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Welcome to Saint John’s–Now Get a Little Uncomfortable*

Students walking and talkingWelcome to Saint John’s University, Gentlemen of the Class of 2021.  We know that as academically focused, athletically and artistically talented, and service-oriented young men, you had many options when it came to choosing a college.  We are delighted that you chose to become Johnnies.

Each year we survey seniors and ask them to describe their experience at CSB and SJU.  The most common words they use are community, friendly, fun and comfortable.  These are great attributes for any college to have, and it is especially nice that seniors feel warmly toward SJU as they graduate—especially as we will soon be asking them to share their time and treasure with us as alumni!!

Seriously, I have no doubt that many of you chose Saint John’s, at least in part, because of these attributes.  And these are great characteristics for a college to have.  To spend your college years in a fun, friendly community provides the grounding for a great educational experience.  I know … because I am a Johnnie too.

Forty years ago this fall—yes 4-0—I was in your place: starting my freshman year at Saint John’s, meeting new friends on 3rd Mary, playing name games at orientation and feeling a little nervous about how well my high school education had prepared me for the rigors of college.

On this anniversary of my matriculation and as I prepared to meet you, I have been reflecting on how the education of the class of 2021 at Saint John’s will compare to that of the Class of 1981.

Many things will be similar, despite the passing of 40 years.  You will still get a great grounding in the classic liberal arts—humanities, social sciences and natural sciences—that will give you writing, communication and analytical skills, and a breadth of knowledge that will serve you well for a lifetime.  You will get a depth of knowledge in whatever academic area you choose to major in—economics in my case—that will serve you in your professional career or graduate school.  You will have all manner of extra-curricular experiences from athletics to student government to volunteer activities to international experiences to spiritual opportunities–all of which will develop your social skills, provide leadership experiences and build your character.  You will make friends—Johnnies and Bennies—that will last a lifetime.  As one mother told her son, perhaps a little hyperbolically, at his graduation from SJU, “These will be the guys who will be carrying your casket.”

There are also ways in which the Class of 2021 will get an unambiguously better education than the Class of 1981.  First, and most obviously, the knowledge in the world has grown by leaps and bounds.  You will know more than I and my classmates did in May of 1981.  Furthermore, technology, which you have been bathed in since birth, will give you access to more of that knowledge, easily and quickly.  You will get to enjoy some of the fabulous new facilities on our campus, from residential opportunities that were non-existent for my classmates (OK—Mary and Tommy are pretty much the same!), to great new athletic facilities (for us the Palaestra was a big deal), including a three-season dome, to a gorgeous renovated Alcuin Library and new Learning Commons.

Our faculty has grown significantly since the 1980s, making class sizes smaller and mentoring opportunities greater.  Our staff has grown too, and they will help support your learning and personal development in ways that did not occur in my era.  Finally, the range of academic and extra-curricular activities has also grown dramatically with over 100 clubs and organizations, 19 of our own semester-long international programs, entrepreneurial activities, political organizations and various arts and music organizations.

The comparisons described above are based on differences in the wider world and changes at Saint John’s itself over the last 40 years, but there are also important choices that you have as individuals that will also significantly impact your educational experience.

There was one very important choice you control that will give you the best possible experience at Saint John’s. It is a choice that I have some regrets about from my own time at Saint John’s.

Choose to get uncomfortable.

I wish that I had stretched myself more during my undergraduate years at Saint John’s.  I stayed a little too much in my comfort zone.  I would have gotten an even better education if I had gotten more uncomfortable more often.

Some observers of your generation are not quite sure you are prepared to be uncomfortable.  Incidents on various college campuses have suggested that students today are not interested in engaging in the occasionally uncomfortable free exchange of ideas or in hearing alternative views.  Some have called your generation snowflakes—too delicate and easily melted.  Not long ago the Atlantic Monthly had a cover story entitled, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”  (It is an interesting article and worth your time to read as you start your college education.)

The basic thesis of the article is that many students are coming to college today uninterested in being challenged.  They have their view of the world and are not interested in having it tested.  They are comfortable with their ideas, opinions and understandings.  They do not want to be made to feel uncomfortable or challenged.

The problem with this attitude is that it seriously gets in the way of a real education and does little to prepare you for life beyond Collegeville.  And I think Johnnies are made of sterner stuff than these observers are suggesting.

So my fondest wish for you, the Class of 2021, is to engage in some uncomfortable learning while you are here.

In your academic life—take some classes that are new and that you might not be sure you will do well in.  Plan to go abroad to a place you’ve never been.  It’s not high school anymore, so there are new subjects to explore, ideas to test and meanings to find.  These won’t happen if you strive to stay comfortable.

In your extra-curricular life—try some new activity that you’ve never done before.  Join a group where you don’t know anyone.  Take a risk and run for the student Senate.  Start a club with some friends.  Volunteer for a good cause.

In your social life—get to know some Johnnies and Bennies who aren’t from a Twin Cities suburb.  Find out what it is like to grow up in Newark or the Bahamas or Los Angeles or China.  Learn about someone else’s religious beliefs.  Talk to someone who doesn’t vote like you or your family do.  Have a cup of coffee with that guy on your floor that seems to have had to most unique experience growing up.  It will be uncomfortable at times, but you’ll learn some interesting things about them; you’ll strengthen our Benedictine community by showing hospitality, and you might be surprised at what you learn about yourself, too.

In short—get out of your comfort zone.  As warm and welcoming as our Benedictine community is, you can find yourself too comfortable.  If that is the case, you are short-changing yourself and your education.

Welcome to Saint John’s.  Now go out there and get a little uncomfortable in order to get the best education possible.

*Remarks from the President’s Dinner welcoming the Class of 2021.  I was inspired to post these remarks, somewhat belatedly, after three recent conversations with Johnnies of very different generations, each of whom observed that the best thing Saint John’s did for them was to take them out of their comfort zones, which helped prepare them for the success they have had in their professional and personal lives.

By |October 23rd, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Johnnie Student-Athletes: In that Order

The new school year has started and the fall collegiate athletic seasons are now underway.  With all the excitement and media this generates, it is worth remembering the important differences between the student-athlete experience at Division III institutions and other NCAA schools.

Money plays a significantly different role across the three NCAA athletic divisions.  In DI, where the most well-known athletic schools compete, the marquee sports of football and basketball generate significant revenue for many (though certainly not all) of these institutions, and those dollars fund most of the costs for lesser followed sports (as well as playoff costs in DII and DIII).  In DI athletics, scholarships also play a big role in attracting students to specific programs across all sports.

The story is slightly different in DII where there is little income to be earned because the TV revenue is a small fraction of that available to DI programs.  Scholarships are still important, but they are usually not as lavishly funded and often cover only a fraction of the costs of attendance, though for many students and their families, that support is crucial.

What is most significant about the scholarships at the DI and DII level is the impact they can have on student-athletes’ educational experience.  When a  coach, under pressure to produce winning teams, commits limited scholarship dollars to a student, he or she expects a significant commitment from the student-athlete in return—both emotionally and in terms of time.  Sometimes that works just fine, as the student wants to make that commitment, has a good learning experience on the field or court,  and can comfortably handle their academic responsibilities while meeting the expectations of their coach.  In other cases, the commitment to an athletic program, with practice time expected throughout the whole year and travel for contests, can negatively impact a student’s academic and social experience, resulting in poor academic outcomes and little exposure to the benefits of extra-curricular learning.

The DIII model is fundamentally different.  When a student chooses a DIII institution, he or she knows they will be first and foremost a student because their commitment to an athletic team is purely voluntary and if their love of sport ever diminishes or gets in the way of other priorities, they can simply walk away.  There are no economic incentives affecting that decision.  Student-athletes view their varsity participation as only a part of their holistic educational experience and coaches recruit and structure their programs with this in mind.

At Saint John’s University our coaches have long recruited well-rounded student-athletes who, while contributing to successful teams, have an impact on campus in the classroom and beyond.  These student-athletes, while deeply passionate about their sport, know that their undergraduate education is an important stepping stone to a professional life that will not involve athletics and therefore the very best education they can get involves academics, character building and learning outside the classroom, in addition to the important learning athletics provides.

At Saint John’s we are especially proud of our student-athletes’ commitment to their academic work.  Last year we compared the GPA of the 30% of our students who are varsity athletes to that of the rest of the student body and discovered that the athletes’ GPAs were slightly higher.  Johnnies also do well when competing for Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) Academic All-Conference honors.  For the third time in the last four years, SJU led the conference with 68 male Academic All-MIAC honorees in 2016-17, 12 ahead of the second-place tie between Gustavus Adolphus and the University of St. Thomas (56). The Johnnies led the league with 57 honorees in 2013-14 and 63 in 2015-16, and finished second with 50 in 2014-15.  To qualify for Academic All-MIAC recognition, student-athletes must be a sophomore, junior or senior with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.50 on a 4.00 scale and compete in 50% of their team’s varsity contests.

The MIAC, in addition to being one of the strongest athletic conferences nationally, counts among its members Carleton, Macalester and St. Olaf, schools with national reputations for academic excellence.

The availability of athletic scholarships undoubtedly gives many young men and women the opportunity to pursue a college degree and the competition in DI athletics provides significant pleasure to millions of fans.  But the biggest NCAA division, DIII, offers a different model where young women and men are students first and athletes second, and where they truly play for love of the game.

Come out and watch.  You may not see many future professional athletes, but you will see the next generation of business professionals, doctors, educators, lawyers and community leaders.

By |September 7th, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

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