Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

You Are Our Brand

I regularly tell students that in many of the circles they will travel after they graduate, and even during their undergraduate years, that when someone learns they are a Johnnie that this knowledge will bring with it assumptions and expectations.

Almost always those expectations will be positive and prove helpful to the Johnnie.  The specifics vary by individual and situation but non-alums or parents have told me on different occasions that Johnnies are smart, hard-working, creative, modest, loyal, thoughtful, ethical, fun, spiritual, kind and just..good..guys, among other things.

I don’t tell young Johnnies this to swell their heads or pump them up, but to remind them of two things:

  1. The many graduates that have gone before them have established a reputation for Saint John’s and Johnnies that they benefit from, and they owe these previous generations a debt of gratitude.
  2. They, the young men in my audience, are, or soon will be, the Johnnies in the world that must live up to that reputation and maintain it as a sacred trust for the generations to come.

I was reminded of this first point when I received an email that was making the rounds on campus recently.
A friend of a Johnnie had written a touching tribute to his Johnnie friend on why he loved and respected him and on how the Johnnie had come to help the writer appreciate what happens at Saint John’s (and Saint Ben’s.)

I have taken the liberty of hiding the writer’s identity and editing his words slightly to preserve his anonymity.  I have also called his friend simply “Johnnie,” as I know that the true Johnnie in question would modestly prefer to remain anonymous.

I also think that the writer could be virtually any Johnnie’s friend and the subject could be any of thousands of Johnnies.

Advice For College Students: Who you are Speaks Louder Than What you Do
by A Friend of a Johnnie

I received the list and it looked impressive.

It contained the topics being offered to student leaders at the upcoming Saint John’s University/College of Saint Benedict Student Leadership Seminar.

The voice at the other end of the phone was confident and articulate, crisp and engaged. It was the President of the Saint John’s University student body.

“We’ve had a speaker who had to cancel last minute (the conference is in one week) and we wondered if you might be able to speak in his place? Here are some of the topics we have so far: Goal setting and project management. Leveraging your leadership. Business leadership. Innovation. Managing a team. Building and marketing a brand. What do you think?”


Knowing that this opportunity was in the works for a few days, I had the chance to rough out a speech in my mind. But it was quite different from the topics this bright young man was proposing. Oh, I think I could give a decent twenty to thirty minute talk on most of them, but these were more pragmatic, tactical topics. My sense of what young college leaders needed to hear was a bit more visionary.

So here is what I would like to say:

Saint John’s University in Collegeville, MN is barely an hour away from my home in Minneapolis. For years, my family has driven by it (largely unaware of the towering Abbey Church amidst distant forest) en route to a lake resort by Detroit Lakes or (years later) on my way home from college or my wife’s North Dakota family home. That was about as much as I knew of Saint John’s, until I met Johnnie.

Johnnie is my senior by about fifteen years. He is the physician who recruited me to my current clinical position, is one of the closest friends I have ever had, and is one of the wisest people I have ever known. He is a Saint John’s graduate. For seventeen years, I have known Johnnie, had lunch with him, gone out for beers, taught with him, exchanged towel-snapping humor and plumbed topics ranging from faith and politics, history and literature. And over the years, Johnnie has taught me a great deal about Saint John’s. When Johnnie begins reflecting on the university, it’s as if he just left the campus yesterday. The landscape in his language brings Saint John’s to life. From the cavernous Abbey Church and the buzzing Refectory to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and woodworking shop, from the Great Hall and the quadrangle to the Abbey guesthouse and the Stella Maris chapel on the lake. In Johnnie’s telling, these are sites of great fun and a little maturity, raw buffoonery and intense spiritual growth. I’ve heard gut-busting stories where close friends secretly removed the passenger seat from his car as he returned to it on a first date. And I’ve learned from how moved he was seeing a solitary twelve-year-old boy enter the empty Abbey Church at mid-day, pray for ten minutes, sign himself, then go about his day.

But the thing that has always stuck with me about Saint John’s University (and by extension, its sister College of Saint Benedict) is that culture matters. Clearly, different colleges draw different people to themselves, so there is a skewed (if I may say, impressively skewed) population of students who are choosing to go to Saint John’s. Notwithstanding the type of people who have chosen to attend Saint John’s, a college, if it is doing its job, is not simply meant to educate. It is supposed to form. And formation is not a matter of bestowing knowledge, but engendering wisdom. Even more than fostering skills and employability, college should forge character. Beyond offering facts that populate the mind, college should offer lessons that cultivate the soul. Saint John’s did that for Johnnie. Granted, his antennae (more than most of his contemporaries) were out for spiritual mentors, wise professors and enduring friendships. And he found them. My flaw was that I was a bit too stressed and utilitarian about getting into medical school to pay close attention to culture in college. While I had an excellent college experience, I will admit that at times superficialities eclipsed the transcendent. But for Johnnie, something in him incessantly looked for this substance and he found it. He found it at Saint John’s.

