Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

Sustainability at Saint John’s*

July 11, 2017

The Feast of Saint Benedict, which we are celebrating today, provides a good opportunity to reflect on Saint John’s Abbey and University’s deep and longstanding commitment to sustainability, particularly in light of the ongoing discussions of climate policy in the United States and abroad.

Benedictine communities, of course, have been emphasizing self-sufficiency and sustainability for over 1500 years, though the situation for 21st century communities in an industrial era is rather different than that faced by the original monasteries in a pre-industrial world.

In 2007, Saint John’s President Dietrich Reinhart signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC).  Saint John’s was a charter signatory, and we committed to a goal of becoming carbon neutral, meaning zero net emissions of carbon dioxide, by 2035. Two intermediate goals were set at the time to ensure continued progress: reduce emissions 15% by 2015 and 50% by 2030.  We also set up a process to measure our progress toward these goals.

The ACUPCC calls for a significantly more ambitious commitment to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions than anything envisioned in the Paris Climate Accord or any other international agreement.**  We have already made significant progress toward reducing our emissions, and we continue to stand by that commitment regardless of what is happening internationally.

The most recent Green House Gas Inventory was completed in 2014.  As of October 2014 Saint John’s had reduced carbon emissions by 57.76% compared to 2008 emission levels. This reduction is the equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,363 average American households.

We were able to accomplish this level of reduction through a number of major projects. The first occurred in October 2013 with a shift from burning coal in the Powerhouse, which is the primary source of heat on campus, to burning natural gas.  This reduced emissions at the Powerhouse by nearly 60%.

The second major project has been occurring over the last eight years with a significant investment by Saint John’s in solar energy. In 2009 Saint John’s Abbey and University partnered with Westwood Renewables, a Minnesota based solar company, to create the four-acre Abbey Solar Field which, at the time, was the largest ground mounted solar array in Minnesota.  This solar field produced 3.77% of annual electricity needs at Saint John’s. With the success of this first solar array, two additional installations were constructed in 2014 and 2017, for a total solar installation of over 27 acres.  At present, Saint John’s receives 18.75% of its annual electrical needs from solar energy.  This renewable energy source has reduced greenhouse gas emissions even further since 2014, though the exact reduction will not be calculated until our next Green House Gas Inventory, planned for later this year.

Smaller projects such as LED light upgrades, induction lights in the pool area, new temperature controls on the campus and general conservation efforts have also contributed to a reduced carbon footprint. Through these and multiple other efforts we are many years ahead of the ambitious goals set when Br. Dietrich signed the ACUPCC.

Rooted in Benedictine Tradition, Saint John’s Abbey and University have always had a focus on the good stewardship of resources.  Regardless of the political and policy storms that may be raging in the world beyond Collegeville, members of our community can be proud of our commitment and efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.  Our actions communicate our commitment to protect and sustain both Saint John’s and our natural world for future generations.

Happy Feast of Saint Benedict!

Michael Hemesath
SJU President

** The Paris Accord, for example, allowed each country to determine its own climate-action plan.  The United States’ plan set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% by 2025.

Below are links for those who would like more information about sustainability at Saint John’s, including waste reduction, local sourcing of food and the Sustainable Revolving Loan Fund:

  • SJU Sustainability website
  • Sustainability Fellow, Pearce Jensen ’17: [email protected]
  • SJU Magazine Sustainability article from fall 2016 issue, pg. 12-17
  • SJU Sustainability Office email: [email protected]

*  This letter was sent to the SJU/CSB community on 11 July 2017, the Feast of Saint Benedict.

By |July 19th, 2017|Categories: Economics, History|0 Comments

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