Michael Hemesath

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Michael Hemesath

About Michael Hemesath

Michael Hemesath is the 13th president of Saint John's University. A 1981 SJU graduate, Hemesath is the first layperson appointed to a full presidential term at SJU. You can find him on Twitter [at] PrezHemesath.

Johnnie Student-Athletes: In that Order

The new school year has started and the fall collegiate athletic seasons are now underway.  With all the excitement and media this generates, it is worth remembering the important differences between the student-athlete experience at Division III institutions and other NCAA schools.

Money plays a significantly different role across the three NCAA athletic divisions.  In DI, where the most well-known athletic schools compete, the marquee sports of football and basketball generate significant revenue for many (though certainly not all) of these institutions, and those dollars fund most of the costs for lesser followed sports (as well as playoff costs in DII and DIII).  In DI athletics, scholarships also play a big role in attracting students to specific programs across all sports.

The story is slightly different in DII where there is little income to be earned because the TV revenue is a small fraction of that available to DI programs.  Scholarships are still important, but they are usually not as lavishly funded and often cover only a fraction of the costs of attendance, though for many students and their families, that support is crucial.

What is most significant about the scholarships at the DI and DII level is the impact they can have on student-athletes’ educational experience.  When a  coach, under pressure to produce winning teams, commits limited scholarship dollars to a student, he or she expects a significant commitment from the student-athlete in return—both emotionally and in terms of time.  Sometimes that works just fine, as the student wants to make that commitment, has a good learning experience on the field or court,  and can comfortably handle their academic responsibilities while meeting the expectations of their coach.  In other cases, the commitment to an athletic program, with practice time expected throughout the whole year and travel for contests, can negatively impact a student’s academic and social experience, resulting in poor academic outcomes and little exposure to the benefits of extra-curricular learning.

The DIII model is fundamentally different.  When a student chooses a DIII institution, he or she knows they will be first and foremost a student because their commitment to an athletic team is purely voluntary and if their love of sport ever diminishes or gets in the way of other priorities, they can simply walk away.  There are no economic incentives affecting that decision.  Student-athletes view their varsity participation as only a part of their holistic educational experience and coaches recruit and structure their programs with this in mind.

At Saint John’s University our coaches have long recruited well-rounded student-athletes who, while contributing to successful teams, have an impact on campus in the classroom and beyond.  These student-athletes, while deeply passionate about their sport, know that their undergraduate education is an important stepping stone to a professional life that will not involve athletics and therefore the very best education they can get involves academics, character building and learning outside the classroom, in addition to the important learning athletics provides.

At Saint John’s we are especially proud of our student-athletes’ commitment to their academic work.  Last year we compared the GPA of the 30% of our students who are varsity athletes to that of the rest of the student body and discovered that the athletes’ GPAs were slightly higher.  Johnnies also do well when competing for Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) Academic All-Conference honors.  For the third time in the last four years, SJU led the conference with 68 male Academic All-MIAC honorees in 2016-17, 12 ahead of the second-place tie between Gustavus Adolphus and the University of St. Thomas (56). The Johnnies led the league with 57 honorees in 2013-14 and 63 in 2015-16, and finished second with 50 in 2014-15.  To qualify for Academic All-MIAC recognition, student-athletes must be a sophomore, junior or senior with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.50 on a 4.00 scale and compete in 50% of their team’s varsity contests.

The MIAC, in addition to being one of the strongest athletic conferences nationally, counts among its members Carleton, Macalester and St. Olaf, schools with national reputations for academic excellence.

The availability of athletic scholarships undoubtedly gives many young men and women the opportunity to pursue a college degree and the competition in DI athletics provides significant pleasure to millions of fans.  But the biggest NCAA division, DIII, offers a different model where young women and men are students first and athletes second, and where they truly play for love of the game.

Come out and watch.  You may not see many future professional athletes, but you will see the next generation of business professionals, doctors, educators, lawyers and community leaders.

By |September 7th, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Benedictine Academic Freedom

Students in classroom at Saint John's University (Minn.)Fifty years ago, in July 1967, a small group of Roman Catholic educators met at a conference center in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, which was owned by the University of Notre Dame.  The leaders of the most important North American Catholic institutions were present and the group was led by Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh.  In the wake of Vatican II, which had concluded two years earlier, the group was considering “The Nature and Mission of the Catholic University in the Modern World.”

The backdrop for the conversation was the huge growth in higher education enrollment, particularly among Catholics students, in the post-World War II era, and the tremendous changes in the Catholic Church in following Vatican II.

The basic question for these leaders was this: Were Catholic universities first universities or first Catholic?
For the institutions represented at this meeting, the question is answered unequivocally in the opening sentences of what became known as the Land O’ Lakes Statement:

The Catholic University today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.

The Statement goes on to emphasize the importance of a Catholicism that is “perceptibly present and effectively operative” in universities and stresses the importance of the role of theology and the theology faculty.  The group also emphasizes the importance of Catholic social justice teachings and concerns with “ultimate questions.”

But what is remembered most from this conference is the emphasis on academic freedom and the need for autonomy from any external authority, lay or clerical.

These leaders were saying to prospective students (and their parents) that they would receive an education at Catholic universities that would be the academic equal of any public or private university.  They were telling faculty that their ability to teach and research would in no way be compromised by choosing to make their careers at Catholic institutions.  They were telling the world that Catholic universities were ready to take their place among the leading academic institutions in the United States, even as they maintained their strong Catholic identity.  All these claims were to be built on the academic freedom that was the foundation of the modern university.

The influence and success in American life of those educated in the Catholic tradition and the enhanced academic reputations of Catholic universities during the past 50 years is a testament to the success of this vision.  The finest Catholic universities in American today are viewed as the equals of their secular peers, and they compete for the best students in the world.

Fifty years later it is worth revisiting this important historic document to consider what Catholic universities owe our students today as we prepare them for lives of success and meaning in the 21st century.

Despite many changes in the world, from globalization to the technological revolution to an increasingly diverse world, most educators continue to believe the finest university education is still built on a foundation of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

While this contention is not seriously debated in the academy (though there are rare exceptions  ) it is not a stretch to suggest that some observers outside of higher education are wondering about the depth and strength of the higher education’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas, noted here and here.  Recent incidents at the University of Missouri, Berkeley, Middlebury College and Evergreen State College have not shown higher education as a place where ideas are always exchanged freely and civilly.

We are not immune to these challenges around the exchange of ideas on our own campuses.  I don’t need to remind anyone here of the incident on The Link (bus) last February.  We have had roommates break up over last fall’s election.  Incoming students have asked not to be placed with a roommate who shares different political views—a request we would not honor, even if we knew of incoming students’ political views.

Resident assistant training now includes a discussion of managing political conflicts.  Faculty members report that some students are reticent to participate in class discussions around issues of race, gender or social justice topics for fear of alienating other students or faculty.

Each of these incidents alone is troubling, and together they are a reminder that even with our strong Catholic and Benedictine tradition and sense of community, we must continually renew our commitment to Academic Freedom in a Benedictine ethos—what I might call Benedictine Academic Freedom.

The notion of academic freedom is well understood by those in this room.  I think a recent statement by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression articulates the notion well:

The University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”  Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict.  But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.  Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

As central as academic freedom is to those in the academy, this notion may be new or not well understood by our students.  For academic freedom to be most effective in educating our students, it is our responsibility to help our students both understand the concept intellectually and to support them emotionally during their intellectual engagement because, as the Chicago statement notes, the unfettered exchange of ideas can be uncomfortable or painful, even as it is foundational to the education we seek to provide.

