PR Heaven


Above (from left to right) are the participants in the presentation the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress, Abbot Klassen; Chairman of Joint Committee on the Library Sen. Roy Blunt,; Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington; Pope Francis; Speaker of the House John Boehner; Saint John’s University President Dr. Michael Hemesath; and GHR Foundation CEO Amy Rauenhorst Goldman. 
Photo: GHR Foundation

You can probably count on two hands the schools that do not have to worry about their brand and name recognition: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton–maybe it would only take one hand. Every other college or university in the country spends significant time and treasure promoting their brand and name recognition (and the aforementioned schools surely do as well).

Schools naturally care about their reputation with prospective students and parents. They also strive to maintain the goodwill and loyalty of their alumni. And finally, the general public’s opinion of schools (and higher education in general) can matter for funding if it’s a public university, but perceptions can also matter for public policy and legislative reasons for every institution.

Schools generally consider their media presence in three distinct, though often overlapping, markets.

The local market is actually the easiest to manage. The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University get very generous and helpful media coverage from St. Cloud area media, and The St. Cloud Times particular. I’m sure St. Mary’s University gets similar support from the Winona press and the College of Saint Scholastica from the Duluth media. There is a natural and built-in constituency in the hometown area of any college or university.

At the state level, things get a little more complicated for smaller institutions. The University of Minnesota obviously attracts interest from all over the state, but smaller institutions with smaller student bodies and fewer alumni are not always an interest across the whole state. Given the geography of Minnesota, with much of the media focused in the Twin Cities, every institution of higher education except the U is competing with each other for limited media coverage. Saint John’s has done reasonably well in the state market with our strong athletic brand, many loyal and successful alums and long history, but there is still a limit in the interest in Saint John’s related stories. And, truth be told, we face challenges in competing with the much larger and Twin Cities-based University of St. Thomas. But with personalities like John Gagliardi, alumni like Sen. Dave Durenberger and Rep. Mark Kennedy, as well as faculty like Louis Johnston, Annette Atkins and Nick Hayes, I think it is safe to say we punch well above our weight in the state media market.

At the national level, it is virtually impossible for small institutions to influence their media opportunities. Even the very top-ranked liberal arts colleges that everyone in academia recognize as national have almost no national media presence. Outside of the rarified world of higher education, places like Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore are little known, despite having produced influential alumni for decades.

To get national media attention as a small educational institution usually requires luck. Saint John’s has been lucky in recent years as our alumnus Denis McDonough has served as the Chief of Staff for President Obama, often putting him in the national eye. Though, interestingly, in this case, part of the attraction to Denis’s story is that he played football for John Gagliardi. I suspect that many people, when asked about Denis’s background, are more likely to remember he played for the winningest coach in college football history rather than the fact that he graduated from SJU. But we will take that!

All of these observations about media are simply to preface what an incredible week this is for Saint John’s University in the national media–how the stars have aligned in a way that is unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon.

First, as any sentient American knows, Pope Francis is making his first visit to America this week. As of this posting, he is in Washington DC and will soon go on to Philadelphia and New York. Saint John’s University has had the exceptional opportunity to be associated with this visit through The Saint John’s Bible project. Through the extraordinary generosity of the GHR Foundation, Saint John’s presented an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress, and therefore the American people, in honor of the Pope’s historic visit. Abbot John Klassen and I were privileged to be part of the presentation ceremony in which the Pope, House Majority Leader John Boehner and the Head of the Library of Congress Dr. James Billington, among others, were present. This media exposure – and association with possibly the most popular man on the planet – should give Saint John’s unprecedented national exposure.

Second, forty-eight hours later we will get to showcase another exceptional part of the Saint John’s story. ESPN Sports Center will be broadcasting live from Clemens Stadium from 6:00 to 8:00 on Saturday morning prior to the Johnnie-Tommie football game. In another unprecedented national media opportunity, Saint John’s will be representing not only itself but all of Division III athletics, as ESPN Sports Center On the Road has never visited a Division III institution before. This manna from media heaven was made possible in part through the hard work of a number of alumni, but a Gustavus alumnus and Augsburg alumnus also played a significant role in generously helping to bring this opportunity to Collegeville. Being Benedictine to our MIAC rivals should be its own reward, but in this case it has brought us national media exposure, too!

Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez once said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I certainly think SJU community members and our alums should strive to be good, as our Benedictine heritage teaches, but this is a week where we have been lucky as well. Very lucky. And we will take it.

Every day is a good day to be a Johnnie (or a friend of Johnnies), but I hope our many alumni and friends are enjoying this sweet week in Saint John’s University’s history as much as I am.

Libraries, Information and Student Learning

juanillooo via Flickr

juanillooo via Flickr

Arguably the most important invention in educational history was movable type by Johannes Gutenberg.  Around 1439, mass communication and literacy became possibilities as they never had been in previous human history.  The implications for universities were obvious: a great university needed a great library since that was where information and knowledge were stored.

As books spread and their cost came down, individuals had significantly more access to information, but no single individual could have a library that ever rivaled the great universities.  This was the state of knowledge and information for over five hundred years, and it explains why, at least among academics, the greatest university libraries could even be known by their own names: Widener (Harvard) or Bodleian (Oxford). They were like rock stars—Sting, Cher, Madonna or Bono.  The correlation between library quality, usually measured by the number of volumes, and university quality was extremely high.  This was in part because a well-resourced library usually meant a great endowment, but access to the information and knowledge in books also meant the potential for a fine education.

In the late 1990s, of course, another information revolution happened.  The internet brought the democratization of information much further than cheap books ever could.  In less than two decades, anyone with a computer and a good internet connection had access to information that rivaled or even surpassed the great libraries of the world.  The internet changed the world of information, data and knowledge.  While Widener arguably remains  the best academic library in the world, the gap between the information a Harvard student has access to and what a Saint John’s University student can get in Collegeville has become almost indistinguishable for the typical undergraduate’s needs.

The academic playing field in terms of information access has leveled in ways that were once unimaginable.  That is not to say that education quality has necessarily become identical across institutions. Information is only one input into the process.  Faculty quality and commitment, the importance of peer quality and behavior (cohort effects), the extra-curricular experience and many other factors are part of a great educational experience.  But, nonetheless, something fundamental changed because of the internet.

For educators, one of the most interesting questions and challenges is how students use this amazing gift of information: texts, data, images, sounds, videos, etc.  A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article explored one aspect of this new world. Using data from the Association of Research Libraries, Brian Matthews looked at the number of “reference queries” that research libraries received annually.  Basically, how many questions did students ask professional reference librarians over the course of a year?  The two tables below show the top ten research libraries by reference queries for 1995 and 2014:

Reference Queries: Top 10 Libraries, 1995


Reference Queries: Top 10 Libraries, 2014



Clearly student behavior has changed dramatically in the 20 years since the information revolution spurred by the growth of the internet.  What is less clear is what this means.  Assuming the nature of assignments and student work has not changed dramatically (the same number and type of research projects and papers are being assigned), there seem to be two possibilities:

  1.  Students are simply finding most of what they think they need for their work on the internet, and therefore they are asking fewer questions.
  2. The nature of the questions is changing and reference librarians are doing a different kind of work.

It seems that one obvious way to test these hypotheses is to look at what has happened to the number of reference librarians.  If the questions are the same but fewer in number, we would expect the number of reference librarians to drop, as it would take fewer of them to answer significantly fewer inquiries.  If the questions have changed and the nature of the reference librarians’ task has become more complicated, the number of librarians could stay the same or even grow.

A quick internet search revealed that in 2014 there were 26,000 academic librarians employed in the US and 59,000 other paid staff. However, comparable data was not readily available for 1995.

Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, overall librarian employment was predicted to grow by 7% between 2012 and 2022.  Nothing very definitive here, but there does not seem to be a drop in demand for librarians, suggesting that the changing number of reference queries might also reveal a change in the type of queries.

One librarian, commenting on the data above, offers a description of how his or her work had changed since 1995 that is consistent with what faculty at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict have observed:

I worked for 34 years as a reference librarian up to five years ago and my experience was that the nature of the questions changed from fact based to more evaluative inquiries. For instance a question in 1995 would have been, “What is the population of Sudan?” A more recent question would be, “What effect have refugees from Sudan had on the society and economy of Kenya?” Fact and figures, the bread and butter questions of yesteryear, are readily available on the internet or one of the many library subscription databases. The more recent questions call for more critical thinking skills and evaluation skills. Library instruction and higher expectations from the classroom faculty are in part responsible for this trend.

I think educators observing this change in behavior among students as a result of the second information revolution would have at least two reactions:

  1. A cause for concern: as students seek out factual data, are they capable of evaluating its quality?  To simply say, “I found it on the internet” is hardly a confirmation of legitimacy.  Well-educated students swimming in an ocean of information and data need to be discerning consumers of the incredible resources they have access to.  It is here that reference and data professionals continue to be necessary, even if students are not always aware of their own needs.  Colleges and universities now spend much more time on information literacy than they ever did in the past, and that educational process begins with learning how to evaluate sources of information.
  2. A cause for celebration: students all over the world are quite literally capable of more and better work than they were before the internet revolution.  The “evaluative inquiries” described by the librarian above are much more sophisticated and subtle than merely factual questions.  They also readily lend themselves to being framed as hypotheses: refugees from Sudan have harmed (or helped) the economy of Kenya in X ways for Y reasons.  Rather than spending many hours gathering factual data, students can move quickly to research questions that were not possible for undergraduates before the internet existed.  Faculty know this and teach accordingly. Personally, I have directed senior theses in economics that were undoubtedly masters’ quality work in the late 2oth century,  yet were “merely” good but not extraordinary work for the 21st.


The second information revolution is almost exclusively a good thing as it democratizes access to information for students (and non-students) around the world.  It does suggest that colleges and universities need to think carefully about what it means to graduate well-educated digital natives, as the millennials are sometimes called.  Among other outcomes:

  1. Information literacy is likely to become as essential as good writing and communication for future students.
  2. Faculty will need to continually evaluate their assignments and expectations as the availability of information and data continues to grow.
  3. The already close relationship between library staff and faculty is likely to grow stronger as information and data professionals are needed to keep faculty abreast of the constantly growing availability of information in each professor’s specialty.
  4. And students are going to continue to need ongoing – and maybe growing – help from reference professionals as they navigate the sea of information to ask deeper and more complicated questions.

Our plans to renovate, re-design and add to Marcel Breuer’s beautiful Alcuin Library at Saint John’s University are driven in part by these new realities brought about by the internet revolution.  The result of these internal and external changes will be graduates who are likely to be better educated than any previous generation in history.

Athletics and Academics: Incompatible?

hutchins_0Recently I have been reading some essays on education by Robert Maynard Hutchins (the collection was a thoughtful gift from an alum).  Though they were published during the Great Depression, they contain some timeless insights on the value of education and the role of the university in society.  Hutchins was president at the University of Chicago during a period in which it was becoming one of the preeminent universities in the country.  One of Hutchins’ innovations was the famous Chicago Core Curriculum.  “This famed Core curriculum, a model for American general education, is the University of Chicago student’s introduction to the tools of inquiry used in every discipline—science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences. The goal is not just to transfer knowledge, but to raise fundamental questions and become familiar with the powerful ideas that shape our society.”

As I explored Hutchins’ biography a bit more, I discovered he was also famous for his views on athletics at the University of Chicago.  As the University’s website tells it,

The one thing which drew more attention than any other, of course, was his elimination of varsity football. Hutchins heaped scorn upon schools which received more press coverage for their sports teams than for their educational programs, and a run of disastrous seasons gave him the trustee support he needed to drop football in 1939. The decision was hailed by many, but few other schools followed Chicago’s lead.

220px-University_of_Chicago_logo.svgThis move was particularly striking as the University of Chicago was, at the time, a member of the Big Ten, had won a national championship in 1905, had a Heisman trophy winner in Jay Berwanger in 1935, were known as “the Monsters of the Midway”  and had been the home of Amos Alonzo Stagg for 40 years.

This storied history left Hutchins unmoved.  “By getting rid of football, by presenting the spectacle of a university that can be great without football, the University of Chicago may perform a signal service to higher education throughout the land,” Hutchins wrote, calling the sport “a major handicap to education in the United States.”

In The Saturday Evening Post Hutchins had written, maybe somewhat intemperately: “In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one,” the university’s president, had written acidly of sports in The Saturday Evening Post. He particularly disparaged football, deriding as myth the idea that the game produced men of good character or instilled a sense of fair play. Indeed, for a college to be a success on the field, he said, it must be something of a scoundrel beyond it.

Hutchins is something of a hero and inspiration to those who continue to worry about the impact of big-time college sports on the academic mission of the university.  There is even an award named after him that “is given annually to faculty or staff members who take a courageous stand to defend academic integrity at their institutions.”

I was thinking of Hutchins last week at our mini-commencement for seniors on the Saint John’s University baseball team.  On our Commencement Day, the team was competing in the post-season MIAC playoffs to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament (which they secured by sweeping the University of St. Thomas), but the timing forced them to miss Commencement with their classmates.  As we have done for athletes with conflicts in the past, we organized a dinner and commencement ceremony for the baseball seniors, their parents and folks from our athletic department.

The nice thing about these special commencements is that you actually get to meet the graduates and their parents and have more in-depth conversations, things that are much more of a challenge with 425 graduates and families in the Abbey Church.  As I interacted with the students and their parents that evening I discovered, not really to my surprise, the following:

  1.  All the students were graduating in four years.
  2. All of the students I talked to had jobs that they were starting in the next couple months.
  3. One student was still deciding between graduate school and a job offer.
  4. One student had turned down a Division II baseball scholarship to play at Saint John’s because the balance between athletics and academics seemed better—a decision that four years in Collegeville had confirmed.
  5. The percentage of baseball players graduating with honors was over 20%, compared to the university’s 15% overall.

As impressive as these young men were, they are typical among our athletes.  I could tell similar stories about every one of our teams, including football, President Hutchins’ views notwithstanding.  What the evening simply reinforced was that there is no inherent conflict between a passion for athletics and a seriousness about academics and education.  Hundreds of students on our campus have both, as do many thousands around the country.

I suspect that the numbers are greater in the NCAA’s Division III, which is the division that the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) competes in, because there are no scholarships, minimal commercial support, and the coaches, fans, parents and athletes are all committed to maintaining the proper balance between athletics and academics.  This is certainly not to say that balance cannot be found in Division II or Division I, but the incentives that come with scholarships and serious outside money make it more difficult.

For all of Hutchins’ wisdom about higher education, his views on the role of athletics are certainly not borne out by the experience of most student-athletes at Saint John’s or DIII more generally.

Football returned to the University of Chicago as a varsity sport in 1969.  The Maroons now play in the University Athletic Conference rather than the Big Ten, competing in Division III, like most other fine liberal arts schools.