Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part I, Essentials of a Liberal Arts Education?

A thoughtful note from a friend and fellow alumnus spurred me to some New Year’s reflections on the liberal arts and how we endeavor to educate the young men* who come to Saint John’s University.

While I have argued elsewhere that institutional communities made up of many diverse individuals can rarely be said to have a single “opinion” on political or social matters, I certainly believe that institutions, like colleges and universities, do have missions.  Faculty, staff and students all have a variety of choices in the matter of where they will work or study, and presumably the mission of the educational institution they choose is one of the most significant factors in that important decision.

One of the foundational elements of Saint John’s University’s mission is to provide a liberal arts education, and in this we are in exceptional company.  Most of our finest academic peers in Minnesota—Carleton, Macalester, St. Olaf, Gustavus Adolphus and Concordia-Moorhead—are liberal arts colleges, and most of the finest institutions in the United States—the Ivies, University of Chicago, Stanford—provide their undergraduates with a liberal arts education.  It is also true that many more comprehensive universities, especially the flagship public institutions, also provide a liberal arts education for many of their students.

While there is general agreement that a liberal arts education focuses on the arts and sciences, rather than on professional or vocational training, educators and students have wide-ranging beliefs about the specific purpose of such an education.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Hunter Rawlings III, former president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University, offered some stimulating reflections on what is important in a liberal education.  He, not surprisingly for a classicist, eloquently uses poetry, art and literature to propose “five essentials of a liberal education.”

Briefly:

1. Liberation: to liberate our students’ minds from the constraints of their often unexamined upbringing and natural provincialism and to produce their own “complex meanings.”
2. Irreverence: to encourage students to be serious about learning but not to impose “a stultifying reverence” on knowledge and education.
3. Pleasure: to have students have joy and excitement while they learn, in school and throughout life.
4. Provocation: to challenge students, to stretch them, to make them uncomfortable.
5. Courage: to give students the courage to try new and hard ideas and endeavors.

Rawlings acknowledges that his list is likely not exhaustive, writing, “Liberation, irreverence, pleasure, provocation, courage — those are, in my view, five essentials of liberal education. Many more could be proposed, of course.”

It is certainly hard to disagree with Rawlings’ list.  A student that graduates having meaningfully experienced these attributes of a liberal arts education will be well prepared for a lifetime of ongoing education and learning, with all the joys and successes that come with it.

Yet it seems to me there is something essential and even foundational missing from this list—something that distinguishes a liberal arts education at places like Saint John’s from those at Cornell or big public universities like the University of Iowa.  There is no clear reference to the spiritual lives of students.  Rawlings does not mention a search for truth, the development of values and morals, or the exploration of ultimate questions about meaning.  He does quote a physicist who suggests a liberal education should consider, “What is justice?  What is a good life?”  But Rawlings seems to consciously skirt those ultimate questions of meaning, existence and the timeless truths that invariably touch on students’ spiritual lives.

This absence would be unthinkable at a Catholic and Benedictine institution—and likely also at any institution that continues to be grounded in its faith based origins.  (Ironically, of course, the earliest United States universities were founded, in part, to educate clergy.)

None of Rawlings essentials would be missing from a liberal education at Saint John’s but a quick look at our mission, vision and values clearly reminds students that there is another essential that is at least as important at those noted above:

Mission of Saint John’s University
Grounded in Catholic and Benedictine values and tradition, Saint John’s University provides young men a distinctive residential liberal arts education, preparing them to reach their full potential and instilling in them the values and aspiration to lead lives of significance and principled achievement.

Vision for the College of Arts and Sciences
Saint John’s University seeks to be one of the nation’s great Catholic liberal arts colleges by providing the best holistic learning experience for men in the country.

We will inspire undergraduate men to new heights of intellectual, spiritual, physical and social development that is informed by ethical reflection and grounded in our Catholic and Benedictine tradition.

