To Speak for Saint John’s—Or Not*

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To Speak for Saint John’s—Or Not*

Saint John's University logoRarely does a week go by when I am not asked, as the President of Saint John’s, to commit the University to a position on some public issue beyond Collegeville.  The requests come from alumni, parents, students, faculty and outside organizations.  Each wants the public support of Saint John’s on a particular issue.  These issues typically have two characteristics.  They are complicated and multidimensional—no one asks Saint John’s to support motherhood and apple pie—and they are emotional—the individuals requesting the University’s support typically feel very strongly about the issue, as do those on the other side.  The most recent request was to take a position on President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

As these requests started coming more often, I decided it was important to have some general guidelines and not respond on a case by case basis.  I am in an incredibly privileged position to be able to make, with input from colleagues, such judgments, but it is also a position that I approach with great care.  I very rarely want others to speak for me,  and I assume that is true of others  in the Saint John’s community as well.

I now approach these issues by asking three questions:

The first question I ask is, “Who is Saint John’s?”  As an institution, we represent many constituencies and between monks, employees, students and alumni, Saint John’s is more than 25,000 individuals.  If you include parents and friends, the number approaches 40,000.  We are a very diverse community, which is a tremendous strength, but does not lend itself to homogeneity of thought.

As such, I am very, very hesitant to offer an “institutional” position on any political or social issue because in virtually every case there will be significant disagreement within the community. Institutions don’t normally have opinions or positions, individuals do, and I do not feel it is my right or the University’s right to speak for those individuals on political or social issues where they naturally have their own views and where thoughtful, well-intentioned  Johnnies are likely to disagree.

The second question I consider is about exceptions to this general guideline above.  Does the issue at hand have a direct and significant effect on our students and our educational mission?  For example, there is an ongoing debate around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a law that, under certain conditions, prevents the deportation of undocumented students who came to the United States as children.  This issue clearly has a direct impact on some of our students, and Saint John’s took a public stance this fall in support of the continuation of DACA.  Because the law has a direct impact on some students and our goal of educating them, I felt it was appropriate to express and defend an institutional position, even as I know there are some in the Saint John’s community who would disagree.

The third question I consider when asked to take a position is that of the educational impact.  Is the issue at hand likely to come up in classrooms, dormitories or other public settings?  If the political or social issue is part of an active public debate and is not directly about educational policy, no institutional position is usually the right choice for the education of our students.

I believe that when Saint John’s takes an institutional position on any issue, we run the real risk of stifling debate on campus and within our community.  If there is the perception that there is an orthodox or “correct” view on an issue, faculty, staff and especially students may feel they are not able to express their disagreement or even debate the merits of differing positions.  This is particularly relevant in the classroom and is a position I have come to from over twenty-five years as a professor.  There can be no more harmful action at an educational institution than to do something that limits, or even risks limiting, the freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.  That, of course, is what academic freedom and education are all about.

Saint John’s University, as an institution, will certainly help our students in almost any way we can to pursue and achieve their educational dreams, but only in rare circumstances does this include taking a public and official university stance on a matter of policy or politics.  Sometimes no position is truly the best position.

A version of this post will appear in CSB/SJU’s student newspaper, The Record, on February 10, 2017.

By |February 9th, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|16 Comments

About the Author:

Michael Hemesath
Michael Hemesath is the 13th president of Saint John's University. A 1981 SJU graduate, Hemesath is the first layperson appointed to a full presidential term at SJU. You can find him on Twitter [at] PrezHemesath.

16 Comments

  1. Michael Robertson February 9, 2017 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    Very sad…

  2. CSBSJU MOM February 9, 2017 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    As an educator and a proud parent of an CSBSJU student, I appreciate your carefulness here. One of the biggest compliments I’ve received as an educator came recently when my students included me with only a handful of other instructors whom they identified as having not been able to pinpoint their political persausion during this past very contentious election. This too came after many thought provoking discussions on the nature of the election. What a relief and affirmation to know that my personal opinions did not infect their freedom to discuss and discern. Thank-you for providing this same unbiased playing field for your students.

  3. Russell Peter Lemker February 9, 2017 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    President Hemesath, respectfully, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees. Be not afraid.

  4. Nolan Bauer February 10, 2017 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Thank you. Well put!

  5. Hardwick David February 10, 2017 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Hello Michael,
    Thank you for your blog regarding the question of speaking for St. John’s. While I agree with virtually all of your writing, I do take issue with the question regarding President Trump’s executive order. Here the issue is not one of an institutional “position” but has to do with the intrinsic moral stand of St. John’s in the world. Certainly it is inappropriate for our University to stand by without comment while the leader of our government actively advocates both religious and racial intolerance. I urge you to address this issue in future blogs. Further, following the lead of my fellow alumnus Kerem Durdag, I urge you to lead our University by example by inviting well-known leaders from the countries and religions denigrated by our current US President to St. John’s where they can lead seminars, present lectures, teach classes and otherwise impart their wisdom to our student body, faculty, alumni and friends.

  6. Aubrey Immelman February 11, 2017 at 8:22 am - Reply

    This position statement has elicited some dissenting responses on the Faculty Discussion List, for example:

    “President Hemesath’s stance is out of step with the challenges that our campuses face on a daily basis and have been facing for quite a while. No one has asked President Hemesath to provide a public (or private) endorsement of a political party or figure. Our communities are asking for leadership on topics of social justice and inclusivity that directly impact our campus.”

    I think President Hemesath’s position is defensible with respect to inclusivity:

    “The first question I ask is, ‘Who is Saint John’s?’ As an institution, we represent many constituencies and between monks, employees, students and alumni, Saint John’s is more than 25,000 individuals. If you include parents and friends, the number approaches 40,000. We are a very diverse community, which is a tremendous strength, but does not lend itself to homogeneity of thought. As such, I am very, very hesitant to offer an ‘institutional’ position on any political or social issue because in virtually every case there will be significant disagreement within the community.”

  7. Kerem Durdag February 13, 2017 at 7:25 am - Reply

    Dear Michael,

    With due respect I must strongly disagree with your actions; the thought that “Sometimes no position is truly the best position” is laden with abrogation of responsibility and lack of leadership. For SJU not to take a principled stand in opposition of the President’s Executive Order, is a lost opportunity to live up to the core ideals of St. Benedict. It is also a willful and intentful choice to forget the repeated tidal waves of the past where ignorance and fear determined the course of history.

    I am not denying the validity of counter arguments or their valuable place in our society. It is the bed rock of our social contract that discussion yields the mechanism for the functioning our democracy and republic. Your choice as the leader of an institution to not engage provides the empty space where misinformation, exclusion and self-serving ego and power entrench at the expense of human ideals.

    You have chosen not to lead and have refused to publicly articulate the enormous value of common sense public policy that intersects with our humanity. Deeply disappointing. Yes, deeply disappointing.

    Perhaps this is the time now you and SJU as an institution can be brave enough to invite global doers and thinkers from the Muslim world to the campus to enable a large scale dialogue and to open a door into our collective world. If not a public stand, at least a constructive and forward-leaning on-campus one is in order.

    In peace and grace,
    Kerem Durdag
    Class 1991

  8. SJU '09 February 22, 2017 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    I applaud your thoughtfulness and restraint. Saint John’s is a community of many diverse members, and those members can speak courageously as Johnnies on matters they feel compelled to address publicly. Your deference to the community is empowering, and I believe, a mark of true leadership.

  9. Bob Schilmoeller February 22, 2017 at 6:30 pm - Reply

    I ask that everyone takes a step back and take a breath. Michael is in an indeterminable situation. As he stated about the diversity of St. Johns (40,000 individuals), there is no way he can please everyone. Michael did not choose either side and because of that choice, he risks the ire of all. I think it took courage for him to say what he did. We are all one with God. If we step back and look at the bigger picture of the world, most people’s desires (e.g. raising their children, living in peace, etc) are closer to being the same than different. But we are all unique and need to think for ourselves. I for one am very glad that there is a University that teaches how to think and not what to think. Respect is sorely missing in society and the world. I have been in too many discussions where neither side respects the other. If St. Johns can teach students how to dialog with respect, I feel it will benefit our future.

    God Bless us all.

  10. David J. Sauer Class of 1961 February 22, 2017 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    President Michael:

    It seems to me that you need to prepare yourself and the administration at SJU to face up to future issues that have no moral equivalency. I know, truth to power is not always easy…especially when you have donors that may not be happy. And, you thought it easy to be a leader!

  11. William Cunningham February 22, 2017 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    I believe that your position is reasonable and just about right. Although I won’t go into details about the issue of illegal immigration and border security, I believe that your support of the DACA law is correct, ethical, and humane.
    For many years I’ve been disturbed by what appears to be a growing cult of political correctness, lack of diversity of thought, and a lack of civil discourse on many college campuses. I’m a strong advocate of the first amendment right to free speech and to assemble peaceably but over the years (and especially in recent months) I’ve read about and witnessed attempts by students and faculty at many college campuses to use their first amendment rights to try to deny the same to others. Opposing viewpoints are condemned as hate speech and infantile students retreat to safe rooms where they won’t be exposed to opposing points of view.
    I’ve only been on the campus of St. John’s about three times since I graduated in 1970; I don’t have a clear sense of what is happening there with students and faculty. However, I’ve been very impressed with the St. John’s Bible project and the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. As a professional archivist, I’m proud that St. John’s is helping to preserve the religious and cultural heritage of countries that are under assault from enemies of religious, educational, and political freedom.
    I graduated with degrees from three different universities but chose to provide financial support only to St. John’s because I believed that it is different in a good way. I hope that it remains so and that it doesn’t capitulate to the anti free speech, “group think” mentality that seems to have infected so many colleges and universities. I’ll be watching.

  12. Jim Kuelbs 1960 February 22, 2017 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    Even university presidents have the right, and also the responsibility to take personal positions on important issues that arise in society. I would urge you to use that right, and offer your opinion on things whenever you feel it necessary. Almost any thing you say on a complex issue will fail to represent the entire community, but I would be sad if they did not respect your right to follow your conscience.

  13. Andrew Kopacek February 22, 2017 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    “There can be no more harmful action at an educational institution than to do something that limits, or even risks limiting, the freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.” Well stated. It is nice to know that St. John’s remains a refuge for the possibility of real debate–as opposed to a place for pretend debate where there is already “an orthodox or ‘correct’ view on an issue.”

    A line from a Yeats poem comes to mind: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” –It’s the end result of pretend debate.

    Mr. Hemesath, thank you for maintaining your convictions (and the convictions of St John’s)–that academic freedom is vitally important. Truly, there are many who came before–who built up and maintained St John’s as a place for academic freedom. Thank you for honoring them.

  14. Kathy Zdroik February 23, 2017 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Thank You. I totally respect your opinion as I respect the opinion of others. It is important to keep the communications open freely on this topic.

  15. Ron LeTourneau "73" February 23, 2017 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    For starters, I trust that we all can agree that the Executive Orders on the matter of immigration elicits strong opinions emanating from legal, historical, sociological and, yes, emotional perspectives. Among the many experiences I gained from my time at St. Johns was not only a tolerance for those with whom I disagreed, but I was encouraged to dive more deeply into the reasoning behind their conclusions…… and I have Fr. Kim to thank among others. Admittedly, on issues such as this we’re finding that while it is not so easy to do, it still remains what we must do. SJU, with President Hemesath as our spokesperson, must take a public position on those issues directly impacting us as a Catholics institution, impacting our students and the educational process itself. However, it is equally important to refrain from aligning our university on all social or political issues simply because we can. I believe his has done this with his decision and explanation.

  16. Robley D. Evans February 28, 2017 at 9:54 am - Reply

    Michael,

    On this topic I agree with your decision. While I personally have a more global view than “America Only”, what I value about an SJU education and what I want the current young students to experience, is open discussion on the issues involved. If the University or Faculty come out with a strong position on a topic, not only does it disenfranchise many, it shuts down discussion on the topic.

    There are immigration laws that have not been enforced for years. Why not?

    If the immigration laws and quotas need changing, why haven’t they been updated? Are there good reasons why they haven’t been updated?

    I as an employer, have all new employees fill out an I-9 form. Why do I do this if the laws aren’t being enforced?

    What is our social and moral responsibility to help others in need?

    There are many questions that can be raised and discussed. I believe that is what should be happening at a liberal arts college, and in our nation. Too many people have been shut out of the discussion, have been riduculed for their beliefs, and they voted lasted November.

    Change has to start with respectful listening and discussion, and Benedictine and Catholic values should be the guide.

    God’s wisdom and guidance be with you on this and future issues.

    Robley Evans
    Class of ’80

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