on College Men”, while others have written about the “sexual assault crisis on campuses.”

Legislators have naturally weighed in on this topic, but recent comments by a Colorado Representative have been particularly controversial as they appeared to give due process rights of respondents little weight.  U.S. Rep. Jared Polis has been criticized for remarks he made at a Congressional hearing suggesting that “college students accused of sexual assault may merit expulsion even if they’re not proved guilty.”

“It certainly seems reasonable that a school for its own purposes might want to use a preponderance of evidence standard, or even a lower standard,” he (Polis) said at a hearing on campus sexual assault prevention before the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. “Perhaps a likelihood standard. … If I was running a [college] I might say, well, even if there is only a 20 or 30 percent chance that it happened, I would want to remove this individual.” After a witness at the hearing, Foundation for Individual Rights lawyer Joseph Cohn, said applying this standard would deprive students of constitutional due process rights, Polis responded, “It seems like we ought to provide more of a legal framework, then, that allows a reasonable likelihood standard or a preponderance of evidence standard. If there are 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people. We’re not talking about depriving them of life or liberty, we’re talking about them being transferred to another university, for crying out loud.”

Responding to Polis’s comments, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh noted in the Washington Post that even if transferring were as easy as the Congressman suggested, innocents would still be hurt and campus would not be made safer:

The innocent expelled students would have their education badly disrupted and delayed. But the guilty students would, by hypothesis, just be at another university, where they’ll be able to attack their classmates (just a different set of classmates).  Indeed, if University A expels 10 students on this ground and they’ll go to University B, while University B expels 10 students on this ground and they’ll go to University A (“we’re talking about them being transferred to another university, for crying out loud”), the actual rapists will just be shuffled around from place to place, so neither university will get safer. And the wrongly accused (by hypothesis, eight or nine of them, compared to one or two correctly accused) will pay the cost.

There is no doubt that adjudicating actual sexual assault cases on campuses is difficult.  There are no winners in any of these cases, but if the safety of students and due process both matter, which they surely do, colleges and universities must do the hard work of developing policies that protect both complainants and respondents in the Title IX sexual assault cases that will be part of higher education for as long as undergraduates mix alcohol and sex.

By |September 16th, 2015|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments