2009 Opening Workshop for Faculty and Staff

Let’s Boogie

2009 Opening Workshop for Faculty and Staff

September 1, 2009
President Andrea J. Lee, IHM

Good morning. Welcome! Still St. Kate’s! Still very much St. Kate’s! It’s good to see everyone and greet you as we begin the academic year for the first time as St. Catherine University.

Looking back at the lavish unfolding of talent, commitment and wisdom by so many over the past year, I can only pray for our good fortune that you have chosen to cast your lot here. Whether you are a student leader or administrator, faculty or staff member, trustee or friend, I thank you for being part of this remarkable community and for your substantial contribution in making it so.

Some weeks ago, I had the occasion for some below-the-surface conversation with a trusted friend, actually someone who looks at St. Kate’s from a different perspective than we often do. During that conversation I came to see with renewed and reassuring clarity — the kind that carries powerful energy with it — how fortunate we are to have been called to work here, and how privileged I am to serve as your leader.

I recalled where we began together more than a decade ago, and where we find ourselves today: Minnesota’s newest University; proud of our robust and diverse enrollment, even during these trying months of recession; a premier and thriving women’s college, a vibrant School of Health, and new schools and colleges on track for rollout. I thought about engaged, productive and marvelously talented faculty, as well as staff equally capable and committed to students and their learning.

I thought about the treasure and tradition entrusted to me by the Board of Trustees and the Sisters of St. Joseph. Each year at Opening Workshop, we consider the place from which we have come, where we find ourselves now and our vision for the future, one with the power to direct and focus our work.

Thank you and have a great year.

The faculty’s return always infuses energy and electricity into the weakening hold of summer."

The faculty’s return always infuses energy and electricity into the weakening hold of summer. Something new is about to happen. Much is new, fresh, expectant. Mornings are a bit more crisp and rushed. Energy in the atmosphere is kicked up a notch or two. It’s our New Year — a sacred and blessed time, understandable only to insiders.

The title of my talk today is “Let’s Boogie.”  That doesn’t sound very serious, even though much of what I say will be. As always, we begin deadly serious work, but we do so in a spirit of joy and exuberance, rejoicing that many parts create such a beautiful whole; convinced that a sense of humor and playfulness is necessary and welcome to good work and excellent results.

We open in a spirit that does not preclude or ignore controversy or conflict but, akin to the one described by Agnes Keenan, sister to one of our revered ancestral CSJ faculty members: “There seems to have been an atmosphere of space about the years we worked together; openness and clarity that come from a willingness to look, to listen, to examine, to enjoy, no matter what the idea. And there was much controversy; the clash of thought springing from firmly held principles and the clang of opinions just as firmly held — with points made lightly and in good humor.”

We should think of these words often during the year and, contrary to thinking of today as diversionary preparation for real work, recognize that drawing the community together is itself essential work; beginning anew as one university, with many players contributing to shape a magnificent whole.

A society in turmoil

Boogie, as the dictionary says, is a wonderfully descriptive word: (verb intransitive) to get going; to move quickly. We’re a University. So now what? As important as setting a direction and moving toward it is to understand the broad context — the air, the atmosphere, the environmental and competitive conditions — within which we plan and act. Think of it as a systems-perspective eye on the complex and expansive universe within which we exist, both individually and institutionally.

In a micro sense, each of us works within the complexity of the University community as an individual member of a department, team, school or college. And from a macro perspective, St. Catherine University is itself a vital if relatively miniscule player in a vast, often disinterested, but highly influential external universe.

Moving back and forth from a microscopic lens on ourselves as individuals or on St. Catherine as a single institution, to the wide-angle view of the entire St. Catherine University or the vast external universe is useful and necessary. Doing so keeps us humble, focused and hopeful. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.

Last fall, the Cabinet began its midterm correction of the 2005 Strategic Plan. Although we had begun the 2008 academic year serenely enough, only a few weeks into the semester, unprecedented and alarming stories dominated the news.

First, Lehman Brothers and the prospect of bankruptcy and bank collapses; then Merrill Lynch, AIG and the mighty General Motors. We elected the nation’s first African American president, an intelligent, inspiring and, for some, controversial and unproven leader;  but even before Obama was elected, President Bush called for a massive $700 billion bailout for the banks, some of whom had behaved with stunning greed and irresponsibility.

Tensions roiled everywhere. The surreal rise and fall of critical financial markets worldwide, massive layoffs and the ignoble toppling of the invincible underscored the question everybody was asking: Who’s next? Is it me? Where would it end and what impact would all of it have on me, my family, on St. Kate’s?

We began to answer these questions and develop a reasoned and value-driven plan. Wealthy colleges and universities, even Harvard, slashed budgets dependent on the investment earnings of endowments most of us only dream of. In many ways, it seemed better to be poor, or at least good to have learned to live within our means. Less than exuberant community meetings, weighty conversations and difficult choices loomed everywhere.

Cut spending and programs? The democratic culture says to share the burden evenly. The strategic vision says to hang tough and focus resources on the places most likely to lead to long-term growth and stability. Which stance would we adopt? We chose to balance two high and competing values: strategic positioning of the University and preservation of our community. These hybrid choices led to minimal layoffs and internal options for most whose jobs were eliminated, but also to what some, including some trustees, considered less than optimal motion forward on our strategy for the future.

Not everyone shares the same vision, and that’s probably healthy, although not without pain."

During these difficult months, we learned that not everyone shares the same vision in the same way, and that’s probably healthy, although not without pain. We learned how incredibly difficult it is to balance the needs and wishes of individuals with a longer-term strategic vision for the whole. It was, indeed, a perfect storm with clear threats on all three fronts of our principal revenue sources: tuition, endowment earnings and philanthropy.

On top of everything, the Board had decided in May 2008 that we would call ourselves what we already were – St. Catherine University. That decision presented once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and required recalibrating that simply would not wait for calmer times.

Last October I recommended to the Board that, instead of tweaking the 2005 strategic plan through the midterm review, a new plan for St. Catherine University was imperative, one that reckoned with substantial change, new realities and called for new, clear thinking and a new horizon.

We don’t have time today to explore the implications inherent in reckoning with context and perspective — that is, in thinking beyond ourselves personally, and beyond St. Catherine institutionally, as we position ourselves for the future. That does not diminish its worth, though, in keeping us real and focused, so we begin now and will keep at it over the upcoming months.

As individuals, we bring unique talents, experience and aspirations to our work. We are a wonderfully diverse community of teachers, writers, thinkers, artists, enablers, craftsmen, builders and analysts. Our individual skills, projects and dreams are of critical importance, but they do not exist in a vacuum, isolated from those of our colleagues, departments, schools and St. Catherine University itself.

We can be excellent soloists but we must also play well in the orchestra."

Fortunately, we’re not an aggregate of independent contractors whose first goal is a personal bottom line. We must resist any tendency toward that but, at the same time, seek to acknowledge and reward excellence at every level. We can be excellent soloists but we must also play well in the orchestra, even when there are no solos, or the solo’s not mine.

What must guide what is brought forward, encouraged, resourced and rewarded is our common mission and vision for the future. So, yes, individuals — highly competent ones — but each is part of a community where others have a similarly rich array of talents, hopes and ideas.

St. Catherine is a single institution as well — unique, lovely, admired and powerful, but neither solitary nor an island. Instead, part of, connected, interdependent, if also incomplete and flawed. Part of a larger, complex  whole with important relationships to competitor/colleague institutions, with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Private College Coalition, the 225 institutional members of the  Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the International Federation of Catholic Universities, the Women’s College Coalition, more than 3,000 institutions of higher education institutions in the United States, and with a world where the education of women faces enormous challenges and blockades — even as such education offers perhaps the brightest promise for a highly desired future.

No doubt, St. Catherine University plays a role within the broad external world of education, a complex universe of fierce and relentless competition.

Our university also exists within an unsettled political, social and economic environment, often hostile to higher education, at least in terms of funding it or acknowledging its cost/benefit ratio; certainly indifferent to the value of education in a single-gender setting; and focused on education that leads directly to jobs that the market values, rather than education which prepares students for meaningful lives and careers in a world of rapid and unpredictable change.

In such a world, we must remain true to our core values as we navigate rough economic, social and political seas; make our voice heard to strengthen critical partnerships between higher education and the government in providing access to higher education for low-income students; offer our institution as a leader in educating students, particularly women, who can write, think, communicate, solve complex problems and collaborate with others. We must stand upon and for our values, and heed critical reminders to take the long view in the face of worldwide economic, social and political instability.

For now, let’s take a breath and think about ourselves — each one — as powerful, unique and talented, but part of a larger community that includes other powerful and talented and unique members. Think of St. Catherine University as powerful and unique and part of a vast, rough-and-tumble universe teeming with possibility, but mostly, with no idea we are even here. Let’s think about context and perspective. Doing so is both unsettling and deeply reassuring.

Our Shining Eyes

Sometimes, we comfort ourselves by thinking how big and complex everything is, concluding that individual effort doesn’t matter much. Wrong. There is much to be done — as individuals, as teams, as departments, schools and colleges. You do matter, you matter a lot.

Last year, we viewed the film The Art of Possibility, which employed the metaphor of individual symphony players led by an extraordinary conductor, Benjamin Zander, as a way to think about leadership and accomplishment; or to consider the difference between adequate, even good, and excellent. The most evocative scenes took Sarah, a young and talented cello player, through a process of coaching and encouragement, along with gentle, even public critique, then disciplined practice that led to levels of achievement she hadn’t imagined before. The effect was electric, enabling transformational change — for Sarah and for everyone around her.

Risk taking, transformation, engagement with the community, radiating possibility. Zander uses the wonderful image of Shining Eyes to describe people like Sarah. They are people with compelling individual talent, folks who can and do play solo parts, but are talented and contributing members of a larger whole as well; vital parts of their department, teams, schools, of the university itself. They both influence and are influenced by the community (or symphony) of which they are a part. They know how to Boogie — to move forward, to move quickly and to have fun while they’re doing it. In short, they are the leaders we hold up as examples to students and to one another.

They are not perfect. In considering Zander’s work and his powerful metaphor, I recall a passage from Mark Salzman’s novel, The Soloist. The novel deals with another cellist, a child prodigy who had lost his edge, doubting his ability to play even one note perfectly. “I remembered that once,” he says, “I became frustrated that my fingers were not long enough to reach a certain extension, my frail teacher edged forward on his chair.” “Every musician,” the teacher said as if reciting a prayer, “discovers that God has given him faulty equipment. That’s where the difference between an ordinary musician and a great artist lies — how they face their shortcomings.” The common person is shackled by them, but not the great artist! She finds creative ways to make use of her flaws, and thus transcend them.

The great artist finds creative ways to make use of her flaws, and thus transcend them."

A homily I heard recently centered on a story about the cellist Pablo Casals. When he was 93, someone asked what he was doing one morning, and he said, “Practicing.” The inquirer asked the famed musician why. “Well,” the cellist answered, “I think I’m beginning to make a little progress.”

As we live into being St. Catherine University, claim our most valued points of distinction; reckon with a fierce and unrelentingly competitive environment; look beyond our lovely gates to what the world needs, and respond with what we can offer; as we plan against a backdrop of national and global challenge and unprecedented opportunity, more than ever we need Shining Eyes, people of vision, energy and focus, people who don’t take themselves too seriously, even while accomplishing incredible work incredibly well.

We need positive energy, creative thinking, practical imagination, the productive coupling of personal humility and institutional pride and, most importantly, a clear eye on measureable and meaningful outcomes. We must hold ourselves accountable by producing evidence to substantiate accomplishment of our goals. We must stretch beyond where we are toward what we can and must become. And do all of this within an environment not likely to be resource rich.

We’ve accomplished a lot. We are the largest women’s college in the hemisphere. We are Minnesota’s newest University. Still we need to do more. I’m confident we have the strength and will to do just that.

Examples are everywhere. Let me name a few.

There are so many other examples:

St. Kate’s focus on mission is the envy of many — and that will not change."

St. Kate’s focus on mission is the envy of many — and that will not ever change. Our focus on integration also holds tremendous promise. Let’s recognize that integration has everything to do with who and what St. Catherine University will become.
The market outside the University demands response and engagement. Period. That means exploding our ideas about program development. It means stopping or quickly fixing what doesn’t work and moving resolutely toward what holds promise. It means matching institutional competence with market demand; putting aside outdated thinking about barriers between liberal and professional learning.

The world needs skilled professionals who can learn, think critically and solve complex problems, problems that demand competence in engaging multiple, interlocking disciplines, perspectives and ideas. We must be effective, visible and demonstrably excellent in that effort.

The world also needs scholars, artists, thinkers and writers who deliver results, offer value to corporations, to education, social service and health care systems. In short, the world desperately needs the very things we are so good at. Our enrollment — our life blood — will depend on our ability to reckon with this truth in convincing ways.

Vision 2020

I want to share a little about our plan for St. Catherine University: what’s in it, how it’s structured and what it might mean for you — your department, your school, your college. What it might mean for what you do and where you put your energy, and for how and where you fit into the University itself.

Our plan is called 2020 Vision. Its horizon stretches out 10 years, which will take us to the leading edge of this century’s third decade.  Why 2020? It has a nice ring to it, but there’s something more.

Success often requires tilling the ground long before a fruitful harvest can be expected."

A few years ago, 10 years was about the right planning horizon. Today the horizon is much closer — three years perhaps four, being the new “outer limit.” Still, we cannot abandon the long view, because success often requires careful tilling of the ground long before a fruitful harvest can be expected. With that in mind, our plan articulates a longer-range vision and encompasses eight broad strategic directions stretching out 10 years. Within that 10-year framework are a set of interlocking, shorter-term priority plans within, and consistent with, the entire 2020 sweep.

Accordingly, a set of priorities will guide the next four years, ending with our accreditation visit in 2013 by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Planning for the middle third of the plan — 2013 to 2016 — will be complete before the HLC visit. Yes, we’ll be in a constant planning mode: scanning the environment, creating and evaluating options, deciding, then implementing and assessing.

Our plan addresses both the reality of rapid change and the need for strategic nimbleness. The end goal of 2020 Vision, and the enabling process to get there, implies steady and purposeful integration. Success will depend significantly on our will and creativity in seizing opportunities for integration.

The plan builds upon strengths, grounds itself within our mission, and assumes growth and flexibility. It will — and must — move in dynamic synchrony with the environment and the market. It must, therefore, be flexible and dynamic. 2020 Vision begins and ends with students and their learning squarely at the center of program, facilities and resource decisions.

The result of painstaking thought and work by the cabinet, the deans and faculty leaders for the schools, the College Council and the Board of Trustees, the plan records our hopes and announce our intentions.

One quarter of all degrees awarded at St. Catherine over its 105-year history have been earned in the past decade."

By 2020, some 10,000 to 15,000 new graduates will have entered the world with a St. Catherine University degree. Within the next two decades it’s possible that the cumulative number of students leaving St. Catherine with masters and doctoral degrees will exceed the cumulative number of baccalaureate degrees ever awarded at our institution. One quarter of all degrees awarded at St. Catherine over its entire history have been earned in the past decade. What does this mean for us? What difference can it make in the world?

We began the strategic plan by articulating the vision for St. Catherine University, one that is both a stretch and an ideal, but also achievable and capable of distinguishing us from the pack. The Board of Trustees has approved our vision: It is to be recognized as a leading Catholic University, distinguished by its innovative spirit and premier baccalaureate college for women.

Perhaps that doesn’t seem bold or exciting enough to you. But it definitely is. After all, we are not recognized as a university at all yet, let alone as a leading Catholic one, let alone as one characterized by an innovative spirit and distinguished by a premier college for women. There is only one Catholic institution of our size and complexity with a college for women. It is in New York, and only about 400 women enroll in that baccalaureate women’s program compared with our 2,900. Reality and recognition are two different things, and while we can congratulate ourselves, it’s better when others recognize what we know.

Leaving out Notre Dame, Georgetown and Boston College, four or five leading Catholic universities among Master’s 1 schools — our category — consistently appear among the top 10 in each geographic sector of the country. So 40 to 50 percent of the 40 most highly ranked master’s universities nationwide are Catholic. Of these, most are Jesuit, with the notable exceptions of Villanova and Providence. It would be good to be thought of in the same breath as these institutions. They are powerful, honorable and successful; their missions are clearly focused on academic excellence and social justice. We should be in that circle of colleagues.

Our innovative spirit

The most sacred distinguisher of St. Catherine University will be its reputation as a premier baccalaureate college for women."

What might it mean for St. Catherine University to be known for an innovative spirit? Words that come to mind when thinking about St. Catherine are “alive,” “energetic,”  “responsive,” “creative,” “new,” “fresh.” We will not be sitting around or wallowing in the status quo. We simply can’t afford it. When we chose Innovative Spirit as a primary distinguishing characteristic, we liked the tone, the implications and mostly the idea of it as a phrase that permeates everywhere within the University.

The most precious, sacred and clear distinguisher of St. Catherine University will be its reputation as a premier baccalaureate college for women. No equivocating. No substitutions. No apologies. It is the center. It is the heart. It is St. Catherine. It is so central, so “us.” Here is the St. Catherine University mission.

St. Catherine University educates students to lead and influence. Inspired by its visionary founding in 1905 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, more than a century later the University serves diverse students, with a baccalaureate college for women at its heart and graduate and associate programs for women and men.  At all degree levels, St. Catherine integrates liberal arts and professional education within the Catholic tradition, emphasizing intellectual inquiry and social teaching, and challenging students to transformational leadership. Committed to excellence and opportunity, St. Catherine University develops ethical, reflective and socially responsible leaders, informed by the philosophy of the women’s college and the spirit of the founders.

This is a powerful statement. Each time you gather for a meeting this year, consider reading this mission aloud in a reflective way. If you have a few additional minutes, focus on just one phrase, and think about what it means for your work and for the subject of your meeting agenda. Then, ask yourself the Bishop Ken Untener question: “How will what we are doing or talking about at this meeting advance this mission?” Be clear. Be specific. If you can’t find an answer, adjust your agenda or adjourn.

The meat in our plan is the Strategic Directions — primary paths to 2020.

These eight directions pivot on mission, structure, curriculum and co-curriculum, academic excellence and leadership; partnerships, visibility, enrollment and resources. Here they are in abbreviated form:

MISSION
Integrate St. Catherine’s mission — Catholic, women, and liberal arts — throughout the University.

STRUCTURE
Launch the colleges and schools.

CURRICULUM and CO-CURRICULUM
Make investments in educational programs that advance our mission, attract students and prepare them for leadership and life.

ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE and LEADERSHIP
Emphasize excellence as the hallmark of the college for women and advance a focused research agenda for the graduate college.

PARTNERSHIPS
Expand strategic relationships and interdisciplinary connections within the University; between St. Catherine and partners who align with our mission and curricular emphases.

VISIBILITY
Achieve recognition as a comprehensive, Catholic university in a vibrant metropolitan community, one that features several nationally recognized programs, a premiere college for women, and competence in educating students from diverse backgrounds.

ENROLLMENT
Maintain current undergraduate enrollment levels and grow graduate and other programs with high market, visibility and net revenue potential.

RESOURCES
Maintain fiscal equanimity during challenging times and establish a financial platform that will enable us to grow the human, technological and capital resources necessary to fund strategic priorities.

Looking to 2020, destination metrics with clear and specific measures will be the way we assess whether we’ve been successful. There are five destination metrics, endpoint measures of our plan’s success. Each is accompanied by a set of measures that are objective, data-driven and clear. Here are the five destination metrics, the way by which we will know if we have attained our vision:

Metric A: MISSION
Evidence demonstrates that our mission permeates the culture of the University and is relevant to all major constituencies.

Metric B: EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS & ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE
Evidence demonstrates that St. Catherine University is recognized for innovative, high-quality programs.

Metric C:   STUDENTS & THE LEARNING COMMUNITY
Evidence demonstrates that St. Catherine is a mid-sized metropolitan university enrolling 8,000 to 10,000 students, one that offers a stimulating campus-based learning environment, vibrant campus and residential life, and an array of digital learning options.

Metric D: VISIBILITY
Evidence demonstrates that St. Catherine is recognized as a leading Catholic university, distinguished by its innovative spirit and premier baccalaureate college for women.

Metric E: RESOURCES
Evidence demonstrates that the University is able to fund its strategic plan while preserving its financial strength, as measured by key financial ratios among the top quartile of our benchmark schools.

With an eye on 2020, over the next four years we will address each of the eight strategic directions with a set of priorities. They won’t represent all we’ll do, but they will be our primary focus. Each priority will also connect to specific strategic measures, leading toward accomplishment of the five destination metrics.

The mantra that will guide implementation of the 2020 Vision plan is “Engage in High-Impact Practices” — that is, place resources, time and energy where they will deliver the most effective results.

A few minutes ago, I defined the word Boogie as an intransitive verb meaning to get going or move quickly. The definition for boogie woogie is a bit different, but serves our purpose, too. It is: a style of piano playing characterized by an up-tempo rhythm, repeated melodic pattern in the bass and a number of improvised variations in the treble.

Everything in the plan for St. Catherine University is up-tempo, but not necessarily brand new. There are repeating patterns — specifically, our vision and mission with their inherent commitments, kind of like the bass line in boogie woogie; those are familiar rhythms that do not change. Rather, they establish a foundation and ground everything else we do.

All the improvised variations in the treble might be thought of as our innovative spirit at work. New will not always mean entirely new — repackaging, realigning and fresh combinations count. It encourages me that, in Western music, we use only 12 tones to compose music of infinite variety, mood and length. No doubt we have the requisite tools and talent at St. Catherine to boogie toward our 2020 Vision. So let’s have at it.

We must plan and act with a degree of precision, specificity and speed that may not have been imperative before."

In upcoming years, refusal to continually reinvent ourselves, and perhaps even reinventing ourselves too slowly, could mean eventual extinction. Consider the evergreen trees and large bushes that died on campus this summer, even though they had enough rain this year. Their doom was sealed during a drought two summers ago, and they are just now succumbing to its effects. Most analysts forecast similar struggles for some institutions in the years ahead. We will not be one of them but, to ensure a successful future, we must plan and act with a degree of precision, specificity and speed that may not have been imperative before.

Few would argue we have contributions to make. But we need specificity and precision in order to match St. Catherine’s strengths with the world’s most pressing needs.

For example, we can talk in the abstract about expanding global educational opportunities for our students. But how much better if, say, we focused our efforts in a few areas of the world and perhaps in three focus areas where we could make a substantive and catalytic contribution: women’s microeconomic initiatives; the education of women and girls; and access to health care for women, especially poor women. I’m sure there are other ideas to consider — the point here is focus, specificity and matching need and institutional strength.

Radiate possibility. Take a risk. Be a part of something bigger than yourself."

So how can you contribute? Think about Benjamin Zander and the symphony; think about cello playing and play your instrument extremely well; be an encourager, not a downward spiraler. Radiate possibility. Take a risk. Be a part of something bigger than yourself. Enjoy one another and recognize the tremendous power of a community united around a mission and vision. Collaborate through the schools and colleges. And never forget there are old, new, active and well-resourced competitors who are not asleep at the switch.

Always and abiding: a college for women

Throughout the process of becoming a university, nearly every conversation eventually turned to thought, opinion and often intense emotion around St. Catherine as a college for women and a college of the liberal arts.

How would we protect and strengthen the baccalaureate college for women as the heart of St. Catherine University, even as our reach expands to enroll more men in associate and graduate programs? How would we strengthen the liberal arts and sciences as the heart of our educational experience, when the vast majority of students choose a major in a professional field? The answers to these questions bridge areas as abstract as considering the philosophy of education at St. Catherine and as practical as language and positioning on our website.

Nearly everyone agreed on the importance of answering these questions deeply and well. Make no mistake: The University Task Force, the Cabinet, the faculty — especially the liberal arts and sciences faculty — the Sisters, our alumnae and I insisted that we be clear, compelling and unequivocal about the centrality of the women’s college and the powerful and transformative learning experience it offers. As our mission states clearly, it is the spirit and philosophy of the college for women and of our founders that inspires and shapes student learning here.

A startling number of women’s colleges across the nation are stumbling, crumbling or becoming co-ed."

While we state this emphatically, a startling number of women’s colleges across the nation are stumbling, crumbling, or becoming co-ed. In contrast, St. Catherine has become stronger and more intent on the value of single-gender education. Why? How do we preserve and talk about it? What is the “it” of which we speak? What do we know about the educational experience here that is so important, so singular, so necessary that the world would miss something of great value were it to disappear? What is it about the experience of pursuing a baccalaureate degree at St. Catherine that transforms young and not-so-young girls into strong, principled, competent and creative women?

A challenge that continues to perplex, frustrate and intrigue is determining how to speak with prospective students and their parents about the College for Women at St. Catherine — about St. Kate’s value proposition for undergraduate women among a veritable sea of college choices before them. I am talking about finding ways to speak in clear, compelling ways about what distinguishes us, and to do it with enough energy and excitement about what becoming a Katie means that students hear it, get it, apply, enroll and engage. Once here, as we know, students do experience it, engage and are thus ignited, inspired, set afire with a thrilling blend of purpose, conviction and competence.

Among all we must do, nothing is more important than speaking in convincing ways about the St. Catherine educational experience. We know what it is; in some deep place viscerally we recognize it, and regard it with awe and amazement. The experience is sacred, powerful and beautiful. Now we must find good words — the right words — to describe it.

“Human beings learn most deeply when they solve problems or answer questions they have come to regard as important, intriguing or beautiful,” say Bain and Zimmerman, a truth we have internalized and reflect daily on our two campuses. Let’s apply this idea to determining how to speak clearly and more convincingly to prospective students about the transformative power of a St. Catherine education. Accomplishing this is, no doubt, “important, intriguing and beautiful.”

Students discover that true intellectual freedom presumes sustained discipline and openness to people and ideas different from those they have known."

What do we know about the educational experience here? Students with formidable intellects but often quite parochial experience are exposed to new and sometimes conflicting ideas with which they come to wrestle elegantly. They are the beneficiaries of wisdom shared by intelligent, disciplined and creative scholars, our faculty; they are encouraged to imitate excellence — both in and outside the classroom — and then to shape their own. They discover that true intellectual freedom presumes sustained discipline; openness to people and ideas different from those they have known; respect for the accumulated universe of scholarship and tradition, and to the ideas, particular insights and perspectives which the array of academic disciplines offers. Mutual engagement of learner and teacher finds the switching of roles occurring often within a rigorous and stimulating atmosphere; students willing to be taught and told, but eager as well to explore and experiment; determined to create and try.

Especially through their liberal learning in the College for Women, St. Catherine students encounter the challenges inherent in complexity and layers of meaning; they apply learning in unfamiliar situations, and apply it in fresh ways. They discover that complex problems are best addressed with competence, and humble recognition of the limits of one’s own intelligence, experience and insight, thereby acknowledging the need for, and value of, the other. Within the College for Women, energy and receptivity to knowledge become effervescent and self-sustaining. Hopefully, as they approach graduation, students see beauty in knowledge directed toward purpose, especially when that purpose is a good and meaningful life, both personally fulfilling and other-directed.

Even if these words partially describe the educational experience in the College for Women at St. Catherine, indeed describe the heart of our University, they are limited and frail and not words likely to set the hearts and minds of 17 year olds into any kind of synchronous resonance. So what should the words be?

Some words come to mind to describe the powerful experience of learning here — the gestalt that is the St. Catherine experience, words like surge, power, expand, encounter, connect, change, transform, generate.

If a premier College for Women is the heart of St. Catherine University, and our School of Humanities Arts and Sciences the bedrock for all learning here, then we must stay with this effort. Search for the right words. Embrace this challenge with fresh eyes and hold our own preconceived notions a little more lightly.

What we do best

Inviting young women into an extraordinary educational experience is the center, the heart of what we do. And isn’t it a joy to watch the innate talent of such young women emerge, direct and discipline itself, and explode into ever new expression?

Inviting students to St. Catherine University — women, and men as well to our associate and graduate programs — and educating them for leadership is our gift to the world, shaped and inspired by more than 100 years of work as the College of St. Catherine.

Nothing can or will happen here without the hard work of individual members of this community: faculty, counselors, coaches, advisors, co-curricular staff, administrators, gardeners, carpenters, custodians, engineers, IT and support staff, campus ministers and business, advancement and administrative staff.

But the excellent individual work of each of us will be so much more effective and integrated, and of greater value to the whole, if it is undertaken within the embrace of a joyful community; undertaken with respect and admiration for the contributions of everyone else and with humility regarding the value and importance of one’s own work.

Our University is being reorganized into three colleges:

We’re also reorganizing into four schools:

This structure radiates possibility, giving each student and each of us a home and a focus — a smaller community within the whole within which to do our work.

Engaging in the work of St. Catherine University is a vocation, a deep calling, for many of us."

In the end, it always comes down to mission and vision and the passion they evoke. On a personal level, it comes down to vocation, plumbing one’s own sense of meaning and purpose in what I do and why.

Frederick Buechner describes vocation as the place where the “needs of the world and my gladness meet.” Engaging in the work of St. Catherine University is a vocation, a deep calling, for many of us. In Gail Godwin’s novel Evensong, Adrian Bonner says, “Something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you.” It is obvious that it does, and so may it continue.

Before we conclude today we turn to God, as is our tradition, confident that our work is part of the greater mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph and theirs, for over 300 years, part of the great work of God on the earth.

We chose a song for prayer today and, as often happens, more meaning emerged than we originally imagined. The song, based on an obscure folk tune from the Peruvian Andes, was composed by Daniel Alormia Robles in 1913, the year St. Catherine graduated its first two students. The song was part of a Zarzuela, or a musical play that alternated between spoken word and song to deliver its message, in this case one of justice and hope.

The world came to know this song in the 1970s when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, mistakenly thinking the tune was in the public domain, added new secular English lyrics to the tune we know as El Condor Pasa. Paul Simon later rectified the matter with the composer’s son.

Now, almost 40 years later, the hymn we sing today has been published again by GIA. It takes the same tune and adds lovely sacred lyrics written by a St. Catherine graduate, Dona Pena. We Give Our Hearts to You has become a hymn sung and danced frequently at St. Kate’s. It is full of lovely and evocative imagery of God and the call to justice and mercy on the earth.

The dance, however, is not Peruvian but Hawaiian. It also is connected to St. Catherine, having come here as the fruit of decades of wonderful relationship between Lori Tue and David Haas and the Hawaiians at Maria Puka O Kalani  parish on Hawaii’s Big Island. We invite everyone to participate in singing the chorus, or move with the dancers should you wish. Paula Gajewski-Mickelson will interpret, and you will see many similarities between the expressive Hawaiian hand movements and Paula’s formal interpreting.

Going forth

Thank you to everyone for being here, for your participation and your energy. I’m looking forward to a great, if demanding year. There are no more words. There is, however, lots of work to do: goals to accomplish, decisions to make, a university to shape, progress to attain and, definitely, possibility to radiate.

No doubt, we have a vision that beckons energetic and enthusiastic pursuit. We need great cellists and great symphony players. We need folks who can boogie.

Atop my to-do list this year:

There are a million ways you can participate in this work, so pick one or more; put your shoulder to the wheel; and move forward, get going, move quickly, just boogie. The music has already begun, and you can’t stop the beat.