Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

Saint John’s: Ready for the Next Generation?

Like every parent, my wife and I reflect on and sometimes worry about our sons’ futures. On the one hand our boys were born into a family with extraordinary blessings. They were born in a country with unrivaled freedoms and opportunities. They were born in an era that is by far the richest in human history, with incredible scientific, technological and health care advances being made almost daily. The future could hardly be brighter for Cameron, Sebastian and Alexander.

And yet, as is true in every generation, there are challenges, hurdles and uncertainties that weigh on the minds of their parents, who also happen to be educators.

So as I reflect on the future of my sons, I also naturally think about the future for the next generation of Johnnies, those iGen or Gen Z (roughly the generation born after 1995) students who entered college in recent years and their younger siblings who will be the classmates of my sons.

While certainly not exhaustive and probably biased toward educational issues given my world view, the following are among the issues that I think about when I consider the future for Johnnies and my sons.

Economic uncertainty. While the current economy is very strong and unemployment rates are at their lowest levels in 60 years, the long run future is still uncertain. Uncertainty about the economic future has been part of the world since the Industrial Revolution and is mostly a good thing, at least compared to being tied to the land as a peasant or serf. A dynamic economy, however, requires new skills and talents of every generation. A globalizing and technologically vibrant economy also seems to change even more quickly than in past decades. What will the job market need in ten years, to say nothing of 25 or 50 years? What skills and experiences will an educated employee need? What do those demands mean for educational institutions? That future is both exciting and unclear.

Artificial Intelligence. Related to the general economic uncertainty, but a 21st century phenomenon, is the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). The Luddites of the early Industrial Revolution worried that power looms and the steam engines would decrease the demand for textile workers because of the enhanced productivity these innovations brought. What is new, however, is the possibility that whole industries will cease to need humans. Will truck drivers still be needed in a world of self-driving vehicles? Will radiologists be needed to read x-rays? Will accountants be needed to reconcile and review financial transactions? What about lawyers? Could even counselors be replaced by robots? What work will require humans in this brave new world–work that will continue to provide meaning and callings and not just jobs?

Digital natives and social media. One thing is certainly clear: iGen students and my sons are digital natives. They have been swimming in technology from birth and live a screen-mediated existence. My 5 years-olds swipe, navigate and click with the best of them (which may be a reflection of their dad’s parenting skills or lack thereof). Obviously facility with technology has benefits in education and in the job market. Such skills will be assumed in every educated adult. But, as is typically the case, there are tradeoffs, in part because digital natives are often deeply immersed in the social media world.

While social media can broaden kids’ worlds and allow them to connect electronically with others, there is also preliminary evidence that social media may be linked to stress, depression and even suicide in kids.

Saint John’s graduate Joe Cavanaugh ’81, the founder of Youth Frontiers and a 30 year veteran of working with kids, reports seeing more socially challenged, stressed and anxious kids in his programs. How will this generation navigate through these choppy social waters? Will growing up screen focused harm children’s ability to relate in person? What kinds of social skills will our children bring into adulthood? Will my sons grow up to be empathetic and socially engaged?

Political and social climate. Another unique aspect of the lives of iGeners is that they have come to political maturity in a time of heightened political and social tension. While maybe not quite as fraught as the 1960s, this generation’s political and social experiences have often been either sharp, tense, emotional disagreement or cocooning, often on social media, with like minded souls. Will iGen Johnnies be able to listen and learn from each other? Will they be open to challenging their own world views and thoughtfully and modestly share their beliefs with others? Will they seek political and social engagement or simply withdraw into their family and private lives?

Boys. Finally, I think about the future of boys. Growing up presents its own issues and difficulties for both boys and girls, but in recent years there has been increasing attention paid to the challenges faced by boys, with some observers even calling the school environment a “war against boys.” That description may be too strong, but it is certainly the case that by many measures boys are under-performing their sisters (here and here).

When Title IX was passed in 1972,

there was little doubt that the nation’s colleges and universities failed to afford equality of opportunity to young women. Back then, only 42 percent of the students enrolled in American colleges were female. Forty-five years later, the reality is quite different. Gender ratios for college enrollment have flipped 180 degrees, with males comprising the 42 percent minority.
That’s not the only major change in the last 45 years. Women now earn the majority of post- secondary degrees at every level. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 52 percent of doctorates, 57 percent of master’s degrees, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, and 61 percent of associate degrees are awarded to women.

Boys are also struggling in more personal ways. Boys are three times as likely to be diagnosed with emotional disturbances than girls and also three times as likely to be expelled from elementary and secondary schools. Teenaged boys are five times as likely to commit suicide and eight times as likely to be behind bars.

Behind these numbers is surely immeasurable personal pain and private challenges for individual boys and tremendous untapped potential for our country and the world. How can we help boys to realize all they can be for themselves, their families and our communities?

Hope. Despite the real challenges noted above for iGen Johnnies and my three sons, I look to the future with great hope for young men, in part because I have met hundreds of our graduates who are now parenting their sons (and daughters) with an eye and heart toward helping them reach their full potential. Parental support is certainly among the most important factors for thriving children.

I also am hopeful, with all due Benedictine modesty, because of what I have experienced and seen Saint John’s University do for young men from the earliest Baby Boomers of the 1960s and continuing today for the earliest iGen graduates of recent years.

Liberal Arts and Sciences. The broad-based education the monks of Saint John’s provided Baby Boomers certainly served them well judging by the personal and professional successes of our Johnnie alumni. In a far different economy, I believe iGeners will be served equally well. The classic arts and sciences have certainly not remained unchanged over the past 60 years, as every discipline has seen tremendous additions to knowledge, most of which have been incorporated into Saint John’s syllabi and classrooms. It is not your father’s philosophy or psychology or chemistry degree.

Furthermore, in addition to traditional skills like clear writing, analytical reasoning and quantitative analysis, the faculty now also emphasize oral communication, group work, cultural competencies and information literacy. Whether a student majors in an art or science field or a more vocationally oriented major like accounting or nursing, he leaves Collegeville with a breadth of knowledge and exposure to different ideas and ways of thinking that will serve him well over a career in an ever-changing job market. Saint John’s graduates are lifetime learners because of their liberal arts and sciences orientation to the world.

These same graduates will also be prepared for the challenges artificial intelligence might offer. Robots are especially adept at rote tasks and responsibilities that require speed. What they are less good at are tasks that require being truly human. The things that make us most human—handling uncertainty, being empathetic, making ethical judgments, considering nuance—are all at the heart of a great liberal arts and sciences education, even as content and subjects change over time.

The Residential Experience. While there will certainly be a place in higher education for distance learning and the asynchronous delivery of content, living and learning on campus provided Baby Boomers the opportunity to interact with each other and with monks in and out of the classroom. Saint John’s alums report that such experiences both stretched their world views and provided mentoring that helped them grow emotionally, socially, spiritually and intellectually.

These same experiences now benefit iGeners, though they have a much more diverse group of classmates, including women from Saint Ben’s, and a far wider range of extra-curricular offerings to explore on campus and off. In addition, if the current generation of students comes to Saint John’s less socially experienced, adept and comfortable than the Baby Boomers, the residential experience may well provide even more value-added than for earlier generations.

The residential setting also provides a needed antidote to the political and social balkanization of this historic moment. The political, ethnic, racial, religious, sexual orientation and geographic diversity currently found among Johnnies encourages and even requires that students get a little uncomfortable in their social and academic lives. They are living and learning in a world not unlike the one they will soon inhabit as adults, and they and the world are better for it.

Men Only. The single sex experience for both Baby Boomers and iGen lets men experience authentic male relationships without the enticing but distracting presence of women on campus. At its best, when young men are truly committing to their peers and the Saint John’s community, the unique single sex experience creates a brotherhood of relationships that often lasts a lifetime.

I remain deeply confident that the exceptional faculty and staff at Saint John’s will continue to provide iGen Johnnies the transformative education that is the hallmark of the Johnnie experience.

Current Johnnies, of course, have women in their classes, but they also get more intentional programming on campus designed for men, around spiritual, emotional, academic and professional issues, among other topics. This explicit focus on men can counter some of the social and emotional challenges that iGen students face growing up.

The Catholic and Benedictine Ethos. The whole Johnnie experience is leavened by the unique Catholic and Benedictine ethos. This 1500-year tradition builds a moral foundation built on respect for individuals and self, builds commitment to the greater community, provides hospitality for all, and encourages the exploration of ultimate questions about meaning and values, all in an open and non-proselytizing manner.

At its best, the Johnnie experience remains transformative. A Saint John’s education continues to feed intellectual hunger, support emotional needs, build social relationships, foster professional aspirations, and nurture the desire for meaning that every young man has.

I trust my sons will be able to have that experience too, once they get through the hurdles of elementary school, the angst of middle school and drama of high school!

By |July 31st, 2019|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

An Academic Life

It began in a different era. It was the early 1960s. Higher education enrollment was growing quickly as the need for post-secondary education became more apparent in an increasingly white collar economy and baby boomers were starting to make their impact on many institution.

Saint John’s at the time was a typical, small, liberal arts college with a significant number of residential students, but its central Minnesota location also meant that many of the Catholic boys were “dayhops,” non-residential students who lived at home in St. Cloud or Avon or Melrose.

One thing Saint John’s did not emphasize was a personalized mentoring education. The economics of that just did not work. While monks were relatively inexpensive compared to lay faculty, the small town and rural Catholic families who sent their boys to be first-generation Johnnies had lots of mouths to feed. Many a young man told Fr. Don LeMay, who was the admissions and financial aid office rolled into one, “I’d love to come to Saint John’s, but my family can’t afford it.” To which he invariably replied, “Come to Saint John’s. We’ll figure it out.” Young monks were part of the solution.

The monastery, in those early Vatican II days still had over 300 monks. Yet even as undergraduate enrollments grew, many monks were not interested or prepared to teach, or were otherwise engaged. So young monks were asked (strongly encouraged?) to step in. Their individual disciplinary interests were not an overriding concern. A monk might love math but be expected to teach physics. Sometimes the stretch was even further–a humanist might be called to become a social scientist. The little matter of degrees was also somewhat flexible–a bachelor’s degree was required, naturally, but maybe that was enough for the moment. There were Catholic boys that needed teaching and their parents cared more about the Catholic part than for some academic niceties. The constraints (tyranny?) of credentials, assessment and accreditation were still mostly in the future.

Fr. Rene McGraw was 27 in the fall of 1962. He had a Saint John’s bachelor’s degree, earned with honors, and a strong interest in both English and philosophy. He had been ordained that summer, and this probably tipped the scale in the Abbot’s mind toward philosophy. Plus the common curriculum at a Catholic university in the early 1960s would have been heavily weighted toward philosophy and theology–a lost golden era for humanist lovers of the liberal arts.

Those first philosophy classes were a challenge. There was no graduate training to rely on, only undergraduate class notes and his own close reading. Furthermore, there was little opportunity to engage Socratically with students. Classroom enrollments were in the high double digits, sometimes topping 100. The largest Fr. Rene recalls was 120. Pedagogy was largely limited to lecturing, and there was little opportunity to ask for written assignments. The grading would have been insurmountable. Tests were short answers and even grading those was no easy task.

But the intellectual engagement was powerful and the interactions with students, as challenging as they were in a class of 80 or 90, were a deep joy. The Abbot decided an investment in graduate school might be worthwhile. So Rene went off to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for a master’s degree, working part-time as a parish priest during these years. Then shortly thereafter, off to the University of Paris for a brief three year Ph.D. in a second language–something most academics “stuck” in Paris surely would have stretched to five or six years.

And then back to the Saint John’s classroom and his students.

There have been sabbaticals, one to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and another to Oxford. There have been other Abbey responsibilities that occasionally required course releases. There was also the lifelong personal commitment to social justice and peace that led, with the help of others, to the development of the Peace Studies Department and major. Rene then taught in both programs, bringing a philosophical rigor to his peace studies course exploring aesthetics and technology.

And throughout, there has been the other side of the commitment to teaching Johnnies: nearly 40 years as a faculty resident to callow freshmen that he helped to nurture, eventually, into men, many of whom were lucky and blessed enough to become lifelong friends.

Between teaching and mentoring young men, Fr. Rene has surely touched as many lives as any individual in Saint John’s long history.

The one constant for Rene is that “teaching philosophy…has never become routine for me. A phrase of Heidegger, an insight from Aristotle, an apothegm from Nietzsche, an ethical demand from Camus or Levinas startles me as much now as it did when I first started teaching in 1962. Teaching philosophy has never ceased to excite me.”

This academic life comes to a bittersweet end for Rene this week, at age 83, after 52 years in the classroom. “I could not think of a better way to spend a life than in the classroom with a text of Heidegger or Levinas in my hand.”

Every faculty member, of course, has his or her own personal and meaningful version of an academic life, but Saint John’s will be a lesser place for no longer having Rene in its classrooms, and thousands of Johnnies and Bennies are the better for having had that gift.

Fr. Rene McGraw is celebrated by students, friends and colleagues as he makes his way back to the Philosophy Department after his last class on Friday 3, 2019, after 52 years in Saint John’s classrooms.

A Commitment to Something Bigger than Yourself

This story is about typical Johnnies.

Chris grew up in Wisconsin in an intact middle-class family.  In high school he was a good student and an avid soccer player.  He has an identical twin, Dave, who he loved and competed with throughout high school. 

They were not planning on going to college together but when their two different first choice colleges dropped out of consideration for various reasons, each happily opted for their number two that now became number one: Saint John’s.

Despite eventually earning a master’s degree in philosophy, academics were not a dominant consideration in Chris’s college choice.  He sheepishly admits that having a gym literally steps from his freshman dorm played an outsized role in choosing Saint John’s.

Dave, too, was much more focused on his love of soccer than on any of the course offerings that might prepare him for his eventual Ph.D.

First year was fine and relatively uneventful.  The twins wanted a little distance from each other, but fate would only allow them to get so far apart: Chris was on 3rd Tommy and Dave on 2nd Tommy.  With both being on the short wing, almost on top of each other, the rooms conveniently allowed for yelled communications out the window and the passing of clothes between floors. 

They both played soccer for Coach Pat Haws.  They made friends on their floors and settled into the academic routine.  They got teased as Cheeseheads by the Minnesotans.  They were happy to be Johnnies.  Typical stuff.

Sophomore year Chris found himself settled but not fulfilled.  Like so many Johnnies, once he had the time management down, he discovered he had time for other activities, some of which were social, naturally, but he was also looking for something with a little more meaning to engage his time.  He heard about the Big Brothers program on campus and decided to sign up.  Johnnies were paired with local boys, mostly in St. Joe, as cars were less common in the 1990s.  Chris got paired up with TJ.

TJ and Chris in 1993

A little younger than most Little Brothers, TJ was five. He lived with his single mom who had unexpectedly found herself pregnant.  His father was not around.  His mother thought that an adult male would be a good influence, and a young, fit Johnnie would be able to keep up with TJ’s energy.  With multiple siblings, Chris was game, even if none were as young as TJ.  They did the usual Big Brother, Little Brother things when a college campus is your playground: hiking, using the gym, going to athletic events, hanging out.

They became close and TJ’s mom expressed her appreciation to Chris for the role he was playing in her son’s life.  But, of course, college life moves on.  Chris became a senior.  Typically, as the Big Brother gets ready to graduate, the Little Brother (and his parents) decide if they want to continue in the program, and, if so, a new Big Brother gets assigned.

Here Chris made a bold decision for a footloose, soon to be 22-year-old college student: he made a lifelong commitment to TJ that changed both their futures.

Though naturally looking beyond Collegeville to his own future, it would have been understandable, easy and perfectly acceptable to allow TJ to get matched up with another random Johnnie.  But Chris not only felt close to TJ, he also saw that this 8-year-old might benefit from some special attention from someone who understood his background and needs. 

Chris recruited a sophomore that he had come to know and respect to be TJ’s new Big Brother.  Smart, fun and thoughtful, Chris knew his friend Matt would help TJ grow to be confident and kind.  Matt joyfully stepped into the role—both providing continuity for the boy but also a continued connection to Chris.  TJ’s mom was delighted as this odd little family grew.

For the next two years, Matt provided the fun, support and male role model for TJ.  Chris stayed in touch with both TJ and his mother but was not able to be physically present, save occasional visits to campus.  As Matt approached graduation, the same transition question arose though now two “surrogate” fathers had a stake in TJ’s future.

The solution was actually easier at this juncture.  The growing family stayed all in the family.

Chris’s twin, Dave, was returning to Saint John’s to work in Campus Ministry and coach Bennie soccer, so the now 11-year-old TJ got a third Big Brother, whom he had already known for years.  Dave spent several years in Campus Ministry and the three committed Johnnies got TJ (and his mom) into his early teenage years before other commitments finally took all three men away from Collegeville as their post-graduate horizons broadened.

Even as distance made TJ’s relationship to his Big Brothers more challenging, the emotional ties were tightened as the three Johnnies had their own deep connections to each other, one of which was love of this growing boy. 

The ties became more like blood relations, as TJ’s mom made these relationships a priority too.  Though on a modest income, she found a way to get herself and her son to England, Washington DC, El Salvador, New York and Spain on separate visits that showed TJ how to be adventurous and brave, and reminded him of how important it was to stay in touch with his Big Brothers, regardless of where they were working or studying.

When it came time for college, TJ’s path was more like that of a second or third generation student than that of the first-generation student he was.  Because he had spent years growing up on the Saint John’s campus, mentored by young men for whom college was an automatic next step and not truly a choice, TJ automatically assumed college was in his future, too. 

TJ’s college graduation w/his 3 Big Brothers in Marshall, MN in 2010

Again, his heroic mother made it financially possible, so TJ got a bachelor’s degree from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and eventually a graduate degree, just like his three Big Brothers. 

None of the adults in his life think this outcome would have been likely without that fortuitous Big Brother connection at age five and the tripartite commitment that followed.

Each of these four men have attended the others’ weddings, including TJ’s, and this uniquely Johnnie family stays in touch now 25 years on, a tribute to the power of committing to something bigger than yourself, a beautiful atypical Johnnies’ story that has touched far more than five lives. 

And it is a story that the three Brothers believe was uniquely inspired by the Benedictine emphasis on community and service.

By |April 22nd, 2019|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments