Michael Hemesath

Michael Hemesath

About 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.

Leaving a Mark, Making a Mark*

New York Times columnist David Brooks has long been interested in character and the process by which individuals develop their character.  He wrote a whole book on the topic called The Road to Character.

In a recent column, he explores the topic from a slightly different angle.  He explores the characteristics of institutions that, as he writes, “leave a mark on people.”  What kinds of institutions “become part of a person’s identity and engage the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul”?

Multiple Johnnie alumni sent me a link to this column, all saying that as they read it they had immediately thought of Saint John’s because it is an institution that left a mark on them.  In my job as president, I have had the opportunity and pleasure to meet many hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Johnnies.  What so many of these alumni tell me, either explicitly or through the lives they lead, is that Saint John’s left an indelible a mark on them—one that lasts a lifetime.

As you seniors get ready to finish your undergraduate experience at this rare and exceptional place, my fervent hope for you, and the wish of Johnnie alumni everywhere, is that this place has left a mark on you that will be a powerful part of your character in the years ahead and throughout your life.

Obviously each of you has had your own unique Saint John’s experience, but I would suggest that there are three consistent ways in which Saint John’s University marks its graduates, characteristics by which the world recognizes a Johnnie and maybe even expects from a Johnnie.

  1. Johnnies have each other’s backs.  This is probably the most well-known aspect of the Johnnie character and it is closely connected to the success of the famous Johnnie network.  With a mixture of wonder and respect, alums from other schools often remark on Johnnies’ loyalty to SJU and to each other.  At an admissions event, I asked the mother of a prospective student why her son was interested in Saint John’s.  She told me that she knew many Johnnies through her work and that they were all good guys that looked out for each other.  Her son wanted to be part of a community like that, and she wanted that for her son.
  2. Johnnies stand for something more than themselves.  This is not to suggest that Johnnies are purely selfless, but rather that they combine their own self-interest with a commitment to something more, something bigger.  It can be a commitment to their community, to their families, to their churches or even to their alma mater (as is true of so many alums in this room).  As Brooks describes it, those marked by institutions like SJU have characters in which “selfishness and selflessness marry,” to benefit the Johnnie and his community.
  3. Johnnies live out the Benedictine teaching of respect for all individuals.  The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that we are to treat all as Christ—to respect the dignity and worth of every person.  On campus we famously hold doors for each other as a small, daily reminder of the value of every individual.  In the world beyond Collegeville, Johnnies treat co-workers, acquaintances and strangers with that same respect and courtesy that our shared humanity demands.  This way of being in the world is even more important in a time of political polarization, where we seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other and civilly engage on matters of politics and social policy.  Respectful Johnnies may, in some small way, help bridge these divides.

(courtesy of Sean Donohue)

Finally, as you leave Saint John’s as “marked men,” that is not the end of the story.  In fact, it is really only the beginning.  The faculty, staff, monks, fellow alums and your peers who all played a part in this process of making you a Johnnie expect one more thing from you.  We expect you to make your own mark in the world–to bring your Johnnie character to bear in all that you do, personally and professionally.

The world is a better place for having more Johnnies in it, and we look forward to seeing the fruits of the Class of 2017’s dreams, endeavors and successes in the years ahead.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

*A version of this was given at the 2017 Senior Dinner.

By |April 26th, 2017|Categories: Alumni, Higher Education||0 Comments

The Second Benedict Option

St. Benedict is trending.  Kind of hard to believe that in our 140-character social media world a 6th century monk would be of much interest. But, maybe if you survive 1600 years, you inevitably come back into fashion, and now seems to be one of those moments for St. Benedict.

My first clue was back on Valentine’s Day when New York Times columnist David Brooks made a reference to St. Benedict.  In a column entitled “How Should One Resist the Trump Administration?” Brooks wrote:

It could be that the primary threat [from the Trump Administration] is stagnation and corruption. In this scenario, the Trump administration doesn’t create an authoritarian regime, but national politics turns into a vicious muck of tweet and countertweet, scandal and pseudoscandal, partisan attack and counterattack.

If that’s the threat, St. Benedict is the model for resistance. Benedict was a young Umbrian man who was sent to study in Rome after the fall of the empire. Disgusted by the corruption all around, he fled to the wilderness and founded monastic communities across Europe. If Rome was going to sink into barbarism, then Benedictines could lead healthy lives and construct new forms of community far from the decaying center.

If we are in a Benedict moment, the smart thing to do is to ignore the degradation in Washington and make your contribution at the state and local levels.  Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notices that some of the interns in her think tank are thinking along Benedictine lines. In years past they were angling for career tracks that would land them in Washington, but now they are angling to go back to the places they came from.

I found Brooks’ reference a little surprising.  Among the New York Times readers, I suspect that knowledge of Catholicism, even among its many Catholic readers, doesn’t typically extend to 6th century Italian saints or Benedictine monastic communities.  Despite being less than 500 years old, the Jesuits tend to get better press and draw the attention of Hollywood.

But Benedict is hot, in part due to new book by Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation that came out this month.  I have not read the book, but Brooks, a friend of Dreher, offers a mini-review and commentary in an eponymous column, “The Benedict Option.”  Brooks calls the book “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

Dreher offers a critique of the modern Western culture and his proposed response, primarily but not exclusively for Christians.  Brooks describes Dreher’s thesis as follows:

Rod says it’s futile to keep fighting the culture war, because it’s over. Instead believers should follow the model of the sixth-century monk St. Benedict, who set up separate religious communities as the Roman empire collapsed around them.

The heroes of Rod’s book are almost all monks. Christians should withdraw inward to deepen, purify and preserve their faith, he says. They should secede from mainstream culture, pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities.

Brooks’ initial “Benedictine possibility” was made in response to our polarized political life, while Dreher’s Benedict Option focuses more broadly on our cultural life.  Both suggest that St. Benedict would encourage those who are disaffected to retreat from political life or the cultural world into small, self-sustaining communities.

I do think this may be a possible Benedictine moment in our culture, but not for the reasons Brooks and Dreher hypothesize.

The Benedictine option can be critiqued from a variety of perspectives.  First, and probably most obvious, few people can or want to set themselves apart from their society, culture, families and homes. Even the monks that are my heroes are not interested in that.  The monks of Saint John’s Abbey are among the most worldly men I know and have been deeply immersed in the world throughout their long history, even as they have chosen to live in community in central Minnesota.  I wonder if Benedict himself, with his emphasis on work in addition to prayer, would encourage such segregation in the modern, post-agricultural era.

Second, setting a community apart for the sake of some utopian dream has a long and failed history.  From New Lanark in Scotland to Brook Farm in Massachusetts to New Harmony in Indiana, history is filled with communities brought down by the all-too-human frailties of their residents.  Even my favorite Benedictine monks would acknowledge that every human weakness is found within monastic walls. Escaping human society is well-nigh impossible unless you are the fictional Robinson Crusoe.

These brief critiques and others, however, should not suggest that St. Benedict does not have much to offer modern society, both in response to Brooks’ political concerns or Dreher’s cultural ones.  Over its 1600 year history, Benedictine teachings have been adapted to changing times and applied more widely than to monastic life, a point that does not seem to be acknowledged by Brooks or Dreher.

I would suggest that there is a Second Benedictine option that might be a more practical and powerful response to the challenges we face.  The Second Benedictine option is simply (or not so simply) to live a Benedictine life within the many communities – personal, professional, religious, geographic – we all occupy.

The Rule of St. Benedict does not offer a definitive description of a Benedictine life but offers guidance for how to live well within any community.  Benedictine Values are described on the website of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, with textual references to The Rule:

Benedictine Values

Awareness of God

To look for God not in the abstract but in the ordinary events of every day.
“We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.” R. B. 19

Community Living

To become who we are by our relationships with others.
“Let all things be common to all.” R. B. 33

Dignity of Work

To appreciate the dignity of work in God’s creation.
“…they live by the labor of their hands.” R. B. 48

Hospitality

To offer warmth, acceptance, and joy in welcoming others.
“Let all…be received as Christ.” R. B. 53

Justice

To work toward a just order in our immediate environment and in the larger society.
“…that in all things God may be glorified” R. B. 57

Listening

To hear keenly and sensitively the voices of persons and all created beings.
“Listen … with the ear of your heart.” R. B. Prologue

Moderation

To be content with living simply and finding balance in work, prayer, and leisure.
“All things are to be done with moderation.” R. B. 48

Peace

To strive for peace on all levels: with self, others, and God. R. B. Prologue

Respect for Persons

To respect each person regardless of class, background, or professional skill.
“No one is to pursue what is judged best for oneself, but instead, what is better for someone else.” R. B. 72

Stability

To cultivate rootedness and a shared sense of mission.
“To stand firm in one’s promises.” R. B. 58

Stewardship

To appreciate and to care lovingly for all the goods of this place.
“Regard all utensils as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” R. B. 31

Community living, hospitality, listening and respect for others seem particularly germane to the challenges raised by Brooks and Dreher, and all these values can be lived out in virtually any community.  The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University offer one example of how Benedictine values can shape a community, both during a four-year undergraduate experience and for a lifetime afterwards.

While our community is certainly not free from the foibles, weaknesses and sins inherent in any human endeavor, we do offer a realistic, lived example of Benedictine wisdom.  I’d welcome David Brooks or Rod Dreher to come visit us (I’ll cover the hospitality costs) to see how a Second Benedictine Option might provide the practical basis for a more civil political and cultural life for all of us.

By |March 21st, 2017|Categories: History||4 Comments

“Free” College Tuition Doesn’t Add Up*

Students in physics class

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had significant success in attracting young people to his campaign in no small part due to his proposal to make tuition free at public colleges and universities.

Hillary Clinton responded to the Sanders proposal with a means-tested program of free tuition for families with incomes under $125,000. Donald Trump did not offer his own free tuition plan, but the end of the campaign season did not bring about an end to this proposal. In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a free tuition plan for his state similar to the Clinton plan.

The goals of these programs are certainly admirable. It has become well understood that a college education has become increasingly important, maybe even essential, for entry into the middle and upper-middle class.

The goals of free tuition are to increase educational attainment and better prepare students for the job market, especially those for whom costs might be insurmountable. Some proponents argue that for many future students a college degree will become what a high school diploma is today.

These policy proposals have been met with mixed reviews for three important reasons.

The first concern focuses on costs. In tight budget times, it is not clear Congress nor states would be interested in a program that costs $75 billion a year, according to The Wall Street Journal and Sanders’ estimates.  It is a basic question of opportunity cost. If we, as a society, can find $75 billion in additional tax revenue or if we are willing to borrow it, is free tuition the best way to spend that money?

A second concern is equity. A free tuition program is not, of course, “free.” Federal and state taxpayers would pay for tuition costs, and here the analogy with high school education breaks down.

The equity implications of funding the two educational models are different in important ways. Most public high schools are funded with property taxes in the district where the schools are located. The recipients of the education are, by and large, the children of the taxpayers. Revenues are collected in a means-tested fashion where wealthier homeowners pay more and, therefore, the costs of education are generally means-tested too, as wealthier families are paying more for their children’s education than less well-off families. (There are, of course, further equity concerns as richer districts can choose to offer a different quality education than poorer ones.)

Students in classroom discussion

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Under any free tuition plan, the link between the taxpayer and consumers of education is much less clear, potentially raising equity concerns.

Many taxpayers who would fund free tuition will never have children who pursue public college education. Weakening the link between those paying for a program and its beneficiaries likely weakens political support.

More importantly, the means testing of the student recipients is much weaker. With tuition at zero, the free tuition plan is basically a transfer from taxpayers to students, regardless of the individual student’s economic circumstances. Data from the College Board reveals that because of financial aid programs, the primary beneficiaries of free tuition are upper-middle-class students who pay the most tuition at public institutions.

Even if this transfer from taxpayers to upper-middle-class families was defensible, most economists would argue that if transferring income to students for their education is the goal, then it should be done directly — such as Pell Grants at the federal level or the Minnesota State Grant program at the state level. Such a grant could be means-tested and targeted if taxpayers felt low-income students should be the primary beneficiaries.

The third concern is the way free tuition would distort educational choices. By making the price of state colleges and universities zero, a free tuition program would significantly increase the price differential between public colleges and private institutions. This change could have a significant impact on enrollments between different types of four-year schools and be detrimental to some students.

Private and public schools offer a range of different experiences, as those of us in Central Minnesota are well aware — from small schools like Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to mid-sized, public, comprehensive schools like St. Cloud State University to large research institutions like the University of Minnesota.

Most high school students have the option of choosing from among different kinds of four-year schools. Price is a consideration. But with financial aid, most students can consider public and private options. With a free tuition model, the playing field is tilted dramatically in favor of public options, and the strongest students will likely take the majority of free places, leaving the less academically prepared students with fewer options.

The 2,200-plus four-year options for post-secondary education in the United States serve students well by letting them select the best fit for their talents, interests and previous educational experience. Any public policy that narrows the range of choices, in this case by distorting prices, potentially leaves the intended beneficiaries worse off.
These policy debates are likely moot given the Republican administration and Republican Congress in Washington, but given the increasing importance and costs of higher education, the free tuition debate will be back.

*This column originally appeared in The St. Cloud Times on February 25, 2017.