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The ACCU Blog on Leadership

 

 

Thomas (Tom) D. Mengler

Position: Tom Mengler is the 13th president of St. Mary’s University (TX) , the oldest Catholic university in the Southwest, a Marianist institution offering integrated liberal arts and professional education since 1852. He is also the 2018-20 chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities Board of Directors.

Career highlights: Dean, University of St. Thomas (MN) School of Law; dean, College of Law, University of Illinois; interim provost and vice chancellor, Academic Affairs, University of Illinois.

Education: BA, philosophy, Carleton College; MA, philosophy, University of Texas at Austin; JD, University of Texas at Austin.

Age: 65

Family: Wife, Mona; and their children, Nathan, Michael, Madeleine, and Patrick.

Fun Fact: He is meticulously on time. From an early age, his father remarked that he had “an alarm clock buried in his body.” “I am a lawyer. Lawyers tend to be always on time.”

 

Recent Appointments in Catholic Higher Ed

Briar Cliff University appointed Rachelle Karstens interim president.

Holy Names University appointed Michael Groener interim president.

DeSales University appointed Rev. James J. Greenfield, OSFS, president.

Cardinal Stritch University appointed Kathleen A. Rinehart president.

Sacred Heart University appointed David L. Coppola senior vice president for administration and planning.

Saint Mary's University of Minnesota appointed Rev. James P. Burns, IVD, president.

St. Thomas University appointed David Armstrong president. He was president of Thomas More College.

College of St. Joseph appointed Jennifer L. Scott president.

John Carroll University appointed Michael D. Johnson president.

Q. In the last few years, St. Mary’s has received several distinctions of honor ranking it in the top 10. Can you sum up the unique Marianist advantage?

A. I think St. Mary’s as Catholic and Marianist has a number of advantages and attractions for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. I’ll focus, in particular, on our undergraduates. We have about 2,400 undergraduates. The Marianist charism has always emphasized the importance of growing closer to God, following Christ, and becoming closer to each other through community. And so the nature of our community has always been and continues to be life-giving. That’s really one of the most important advantages I think that the Marianist charism brings to the mission of St. Mary’s: a focus on community and coming closer to the purpose that we all have in our lives through engaging our neighbors around us. Those, of course, include fellow students, staff, and faculty. But the community more broadly is like all Catholic colleges and universities – our students are out in the community serving those who need our help. That’s certainly not unique to the Marianist charism and the Marianist advantage. But it’s part and parcel of what it means to grow through community.

You’ve traveled around the world in efforts to expand St. Mary’s reach, including to France, Spain, India, Saudi Arabia, Haiti, and Peru. What have you learned from your travels? And, how does that factor into promoting intercultural and interfaith dialogue?

Well, the world is getting smaller and smaller. That’s certainly something that we’re all aware of. Our economies overlap and are linked more than ever before. Most of our students are regional – from San Antonio and south Texas. Most of them come from very modest backgrounds. More than 40 percent of our students are first-generation. The importance of engaging difference, engaging different cultures, engaging men and women of different faiths and of no faith, I think is part and parcel with becoming a contributing member of society. Intercultural, interfaith conversation and engagement, including by recruiting about 10 percent of our student body – our international students   that’s an important part of our educational process at St. Mary’s University and our educational goals. As an important Catholic institution, St. Mary’s also is and should be committed to promoting dialogue among men and women of different cultures and different faiths so that we can live in peace, security, and charity. There’s nothing more important for any Catholic college and university than graduating men and women who are going to go out into the world and bring peace. And peace requires understanding.

So, do you also want to talk about plans to establish a Center for Catholic Studies?

Yeah, that has many purposes. We are just launching a Center for Catholic Studies. We’ve hired a very able academic and administrator, Alicia Tait, who’s coming from Benedictine University in the Chicago area. She’s been a very significant participant in ACCU activities, workshops, and strategic planning. We’re excited to have her. The Center for Catholic Studies, from the beginning, I have always regarded as a key component to our remaining and growing in our Catholic identity, as the numbers of professed Marianists diminish. There are only about 300 Marianist brothers in the United States. And they’re aging. It becomes even more vital for us as a Catholic and Marianist university, for us as lay people, to take on the responsibilities that 25 and 50 years ago were largely on the shoulders of the religious men who taught, mentored, and worked at St. Mary’s. Now, it’s on lay people and that requires a lot of dialogue, a lot of conversation, a lot of education. So that’s one important part of the Center for Catholic Studies: It is to help organize our continuing development as a community of faculty and staff who understand the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, Catholic Social Teaching, and Marianist spirituality, and are able then to convey and live those identities day in and day out. 

The second purpose really as a Catholic university is to contribute to the intellectual life of the Church and to promote that dialogue. So, it also can be an organizing and centralizing focus for the research activities, the programmatic activities, the outreach activities of faculty and staff at St. Mary’s that bring in scholars and experts. That’s how I see the important role of the Center for Catholic Studies going forward.

As ACCU Board chair, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing Catholic colleges and universities? Are you optimistic for the future?

I am optimistic about the future of Catholic higher education. It’s more important than ever. Catholic colleges and universities remain among the very few places where students are invited to reflect on what it means to lead a purposeful life. We’ve done it for literally centuries. There are fewer and fewer institutions of higher education in the United States where that’s happening and it’s at the core of what we do as faculty and staff and students at Catholic institutions of higher education. The challenge, I think, and the opportunity is maintaining that focus. I alluded earlier to the importance of the Center for Catholic Studies. I am a bit of, not a broken record, but I constantly repeat that the most distinctive feature of St. Mary’s University is that we are Catholic and Marianist – with all of the values and all of the gifts that a great Catholic college and university provides. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity. I am quite optimistic because there’s a hunger in our world for that kind of education. So, I think if we position ourselves collectively to continue to focus on that important mission, Catholic higher education will be around for a long time.

The challenges are those that the presidents and all of us involved in Catholic higher education, including and especially those who are involved in ACCU, are aware of. Three of the most important initiatives of ACCU go to those challenges. One is the financial challenges that many of our colleges and universities are facing, particularly among the smaller institutions. As you know, one of the most important initiatives of ACCU is to assist colleges that are either in difficult financial circumstances or are moving into that to be strategic and collaborative, and to find those partnerships that will ensure that those institutions remain strong – some of which will remain strong in partnerships with other institutions. 

The second is leadership. I think right now, well over 75 percent of the presidents among the 200-some Catholic colleges and universities are lay people – lay men and women – and that percentage will only increase. So the challenge of educating and fostering the formation of deans, vice presidents, provosts, and presidents – almost all of whom are lay people — in Catholic identity and the charisms that are so important to many of our institutions is key. So the leaders in Catholic higher education pose another challenge, but one that we are addressing. The third challenge, which is also an opportunity, is the helping our institutions understand both how to recruit, but also how to serve the growing college-age Hispanic population, who are the future of the Church. And, because of those numbers, they are largely the future of students enrolled at Catholic colleges and universities. That challenge is a sticky one because so many students at St. Mary’s – we are in a region that is 65 to 75 percent Hispanic – many of those families are economically modest. And so the challenge for Catholic colleges comes back to the financial challenge. Catholic colleges and universities are finding ways in which we can keep our educational offerings affordable, so young men and women of Hispanic descent can afford – and their families can afford to assist them in attending – our schools.

Statistics clearly show the value of a postsecondary education. Yet, overwhelmingly public misconceptions remain. How does Catholic higher education make the case for relevancy? And, are liberal arts studies and job preparedness mutually exclusive?

They are not. Almost all Catholic colleges and universities are liberal arts institutions. And liberal arts are routinely now taking bashings in the popular press and media. It’s an enormous misconception about the value of liberal arts education. Virtually all of the surveys of heads of companies, corporations, nonprofit organizations – if you ask them what they are looking for in new, young professional staff members, what they’re looking for in the graduates of our colleges and universities – they are looking for men and women who have the skills and the values that we pride ourselves in developing at our universities: the ability to learn how to learn, the ability to think, write, and speak well and critically. The ability to listen, the respect for others, compassion, honesty, integrity. All the things that we at Catholic colleges and universities seek to foster among our students, are those very skills and values that employers are seeking in new graduates. So the great irony is that private higher education and particularly Catholic higher education, because we are so grounded in the liberal arts, are harshly criticized for promoting skills and values that the smartest, wisest employers are seeking.

A new crop of Rattlers is about to matriculate full of hope and dreams. What is your vision for them?

We will be enrolling about 650 or so freshman, which is a nice big class for us. We have a number of transfers students enrolling and of course, law school students and new students in our graduate programs. Our vision for them is that they receive a very fine education while at St. Mary’s, that they grow and mature as young men and women who are prepared to leave St. Mary’s University to be men and women who are for change and for the betterment of society. Our vision also includes helping them to see their roles as grounded in their faith in God and reflecting on their roles in the world in which God has blessed us all.

 

— Interview with Judith Mbuya