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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

Benedictine Hospitality: “Wanna race?”

Three Johnnies smiling at cameraAs one of the public faces of Saint John’s, I get the opportunity to meet many of the guests who come to our campus. Invariably, first time visitors make two observations about Saint John’s. First, that we have a stunningly beautiful campus and second, that everyone is so friendly. One visitor even asked whether we taught our students to identify guests and then to hold doors open and say hi to them!

The first comment is not so surprising. The monks chose brilliantly when they decided that the woods and prairie around Lake Sagatagan would be home to the Abbey and University. The second compliment is perhaps a little more surprising since many of our campus visitors are from Minnesota, a state that has a well-deserved reputation for nice and polite people.

But after so many of these conversations, I have become convinced that our Benedictine hospitality and sense of community does set us apart, even for Minnesotans. What is particularly striking is that this behavior just becomes second nature for faculty, staff and students. The latter group pick up on the social ethos quickly and make it their own, as the encounter below suggests.

Sarah Gainey, the Environmental Education Coordinator at Saint John’s Outdoor University, recently wrote the following to football Coach Gary Fasching, and I am using it here with her permission:

I work at Saint John’s Outdoor University coordinating outdoor field trips for visiting preK-12th graders from the surrounding area. We normally hold our field trips outdoors in the Abbey Arboretum, but because a lack of snow this week, I was holding indoor field trips for 5th graders in the McNeely Spectrum. I would like to share with you an amazing interaction I witnessed last Thursday between members of your football team and a 5th grade class visiting Saint John’s.

The class arrived early to eat lunch before our field trip. After they ate, they were allowed to run around the track, but were instructed to leave anyone alone who was in there working out, which included 3 members of the football team doing conditioning drills. As a few of the 5th graders crossed the track in front of the football players, one young man said to them, ‘Hi there! Wanna race?’ The wide-eyed look of excitement on the boys’ face was priceless and they responded, ‘We aren’t allowed to.’ I quickly intervened and said, ‘Go ask your teacher if it is okay.’

A few moments later, the entire 5th grade class was lined up and ready to race the 3 football players. After a ‘ready set go’ everyone ran as hard as they could and the football players beat all the 5th graders. It wasn’t how the race ended that was memorable, but instead the way the players treated the students that is going to be remembered by every student, teacher, and Outdoor U staff member that witnessed the interaction.

These were kids from a school in St Cloud with a high poverty rate and who have to deal with a whole host of issues no one that age should have to worry about. My main objective is to instill in these and all the kids who come to Saint John’s for field trips a love of science and the natural world. But often times the field trip ends up being more about life, having a positive exposure to a college campus and college students, and about just being a good human being. Your football players helped me achieve that second objective probably without even thinking about it. They were just being kind and welcoming to a group of kids who will remember that day for a long time.

I didn’t get the players’ names but I did shake their hands and thanked them for what they did. And I wanted to thank you for having those kind people on your team. Those kids might not remember what I tried to teach them about science that day, but they will remember how they were treated by people at Saint John’s.

SJU Football Player

Photo: Richard Larkin McLay ’17

As Sarah notes, this simple, and mostly likely, reflexive kindness on the part of these three Johnnies may well have an impact that  reaches far beyond what the young men might ever imagine.

One of the biggest challenges our country faces in the years ahead it to address the achievement gap between students of color and majority students, a gap that is significantly larger for boys than girls. To take full advantage of the talents of this generation of young people, they will need post-secondary education, and the best way to make that happen is to instill in these children an assumption, at an early age, that college is not only a possible option but that it is an assumed option for most of them.

For relatively underprivileged elementary school children to come to a college campus and discover that people are nice to them, that college students are friendly and approachable, and that you have fun hanging out with them is a tremendous step in the right direction.

I am glad that Sarah did not get the name of the young men involved. Pick your favorite three Johnnies–it was them.

By |January 31st, 2017|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos|1 Comment

An Oracle for Higher Education?

bionicteaching via Flickr

Kansas State University freshman Billy Willson created a kerfuffle last month when he announced that he was dropping out of college.  Lots of students make this decision without attracting much attention beyond that of their families, but social media has created a new world, and Willson made his announcement on Facebook, naturally.

The other thing that drew more attention to Willson than would be typical was that he wrote critically of higher education, calling it a “scam, ” and posted a picture of himself flipping off Kansas State .  As Inside Higher Education reported, Willson posted:

“YOU ARE BEING SCAMMED,” Willson wrote on Facebook. (The wording, grammar and capitalization quoted here are verbatim from Willson’s Facebook post.) “You may not see it today or tomorrow, but you will see it some day. Heck you may have already seen it if you’ve been through college. You are being put thousands into debt to learn things you will never even use. Wasting 4 years of your life to be stuck at a paycheck that grows slower than the rate of inflation. Paying $200 for a $6 textbook. Being taught by teacher’s who have never done what they’re teaching. Average income has increased 5x over the last 40 years while cost of college has increased 18x. You’re spending thousands of dollars to learn information you won’t ever even use just to get a piece of paper.”  He added: “Colleges are REQUIRING people to spend money taking gen. ed. courses to learn about the quadratic formula (and other shit they will never use) when they could be giving classes on MARRIAGE and HOW TO DO YOUR TAXES.”

Other observers thought is was especially significant that Willson reported having a 4.0 GPA.  At the blog American Thinker, under a post entitled, “Higher Education at the Precipice,”  Bay-area blogger Thomas Lifson wrote:

A straight-A student at Kansas State University has boldly proclaimed that the college emperor has no clothes and bidden a public farewell to what he calls a “scam.”  This could be a sign of what lies ahead for the left-wing propagandists who have taken over our colleges and universities. An entirely predictable cataclysm awaits the American higher education sector.  Having jacked up their prices at roughly triple the rate of inflation for at least five decades, college education is no longer affordable without crippling debt for all but the richest families.  The sole justification for spending a quarter of a million dollars on a child’s education at a full-price private school is that a prestige degree is the gateway to upper-middle-class work status.

Lifson concludes by writing, “The marks are wising up.”

What is most interesting in this episode is not the opinions offered by Willson, though his facts about the economic returns from college are simply wrong, and he has only the shallowest understanding of the benefits of a liberal arts education.  But Willson is certainly entitled to his opinions and can make his own decisions about  the relative benefits of starting a t-shirt business, as he intends to do, versus pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

What is striking is that some observers think Willson has made a thoughtful or even bold statement about the benefits and costs of higher education.  Lifson, who lives in near Silicon Valley, seems to think that some classes on coding are all techies really need:

Willson’s own first plan, a t-shirt business, will be only a stepping stone.  But if this angry young man focuses and starts to acquire online education on demand, as is now possible, he can learn every skill he will need.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am exposed to numbers of Millennials working in the tech sector.  Some have computer science degrees; others do not.  All are pulling in enviable wages, and all of them are constantly acquiring new skills online.  That is the nature of life today for techies. For this life, an online degree in computer science would be helpful, but a young person like Willson can simply pick up a skill set and get hired without ever paying outrageous tuition.

It is not clear what Lifson suggests for those who do not want to be techies or whether he’d recommend Willson’s path to his own kids.

The reporting from Inside Higher Education is even more perplexing.   Surely there are more important issues facing higher education.

As for Billy Willson, it is possible that he will turn out to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but the chances are much higher that he will be seeking some post-secondary education in the next few years as he discovers, either, that a little economics, accounting, marketing and design are useful for his business, or that a t-shirt business does not give him the career opportunities over a lifetime that a college degree does.