Values
Dedicated to the pursuit of understanding, wisdom, and the common good, Saint John’s University is committed to the following values:

Community built upon relationships of hospitality, respect, cooperation, and challenge.
Openness to learning, inquiry, beauty, truth, and difference.
Respect for persons, tradition, creativity, experience, faith, reason, and religious practice.
Depth in understanding, relationships, faith, and spirituality.
Sacredness of God, being, truth, place, nature, and knowledge.
Passion for excellence, truth, learning, beauty, love, and personal growth.

This essential part of a Saint John’s liberal education is certainly not to suggest that the goal is to preach, proselytize or convert.  Students are not told what to think or believe, but encouraged to explore the spiritual side of their humanity, something that is a natural part of their growth into adulthood.  A student’s answers to the questions of what he believes or does not believe is often foundational to the person he becomes and the life he chooses to lead.

There is nothing wrong with the five essentials that Rawlings proposes, but at Saint John’s (among other institutions with ongoing commitments to religious traditions) to think about a liberal education without immediately considering the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose and spiritual concerns misses an important, maybe the important, purpose of the liberal arts.  Most of the finest liberal arts institutions were  founded around these questions, but a much small number of those institutions continue to make these questions central to the education of their students.  At Saint John’s University, we still do.

*With our single academic program, the women who are educated at the College of Saint Benedict have an experience very much like that of the men at Saint John’s, but, given my role, it is appropriate that I limit my claims to what happens in Collegeville.

By |January 5th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Tax Reform and Higher Education

Now that the Tax Cuts and Job Act of 2017 has been passed it is possible to examine the implications for higher education.  The tax reform bill is of particular interest to higher education because from its earliest drafts, Congress, and the House of Representatives, in particular, seemed to target higher education in ways that would raise costs for families and students.  This apparent objective flies in the face the increasing need for investments in human capital for young people (see here and here) and of vocal concerns about the increasing costs of a college education (see here here and here).

The initial version of the tax reform included the taxing of tuition benefits for employees, graduate students and employees dependents.  It eliminated the deduction for student loan interest, as well as tax-free financing for private college and university capital projects.  The bill also proposed a 2% tax on endowment returns that would have affected about 250 institutions (Saint John’s University would have fallen just outside the original threshold).  These provisions naturally spurred institutions, students and families to lobby Congress, arguing that the proposed changes would make it harder for students to afford what is increasingly becoming a required credential for the middle class and for institutions to hold down tuition costs.

In the end, the outcome was not as dire as first feared, as the Senate bill, which was largely the basis for the final bill, was not as punitive toward higher education .*  The taxing of tuition benefits was removed from the final bill.  The deductibility of student loan interest was retained and only with refinancing of capital projects does the interest become taxable.  The endowment tax remained but was dropped to 1.4% of investment returns and the endowment per student threshold was raised to $500,000, which dropped the number of institutions affected to approximately 32.

From the perspective of the academy and economic research that emphasizes the importance of investment in human capital for long-run economic growth, good sense mostly prevailed.

Yet three questions remain.

    1. Why would Congress punish private institutions?  The endowment tax will only apply to private institutions despite the fact that many public institutions also have billion dollar endowments.  One of the strengths of the American higher education system is the diversity of options available to students: 4500+ institutions of higher education, of which 2200+ are four year degree granting institutions.  Private institutions range widely in size, program offerings and the nature of the student experience.  They are also among some of the world’s finest schools and draw many thousands of the best international students in the world to the United States.  While private institutions do benefits from some government grant and loan programs, they do not directly seek government revenues in the way public institutions do.  Anything that would weaken this sector seems to be cutting off one’s educational nose to spite one’s growth-focused face.
    2. Why tax endowments?  While endowments certainly confer prestige and have a significant impact in some rankings, they serve a very important role in providing financial stability in uncertain times and allow institutions to make a long run reputational/quality promise to students and faculty.  Endowments also, in normal economic times when market returns are at long-run historic levels, allow for institutions to do some combination of: covering costs that rise usually rise faster than inflation (labor costs), moderating tuition increases and increasing programming, research activity or educational quality.  In short, endowments provide an important source of revenue that allows institutions, at least potentially, to control tuition while maintaining institutional quality.  Taxing them makes this less possible. In addition, the gifts that schools used to build their endowments were given with the understanding that the returns would be untaxed, as colleges and universities are non-profits.  This new provision obviously violates that understanding and potentially impacts future giving.  Furthermore, it opens the door for taxing any charitable institution’s endowment, from less well-off schools to foundations of any kind.  This change represents a fundamental change in the way charitable organizations are treated in tax law.
    3. Have Congressional and public attitudes toward higher education changed?  This last question strikes me as the most important one.  Some commentators have observed that the provision targeting higher education are primarily political.  The Minding the Campus blog argues :

