Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

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.

The Boys are Back: Boys State Returns to Saint John’s*

Welcome to Saint John’s University and Abbey.  Though actually I should say, “Welcome back.”  Saint John’s has hosted Boys State numerous times in the past, and we are delighted to be hosting the program again this summer for the first of what we hope will be many years.

There are at least three reasons why Saint John’s is a great location for Boys State.

First, as I noted, we have a long history with Boys State.  Lots of our students and alumni are also former Boys State participants.  I know there is at least one Johnnie alum in the audience as a counselor this week and the Boys State governor from 2012, Zac McFarland, just graduated from Saint John’s last month and is off to law school in the fall.

Second, Saint John’s has a significant tradition of public service, especially in politics, among our alumni.  There are currently several Johnnies serving in the state legislature and many others have done so in the past.  Mark Kennedy ‘79, the current president at the University of North Dakota, was a United States Representative.  Eugene McCarthy ’35 and David Durenberger ’55 were both United States Senators, and McCarthy was a presidential candidate in 1968.  More recently Denis McDonough ’92 was the White House Chief of Staff for President Obama.

Additionally, we have many Johnnies in public service in other countries. For example, January Makamba ’02 was a Member of Parliament in Tanzania for two terms, a Presidential Candidate in the 2016 general elections and currently serves as Minister of Union Affairs and Environment, while Innocent Bash ’02 is a Member of Parliament in Tanzania, and Abdul Kulane ’13 serves as Deputy Chief of Staff for the President of Somalia.

This is a campus that has nurtured a passion for public service among our students for many generations, and I hope it might do the same for you during your week here.

Finally, there is an important part of our history and ethos that is particularly relevant for your participation in Boys State at this time in our political history.  Saint John’s was founded by Benedictine monks in 1857, the year before Minnesota became a state.  (Our sister school, the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, where the women students live, was founded by women from the Benedictine order.)  The Benedictines are a Catholic monastic order of men or women who live in community in a monastery.  We still have a thriving men’s monastery at Saint John’s, and you will see monks around campus during your stay here.  The Benedictine tradition was founded by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century, over 1500 years ago.  Much of the Benedictine tradition is based on a little book which has come to be called The Rule of St. Benedict.  It was written by Benedict to help his fellow monks live out their monastic vocations well and to strengthen their monastic communities.

Now you might legitimately be asking, “What in the world could a 17-year-old 21st Century Gen Z-er learn from a 6th Century Catholic monk?”  Well, first, any tradition that has survived and thrived in the world for over 1500 years is certainly worthy of some respect.  Second, Benedict was very wise about human beings and how they might best live together in community.  His wisdom might help our communities today.

The very first word in The Rule is, “Listen.”  Benedict urges his brothers to, “Listen with the ear of their heart.”  By this counsel he means to listen generously, to listen to each other as you would like to be listened to, and to consider how you are likely to be heard by your confreres or your intended audience.

This advice is especially timely for us, living as we are in a particularly contentious political time where we seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other, especially those with whom we might disagree; where polite and civil disagreement about politics or policy seems challenging at best and impossible at worst.  This can be especially disconcerting for many young people who are just coming of age politically and might be wondering if this tense, angry, and extreme political tone is simply how politics must be practiced.  (As an aside from someone older, it does not have to be this way and has not always been so.)

As you consider what role you might play in civic life in the future and how to best approach this week of learning and engagement with your peers from across the state, I would simply urge you to take Benedict’s advice to heart, this week and beyond.  Listen.  Practice that art and skill.  Listen hard and listen well.  Understand what others are saying to you and why.  You will be a better person for it, a better friend, a better professional and a better leader in your communities.

I should note with hope and optimism that those in this auditorium surely cannot be as pessimistic about politics, policy and civic life as the most extreme political observers currently are, or you would not have decided to devote a week of your summer to Boys State.  Thank you for making that decision and giving us older folks a reason for hope in the future leadership and civic life in our state and nation.

Finally, I would be remiss in my presidential duties if, as I wish you well for your Boys State week, I did not encourage you to envision yourself as a student at Saint John’s University a year from now.  We would love to have each and every one of you become a Johnnie.  If the 300+ of you all decided by the end of your week that you will all come back to be part of the Class of 2022, it would make the job of our admissions staff much easier next year!

Seriously, please put Saint John’s on your list of possible colleges and come back and visit us during the school year when classes are in session and students are on campus.

Best wishes for a great week.

*This welcome was given to the Boys State delegates who were on the SJU campus from June 11th-17th.
Boys State and Girls State are summer leadership and citizenship programs sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary for high school juniors. Boys and Girls are usually nominated by their high school during their junior year. Boys and Girls State programs both began in 1937 and are held in each of the U.S. states, usually on a college campus, within that state.  (From Wikipedia.)

By |June 26th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

Across Generations: Mike and Ramond

Most Johnnies naturally have their closest relationships with classmates and those within a couple years either side of their graduation year.  Yet it is also true that many Johnnies have found that the Saint John’s experience is powerfully transferable across time.  Whether they meet a current student or an older alum, the typical Johnnie finds an almost immediate connection with current students or other alumni because of the shared connection to Collegeville and the educational experience here.  It can be knowledge of the same professors, the shared Benedictine values, a connection to a favorite monk, love of Johnnie athletics, a shared love of the natural beauty of the campus or any one of a dozen other things that make the Johnnie experience unique.

I was reminded of this powerful intergenerational connection between Johnnies as I observed the relationship between an alumnus coming up on his 50th Reunion and a 2017 graduate.  Mike Scherer will celebrate Reunion with his 1967 classmates this June 23-25, and Ramond Mitchell received his Bachelor’s Degree in Theology a few weeks ago.

They met initially when Ramond served as the student representative on the Building and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees.  Mike was Chair of that committee, and he took Ramond under his wing, orienting him regarding B&G Committee issues and serving as a mentor.  Coincidentally, around the time they met, Ramond served as a student host when Mike’s grandson, Sam, visited campus.  (Ramond must have done a good job, as Sam is now a junior at SJU.)

But the relationship grew deeper as these two men came to enjoy time together beyond committee meetings.  Ramond is from the Bahamas and was not always able to travel home on breaks.  Mike and his wife, Sue, invited Ramond to spend time with them at their home in Wayzata.  Coincidentally, Sue had connections to the Bahamas from her time serving as a volunteer nurse, so she and Ramond had a shared love of the islands and their culture.  This year during the annual CSB and SJU alumni visit to the Bahamas, Mike and Sue went along, and Ramond arranged for them to meet and spend time with his mother and sister.

Earlier this spring Mike and Sue ensured that Ramond’s mom was in Collegeville for Mom Prom.  When Commencement Week rolled around, Mike and Sue hosted Ramond’s mom, sister, grandmother and a close family friend for a week—introducing them to the delights of Minnesota, like the Twin Cities and the Mall of America, and providing transportation to Collegeville where they all witnessed Ramond’s graduation together.

Though Mike and Ramond’s friendship may be slightly atypical given their ages and places of origin, it is but one example of the relationships that have grown out of a shared Johnnie experience.  If you have other stories of the power of Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s to build unique friendships, I’d enjoy hearing about them.

Mike Scherer will receive the 2017 Walter Reger Distinguished Alumnus Award at Reunion this summer, June 23-25.

Ramond Mitchell gave the 2017 Saint John’s University Student Commencement address.

By |May 31st, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments