Q. You’re the second alumnus president, following in the footsteps of Rev. Dennis Burke, O. Praem, class of 1926. What does it mean for you personally as president, having walked the same grounds as a student three decades ago?
A. First and foremost, it's a real privilege to come back to our alma mater. It's my wife's and mine, both. So, it's a real honor to come back to a place that meant so much to our formation and our vocation, to come back to the place where it all began is really inspiring and humbling. And to find the college in such good health – being vibrant and exciting. I think what is special about it, is that what I've observed and [from] talking with all sorts of people – faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors, friends, community members – is that there's a real pride in the community that an alum has come back to lead the college. What's special about it is that I know really well the ethos, the cares, and the values of the college. Those greatest elements of our tradition are even more vibrant and engaging today than they were 30 years ago. But what I'm [also] hearing from people is that being someone who knows the power of a Catholic, liberal arts, Norbertine tradition in education is a real advantage in terms of how the community thinks about itself and how we move forward. And part of what's the same is we have this great Norbertine tradition and one of the ideas that we hold dearly is this idea, “Ever ancient, ever new.” What's really beautiful about St. Norbert College today is that our values as a Catholic, Norbertine, liberal arts institution are still what anchor us.
I think for the college it’s a great opportunity to have someone leading the college who knows the institution. Also, Carol and I both believe that being an alum creates a special opportunity to reengage our alums in a different way. We've seen wonderful response from the alums as well.
What surprised you the most about coming back? What changed and what has remained the same? Ruth’s Marketplace, Dale’s Sports Lounge, Phil’s Grill – have things changed?
So much has changed. In the last 11 years, the college has invested $150 million in new and renovated construction. Some of these great iconic buildings that were here when I was a student have been renovated. And then of course, there are a lot of new buildings – a new residence hall, library, science and athletic facilities – beautiful restorations of facilities. So, there's a considerable amount that has changed in terms of physical aspects of the campus.
It's also true that there's still some faculty who are here that Carol and I had when we were students. That’s pretty fun to have them still be here. I've also been able to interact with a lot of the faculty and staff who were here – and that Carol and I had – who are now retired and still in the area.
Founded by Abbot Bernard Pennings, St. Norbert College was named after St. Norbert of Xanten and is the only Norbertine college in the world. Considering your values – communio, action, faithful, and local – could you explain what it means to “live Norbertine”?
What a great question! Well, one of the things that we take great pride in is how self-evident and how present the values, and the ethos, and the charism is of the Norbertines. And one of the real anchoring ideas is of communio, which calls us into community that is built on mutual esteem, respect, trust, faith, and responsibility. It brings us into a community, a way of being that’s pretty unique. One of the other values is hospitality; and we call it radical hospitality. The idea is pretty simple but very profound. And that is, if each person feels welcome, they in turn feel valued. When people or groups of people feel valued, their chances of flourishing, growing, and developing increase tremendously. This idea of communio and hospitality is a real foundational piece of who we are as a community because it has educational power attached to it, as well as being a founding principle.
"When people or groups of people feel valued, their chances of flourishing, growing, and developing increase tremendously. "
Another attribute of the Norbertines is reflection. Our college theme this year is “Contemplation: Action Begins Within.” We’re spending the year helping our students and community develop their practice of reflection and contemplation. And how do we convert that reflection and contemplation into action? That’s a very Norbertine value and trait. The other piece that I think is really relevant for today is when St. Norbert had his conversion, which is beautifully depicted by a sculpture on our campus, he was like St. Peter, struck by lightning and thrown from his horse, and heard the message to seek peace and pursue it. So, our students are also set in a global context of understanding what it means to build, to contribute to society in a positive way, and to help the common good advance. It’s so delightful to see an organization that’s so committed to its principles and values, and so self-evident on campus. One of the things we’re doing to make sure that our mission endures – among many, many things, including integrating these values in the core curriculum – is that with every capital or facilities project, either new or a renovation, it’s required that 1 percent of the budget goes toward an expression of mission, either art or some expression of mission in the physical space itself. So, in each of these buildings we have an expression of mission – Norbertine, Catholic, liberal arts, or all of our tradition. And that helps make very visible or explicit the importance of these values.
Speaking of visible commitments, St. Norbert is involved in a few community partnerships such as the Green Bay Correctional Institution, CatholicLink, and STEM Girls Rock. What benefits do you hope community engagement will bring?
One of our institutional goals, as well as my own goal as president, is to act on the principal and idea that St. Norbert College as a liberal arts, Catholic, Norbertine college is of, with, and for the community. We take very seriously our responsibility to engage with the community for three purposes: One, our mission calls us to community engagement. Two, we know that engaged pedagogy, having our students actively engaged in the community in their learning, in their curricular, and co-curricular experience, allows for much better learning. And third, there are all sorts of societal benefits of having a college actively engaged in the community. One of them, aside from the educational benefit, is the economic impact. A couple of examples, I think, demonstrate this. CatholicLink is a national model for how a community can come together on Catholic education. CatholicLink puts in a seamless partnership [from] pre-K all the way through college [with] Catholic education systems. St. Norbert College, Notre Dame Academy, which is the high school, and GRACE, which is the Catholic education system for elementary and middle school, the Green Bay Area Catholic Education group, these three institutions are in this partnership that includes curricular and co-curricular educational components. Our faculty and staff at all three organizations enjoy tuition remission at each of the institutions. We’re establishing a CatholicLink Center, which will be housed on St. Norbert’s campus. The focus of that is to develop a training education program for teachers and staff in the system, or in CatholicLink. It’s a really exciting opportunity that the abbot, the bishop, myself, and the Catholic community are really excited about. We're in our fourth year of exciting innovation.
One more partnership that I'm really excited about is a very wonderful relationship with the Medical College of Wisconsin. They offer a three-year medical degree on our campus. They're housed in our Gehl-Mulva Science Center and they have about 75 medical students. Their goal is to help Wisconsin address the shortage of rural primary care physicians. This is an example of a partnership with another educational entity that we think is quite exciting and exceptionally successful.
Those kinds of partnerships have educational value, they have mission relevance, and they have a tremendous impact on both the economy and societal needs.
Part of your broad range of experience at St. Catherine included enrollment management. What’s your overall vision and growth strategy? And how does a focus on undergraduate research, service-learning, and ‘‘radical hospitality’’ help support that?
St. Norbert College has had a very strong history of enrollment strength and outcomes. Our enrollment strategy at St. Norbert College, we are blessed to have built it on pursuit of quality and excellence, not necessarily growth in terms of volume. We're within about 100 students of our optimal enrollment, so we're blessed. Right now our entire strategic plan is pivoting around moving the institution – our educational outcomes, graduation rates, portability outcomes, and postgraduate outcomes – and driving all those outcomes, which are excellent already, but driving them up. We're going to do it primarily through an intense focus on increasing the sophistication of educational experience for students. Our enrollment goal is to remain about the size of what we are. We're really looking for slight growth [and] focusing on the quality of educational experience – things like undergraduate collaborative research, our honors program, engaged pedagogy, or service learning. [PM2] [JM3] Our mission calls us to offer a holistic, liberal arts Catholic Norbertine tradition of education, which is very experientially-based, very active.
A wonderful strategy that we're deploying around technology in teaching – and it’s called full-spectrum pedagogy and learning – is working with faculty to develop or integrate digital [resources] in the classroom experience. It also helps students create their own domains. We have a project that's pretty exciting called, “Domain of One's Own.” This is where students develop their own web presence and articulate the kinds of outcomes and kinds of experiences they are having. So those kinds of ways of focusing the institution is what's driving our enrollment success.
We've also had very strong fundraising. And that's helped us do a bunch of exciting things, including launch a new school, the Schneider School of Business and Economics. Last fall, Pat Schneider gave us a $30 million gift restricted to our endowment. That gift was transformational. It's allowing us to really focus on: How do we advance our mission? And how do we advance the kind of educational experience that we're offering? It’s allowed us to develop a new Integrative Studies major, launch our MBA program, our School of Business program. It’s allowed us to invest in faculty development right now.
"The most important outcome of a Catholic college is its graduates."
St. Norbert was again named one of the top 10 Catholic liberal arts colleges and one of “America’s Best National Liberal Arts Colleges” by U.S. News & World Report, inching up seven spots in ranking from last year. What accounts for your success? In what way does Catholic mission and identity differentiate your institution?
Well, we believe there are really two or three main measures of excellence and quality. We appreciate all the accolades that the college has gotten over the years, but what we cherish most is the quality of the teaching and learning experience that we offer and the quality of the outcomes that we produce. As an aside, not many of those real measures of quality are included in the measurement of the rankings. But we believe that in a really volatile time in higher education, institutions like St. Norbert College that can consistently and persistently reaffirm identity and its mission as a Catholic liberal arts Norbertine institution – those institutions that stay contemporary and clear about who they are – are the institutions, like us, that will continue to flourish and succeed. We think that the holistic education we offer is very compelling to families, which is why our outcomes continue to improve [and] why there’s increased demand for the college. The employers are telling us this; they're looking for graduates who can think critically, can analyze, can solve problems, who can work effectively in groups, can communicate and view their work in the broader context and ethical framework. Those are the kinds of attributes and outcomes that our employers are saying they want and they're getting from our graduates. Frankly, I think the most important outcome of a Catholic college is its graduates.
— Interview with Judith Mbuya
F. Edward Coughlin, OFM
Position: Br. F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, is the 11th president of Siena College (NY), a coed liberal arts college founded in 1937 by the Order of Friars Minor. Br. Ed, as he is known on campus, was inaugurated in 2015 after serving for only four months as interim president. He is shepherding the Franciscan institution through its five-year strategic plan, Tradition Transformed.
Career highlights: Formerly vice president for Franciscan mission at his alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, and board of trustees member at Siena College. He has twice served as the director of St. Bonaventure's Franciscan Institute and has held several leadership positions within the Holy Name Province, including as provincial councilor, secretary, and director of ministerial development and planning.
Education: BA, sociology, St. Bonaventure University; MA, pastoral ministry, Boston College; PhD, counseling psychology, the Catholic University of America.
Religious Order: Order of Friars Minor (Franciscan)
Fun Fact: He’s both an accomplished cook – his signature dish is chocolate crème brûlée – and a Black Diamond skier. "One of the greatest joys I’ve had is skiing in Colorado. The back bowls in Vail are amazing – I just loved the no-stop trips down one trail after the other to the bottom."
Q. You’re known on campus as Br. Ed, which I imagine probably helps create a sense of ease and camaraderie among your students, faculty, and staff. Was that deliberate or a carryover from your work as a Franciscan?
A. I think generally, as Franciscans, we use our first name, not our last name. And as a religious community with a long tradition, I typically wear my habit every day. My religious habit is kind of a signal to people about who I am and that's how students know me. I usually go to the dining hall every day for lunch. I have a lot of different kinds of interactions with students – not only in committees and things like that, but also in the dining hall. So that's just how I'm known around campus. And most of the friars are known by either “Brother” or “Father so-and-so.” We don't tend to use our last names as Franciscans.
You’ve been president now for four years. You spent a few months as interim before fully assuming leadership. How crucial was that experience as you were transitioning to your new role? What did you learn during that period that has been instrumental to your success as president?
We had a very unique situation here at Siena College because the president of the college was elected minister provincial of the friars in New York City. And this became a little bit of a challenge for the college in terms of leadership transition that was not anticipated or prepared for – in terms of whether or not Fr. Kevin [Mullen, OFM] would get elected at a provincial chapter. So, I agreed to become the interim. I was previously working at St. Bonaventure University for nine years as the vice president for mission and had previous to that been the director of the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure, and also had been a faculty member at St. Bonaventure. So, I had a long association with Franciscan education and played a number of different roles. I thought that I would be able to manage an interim role.
So, they asked you?
They asked me. After I came, I tried to help them sort out some of the issues and concerns that the college needed to deal with. They asked me if I would remain. So, we had a very untraditional search process … – there really wasn't one [laughter]. The sponsoring institution, the Friars, I don't think anticipated what the impact of electing a president to be a provincial was in these days, in terms of higher ed. So anyway, I agreed to serve as the president. I just started my fifth year this semester.
It wasn't necessarily something you aspired to, in a sense it landed in your lap, so to speak?
I told the committee that called me … They said, “Would you be interested in applying for the job?” I said, “No, at my age I'm not interested in applying for the job. It's not on my bucket list [laughter]. If you need an interim …,” I said. I was a trustee here at Siena at that time. And I felt responsible as a member of the religious community with a background in education. We really had to be responsible to the institution and caring for the institution. With all the changes that are going on in higher education at this particular time, walking out on them was just something I thought was not acceptable.
How different is it running an academic institution from doing pastoral work?
I always was primarily involved in education. Or I was involved in the formation of the friars. Or I was involved in provincial administration. I think the biggest challenge or transition for me was to realize that the buck was stopping on my desk. There was no one that I had to ask about or wonder who is going to make the final decision. So that was probably the biggest transition for me, that I was ultimately responsible for making a number of decisions. I just had not been in that particular role before – having been a vice president or an assistant to the provincial, I never was the last word.
Speaking of leadership, Siena prides itself in developing a “new generation of leaders.” Can you expound on what that means in terms of your founding charism of scholarship, innovation, and service?
I think the Franciscan tradition is a rich resource for us as an institution because it really goes back to a time when they talked about the two pillars of a Franciscan education: the cultivation of the mind and the formation of the heart. And it really was a very holistic vision of education, going back to the 13th century. That’s served us well in terms of trying to honor the academic challenge of education of young men and women for a variety of careers and so on. But also trying to do that in a way that invites them, challenges them, encourages them to develop as persons who have an ethical, moral, religious, and spiritual perspective in their lives and in their conversations. So that has been a rich resource for us and is especially important today in terms of all the conversation that's going on about liberal education.
I think the Franciscan tradition is a rich resource for us as an institution because it really goes back to a time when they talked about the two pillars of a Franciscan education: the cultivation of the mind and the formation of the heart.
We're very blessed as a tradition to have someone like St. Bonaventure, who gave a lecture at the University of Paris in 1255 and talked about the value that all of the different disciplines contribute to our understanding of the world, our understanding of truth. And the respect he showed for all the different methodologies, all the different disciplines that were known in the 13th century. I think that provides a wonderful basis to talk about what a liberal education ought to do in terms of its ability to respect the truth. That each discipline is able to contribute, to respect the different ways in which that truth is perceived in the sciences and the social studies. And the overriding concern about how do you form individuals? One of Bonaventure’s criteria was that in all persons, character should be formed. I think that's the root of our sense of leadership and the importance of really educating students who are good citizens as well as compassionate leaders.
As some institutions are turning away from use of the term liberal arts or even cutting programs, Siena makes it a point to describe itself as such. Why is the preservation of liberal arts necessarily "the way to go, period"?
I think the embrace of both our Catholic and Franciscan heritage, as well as our desire to preserve what we think is the breadth of education, is absolutely essential to forming individuals who are going to be able to be, as I said, good citizens and compassionate leaders for the future. We do have a vision about how these different disciplines contribute to a larger sense of an appreciation of the richness and the complexity of the whole, and how important it is to be able to look at things from different perspectives, and to bring those perspectives into conversation. Some of those foundational courses that are part of the core curriculum are really training students to be able to ask those kinds of questions, to look at the resources of different disciplines to understand a perception of truth. We're happy to do that even though it seems to be counter-cultural today. It’s at the heart of why the Franciscans became involved in the University of Paris and University of Oxford and Cambridge and Bologna back in the 13th century.
And would you say a liberal arts education prepares students to also be employed and get lucrative jobs?
I think, again, we're trying to look at the liberal arts in terms of not only gaining knowledge, but also [attaining] the skills of writing and communication and leadership, experiential education … where students are really learning what they need to do to compete in the marketplace. Our accounting students, for example. We get very good feedback that they're not only well-trained in accounting, but our employers say to us, “Your students have a special ability to work together, to be part of a team, to have a consciousness of the wider picture,” which I think is a product of our education. That they’re not only skilled in terms of what they're doing, but they have learned how to work together and be team members, collaborate. That really comes from an educational experience where you're learning to do that from the time you're a freshman.
What do you consider to be the top challenges facing Catholic higher ed?
Certainly, the top challenge is the increasingly competitive environment. Being an institution in the Northeast, there are a tremendous number of institutions here. And so, we're in an increasingly competitive situation just in terms of the demographics. I think we're also challenged by the fact that the system that oftentimes really was the feeder school for an institution like this has more or less collapsed, in terms of the falling away of so many religious-sponsored high school programs. We’re also particularly challenged, I think, in New York State, by free tuition. Siena has always done a tremendous amount in terms of making education accessible and affordable to a wide group of students, especially poor students. And that's becoming more of a challenge for us in terms of free tuition at SUNY. There's a lot of details about that that people haven't understood yet. So how do we communicate that we're offering something that is very unique and very distinctive? It's hard to communicate that, but we know that if a student comes here, they're very likely to graduate – our graduation rates are very high. Our retention rates are very, very high. We know that once a student enrolls that they probably will stay and graduate. So, it's a question of how are we going to communicate to them that there's a unique value here. A Siena education is substantially different from what you might experience at a large public university, for example. It's worth the investment.
Last year, Siena implemented a five-year (2017-22) strategic plan for continued growth and opportunities. Talk about key priorities and what is the Franciscan Tradition Transformed?
The whole strategic plan was an attempt to step back from where the institution has been in the past, and really begin to look at not only where we've been, but where we're going. We're looking at our 100th anniversary coming up in 2037. And so, I tried to situate the plan in the context of: We need to lay the foundation for what the future of this institution would be. It began as a men's commuter college [and] became a coeducational institution. It’s a question about what will Siena be in 2037. I think the plan attempts – in terms of emphasis on academic excellence – to really lay the foundation for the future. Being innovative and thinking about programs and experiences that will help students to develop themselves personally, [and] as individuals who are ready to be very competitive in the marketplace. We're a very strong community-based college. Many of our students live on campus and relationships between professors and students, student engagement – all those things are very important. We have a very strong residence life program that, again, seeks to build relationships and help people live responsibly in relationship with other individuals. And we have a great emphasis on service in a variety of forms. We're constantly offering opportunities for students to not only study abroad, but to be involved in long- and shorter-term service trips, or work with nonprofits to give our students an opportunity to think about service as possibly a key component of what they might do in the future. Those engagements with different nonprofits and service opportunities have a profound impact on them as individuals. So, I think that’s a real value-added to the Siena education we're very proud of.
The overall vision for Siena students, who the college calls “Saints” – institutional excellence, distinctive value, inclusive community, and purposeful community engagement – are those the priorities you’re referencing?
That's opened up a vision of how and when I welcome students, [as] freshman. When I say to the parents, “I'm sure it's a shock to find out that all of a sudden you just arrived here and we're calling your son or daughter a saint [laughter].” I try to build off of that. We're sure they're good people. And we welcome the opportunity to be able to engage in conversation with them both in and outside the classroom, to encourage them to develop and mature as persons who are competent and capable and conscious of what contribution they can make to the world. So that has served as a paradigm for us in terms of bonding students together. And also thinking about what our larger goal is, both in academics as well as beyond academics. It's worked out well for us. Everyone's a saint.
— Interview with Judith Mbuya
Michael J. Graham, SJ
Position: Rev. Michael Graham, SJ, is the 34th president of Xavier University (OH), the sixth-oldest Catholic and fourth-oldest Jesuit university in the United States. Graham is chair of the Cincinnati Preschool Promise, and serves on the boards of directors for the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. He is also a trustee of Gonzaga University in Spokane and of St. Xavier High School. He sits on the board of the Cincinnati Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and of the Big East Council of Presidents. He remains active locally as a parish priest and celebrates weekly Sunday Mass with Xavier students.
Career highlights: Executive assistant to the president, Xavier University; vice president for University Relations, Xavier University. During this period, he oversaw a $125 million capital campaign, the most successful in Xavier’s history at that time.
Education: BSS, Philosophy and Psychology, Cornell College; MA, American Studies, University of Michigan; MA, Psychology, University of Michigan; PhD, American Studies, University of Michigan; MDiv, the Weston School of Theology.
Religious Order: Society of Jesus, ordained a priest in 1988.
Fun Fact: He used to spend a lot of time gardening before becoming president, which he found quite relaxing. “That was a real passion of mine and a hobby.”
Q. While other institutions seem to struggle, Xavier continues to experience substantial growth, both in terms of academic programs and expansion with new facilities. Now 17 years into your presidency, to what do you attribute that growth? And how can Catholic colleges and universities emulate your success?
A. I would say that there's no such thing as a single silver bullet. There never is. Rather it’s a series of multiple strategies, if you will. I can't help but think that on the one hand, our Jesuit brand serves us well. I'm also deeply indebted to our board of trustees, which has challenged us and led us in all kinds of helpful ways. For example, one of the things that they began asking us several years ago was, where might you find significant opportunities that would generate additional revenue, and significant new revenue for the university? And that led us to think in a variety of ways about recruiting and retention, new academic programs, and so on, and to be very purposeful and focused as to how we pursued them. And that is now paying dividends.
As well, I would say that we really benefited by the success of our basketball program in terms of getting the word out. People don't come here because of that, but they're aware of you because of it, and that's very helpful. And then also we've found undergraduate recruitment growing rapidly in the last several years, specifically within the Big East footprint. So that move to the Big East has also been helpful to us.
So, there’s no blueprint that others can follow?
Yes, I believe there is a blueprint and our experience can suggest one, but that it has to do with leveraging a particular institution’s advantages, opportunities, location, history, tradition, and so on. Other schools, all schools can ask themselves the question, where might significant opportunities be for academic growth that could develop significant revenue opportunities? All institutions can ask themselves the question, what partnerships are there around the community and beyond that could be useful for us in terms of helping further our mission? But those programs and those partnerships are going to differ institution-by-institution, depending upon their local circumstances.
And now there’s the addition of a new chapel, Our Lady of Peace.
The Our Lady of Peace Chapel project was completely mad, and it just happened to work out – thanks be to God! I think because God and all his angels were working overtime on it. We were approached by a local Cincinnati family a few years back about the possibility of relocating the family chapel to campus; it had been built in 1938. The old homestead was slated to be torn down because no one lived there anymore or wanted to, and they were selling off all the land. But then the question occurred, what to do about the chapel? And we didn't have any land to put it on at that point, or any good place for it that would do it justice. And so the family shopped it to several other people or places and nobody bit, for which I'm very grateful because then we acquired some additional properties and it enabled us to vacate the street. The chapel now completes one of our malls and it's a beautiful, beautiful little space. The family stepped up big time to make the relocation possible. We had a variety of benefactors who were entranced by the project – I think that's a good word for it – “entranced.” And so they stepped up to help us find the funds to get it done. Then the university ponied up some dollars as well, because of the way in which this fulfilled something that we have been wanting to do for quite a while, which was to finish out the academic mall.
Xavier has been recognized as a top service learning institution by U.S. News & World Report. With the motto “All for one, one for all” community service seems to be a tenet of your institution. Can you talk about the expectation on your students to change the world through service?
Over a very long period of time – and this goes back before my presidency into the ’90s – we've developed a culture of service here, kind of bit by bit by bit. Fundamental to me was my experience of beginning my presidency in January 2001, and then four months later, there were the riots in Cincinnati in April around Easter time. That forced me to ask what that meant for the university, if we were going to continue to conduct business as usual. Or, if not, how we were going to change. That, I think, was a clarion call for us all here at the university to become more engaged with the community around us. We'd had a number of different pieces to the university at that point that already facilitated vigorous engagement. We were able to deepen and broaden them and connect up more and more to faculty work, research, and teaching and to student learning, such that over the course of these last number of years, we've continued to make more and more immersion learning opportunities available to our students. And now we’re on the edge of making a significant commitment to an immersion learning program that would touch all of our students throughout the course of their time here. So it's a way in which the motto of the university — as you observed, “One for all, all for one” — comes alive. But it's also a way in which we live out the expectation common to all Jesuit institutions, that our students become men and women for and with others.
What are some of your hallmark service projects?
We don't have the largest alternative breaks program in the country in absolute numbers. But if you look at them in terms of the size of the institution, we blow everybody else away pretty much. And as well, our programs are overwhelmingly student-driven. That's a hallmark. We [also] have a number of different scholarships that are given to community-engaged fellows who spend a lot of work out in the community as well as on the ground. We have a program called “Philosophy, Politics, and the Public” that has a community engagement component embedded within it. This immersion learning program that's coming along is another one. So there's lots and lots of different ways in which this gets acted on across the curriculum and beyond it.
The Jesuits have a centuries-long tradition in education. In what ways does Xavier impart on its students ways to live out the Ignatian charism?
In a couple of different ways. I would say the first is through academic excellence. No university worthy of the name Jesuit can be a slouch when it comes to the classroom and all that happens to students there. The relationship between students and faculty is always primary in my view. Another way that we live out the charism is through service, but we've spoken about that. As well, trying to orient students to the horizon of the ultimate that wraps around their lives, that which we name God, in a whole variety of ways. Our students come to us from many different religious traditions, of course, as do students most everywhere nowadays. What we want to do is orient them toward that, to see their lives against that eternal horizon. And be in relationship with it in ways that are congenial to them, if you will. And then to see as well that there is an intimate linkage between that life of the Spirit and the life of committed engagement in the world.
Something that we did a number of years ago clarified for ourselves what we call “the gifts of the Ignatian tradition.” Without going through all of them, they include things like reflection, discernment, solidarity and kinship, service rooted in justice and love, and the like. And so, as students go through their day here on campus, they're reminded of those gifts of the Ignatian tradition in places around campus. We've embedded them in the physical infrastructure of the campus itself. The dining hall, for example, where all our students eat, have all kinds of pictures and words and symbols that are designed to bring those gifts of the Ignatian tradition to life.
You have a sizable undergraduate student population, north of 4,500. And I understand there are more than 20 different religions that are practiced by students on campus. How do you keep respect for other faiths while maintaining your own Catholic identity? Why is providing a space for interfaith discourse important?
To me, we provide platforms and opportunities for other faiths to be visible and engaged, specifically because we are Catholic. That's part of being Catholic, in my view. And part of being a Catholic university is that it allows you the opportunity to invite people to have their faith experience be part of the discourse. For example, earlier today I was speaking with a woman who is one of the senior staff in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, who comes from a religious tradition [that is] not my own. But we're able to speak of things of the Spirit, if you will. We have a similar way of looking at issues of race and reconciliation, and healing, and the contemporary scene in the United States and so on, that's grounded in our own religious traditions. And different though those traditions are, they nonetheless allow us a kind of common vocabulary for speaking about things that are of importance to us. At its best, that's what the visibility of religion on a Catholic campus can do. It can foster common linkages among different people.
Would you describe your institution as diverse?
In some ways yes, in some ways, no. We've been, for several years now, targeting an undergraduate population that's about 25 percent students of color. We're getting very close to that. The first-year class this year is about 23 percent. At the undergraduate level, we're increasingly diverse. We're in fact more diverse than any public institution in Ohio, which we're very proud of. But when you look at faculty and staff, that's a harder nut to crack. We've got a commitment to taking steps as we move forward to make sure that the campus five years from now is more diverse than it is today. And then five years later is still more diverse than that. It's something that we believe is incumbent really upon a Jesuit institution – and especially in today's political climate in the United States.
In times of great uncertainty such as now with Church leadership, what do you tell your students who may be questioning their faith? How do you give them hope? [This interview took place on Aug. 22, 2018.]
If you were to look at the reading from the prophet Ezekiel — which would be in the normal Wednesday of the 20th week of the year cycle – it speaks about the shepherds abandoning their flock, which is a very interesting reading for today, in these times. However, the 22nd of August is also the feast of the Queenship of Mary. The first reading that comes because of that is a wonderful passage from Isaiah that we're used to hearing at Advent – all about the Lord coming to be with His people. So, what I would do is stress that Advent reading. I can totally understand how students and others would feel that their faith has been shaken. But this does not change for an instant the fact that God is coming to be with His people. And in fact, this is a particular time in which they can trust that, that God is with us in the midst of this. If a number of people within the Church have given severe cause for scandal, that does not change the underlying reality, which is that there is a holiness in their lives that they can trust because of God's desire for a relationship with them.
— Interview with Judith Mbuya
Position: Ann McElaney-Johnson is the 12th president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles, a Catholic liberal arts institution and the only women’s college in the city. She is a member of several boards, including the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Women’s College Coalition, and College of Holy Cross. McElaney-Johnson is also recognized as a thought leader on women's issues and a champion for innovative teaching and learning.
Career highlights: Vice president, Academic and Student Affairs, and dean, Salem College; associate dean, Salem College; associate professor, French, Ripon College.
Education: BA, French language and literature, College of the Holy Cross; MA, French language and literature, Middlebury College; PhD, French, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Family: Husband, David; and their daughters, Emma, Rachel, and Caroline, and grandson, Will.
Fun Fact: Enjoys hiking and sailing.
Q. You’re purposeful in cultivating a culture of innovation for excellence. Why is that so important?
A. Well, it’s twofold for us. One, in higher education now the landscape is changing so rapidly that I think all universities and colleges have to really think about, how are we prepared to educate students in the future? Are we using the best resources we have available to us? Are we open to new pedagogies, to new ways of learning, particularly for a generation of learners who will be coming, who have been connected to technology in a way that will only increase? Are we prepared? So, we made a commitment as part of the higher ed community. Are faculty and staff committed to being open to thinking about, how do we always teach better? How can we be more effective? And that means giving up old practices and bringing on new [ones].
We are a university that serves a predominantly first-generation population in our traditional undergraduate. Most of our students — about 60 percent — are Pell recipients or Pell-eligible. We really thought about, how do we provide that educational experience that in some cases gives them the foundation that perhaps through no fault of their own some of our students may not have had in their former education? But also, how do we educate the family? How do we bring people into this as a family unit when in many cases parents have not had this experience? We really have committed and have put together initiatives and experiences that are comprehensive for this new student. And, in many cases, to involve the family in the unit as well. That’s really important.
The other part of it is not only dictated by a change in higher education in terms of how we teach with technologies and with the changing demographics in our classrooms, and across the nation of college-age students. The other thing is that it really is in our DNA. We’re founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Their practice since their beginnings in the 17th century in France has been to meet the needs of the time. Across their history, they have [asked], what are the needs of today and how do we address those? To do that you have to be willing to be open to new ways of working, new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding. So that innovation for excellence really comes from our DNA, from the history of the Sisters. How do we innovate to make sure we’re meeting the needs of today rather than still meeting the needs of a decade ago? It’s both of those foundations — the higher ed landscape and the Sisters of St. Joseph — that call us and give us the imperative that we need to be open to working in the same way in order to be effective and to provide what students need.
How does that tie into your initiative to expand the university’s international presence? How do global partnerships such as the ones you have with China and Peru factor in?
That’s multifaceted as well. We’re located in Los Angeles, which is such a rich city culturally, with so many different populations and in many cases, the largest population [of people] outside the country of origin. So, we’re very diverse in where we come from and where we live. At the same time, we really believe it’s important for our students to have the transformational education that we commit to, that they expand even beyond our diversity and have the opportunity to interact with people from other countries — both here on our campuses through exchanges and recruitment of international students and also for our students to get a chance to go beyond our borders. That is a very intentional thing about enriching the conversation and preparing our students to understand their position and their role as a global citizen.
Of course, there are also populations of students looking for this kind of education beyond the traditional recruitment pool that we’ve had for years. I think lots of universities in the United States look to China, which has been very progressive in sending students beyond the Chinese university to access a top-rate educational experience elsewhere. But for us, it’s not so much about growing our numbers. It’s really about enhancing and strengthening the experience of all students who are here, whether they be domestic students or students from other countries. And so that’s very important to us. Our partnerships are really about that.
We also are looking more and more toward where we have partnerships that come easily out of our founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph. Some of our partnerships actually come out of interesting commitments of our faculty. We have a wonderful program in Peru now, working with Peruvian medical experts where our students and faculty go and are working on a program around breast cancer. They take a group of students who are working with women in Peru and are doing some cross-cultural comparisons about who accesses medical care. What are the reasons in Peru someone might not [access healthcare] in a small village? What are some of the reasons in their own community here in Los Angeles people might or might not be accessing healthcare? We really want our students to have that cross-national experience, and that has come out of — in that case — the deep research and field experience of a faculty member. So we’ve allowed those things to come forth and take life as well. It really is about preparation of students.
You’ve mentioned your founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Why is mission and identity so essential to Catholic higher education?
I think it’s what distinguishes our sector as Catholic higher ed. We approach the educational experience through the lens of our charism. Let me be more general for a moment, then I’ll get more specific. It’s very much a value-based education. It’s an education where we believe the responsibility and the opportunity of education obliges us all to think about what role we play in the world. How do we make the world better? And for Catholic higher ed, that’s a very explicit piece of how we do what we do. It defines it. I always think we could be a really good liberal arts university. But if we were not a liberal arts university founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph, we would just be kind of a generic liberal arts university. And I don’t know if we [would] have a real clarity of purpose in the way we do being of the CSJ. So, for us, our founders — and I think every Catholic institution has this kind of history, whether it’s founded by a religious organization or if it has an archdiocesan relationship — it’s a very intentional relationship. It gives us meaning.
Our Sisters’ first ministry in France was in 1650. Six women came together, decided rather than go behind convent walls, they felt called to form a religious congregation within the community, to live in the community they would serve. It was unheard of at the time. They did that with the support of a really progressive Jesuit and they decided they would serve the needs of the people. But they would ask the people what their needs were. They realized that the people who are most vulnerable were women — widows, orphans, single women — who didn’t have the protection of a man and many of these women were falling into an exploitative life of prostitution. And so the sisters made this decision. They decided to teach women to make lace and then by that means they will be able to earn a living. They will then have a life of security and a life of dignity where they will be independent. And it won’t be selling your bodies anymore. It will be selling this piece of art.
That empowerment of women is who we are as a women’s university. We’ve always been about how we empower women and prepare them to be able to go out and live lives of meaning, lives of purpose, and that comes absolutely out of the CSJ connection. And so for us and for other Catholic institutions, Gospel values are not just something to keep on the side; it’s something we talk about all the time. We’re a community that is called to a high standard. We talk about what it means to be an authentic community. If we look at the Catholic Social Tradition, what does that look like? How do all feel connected? How are we as a university connected to the greater community because we feel called to that as well? I think in Catholic higher ed, it’s a gift of clarity that we know why we are doing what we do. And we know why we do it the way we do it. And we can all talk openly about that. It’s a very common and shared commitment that’s based in Gospel values.
You’ve talked about the empowerment of women and that seems to be the fabric of your university. You led the creation of the “Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California.” And I understand one of your goals is to establish the university as a national resource for women’s issues. What was the impetus for that? And, what do you hope to impart to young women?
We’re the only women’s university in Los Angeles and one of three women’s colleges in California. So, we thought about, as a university, how are we serving the greater community? We have a particular role we should play and feel called to play, which is engaging in research around women and girls and providing developmental programs for the community and for our own students, faculty, and staff. We really feel called to do this because of who we are as a women’s university. So eight years ago, we developed the “Report on the Status of Women and Girls.” (We’ve just had our last one. This coming March, our eighth report will be coming out.) We did that because we thought, no one is doing exactly this. We compiled a report and continue to do so, looking at gender gaps in our state, where there are consistent gender gaps across many sectors. It could be across education [or] even within education. Who’s studying what? Whether it’s STEM — in terms of career, in terms of corporate leadership, in terms of corporate boards, in terms of healthcare, incarceration. We’ve done a number of measures to see how women are doing. And then we disaggregate by race and ethnicity to see, as a white woman or a Latina or an African-American woman or Asian-American woman, how is my life different? And we’ve done that for a number of reasons. One, to provide real data that can drive decisions of legislators, nonprofits, [and] different corporations … that are looking to build a more equitable climate. We’re giving people the data they need to make the case. And we also did it because we feel that we have to talk about — particularly across race and ethnicity — the real disconnect and the real differences of women’s and girls’ lives depending on your race or ethnicity, and really bring that to light in a much more intentional way.
It’s also an incredible training ground for our own students. Now with our newly developed Center for the Advancement of Women, we’re involving our faculty and staff even more immediately in some of these research projects. And we want our students engaging in that, in formulating those questions and finding out, first of all, how do you find answers, how do you get good data, how do you interpret the data? And to really help them see that there are these persistent, pervasive gender gaps that often young women aren't as aware of because they haven’t actually been out in the job market [or] in the workforce in a meaningful way. So it’s a really important education for them [and] we’ve done it in a number of ways. We decided that we’re going to do research and we’re going to do programs. We have an annual leadership conference, which started out just for our students. Then we opened it up to women in the community and that has been a really important and well-attended event. But perhaps even more importantly, eight years ago, we joined a partnership with Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. We are the West Coast provider of their Ready to Run program, which is a nonpartisan campaign training program. And we do that because as we look at our research, we realized that the dearth of women at the federal level, the state level, and even local government is just unacceptable. We want to make sure women are getting the tools they need to make the difference that we believe they can make and should make for the benefit of our state and our country.
You’ve spent about 30 years in liberal arts education. Talk about the current public narrative on liberal arts. How should educators refocus or change the narrative in Catholic higher education?
I think it’s not just Catholic higher ed in this case; it’s liberal arts education. I think we need to stop sounding apologetic and try to explain it. Here’s how we view it at Mount St. Mary’s and here is how I personally view it: The liberal arts experience is the most practical education one could have. Because what it’s doing is preparing our students for careers across their lifetime. And as we look at the world and how it has changed, and how careers are evolving, and jobs that we don’t know about now — we haven’t even imagined — will be jobs our students might be trying to attain in a decade. We need to be preparing them to be nimble, to be creative thinkers, to be collaborative, to ask questions and figure out how to get answers to those questions, to understand the complexity of some of the questions that require a broad range of perspectives [from] a range of people that don’t think like them, that have a different experience than they have. They have to be really open to new ways of imagining things.
With liberal arts, we talk about critical thinking. But it really is about, how do you frame the inquiry that you need to follow in order to address an issue? How do you continue to learn and see yourself as a lifetime learner? And how do you express yourself so people can understand that you can be articulate and persuasive when you need to be, and clear, both orally and in writing? So to me, the liberal arts are all about connections across disciplines, across ways of thinking. And that’s exactly — now more than ever in our history — what our students are going to be called to do. They have to be nimble of mind and they have to be open in spirit. I truly believe this is the best education you can have. If you’re going to be a teacher, if you’re going to be a nurse, if you’re majoring in religious studies — all of those experiences have to be imbued with this same emphasis on thinking and articulation and collaboration and expanding your mind. And to me, that’s what the liberal arts are. Sometimes we get a little bogged down and we’re trying to apologize. Our outcomes will show, you get a job when you have this education. And we need to show outcomes. … But more importantly, our students are going to have a job a decade later because they’re not trained for one way of doing things. They’re trained to be ready to do things in new ways, and their minds are agile and open.
I think we have some work to do in terms of our articulation of the message. We’ve gotten a little bit defensive rather than passionate in terms of how this actually turns into outcomes that are very understandable. But you have to have both — the message and the outcomes are together.
— Interview with Judith Mbuya
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.
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.”
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