Certainly, there are some limits on freedom of expression, as the Chicago statement also notes:

The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

In the spirit of the Land O’ Lakes and University of Chicago statements, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, strongly support the free exchange of ideas as essential for our educational mission, even knowing how challenging exercising academic freedom can be.  But I think, as Catholic and Benedictine institutions, we can aspire for even more from our community and from each other as we engage in these sometimes hard conversations.

I think it is completely appropriate for us to ask of each other – not demand, but ask – that we engage in what I would characterize as Benedictine Academic Freedom.  At CSB and SJU we should exercise our freedom of speech, and the challenges and discomfort that are inevitable, in a fashion consistent with our Benedictine values, with an emphasis on respect for individuals and listening.

Specifically, I would suggest that as we engage in the exchange of ideas together that we consider three things that will likely make those exchanges more civil and more likely to generate learning and understanding on both sides:

  1. Setting: We should consider the time, place and context for any exchange.  We must have open and willing partners engage in meaningful dialogue.  (A captive audience on a Link bus does not qualify.)
  2. The Audience: To be truly respectful of those we are interacting with, we must consider how we will be heard.  Are there aspects of our audience’s background or experiences that might make them especially sensitive to our ideas and words?  Are there ways for us to soften or restate our views, without compromising our meaning?
  3. Reciprocity: Just as we hope and expect to be heard respectfully, we must in turn be willing to listen generously and openly to the views of others, views that may well make us uncomfortable or even angry.  “Listen with the ear of your heart,” as St. Benedict reminds us in The Rule.

These three suggestions are certainly not easy, especially when the issues we discuss with each other are painful and personal, as most meaningful issues are.  But if we can work together to practice the free exchange of ideas in a truly Benedictine spirit, to live out Benedictine Academic Freedom, our students and community will both receive the educational benefits from the free exchange of ideas, and we will build an even stronger community committed to respect and listening with the ear of our hearts.

And we will be educating Bennies and Johnnies who will be prepared to lead organizations and communities in a Benedictine way, an outcome we can all agree is a good thing.

Best wishes to all for the beginning of the new academic year, a time for hope in the possibilities of the future.

Presented to at the All Campus Community Forum on August 22, 2107.

By |August 28th, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|1 Comment

Saint John’s: A Thin Place

The sense of place at Saint John’s is what drew many of us here.  I have had dozens of alumni tell me that they got on campus and just knew this was the right place for them to live and study.

We still consider a campus visit an essential part of recruiting Johnnies (and no small number of Bennies).  Alumni and parents come back to campus often simply to re-visit the beauty and experience the reinvigorating ethos of this place.

It is always a pleasure to welcome visitors to campus, especially those who have not visited before.  Invariably they comment on the beauty of the place—both natural and manmade—and how well-maintained the grounds and buildings are.

As someone lucky enough to live and work here, I thought I had a very good sense of Saint John’s and its beauty, but this summer a guest to campus offered an insight that made me look at this place with new eyes.

Dennis Turner, Wikimedia Commons

A non-alum friend of one of the monks was here for an event in June.  He told the monk how much he always enjoyed visiting because he considered Saint John’s to be “a thin place.”  The monk was not immediately familiar with the reference.  His friend said the term came from Celtic spirituality and “described a place where heaven and earth are very close, where the veil between here and above is thin.”  The Celts used it to describe, among other places, the western Scottish isle of Iona, where St. Columba brought Christianity from his native Ireland.

I liked the description and did a little more searching and found the following description of a thin place:

In the Celtic tradition, a “thin pace” is the place where the veil that separates heaven and
earth is nearly transparent. It is a place where we experience a deep sense of God’s presence
in our everyday world. A thin place is where, for a moment, the spiritual world and the natural
world intersect.

I trust for many alumni and friends of Saint John’s, this is one of their thin places.

Courtesy: An Oblate of Saint John’s Abbey, June 2016

By |August 3rd, 2017|Categories: Alumni, History|0 Comments