      Public attitudes toward universities have distinctly soured in recent years. What the public perceives as outrageous student behavior, feckless university leadership, and excessive tuition fees has combined with a growing hostility by Republican lawmakers angered over the large political donations and public criticism that academics have made attempting to oust them from office. Lawmakers are growing tired of feeding the mouths that bite them. Revenues raised by taxing colleges can modestly help fund other tax reductions that lawmakers want to make, which are probably economically beneficial to the well over 90 percent of the population living outside the Ivory Towers of Academia.

This hypothesis does not address why the provisions in the new tax law focus on private institutions (recall incidents at Berkley and Evergreen State), but it is consistent with the current contentious political environment.

If this interpretation of the tax provisions is accurate, the question for higher education and the public is whether these views are temporary or represent a fundamental shift in attitudes. There is very strong evidence that a well-educated populace plays an important role in long-run economic growth (for example see here and here ). There is also evidence that the changing role of technology in the economy is requiring a more educated workforce. All of which suggests that higher education has and will continue to play a central role in the prosperity of individuals, their families and the country as a whole.

To let politics get in the way of educating young people, either on campuses or in legislative bodies, will leave us all poorer.

*One other provision in the final version of the tax law that is likely to impact colleges and universities is the doubling of the standard deduction, which will cause the number of itemizing taxpayer to drop from about 30% of taxpayers to 5%. Though this change was largely aimed at tax simplification rather than targeting higher education and other charities.

You Are Our Brand

I regularly tell students that in many of the circles they will travel after they graduate, and even during their undergraduate years, that when someone learns they are a Johnnie that this knowledge will bring with it assumptions and expectations.

Almost always those expectations will be positive and prove helpful to the Johnnie.  The specifics vary by individual and situation but non-alums or parents have told me on different occasions that Johnnies are smart, hard-working, creative, modest, loyal, thoughtful, ethical, fun, spiritual, kind and just..good..guys, among other things.

I don’t tell young Johnnies this to swell their heads or pump them up, but to remind them of two things:

  1. The many graduates that have gone before them have established a reputation for Saint John’s and Johnnies that they benefit from, and they owe these previous generations a debt of gratitude.
  2. They, the young men in my audience, are, or soon will be, the Johnnies in the world that must live up to that reputation and maintain it as a sacred trust for the generations to come.

I was reminded of this first point when I received an email that was making the rounds on campus recently.
A friend of a Johnnie had written a touching tribute to his Johnnie friend on why he loved and respected him and on how the Johnnie had come to help the writer appreciate what happens at Saint John’s (and Saint Ben’s.)

I have taken the liberty of hiding the writer’s identity and editing his words slightly to preserve his anonymity.  I have also called his friend simply “Johnnie,” as I know that the true Johnnie in question would modestly prefer to remain anonymous.

I also think that the writer could be virtually any Johnnie’s friend and the subject could be any of thousands of Johnnies.

Advice For College Students: Who you are Speaks Louder Than What you Do
by A Friend of a Johnnie

I received the list and it looked impressive.

It contained the topics being offered to student leaders at the upcoming Saint John’s University/College of Saint Benedict Student Leadership Seminar.

The voice at the other end of the phone was confident and articulate, crisp and engaged. It was the President of the Saint John’s University student body.

