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Benedictine Academic Freedom

Students in classroom at Saint John's University (Minn.)Fifty years ago, in July 1967, a small group of Roman Catholic educators met at a conference center in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, which was owned by the University of Notre Dame.  The leaders of the most important North American Catholic institutions were present and the group was led by Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh.  In the wake of Vatican II, which had concluded two years earlier, the group was considering “The Nature and Mission of the Catholic University in the Modern World.”

The backdrop for the conversation was the huge growth in higher education enrollment, particularly among Catholics students, in the post-World War II era, and the tremendous changes in the Catholic Church in following Vatican II.

The basic question for these leaders was this: Were Catholic universities first universities or first Catholic?
For the institutions represented at this meeting, the question is answered unequivocally in the opening sentences of what became known as the Land O’ Lakes Statement:

The Catholic University today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.

The Statement goes on to emphasize the importance of a Catholicism that is “perceptibly present and effectively operative” in universities and stresses the importance of the role of theology and the theology faculty.  The group also emphasizes the importance of Catholic social justice teachings and concerns with “ultimate questions.”

But what is remembered most from this conference is the emphasis on academic freedom and the need for autonomy from any external authority, lay or clerical.

These leaders were saying to prospective students (and their parents) that they would receive an education at Catholic universities that would be the academic equal of any public or private university.  They were telling faculty that their ability to teach and research would in no way be compromised by choosing to make their careers at Catholic institutions.  They were telling the world that Catholic universities were ready to take their place among the leading academic institutions in the United States, even as they maintained their strong Catholic identity.  All these claims were to be built on the academic freedom that was the foundation of the modern university.

The influence and success in American life of those educated in the Catholic tradition and the enhanced academic reputations of Catholic universities during the past 50 years is a testament to the success of this vision.  The finest Catholic universities in American today are viewed as the equals of their secular peers, and they compete for the best students in the world.

Fifty years later it is worth revisiting this important historic document to consider what Catholic universities owe our students today as we prepare them for lives of success and meaning in the 21st century.

Despite many changes in the world, from globalization to the technological revolution to an increasingly diverse world, most educators continue to believe the finest university education is still built on a foundation of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

While this contention is not seriously debated in the academy (though there are rare exceptions  ) it is not a stretch to suggest that some observers outside of higher education are wondering about the depth and strength of the higher education’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas, noted here and here.  Recent incidents at the University of Missouri, Berkeley, Middlebury College and Evergreen State College have not shown higher education as a place where ideas are always exchanged freely and civilly.

We are not immune to these challenges around the exchange of ideas on our own campuses.  I don’t need to remind anyone here of the incident on The Link (bus) last February.  We have had roommates break up over last fall’s election.  Incoming students have asked not to be placed with a roommate who shares different political views—a request we would not honor, even if we knew of incoming students’ political views.

Resident assistant training now includes a discussion of managing political conflicts.  Faculty members report that some students are reticent to participate in class discussions around issues of race, gender or social justice topics for fear of alienating other students or faculty.

Each of these incidents alone is troubling, and together they are a reminder that even with our strong Catholic and Benedictine tradition and sense of community, we must continually renew our commitment to Academic Freedom in a Benedictine ethos—what I might call Benedictine Academic Freedom.

The notion of academic freedom is well understood by those in this room.  I think a recent statement by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression articulates the notion well:

The University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”  Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict.  But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.  Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

As central as academic freedom is to those in the academy, this notion may be new or not well understood by our students.  For academic freedom to be most effective in educating our students, it is our responsibility to help our students both understand the concept intellectually and to support them emotionally during their intellectual engagement because, as the Chicago statement notes, the unfettered exchange of ideas can be uncomfortable or painful, even as it is foundational to the education we seek to provide.

Certainly, there are some limits on freedom of expression, as the Chicago statement also notes:

The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

In the spirit of the Land O’ Lakes and University of Chicago statements, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, strongly support the free exchange of ideas as essential for our educational mission, even knowing how challenging exercising academic freedom can be.  But I think, as Catholic and Benedictine institutions, we can aspire for even more from our community and from each other as we engage in these sometimes hard conversations.

I think it is completely appropriate for us to ask of each other – not demand, but ask – that we engage in what I would characterize as Benedictine Academic Freedom.  At CSB and SJU we should exercise our freedom of speech, and the challenges and discomfort that are inevitable, in a fashion consistent with our Benedictine values, with an emphasis on respect for individuals and listening.

