Q. You practiced law in Indiana from 1991 to 1999. How did you become involved in higher education?
A. Even as an attorney, I engaged in issues related to higher education. But what really lit my fire for higher education was serving as student president when I was in college. In that role, I sat on the president’s cabinet and the board of trustees. I was able to see how impactful higher education can be in the lives of students and the community. And I saw that as a great good in society and I wanted to contribute to that.
As someone who has served as assistant dean, dean, vice president, provost, and now as president, how do you understand the role of administration? And how did you find your way to the University of St. Thomas?
I hope that my approach is one of servant leadership. Administrators are trusted with the opportunity to shape the environment, and that is a special privilege because it empowers the faculty and students.
About fifteen years ago, I made a list of institutions that I thought would be a really good fit for me as I thought about leadership in the future. The University of St. Thomas was among the top five schools on that list. I feel that there is a special calling for me to be here. I feel particularly blessed to be in this institution at this time to help build a future for the University of St. Thomas to become a preeminent institution in Catholic higher education.
As president, how do you balance your schedule and prioritize your responsibilities?
Not unlike many college presidents, my day begins early in the morning and ends late at night. A typical day is a mixture of events with our internal and external constituencies. Since I cannot be in two or more places at one time, it is important to get the leadership team aligned. Having a really good administrative team allows the message to be amplified by folks in a lot of different ways. When we have to make decisions, we make a hierarchy of priorities based on the needs of the institution and how they align with our mission. What we try to do with our administration is set a cultural tone through every aspect of the university.
I believe that collaboration is a particular opportunity for Catholic institutions because we have the DNA for collaboration.
You served as president of the Independent Colleges of Indiana, the nation’s oldest association of 31 private, nonprofit colleges and universities enrolling more than 100,000 students. From this experience, what counsel would you provide Catholic colleges and universities regarding collaboration?
I have strong opinions on this subject [laughs]. And I have been privileged to work in that arena. We really did build collaboration and cooperation in a way that convinced me of the impact of unified effort. But now there are only 30 schools in that association because one of the Catholic colleges closed, so the need for greater collaboration is serious.
I believe that collaboration is a particular opportunity for Catholic institutions because we have the DNA for collaboration. We understand that we are part of the mystical body of Christ. Each part of the body has different gifts, but each part contributes to the body. For Catholic institutions, even though there exists a variety of charisms, there still is an underlying premise that we are part of the same body and we are on mission together.
One benefit of collaboration is helping to bring the costs of higher education down. But, from the Catholic perspective, we can see ourselves not so much as competitors but together on the same mission field. Collaboration is really about relationships, which take time to build and time is a rare commodity. Collaboration requires an intentional effort to put a process together.
It’s a true passion point for me. Since I have arrived at the University of St. Thomas, we have thought about ways to collaborate. I invite any president from any college to contact me if they are interested in discovering ways to collaborate with us.
The University of St. Thomas is known for being committed to its Catholic identity. What are ways that you advance the Catholic mission of the school?
If you talk to our alumni, our faculty, and even our current students, they will tell you about the robust philosophy and theology components in our core curriculum. It is a source of pride because it serves as a basis for understanding the human person that transcends all of the other academic disciplines and also makes them coherent.
The role of the president at a Catholic college is to be an evangelist. I do not mean a proselytizer or preacher, but the president should engage, accompany, and invite others to help craft the community. Our Catholic identity seeks to be open to all people of good will. Our faculty members who are not Catholic understand our mission and contribute to move it forward.
One of the ways that we bring our Catholic identity to life is through our nursing program, which is held in high regard in Houston and is rapidly growing. People will tell me that our nurses are special. Our nurses our competent, of course, but people notice that there is something more in the way that our nurses connect with patients. Our faculty approaches nursing as a healing art and the curriculum includes a ceremony to bless the hands of our nursing students. Some of our non-Catholic students are touched by this ritual even more than some of our Catholic students.
You have stated that financial concerns are challenges and not “existential concerns.” Can you say more about that for other presidents who are facing financial struggles?
Financial problems left unattended might become an existential threat, so it is helpful to be transparent about the challenges that a school is facing. Whether it is rising discount rates, operational deficits, or defending the value proposition of higher education, instead of handwringing, we take them seriously, talk about them as a community, and move to fix them.
At the University of St. Thomas, we are facing similar pressures as most schools. But our balance sheet, land assets, net tuition, and endowment are all on a positive trend. Houston is a great geographic location and people want to be here. So, we have the capacity to continue to grow.
The University of St. Thomas is located in one of the fastest-growing dioceses in the country. Can you describe the demographic shifts you have experienced?
The changing demographics of the Catholic Church in America are already present in Houston. Houston sits in the middle of the country and we serve as an enormous bridge from north to south when you look at the Western Hemisphere. We have large Hispanic and Asian populations and people from all over the world. Houston is the nation’s fourth largest city and continuing to grow. It is also one of the most diverse cities in America.
Particularly important for me is the makeup of our student body. In our incoming classes, we are 80-85% students of color. In the future, the Church in America will be a majority Hispanic. The University of St. Thomas already embodies that; the future leadership of the American Catholic Church already appears on the faces of our student body.
I believe that the University of St. Thomas has a special calling at this time. Acting as a bridge-builder, we can develop leaders for the Church and the country in a pluralistic environment that we live here every day in an organic way.
In the future, the Church in America will be a majority Hispanic. The University of St. Thomas already embodies that...
The board of directors has recently charged your administration with restructuring the university and creating a new academic-business model by the end of fall 2020. What advice would you give to other presidents who are leading their institutions through significant change?
We looked at the trend lines for budget and cost and we realized that it was not something that could be sustained over the long term. One helpful thing we did was create a metaphor to talk about the operational situation that we were facing. We called it “the dragon,” and we had to figure out as a community how to defeat the dragon. From the beginning, we understood that there would be surprises, but there was an openness and willingness to talk about it, which helped to demystify and take the fangs out of the dragon that we were facing.
Our core identity and values will remain unchanged. We are working as a community to strengthen the institution so that we are able to live our identity and values well into the future. As a university community, there will always be smart minds who think differently. But it really helps to be upfront with people, to share the story that lets people know that there is a way forward, and to develop a plan together. Our board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of the plan. Our faculty senate sent a letter of support. The staff and students have all been understanding.
Your inaugural address at the University of St. Thomas was marked by confidence toward the future, your blog is titled “Fearlessly Forward,” and your writings and speeches regularly convey a sense of joy. With all the challenges facing Catholic higher education today, where do you find hope?
In Jesus Christ. Truly. As we move forward, we have faith that the battle is already won. It is not our success so much as it is God’s. We are called to be faithful, to use our talents the best we can, to have faith in the great cloud of witnesses who support us, and to trust in the outcome.
Mary Dana Hinton
Position: Mary Hinton is the 15th president of the College of Saint Benedict, a residential liberal arts college founded by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in 1913. Saint Ben’s prepares women to think critically, lead courageously, and advocate passionately. It is the only Benedictine college for women in the country and has operated in a unique academic partnership with Saint John's University, a Benedictine college for men, for over 60 years.
Career highlights: Named president of CSB in 2014; in 2018, Hinton received the Mother Benedicta Riepp Award, named for the Sister who brought Benedictine women to the United States and awarded by the Sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn. Mary is proud to serve on several national higher education boards including the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU); the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU); and the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).
Education: B.A. in psychology with minors in women’s studies and African-American studies from Williams College; M.A. in clinical child psychology from the University of Kansas; Ph.D. from Fordham University in religion and religious education.
Family: Husband of 21 years, Robert Williams; children: Hallela Hinton-Williams is a junior at Grinnell College; Hillel Hinton-Williams is a first-year student at Oberlin College; and Hosanna Hinton-Williams is a sophomore at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minn.
Fun Fact: Mary has won five trophies for her trivia knowledge.
Q. You earned your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, so how did it come about that you transitioned to the education field? Was that always your intention?
A. I choose to study psychology because I loved it, not because I had a particular career plan in mind. My first job after college was as an elementary school teacher because I had been told my whole life that my number one job in life was to serve others. I thought the number one way that you could give back to the community was by being a teacher and I still believe that. I’m so grateful for all the people who are called to teach. The stakes are so high when you teach elementary school because you’re helping a young person develop a love of learning.
It turns out teaching elementary school was not my calling. But, when I thought about graduate school the first time around, I still wanted to do something that put me in a position to serve others, and that’s why I chose clinical child psychology.
After you got your master’s, did you want to go into the psychology field or did you want to go into education?
I could not have articulated this at the time, but it wasn’t that I had a particular discipline or field in mind. It was that I had a calling I was trying to respond to. For me, that calling was to do work toward educational equity, so once I got my master’s degree, I went right into policy work. That feels as far away from the classroom as you can get, but when you can create structures and policies that govern what students learn, how they learn, and the conditions under which they learn, you’re really having an impact on equity.
Is having that impact on equity why you went from policy work to getting your doctorate in religion and religious education?
I think religion and psychology have something in common in that they both help you comprehend how individuals and communities understand themselves, organize themselves, and move themselves forward. I think that has served me well as an educator because I recognize that we don’t all understand ourselves the same way. We don’t all see the world the same way, but we all have value.
How do you feel that your passion and vision for the liberal arts fits into the Catholic framework?
I am convicted by Catholic Social Teaching and its calls to equity and justice and by the goal of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition of bringing humanity closer to God. I’ve been called to do this work through promoting educational equity, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn and understand their role in humanity. I think it’s just when every person has an opportunity to learn how to think, to engage in big ideas, to be creative in their thinking – the key goals of a liberal arts education – that they can be fully engaged with humanity and with the divine.
I think it’s just when every person has an opportunity to learn how to think, to engage in big ideas, to be creative in their thinking
You have written about your concern that with technology on the rise, people no longer think the liberal arts are valuable. What would you tell those who say liberal arts education is obsolete or irrelevant?
Here’s the thing: Technology can enhance and literally extend our lives at moments. But there are at least three things that technology cannot do. One, I don’t believe technology can make meaning out of human experiences. It can use algorithms to make guesses and assumptions about me, but a guess about someone is not the same as understanding someone.
Two, technology conflates information with knowledge. Technology provides overwhelming amounts of information, but I don’t know any more unless I engage with that information in meaningful ways. I have to hear about others’ experiences to turn that information into knowledge. I must apply prior learning to turn that information into knowledge.
And most importantly, we gather wisdom from listening to diverse perspectives and experiences, and then challenging yourself and challenging others. In my estimation, technology cannot do those things for us. The liberal arts, on the other hand, help us become wise people when we learn to translate information into knowledge, to interrogate knowledge and to connect knowledge.
Given how plugged in to technology young people are now, how do your students feel about your ideas on this?
I have found that young people today crave human connection, more than any other generation. I think they value us having a conversation and a hug, praying together, crying together, cheering for our athletic teams together. I’m really proud of them and their ability to respond to human connection. However, unfortunately, because we are less connected as a society, they often feel that they have to default to social media as a proxy for connection.
...Young people today crave human connection, more than any other generation.
You have talked about student retention being something you’re passionate about, so what have you done during your presidency to address this and what have the results been?
The first step to student success is retaining students at an institution. At Saint Ben’s, we developed an inclusion ecosystem whereby we explore for every student who chooses us, what structures, systems, programs, and policies we need to put into place to ensure that each young woman can be successful. When you think about inclusion, sometimes people say, “Well, that’s just about diversity or for diverse students,” but really, inclusion is making sure that every student has what she needs in order to be successful. The result is that Saint Ben’s retains students at higher rates than other institutions.
In interviews, you have mentioned your concerns about college affordability and student debt. What kind of message are you giving your students and prospective students about this issue?
I can’t imagine a better use of resources than to invest in one’s education, and I think there are times when the student debt argument has been overstated. About a quarter of college students don’t carry any debt, and at our institution the default rate is less than 1 percent. The average student loan debt in the United States is less than the average new car loan and you don’t hear people talking about the car loan crisis. At the same time, your education is worth far, far more than your car.
During your tenure as president, what have you done to further the spirit of the school’s Benedictine founders?
In the first year of my presidency, I established a Benedictine Values Task Force. As a group of monastery and college leaders, we met regularly to talk about how we can support the transmission of Benedictine values on our campuses. Additionally, several years ago, the Sisters agreed to allow the college to buy several of their buildings, so now we’re able to highlight our Benedictine heritage in our physical spaces as well. When you come into our new admissions welcome center, the view is of the dome of Sacred Heart Chapel, a powerful symbol of the spirit of the college’s founders.
I try to be intentional about connecting structures, philosophies, and physical symbols of the way we can live into and honor our heritage.
I try to be intentional about connecting structures, philosophies, and physical symbols of the way we can live into and honor our heritage. The biggest formal way was when we wrote our strategic plan five years ago. It has four pillars, one of which is an inclusive and engaging Catholic and Benedictine experience. We also, in my second year, updated our mission statement to explicitly reference the Catholic and Benedictine tradition.
What accomplishments are you most proud of since you took office and what do you want to accomplish in the future?
I’m enormously proud of having received the Mother Benedicta Riepp Award, as a sign of the way the Sisters support and value my leadership. I’m proud that the college has largely accomplished the goals of our strategic plan, including a new curriculum, a $100 million fundraising campaign, and a revitalization the campus physical structure. And, I’m proud of our inclusion ecosystem and how we are beginning to transform into the community we want and need to be.
I hope to continue to embrace equity and ensure, that any young woman who wants to attend the College of Saint Benedict has the opportunity to thrive at the college. I am grateful and hope to continue to play a role in shaping, promoting, and furthering Catholic higher education, as I truly believe that Catholic higher education has a special role to play in achieving a more just world.
Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ
Position: Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, is the 13th president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, a position she has held since 2007.
Career highlights: Professor of English at the College of St. Rose, Albany, NY, from 1972 to 1991; Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Avila University, Kansas City, MO, from 1991 to 1993; Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean at Fontbonne University, St. Louis, MO, from 1993 to 1998; President of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), then the oldest Catholic liberal arts women’s college in the country, from 1998 to 2007. In March 2011, Sister Joan received the Athena Award for leadership given by the Women’s Connection of the Quad Cities. She was elected to the board of trustees of ACCU in January 2015.
Education: A native of Albany, NY, Sister Joan earned a doctorate in English literature from Brown University in 1981. She received her bachelor's (in 1970) and master’s (in 1974) degrees in English literature from the College of Saint Rose. Sister Joan holds certificates in fund raising management and educational management from Indiana and Harvard Universities, respectively.
Religious Order: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis, Missouri, since 1965.
Fun Fact: Among her personal pursuits, Sister Joan enjoys organic gardening and art appreciation. She also enjoys flying and has flown with the Navy's Blue Angels and the aerial demonstration team, The Red Barons.
Q. Is there such a thing as a “typical day” for you at St. Ambrose? As president, how do you balance your schedule and prioritize your responsibilities?
A. There is hardly such a thing as a “typical hour.” You can have a very well-set up schedule and then suddenly you’ll get a phone call as president that throws everything into chaos. A president needs to plan and organize, but situations can come up that change everything.
I always say to people that you have to pay attention to the day, the week, the month, and the year. If a president gets so fixated on the day or even the week, they will not keep in mind their responsibility to plan and guide at the mega-level. A president cannot let the minutiae of any given day take their energy away from the longer-term planning.
A president cannot let the minutiae of any given day take their energy away from the longer-term planning.
You have been a college president since 1998. In that time, what is the most significant change in American Catholic higher education? How has the role of president changed?
Colleges and universities are having to rethink the mix of academic programs that they offer. Certain programs, which were the backbone of colleges and universities for five or six generations, are seeing dramatic drops in student interest. Simultaneously, colleges and universities must ask, “What are students interested in?” And they need to build those programs based on very careful market studies. For example, we have just finished rolling out a new master’s degree in cybersecurity.
Twenty-five years ago, students would see the president on campus every day. Now, easily 70 percent of a president’s work is outward-focused. When I am working with new presidents, I tell them that the care and feeding of their board and the care and feeding of their direct reports are among the most important things that they will do. It’s not glamorous work but it is necessary work.
In addition to St. Ambrose, there are several other schools in the Quad Cities. What collaboration exists among those institutions? In the increasingly competitive landscape of American higher education, what counsel can you provide about collaboration?
They tell me that my middle name is collaboration and I think that’s true. I instinctively want to find ways to collaborate, even with competitors.
For example, when I came to St. Ambrose, I called up the president of Augustana College just across the river and said, “Yes, I know that we are competitors, but there must be ways that we can collaborate.” One example is that we formed an international student organization with Augustana, so our international students can interact with a a larger group of people. This collaboration in no way hampers our ability to recruit to our own institution. In fact, it makes us a more attractive place.
They tell me that my middle name is collaboration...
You are the first woman to serve as president of St. Ambrose University. You were also president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), then the oldest Catholic liberal arts women’s college in the country. Can you say something about the role of women in Catholic higher education?
When I first became a dean in the early 1990s, I looked far and wide to find another woman [dean]. As time went on, that began to change. When I went to my first meeting as president in 1998, it was like going back in time. I saw some women, but it was heavily male. Now, of course, that has continued to change, and I am no longer an anomaly. When I arrived at St. Ambrose and people introduced me as the “first woman president,” I said that I look forward to the day when we stop using “woman” as an adjective.
I mentor women to consider the presidency because I was well-mentored by both men and women early in my career. Probably the skill that most people aspiring to the presidency feel least qualified to do is in the area of fundraising. So, I take people with me on visits to mentor them. As I’ve tried to help people get comfortable in the fundraising sphere, I suggest: 1) be well-prepared for your visit; 2) be interested in the people; and 3) pay close attention to their reaction.
Under your leadership, SMWC achieved record gains in enrollment. What is the most critical thing that colleges can do to develop an effective enrollment strategy?
My mantra is to find your niche and market it aggressively and consistently. You cannot be everything to everyone. Our niche at St. Ambrose, for example, is the area of health sciences. When I arrived, we had a good regional reputation, and now we have an excellent reputation that is becoming national.
The pressure on private institutions of 1,500 students or fewer is very intense. Going forward, smaller institutions would be well-advised to think about ways to connect and collaborate formally, not just informally, with larger institutions that share their values.
St. Ambrose University has a close relationship with the Diocese of Davenport. What advice can you provide other presidents concerning their school’s relationship with the Church?
First and foremost, collaboration with the bishop is important. Presidents of Catholic colleges should keep in close conversation with their bishop, talking with him and seeking his advice regularly. Whenever I was appointed to a new position, I wrote a letter to the bishop expressing my interest in working with him in a collaborative manner. Bishops are busy people too, but it’s necessary to meet with them.
Among the 200-plus Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, I have a relatively unique relationship with the bishop because he serves as the chair of our board. My experience with the bishop has been a productive and supportive relationship.
You entered religious life in 1965, the same year as the final session of Vatican II. Can you describe that time? What are your best hopes for the future direction of the Church?
I was a teenager and it was thrilling to watch the changes, especially in the liturgy. It opened up new possibilities to participate in the liturgy and be part of the Church.
As Pope Francis has been doing, my hope for the Church is to pay attention again to the heart of the Christian message, which is compassion, forgiveness, and outreach to the poor. Catholic colleges and universities can serve the Church by helping its students to understand their roles as adult Christians.
I believe enough in the message of Jesus Christ that I am willing to dedicate my entire life to it. A couple years ago, I celebrated my 50th jubilee. I do not worry about the message of Jesus Christ surviving. I believe it will continue to affect the world positively as it has for the past 2,000 years.
...my hope for the Church is to pay attention again to the heart of the Christian message, which is compassion, forgiveness, and outreach to the poor.
Students of St. Ambrose University give more than 178,000 service hours annually. The university’s mission statement aims for students to develop not only intellectually but also ethically and socially. Why is this important for Catholic higher education?
The service hours are placed in the context of the Church’s social teaching. Catholic Social Teaching reminds us that we have an obligation beyond our own personal well-being. Our core values at St. Ambrose emphasize peace and justice, which motivate us to care for the wider human family — and now we extend this to include care for the earth, too.
As a professor of English literature, what is one book every college student should read before graduating?
One book, without doubt, is Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Not only because the characters are delightful and it has a happy ending and it is beautifully written, but because we have two characters who are wrong in their initial assessment of things. They are wrong because they are not fully aware of who they are. But as they become more self-aware, they are able to realize the mistakes that they have made, to admit that they were wrong, and to change their behavior. That for me is the great vision of what it means to grow up. Even though I’ve taught this book several times, it is always rewarding to see the lightbulb going off in the minds of the students.