“We’ve had a speaker who had to cancel last minute (the conference is in one week) and we wondered if you might be able to speak in his place? Here are some of the topics we have so far: Goal setting and project management. Leveraging your leadership. Business leadership. Innovation. Managing a team. Building and marketing a brand. What do you think?”

Wow.

Knowing that this opportunity was in the works for a few days, I had the chance to rough out a speech in my mind. But it was quite different from the topics this bright young man was proposing. Oh, I think I could give a decent twenty to thirty minute talk on most of them, but these were more pragmatic, tactical topics. My sense of what young college leaders needed to hear was a bit more visionary.

So here is what I would like to say:

Saint John’s University in Collegeville, MN is barely an hour away from my home in Minneapolis. For years, my family has driven by it (largely unaware of the towering Abbey Church amidst distant forest) en route to a lake resort by Detroit Lakes or (years later) on my way home from college or my wife’s North Dakota family home. That was about as much as I knew of Saint John’s, until I met Johnnie.

Johnnie is my senior by about fifteen years. He is the physician who recruited me to my current clinical position, is one of the closest friends I have ever had, and is one of the wisest people I have ever known. He is a Saint John’s graduate. For seventeen years, I have known Johnnie, had lunch with him, gone out for beers, taught with him, exchanged towel-snapping humor and plumbed topics ranging from faith and politics, history and literature. And over the years, Johnnie has taught me a great deal about Saint John’s. When Johnnie begins reflecting on the university, it’s as if he just left the campus yesterday. The landscape in his language brings Saint John’s to life. From the cavernous Abbey Church and the buzzing Refectory to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and woodworking shop, from the Great Hall and the quadrangle to the Abbey guesthouse and the Stella Maris chapel on the lake. In Johnnie’s telling, these are sites of great fun and a little maturity, raw buffoonery and intense spiritual growth. I’ve heard gut-busting stories where close friends secretly removed the passenger seat from his car as he returned to it on a first date. And I’ve learned from how moved he was seeing a solitary twelve-year-old boy enter the empty Abbey Church at mid-day, pray for ten minutes, sign himself, then go about his day.

But the thing that has always stuck with me about Saint John’s University (and by extension, its sister College of Saint Benedict) is that culture matters. Clearly, different colleges draw different people to themselves, so there is a skewed (if I may say, impressively skewed) population of students who are choosing to go to Saint John’s. Notwithstanding the type of people who have chosen to attend Saint John’s, a college, if it is doing its job, is not simply meant to educate. It is supposed to form. And formation is not a matter of bestowing knowledge, but engendering wisdom. Even more than fostering skills and employability, college should forge character. Beyond offering facts that populate the mind, college should offer lessons that cultivate the soul. Saint John’s did that for Johnnie. Granted, his antennae (more than most of his contemporaries) were out for spiritual mentors, wise professors and enduring friendships. And he found them. My flaw was that I was a bit too stressed and utilitarian about getting into medical school to pay close attention to culture in college. While I had an excellent college experience, I will admit that at times superficialities eclipsed the transcendent. But for Johnnie, something in him incessantly looked for this substance and he found it. He found it at Saint John’s.

Since I met Johnnie, I have been to Saint John’s campus twice, my wife has participated in a spiritual retreat there and we have brought my young daughters to campus. I own a Saint John’s baseball cap and T-shirt and shamelessly plug the College of St. Benedict to my young daughters. And to this day, upon finding out that a person of particularly impressive and intriguing character (bright, witty, religious, deep, grounded) went to Saint John’s (or Saint Ben’s), I simply nod my head and say to myself, “Well, that makes sense.”
When I first encountered Johnnie (and ever since we have been friends), I have been impressed with what he has done, but I am moved by who he is.

The degrees, awards and accolades that will be granted to graduates from Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s will be noteworthy and useful, but they will matter far less than the character into which each graduate has been formed. And the tactics by which you lead (while important) will matter far less than the integrity by which you live.

Who you are speaks louder than what you do.

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Each and every alumnus is our living and breathing brand, each and every day, in each and every interaction and a powerful example of our mission to the world.  Thank you, Johnnie.

By |November 14th, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments