Higher Education

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

“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.

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