Academic Excellence at the College of St. Catherine

Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Phi Beta Kappa

Oct. 29, 2007

President Andrea J. Lee, IHM

Good evening. On behalf of the entire St. Catherine's community, I welcome our alumnae, students, faculty and staff, especially those who are members of Phi Beta Kappa. It is fitting that we gather on this 70th anniversary of St. Catherine's being granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and certainly a wonderful reason to celebrate the "jewel in our crown," as well as other gems of academic excellence at our college.

You've just heard Associate Professor of History Jane Carroll describe Mother Antonia's struggle and eventual success in bringing a prestigious Phi Beta Kappa chapter to a Catholic college for women. Sister Antonia was an exceptional visionary and leader, indeed the standard against which all of us measure our contributions. Antonia was powerful in many ways, but especially in her spirited and unflagging pursuit of the recognized markers of excellence for a college of the liberal arts. First among these, and her highest priority, was assembling a talented and scholarly faculty, women and men with impressive academic pedigrees and deeply committed to the mission of the college. A parallel goal was seeking a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the honor society for the liberal arts of which she herself was a member.

Hearing the powerful story of Antonia McHugh might tempt one to believe there was a "golden age" of commitment to the liberal arts and to academic excellence at St. Catherine's, the highest tiers of which remain less accessible in today's world of higher education. At closer look, however, I suspect that while Mother Antonia certainly set the standard for academic excellence, the College has responded continuously and vigorously to her challenge and example.

In recent decades, higher education has become infinitely more complex than it was in her day. Consider the exponential explosion of knowledge and technology, and the corresponding questions of which content to select and why; of how, and to what degree, difference should be embraced; and, even more confounding, how paths of integrity and competence might be forged through the intricate moral and ethical questions that such an explosion of knowledge and technology has brought about.

Challenges presented by universal access in the United States, as well as by non-native speakers; uneven high school preparation and financial aid pressures, as well as growing and inflexible demands by accrediting bodies in the professions — all these contribute to the perceived erosion of the liberal arts in colleges and universities.

Nonetheless, while we at St. Catherine's have added many programs of study, all rest upon the firm bedrock of the liberal arts. Even advanced transfer students must take our required bookend courses: "The Reflective Woman" and "Global Search for Justice." A more diverse student body has added rich tiers of excellence to St. Catherine's, even as this phenomenon challenges some deeply held convictions about what attainment of academic excellence actually means.

We know for sure that it does not mean one thing for all people and for all times. Still, it should be clear that externally verifiable outcomes of academic excellence remain our goal for every student.

In fact, in some of the professional areas outside of the liberal arts — education, social work and nursing, for example — licensing is dependent on students' passing rigorous national or state board examinations, tests which presume an advanced grasp on core content and communication skills that are often taught in the liberal arts courses.

Rearticulating our mission

We can look with pride to the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, when, as the detritus of undergraduate curricula swirled about, St. Catherine's remained unerringly faithful to its standards in requiring that all students demonstrate proficiency in the liberal arts. During the 1980s and '90s, as we acquired St. Mary's Junior College and added graduate degrees, the College of St. Catherine insisted that all degree levels address liberal arts goals and, as assessment became the norm in higher education, offer specific evidence of their achievement.

Shortly after I arrived in 1998, the College rearticulated its immutable three-pronged mission of education that is women centered, honors our Catholic heritage, and builds upon and is permeated by the liberal arts. Intensive work over several years resulted in a revised set of liberal arts learning outcomes. This more contemporary articulation of liberal arts goals centers on the same core skills and values that have always marked St. Catherine's: critical thinking, effective communication, quantitative and scientific competence, a grounding in philosophy and theology, and familiarity with at least one other language and culture, as well as newly articulated emphases that embrace diversity and lifelong learning.

We continually assess how well we are doing in bringing students to a point of competence and intellectual sophistication. But what truly distinguishes the College of St. Catherine's commitment to the liberal arts is that, at every level of study, liberal arts learning is integrated with discipline-specific applications. Our Weekend College curriculum, for example, includes the same liberal arts requirements as those in the day baccalaureate program, and the same faculty teach in both programs. Our associate programs pivot around a set of Core Integrated Learning skills that correspond to a parallel skill set in our baccalaureate programs. Even graduate programs, such as the Doctorate of Physical Therapy and Masters in Social Work, systematically weave liberal arts learning and values into the curriculum.

Fast forward to 2007: In its work on our strategic plan initiative on academic excellence, the faculty committee that we call SIFAX (Strategic Initiative for Academic Excellence) has spent much time considering the transformational thinking of Alexander Astin. In his book, Rethinking Academic Excellence, Astin says, "If we really mean it when we claim that education is our central mission, then student learning should be at the heart of our conception of excellence." So, where does that take us?

Believing in Astin's "talent development view" of excellence builds a new, more sophisticated and complex platform for thinking about academic excellence and establishes St. Catherine's "ability to develop student potential to its fullest" as the metric for measuring it. This "multiple pathways" approach moves into new terrain in defining excellence and mapping paths toward its achievement. It recognizes contemporary scholarship around multiple intelligences; and, without sacrificing its core beliefs, embraces the idea of diversity — diversity of learning, of perspectives, of cultures and peoples — and simultaneously reckons with the demand that the explosion of knowledge and the ease of its transmission imply a mandate to think about excellence in new ways.

This dual approach — the more traditional road of recognizing and rewarding students for extraordinary performance, and Astin's road of beginning where the student is at — substantially expands available options. Taken together, multiple pathways to excellence accurately reflect our distinctiveness as a college and resonate most deeply with St. Catherine's mission.

Expanded opportunities

Our student-centered culture distinguishes St. Catherine's initiative in academic excellence. We encourage students to recognize their own abilities, imagine what they can become and work hard to achieve that.

Such an intensified focus on excellence demands creative and sustained thinking to figure out how to offer the benefits of this initiative to many more students across all degree levels, through both the curriculum and co-curriculum. Such challenging academic opportunities for students as envisioned by SIFAX may well occur during the traditional semester, but also during J-term or the summer, and through study abroad, multi-year scholarly research and other academic opportunities.

Accordingly, St. Catherine's will consider expanding the scope of college honors to allow students to graduate with Latin honors as they do now, but also to graduate with distinction in cultural competence, in the liberal arts, in social justice or in other areas aligned with our educational outcomes, with our mission or with our leadership statement. We expect to invigorate and intensify our Antonian Honors Program, and to expand honors and research options within the major. We also expect to promote challenging academic opportunities for students early and often — as they are recruited to the college and throughout their academic career here and beyond.

This effort will require imaginative thinking to ease barriers that prevent students from stretching their intellectual and creative horizons. We envision expanded opportunities that will showcase student excellence in many places: at formal convocations and seminars; at alumnae events here and around the nation; at scholarly and professional conferences; in community and service-learning settings; and in many nontraditional venues, such as our Women's Choir showcasing its excellence on A Prairie Home Companion, when the acclaimed public radio program was broadcast from campus during our Centennial year in 2005.

Focus on interdisciplinarity

St. Catherine's commitment to the liberal arts is the absolute foundation of this initiative in academic excellence. Not only must we deepen and extend liberal learning. We also must expand opportunities that link learning in the liberal arts in powerful and explicit ways to our professional and healthcare curricula, and to the graduate curriculum. This stands at the center of what distinguishes and will continue to distinguish St. Catherine's.

This new focus will not abandon excellence in the disciplines but, rather, build upon it and focus squarely on interdisciplinarity. We believe that solutions to the world's most urgent problems benefit from intentional and serendipitous linking of each discipline's best thinking, combined and nuanced in fresh ways.

Faculty must lead the way in helping students move through this treacherous but more fertile terrain. Navigation of an interdisciplinary approach to academic excellence by faculty who are tied to strong academic departments and disciplines will present compelling but exceedingly worthwhile challenges.

Our initiative in academic excellence is being led by Dean of Arts and Sciences Alan Silva, assisted by Special Assistant to the President Julie Belle White Newman.

The Academic Excellence Visibility Subcommittee, led by Dr. White-Newman, is working on ways to identify and promote pathways to excellence; and the Academic Opportunities Subcommittee, chaired by Dean Silva, is defining academic excellence on three levels.

  1. Developing an academic excellence statement with a list of our hallmarks of excellence. When we say we are committed to academic excellence, what does that mean? How do we define it? Then, how can we translate our understandings into a statement similar to our mission, Roman Catholic identity and leadership statement?

  2. Exploring specific ways in which academic excellence permeates or can permeate the St. Kate's culture. For example, establishing honors in the disciplines, determining academic success in the disciplines, and measures for distinction in specific, mission-related categories such as cultural competence, social justice and leadership.

  3. Defining academic excellence at the program level. We hope to expand our Antonian Honors Scholars by looking for ways to increase the number of scholars but also by intensifying and strengthening this experience for students through arts and cultural event series, leadership opportunities and study abroad experiences of varied lengths.

In developing new programs, we are considering a fellowship and scholarship program, a collaborative research program and a new first-year student study/research program. The goal is to develop college-wide programs that are visible and marketable, ones that provide new pathways, attract students early in their college careers, and move them along their journey through comprehensive advising, mentoring and coaching toward specific opportunities in leadership, scholarship and citizenship.

Other measures of academic excellence include statistical indicators. For those of you who like data, consider these facts:

  • St. Catherine's ranked No. 13 in the Universities-Master's category in this year's U.S. News & World Report ranking, called "America's Best Colleges."

  • Among our first-time, first-year day students this year we have: 10 Valedictorians; an average high school GPA of 3.46; 137 St. Catherine of Alexandria scholars; four National Merit Scholars; 48 Presidential Scholars; and 12 Girl Scout Gold/Silver Award scholars.

Excellence at St. Kate's

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. At a Catholic college for women, developing the intuitive mind, the rational mind and the soul are all part of what we mean when we describe and define excellence.

Merold Westphal, professor of philosophy at Fordham University, considers the purpose of liberal arts education, and Christian liberal arts education in particular, in his essay "Academic Excellence: Cliché or Humanizing Vision?" For Westphal, we all too commonly define academic excellence in terms of results, such as job or graduate school placement records or salary. But Westphal argues that the value of a liberal arts education cannot be so easily quantified, and we should resist the urge to do so.

Westphal makes his argument by examining the trifecta of Aristotelian intellectual virtues:

  • Contemplation: learning for the intrinsic value of increased understanding of ourselves and the transcendent.
  • Moral know-how: knowledge that shapes my decisions and upon which moral virtue (as distinct from intellectual virtue) depends.
  • Technical know-how or knowledge that guides the vocational component of education.

These ideas of Einstein and Westphal embody the standards for excellence that the College of St. Catherine as a college for women, a college of the liberal arts and a Catholic college should embrace. We believe we have, and we want to do so even more vigorously.

The commitment to liberal arts and academic excellence is alive and well at the College of St. Catherine. Tonight, we honor those who have and will gain recognition through Phi Beta Kappa and other pathways to excellence. In a special way this evening, we call to mind our recently deceased Sister Alberta, one of eight of our 10 College presidents who share the Phi Beta Kappa honor.

As the Madrigal Singers lead us in the "Hymn to St. Catherine," I invite you to pay special attention to the characterization of St. Catherine of Alexandria, "by poet and by sage," our inspiration, a woman "endowed with rarest powers, the Saint and scholar of her age."

We are indeed 1,600 years from the time of Catherine; 500 from the golden years of the Renaissance; and 100 from the founding of our college. The thread of excellence connects them all with us in a remarkable tight and lovely weaving. Indeed, some things never do change. Tonight that truth gives us much reason to celebrate.