Specifically, I would suggest that as we engage in the exchange of ideas together that we consider three things that will likely make those exchanges more civil and more likely to generate learning and understanding on both sides:

  1. Setting: We should consider the time, place and context for any exchange.  We must have open and willing partners engage in meaningful dialogue.  (A captive audience on a Link bus does not qualify.)
  2. The Audience: To be truly respectful of those we are interacting with, we must consider how we will be heard.  Are there aspects of our audience’s background or experiences that might make them especially sensitive to our ideas and words?  Are there ways for us to soften or restate our views, without compromising our meaning?
  3. Reciprocity: Just as we hope and expect to be heard respectfully, we must in turn be willing to listen generously and openly to the views of others, views that may well make us uncomfortable or even angry.  “Listen with the ear of your heart,” as St. Benedict reminds us in The Rule.

These three suggestions are certainly not easy, especially when the issues we discuss with each other are painful and personal, as most meaningful issues are.  But if we can work together to practice the free exchange of ideas in a truly Benedictine spirit, to live out Benedictine Academic Freedom, our students and community will both receive the educational benefits from the free exchange of ideas, and we will build an even stronger community committed to respect and listening with the ear of our hearts.

And we will be educating Bennies and Johnnies who will be prepared to lead organizations and communities in a Benedictine way, an outcome we can all agree is a good thing.

Best wishes to all for the beginning of the new academic year, a time for hope in the possibilities of the future.

Presented to at the All Campus Community Forum on August 22, 2107.

By |August 28th, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|1 Comment

Sandwiches, Social Capital and Barriers to Mobility

Image: studiogabe via flickr

One of the aspects of American life that has benefitted many generations of Americans and made this country so attractive to immigrants has been a high degree of social mobility.  Through education, hard work and fluid social structures, birth typically does not determine economic and class destiny.

In recent decades, however, there has been increasing debate about income inequality, both in absolute terms and how it might affect social mobility.  (See here  and here.)  Does increasing income inequality and more highly concentrated wealth lead to less social mobility across generations?

If social mobility has declined, and it should be emphasized that not all economists agree it has, it is important  to understand why and to consider policies that might increase opportunities for those born into disadvantaged economic circumstances.

In a recent column, New York Times writer David Brooks was reflecting on these issues.   In “How We Are Ruining America”  Brooks examines the structural barriers to mobility, like zoning and the college admissions process, but ultimately concludes that informal social barriers may be even more important in limiting social mobility.  He writes of an experience with such informal social barriers:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Interestingly, in the comments section after the op-ed, Brooks is mercilessly mocked by many of his readers, a number of whom find the story silly, trite or condescending, though how they know what Brooks’ friend was feeling better than the author is unclear. Whether the specifics of Brook’s Sandwich Shop story resonate or not, it is hard to argue that there are not significant cultural differences across classes which potentially affect social mobility.

For many of us in higher education there is a tendency to focus on structural barriers like the college admissions process or financing education after a student is admitted rather than cultural signifiers that can prevent some first-generation students from taking full advantage of their education.

At Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, as the number of first-generation students has grown, we have worked hard to lower the structural barriers by working with organizations that help with the college admission process and through generous financial aid packages.  But we have also tried to address some of the real social barriers that might affect the educational success of our students.  Among the issues that we are attentive to are:

1. Help seeking and mentors.  Not all new college students are comfortable with asking for help and this impedes their ability to form the mentoring relationships that are so central to college success.

2. Dress for success.  Students from professional and middle class backgrounds usually have some experience with the white collar job market, but not all first generations students do.  They may not know what is expected in an internship or job interview.  Is a jacket, tie or suit expected?  One small thing we have done at SJU is to gather suits donated by alums and make them available to students who may not have one of their own.

3. Fancy dining.  Meals are often part of the professional world and all that cutlery and glassware can be intimidating to the uninitiated.  We offer “etiquette dinners” (one of which is taught by the indomitable Sr. Colman O’Connell) for students who want to prepare for such culinary encounters.

4. Cover letters, resumes and thank yous.  Professional communication is often a challenge for millennials and Gen Z students, as they are used to social media and texting but less certain about when to put pen to paper.  Faculty and the Career Center work to guide all students in how to best present themselves in professional settings.

5. Living abroad.  Many middle class students come to college as world travelers, but first-generations students don’t always have that experience and may be hesitant to take that step into the wider world.  Our many study abroad programs are designed to meet the needs of both our more worldly students and the first time travelers.

This list is certainly not exhaustive but gives a flavor of the kinds of knowledge and experiences that are not automatic for many students and are especially likely to be familiar among first-generation college students.

While some of David Brooks’ readers might want to downplay the existence or significance of such social barriers, those who work with first-generation college students would not be so cavalier.  Certainly some individuals move over and around these barriers with ease, but not all do.

Commenting on Brooks’ column and the resulting brouhaha, Rod Dreher writes:

The point is this: in our time and place — in liquid modernity — a man [or woman] who can make and accommodate those kinds of radical shifts in perspective is a man who is enormously advantaged professionally over a man who cannot. More prosaically, a man who can walk into a gourmet sandwich shop and roll with it is enormously advantaged over the man who cannot. This is the real meaning of the David Brooks anecdote. Don’t laugh at it.

To truly achieve a society with a high degree of social mobility we must lower or remove both the obvious structural barriers to mobility but also help individuals navigate the less obvious but sometimes equally challenging social and cultural impediments to social and class mobility.

Formal education can be a start, but a more nuanced and holistic social and cultural education, often occurring outside the classroom, it necessary too.  We, along with many other institutions, try to provide that for all our students at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

Colleges Help Encourage Social Mixing*

The importance of a college education to the economic prospects of individual students has been well documented by social scientists. A college degree has been the ticket to the middle class for millions of Americans in recent generations.  As a result, there is a natural tendency to focus on the personal benefits of a college education that accrue to the individual student. Colleges and universities certainly encourage this thinking by providing data on how well their students do in the job market and their return on investment from a college degree.

It is equally important to remember that colleges serve a vital social function that extends far beyond the economic returns to individual graduates. Through social mixing and exposure of students to different ideas and experiences, society benefits from the existence of institutions of higher education.

Economists refer to such benefits as positive externalities — ways in which an educated citizenry benefits others beyond the individual graduate. Specifically, an important positive externality of a college-educated person is their exposure to ideas, people and experiences that are different from what they have previously known.

Educators believe this rich and varied educational experience will make students better people, employees and citizens. The ways in which a residential college experience broadens a person are especially important given the political moment in which we find ourselves.

We are living in an increasingly segregated society.

In the United States we have historically tended to focus on racial segregation, but segregation comes in many varieties. Social scientists are finding empirical evidence that we are becoming more economically segregated, which is leading to unintentional resegregation in primary and secondary education.

The election map from 2016 shows significant political segregation by states and within states. This political and policy segregation is mirrored in the electronic world where many individuals choose to engage only with those who share their political views, furthering political polarization.

Obviously, as Americans, one of our important political rights is the freedom of association, the ability to choose whom we wish to engage with and on what terms. Yet few would argue that our ability to engage with fellow citizens in civil and meaningful ways is important personally, professionally and politically.

How do we balance our important individual rights and choices with the need to interact with others in community — local, statewide and nationally — for the good of all?

Colleges and universities are among the most important institutions for encouraging the important social mixing that can be an antidote to our increasingly segregated lives.

At Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, as well as at most schools across the country, we take it as part of our mission for generations to bring together students from different backgrounds.  On our campuses today we actively seek students from the Western suburbs of the Twin Cities to live and learn with Iron Rangers.  We devote significant financial aid so students from north Minneapolis will be studying with their peers from other parts of the country.

A college campus continues to be where many students have their first meaningful encounters with someone of a different race or religion or ethnic group.

This social mixing is not always smooth or easy, as we have observed political and racial tensions on campuses in recent years, but colleges and universities have long emphasized the need for uncomfortable learning by asking students to stretch themselves intellectually, politically and socially.  We actively encourage new students to seek ideas, subjects, people and experiences that are new to them and might even make them uncomfortable.

We remind students that there are real personal benefits of such learning because, once they graduate from college, these encounters with difference will serve them well in their personal and professional lives where they will meet and work with many others who are not like themselves.  These benefits are mostly individual as graduates will find themselves rewarded economically because of their ability to understand and work with those from different backgrounds and to embrace and use new and unfamiliar ideas.  But equally important, society also benefits from such individuals as we learn to legislate, govern and live together.  Our ability to understand and engage difference makes compromise, understanding and civility more likely and our public life more productive and successful.

Colleges and universities are not the only places social mixing takes place and certainly one does not have to be a college graduate to be thoughtful, generous and broad-minded.

We are not perfect institutions, and, like individuals, we sometimes fail to live up to our stated principles and missions, as recent incidents at the University of California Berkeley, Middlebury College and Evergreen State College in Washington have revealed.
But in our increasingly polarized and contentious world, colleges and universities continue to be among the essential institutions that encourage individuals to understand other perspectives and to put themselves in the shoes of another, which will make a better society for all of us and our children.

*A version of this op-ed was recently published in the St. Cloud Times column, “To a Higher Degree” which is published the fourth Sunday of the month and rotates among the presidents of the four largest Central Minnesota higher education institutions.  http://www.sctimes.com/story/opinion/2017/06/24/colleges-help-teach-social-mixing/421573001/