Since I met Johnnie, I have been to Saint John’s campus twice, my wife has participated in a spiritual retreat there and we have brought my young daughters to campus. I own a Saint John’s baseball cap and T-shirt and shamelessly plug the College of St. Benedict to my young daughters. And to this day, upon finding out that a person of particularly impressive and intriguing character (bright, witty, religious, deep, grounded) went to Saint John’s (or Saint Ben’s), I simply nod my head and say to myself, “Well, that makes sense.”
When I first encountered Johnnie (and ever since we have been friends), I have been impressed with what he has done, but I am moved by who he is.

The degrees, awards and accolades that will be granted to graduates from Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s will be noteworthy and useful, but they will matter far less than the character into which each graduate has been formed. And the tactics by which you lead (while important) will matter far less than the integrity by which you live.

Who you are speaks louder than what you do.

Each and every alumnus is our living and breathing brand, each and every day, in each and every interaction and a powerful example of our mission to the world.  Thank you, Johnnie.

By |November 14th, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

Politics of the moment versus investment in the future*

Each year the Gallup organization asks Americans about their confidence in various institutions.  It will not surprise readers that the confidence Americans have in our institutions ranges widely.  The data for 2017 reveals that the institutions in which Americans have “a great deal” or a “quite a lot” of confidence ranges from a low of 12% for Congress to a high of 72% for the military.  These numbers are up slightly from 2016.

The Gallup poll does not ask specifically about higher education but another recent poll by the Wall Street Journal suggests that colleges and universities are suffering from their own crises in confidence among the public.  The WSJ Poll from this summer revealed that only 49% of those polled believe that “A college degree is worth the cost,” while 47% disagree.  This slight 2% gap in support for higher education is a significant drop from the 13% gap between supporters and skeptics when the same question was asked four years ago.

This number is troubling enough to those of us in higher education, but it is even more concerning when the responses are broken down by respondent.  The drop in confidence about the value of a four-year degree can be attributed almost entirely to non-graduates.  College graduates, on the other hand, continue to believe that college is worth the investment by a more than two to one margin, a gap that has remained stable.

What is interesting to consider is why this drop has occurred.  There is no evidence that the economic return on a college education has lessened.  College graduates continue both to earn a significant wage premium over high school graduates in the labor market and experience considerably lower rates of unemployment regardless of the economic conditions.  Economists calculate that the value of a four-year degree over a lifetime ranges from $500,000-$1M.  Yet a significant portion of the population does not believe a degree is worth the investment, which suggests that they are likely to discourage their children and other young people from going to college.

Looking at the data more closely suggests that the current contentious political environment might well be influencing attitudes toward higher education.  Republicans, men and rural residents – generally more conservative respondents – are more skeptical about the value of a college degree, while Democrats, women and urban residents – a generally more liberal demographic – continue to have faith in higher education.  These data are consistent with the hypothesis that the political tensions on campus around issues of free speech and diversity may have caused more conservative citizens to become more skeptical about the value of college.

As an educator and economist, these trends are worrying, especially as they relate to young men. Too few men are pursuing degrees already, as only 43% of American undergraduates are male.  Both for individual young men and for our country as a whole, a greater percentage of men need to pursue higher education.  While young male high school graduates can find good jobs in the currently healthy economy, the longer run question is what skills young men will need for a lifetime in a changing and unpredictable economy.  Those future jobs will likely require some investment in post-secondary education.

There is no denying that our campuses have become more politicized, as our country has become more polarized.  There have been incidents that have revealed some institutions to be less supportive of the free exchange of ideas than in the past, and this has hurt those schools.  The University of Missouri, for example, has seen a drop in first year enrollment of 35% following political protests on its flagship campus.

Young people are certainly right to consider what their campus experiences will be when they are weighing the biggest investment decision they are likely to ever make.  These experiences are an important part of any college education.  But they should also remember that the vast majority of the 2200+ four year institutions in America have continued to focus on their educational mission.  Every day faculty and staff are helping students pursue their educational dreams.

College graduates by a 2 to 1 ratio continue to believe that their investment was worthwhile.  Young people should reflect on this as they consider their own academic and economic investment in the future.

*This is the text of my To A Higher Degree column that appeared in the St. Cloud Times on Sunday, October 22, 2017.  To A Higher Degree is published the fourth Sunday of the month and rotates among the presidents of the four largest Central Minnesota higher education institutions.

By |October 31st, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Welcome to Saint John’s–Now Get a Little Uncomfortable*

Students walking and talkingWelcome to Saint John’s University, Gentlemen of the Class of 2021.  We know that as academically focused, athletically and artistically talented, and service-oriented young men, you had many options when it came to choosing a college.  We are delighted that you chose to become Johnnies.

Each year we survey seniors and ask them to describe their experience at CSB and SJU.  The most common words they use are community, friendly, fun and comfortable.  These are great attributes for any college to have, and it is especially nice that seniors feel warmly toward SJU as they graduate—especially as we will soon be asking them to share their time and treasure with us as alumni!!

Seriously, I have no doubt that many of you chose Saint John’s, at least in part, because of these attributes.  And these are great characteristics for a college to have.  To spend your college years in a fun, friendly community provides the grounding for a great educational experience.  I know … because I am a Johnnie too.

Forty years ago this fall—yes 4-0—I was in your place: starting my freshman year at Saint John’s, meeting new friends on 3rd Mary, playing name games at orientation and feeling a little nervous about how well my high school education had prepared me for the rigors of college.

On this anniversary of my matriculation and as I prepared to meet you, I have been reflecting on how the education of the class of 2021 at Saint John’s will compare to that of the Class of 1981.

Many things will be similar, despite the passing of 40 years.  You will still get a great grounding in the classic liberal arts—humanities, social sciences and natural sciences—that will give you writing, communication and analytical skills, and a breadth of knowledge that will serve you well for a lifetime.  You will get a depth of knowledge in whatever academic area you choose to major in—economics in my case—that will serve you in your professional career or graduate school.  You will have all manner of extra-curricular experiences from athletics to student government to volunteer activities to international experiences to spiritual opportunities–all of which will develop your social skills, provide leadership experiences and build your character.  You will make friends—Johnnies and Bennies—that will last a lifetime.  As one mother told her son, perhaps a little hyperbolically, at his graduation from SJU, “These will be the guys who will be carrying your casket.”

There are also ways in which the Class of 2021 will get an unambiguously better education than the Class of 1981.  First, and most obviously, the knowledge in the world has grown by leaps and bounds.  You will know more than I and my classmates did in May of 1981.  Furthermore, technology, which you have been bathed in since birth, will give you access to more of that knowledge, easily and quickly.  You will get to enjoy some of the fabulous new facilities on our campus, from residential opportunities that were non-existent for my classmates (OK—Mary and Tommy are pretty much the same!), to great new athletic facilities (for us the Palaestra was a big deal), including a three-season dome, to a gorgeous renovated Alcuin Library and new Learning Commons.

Our faculty has grown significantly since the 1980s, making class sizes smaller and mentoring opportunities greater.  Our staff has grown too, and they will help support your learning and personal development in ways that did not occur in my era.  Finally, the range of academic and extra-curricular activities has also grown dramatically with over 100 clubs and organizations, 19 of our own semester-long international programs, entrepreneurial activities, political organizations and various arts and music organizations.

The comparisons described above are based on differences in the wider world and changes at Saint John’s itself over the last 40 years, but there are also important choices that you have as individuals that will also significantly impact your educational experience.

There was one very important choice you control that will give you the best possible experience at Saint John’s. It is a choice that I have some regrets about from my own time at Saint John’s.

Choose to get uncomfortable.

I wish that I had stretched myself more during my undergraduate years at Saint John’s.  I stayed a little too much in my comfort zone.  I would have gotten an even better education if I had gotten more uncomfortable more often.

Some observers of your generation are not quite sure you are prepared to be uncomfortable.  Incidents on various college campuses have suggested that students today are not interested in engaging in the occasionally uncomfortable free exchange of ideas or in hearing alternative views.  Some have called your generation snowflakes—too delicate and easily melted.  Not long ago the Atlantic Monthly had a cover story entitled, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”  (It is an interesting article and worth your time to read as you start your college education.)

The basic thesis of the article is that many students are coming to college today uninterested in being challenged.  They have their view of the world and are not interested in having it tested.  They are comfortable with their ideas, opinions and understandings.  They do not want to be made to feel uncomfortable or challenged.

The problem with this attitude is that it seriously gets in the way of a real education and does little to prepare you for life beyond Collegeville.  And I think Johnnies are made of sterner stuff than these observers are suggesting.

So my fondest wish for you, the Class of 2021, is to engage in some uncomfortable learning while you are here.

In your academic life—take some classes that are new and that you might not be sure you will do well in.  Plan to go abroad to a place you’ve never been.  It’s not high school anymore, so there are new subjects to explore, ideas to test and meanings to find.  These won’t happen if you strive to stay comfortable.

In your extra-curricular life—try some new activity that you’ve never done before.  Join a group where you don’t know anyone.  Take a risk and run for the student Senate.  Start a club with some friends.  Volunteer for a good cause.

In your social life—get to know some Johnnies and Bennies who aren’t from a Twin Cities suburb.  Find out what it is like to grow up in Newark or the Bahamas or Los Angeles or China.  Learn about someone else’s religious beliefs.  Talk to someone who doesn’t vote like you or your family do.  Have a cup of coffee with that guy on your floor that seems to have had to most unique experience growing up.  It will be uncomfortable at times, but you’ll learn some interesting things about them; you’ll strengthen our Benedictine community by showing hospitality, and you might be surprised at what you learn about yourself, too.

In short—get out of your comfort zone.  As warm and welcoming as our Benedictine community is, you can find yourself too comfortable.  If that is the case, you are short-changing yourself and your education.

Welcome to Saint John’s.  Now go out there and get a little uncomfortable in order to get the best education possible.

*Remarks from the President’s Dinner welcoming the Class of 2021.  I was inspired to post these remarks, somewhat belatedly, after three recent conversations with Johnnies of very different generations, each of whom observed that the best thing Saint John’s did for them was to take them out of their comfort zones, which helped prepare them for the success they have had in their professional and personal lives.

By |October 23rd, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments