Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

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

John Gagliardi Strikes Again

Last spring it was the Ivy League.  In an article entitled, “Ivy League Moves to Eliminate Tackling at Football Practices,” the New York Times wrote:

Ivy League football coaches have decided to take the extraordinary step of eliminating all full-contact hitting from practices during the regular season, the most aggressive measure yet to combat growing concerns about brain trauma and other injuries in the sport.
The move could influence how other football programs, from the youth level to the professionals, try to mitigate the physical toll of football, which has been played on Ivy League campuses since the 19th century.

The story says the move was inspired by Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens who started this policy with his program all the way back in 2010.

Now the NCAA is following suit by proposing changes to rules governing college football practices.  In a Wall Street Journal article by Matthew Futterman, the rationale and proposal are described:

In an effort to reduce concussions and other injuries, the NCAA is recommending that college-football teams abandon two-a-day practices and scale back the number of full-contact days.
The proposal, distributed to schools by the NCAA Sport Science Institute on Tuesday, would significantly alter the way college football teams prepare for competition.

As the article notes – and as the comments from WSJ readers attest – the policy is likely to meet with some resistance from players and coaches who think the policy might make players less prepared for actual game situations or even change the very nature of the game.  Interestingly, later in the article, Futterman notes that the new proposal actually would bring the NCAA practices closer to NFL policies, which were led by player concerns and were codified in the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement:

The changes in the NCAA preseason rules would bring it closer into line with the NFL, which has significantly cut back on full-contact practices. The league largely eliminated contact in off-season training and all preseason two-a-day contact sessions in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The league now allows just 14 full-contact practices during the 18-week regular season, but 11 of them have to occur in the first 11 weeks and many teams don’t even hold that many.

John GagliardiAll these goings on might be mostly amusing to Johnnie football fans and players.  Of course John introduced these policies at Saint John’s well over 60 years ago and did so by simply applying common sense, as there were no longitudinal studies of head injuries; the science of brain trauma was in its infancy and players were just supposed to shake off concussions.

But on another level, these rule policy changes are not simply amusing because they affect the health and safety of football playing boys and young men – and not just as players, but over their lifetimes.  They might also even affect the future of football as a game, as the new understanding of risks raise questions for parents and the liability associated with injuries raises financial issues for teams and programs.

So it is important – both as an academic concern of simply getting the history right and a matter of justice – to recognize the role that John Gagliardi had in this sensible rethinking of how football practices are run and how players are treated.  I know of no coach who was as far ahead of his time than John.

However proud we are of John for his legacy of winning while educating successful men of character at Saint John’s University, the football world and future players owe John recognition for a legacy that is at least as important as his winning record, and will continue to touch lives for decades to come.

In an interesting coincidence, the WSJ story is introduced with a picture of two football players practicing, clad in red jerseys and white helmets. The caption says they are Nebraska football players. I prefer to think of them as Johnnies–as in the picture below.

By |January 24th, 2017|Categories: Kudos|0 Comments

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.