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June 2009
 
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Becoming St. Catherine University

The creation of St. Kate’s new School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences is an exciting moment that underscores the University’s commitment to the liberal arts — while offering invigorating opportunities for innovation and change.

PHOTOS BY CATHERINE TSEN ‘11 AND THE ST. KATE’S PHOTO BUREAU

More than 100 years later, the liberal arts remain foundational for every student at St. Kate’s. Only now the faculty, too, are immersed in a new perspective — a new way of thinking about their work, organizing their departments and ensuring that their disciplines remain both rooted and relevant. Long known for their commitment to innovation in teaching and learning, faculty in St. Catherine’s new School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences (SHAS) are fired up about the cultural shift that’s been evolving since the new school was announced in conjunction with St. Kate’s switch from College to University.

Mother Antonia McHugh, CSJ
Alan Silva, Dean of the School of
Humanities, Arts and Sciences.

“It’s an incredibly exciting, invigorating step for all of us,” says SHAS Dean Alan Silva. “There’s a lot of work, a lot of change involved, but the result of what we’re doing together ensures a whole new era for all of the liberal arts disciplines at St. Kate’s. It’s an opportunity for us to shine, to prove our relevance for today’s students.”

The liberal arts are steeped in tradition. Certainly that was true in the fledgling days of St. Catherine, when educating women to lead and influence meant immersing them in the fine points of literature, chemistry, philosophy and mathematics.

Becoming SHAS means merging 24 smaller liberal arts programs into 15 distinct departments — American Sign Language and Interpreting; Art History; Biology; Chemistry and Biochemistry; English; History, Place and Political Science; International Languages and Literatures; Liberal Arts and Sciences; Mathematical Sciences and Physics; Music, Theater and Dance; Philosophy; Psychology; Sociology; Theology; and Women’s Studies and Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity.

With the realignment comes new course offerings, new major programs and enhanced learning and research opportunities for students and faculty, all leveraged for greater mass and impact. “By coming together and reorganizing as a school, we carry the weight of collective power,” Silva says. “Together, we create a culture of assessment and excellence.” Some students and alumnae have expressed worry of late that the institution’s liberal arts foundation is being overshadowed by the impressive growth and financial support experienced by the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health. In truth, the liberal arts at St. Kate’s are alive and kicking, poised to reassert their value and essential place.

“When an institution takes a step toward a new public identity, we need to pause and remind ourselves — and the outside world — where we’re centered.”

– Associate Dean Marla Hanley

This fall, members of the SHAS leadership team talked with SCAN Managing Editor Andy Steiner about adjusting to change, attracting new students, emphasizing values and boldly facing the future. Here’s what they said:

Is there any truth to the rumor that St. Kate’s is turning its back on its liberal arts foundation?

Dean Alan Silva: Last spring, we met with a group of students. They asked, “What’s going to happen to the liberal arts? We hear so much about the School of Health, but we aren’t hearing enough about what you’re doing.” There’s definitely some concern among current students and alumnae that the liberal arts will be eclipsed, but there’s no truth to the rumor. We are stronger than ever.

Jack Flynn, associate professor of history: Health sciences and professional programs dominate in number of majors and students graduating. But the liberal arts dominates in the curriculum and the way we teach all students at the University.

Amy Hilden, associate professor of philosophy: It’s interesting that a student at St. Kate’s would have the idea that the liberal arts could go away — or that St. Catherine would remain St. Catherine without the liberal arts. Clearly, we have to make the case for the presence of the liberal arts, and we have to do it loudly.

How would a graduate — or a current student, for that matter — get the idea that the liberal arts is being eclipsed at St. Kate’s?

Silva: It might have happened when the University launched the new School of Health in September 2007. There was a wonderful program in Rauenhorst Hall, with balloons, a big beautiful banner and lots of press coverage. This new school was endowed with a huge legacy gift — $1 million per year in perpetuity. That’s amazing in this economy, or any economy. It is something that merits celebration.

Hilden: But from the outside, at least, the hoopla surrounding the launch seemed to circumscribe health education — to announce that St. Kate’s is now a School of Health only and we won’t do bedrock foundational stuff anymore, that we’ve abandoned the liberal arts. It’s up to us to make it clear to everyone that the liberal arts at St. Kate’s is still vital, that it is the foundation that runs through everything we do here.

So how do you get that message across to students and alums?

Nancy Heitzeg, associate professor of sociology: (laughing) Well, we’re looking for the big banners and balloons.

Silva: I want the million dollars annually. That would be nice.

Heitzeg: Faculty in the School of Health all have a strong commitment to the liberal arts as a foundation for their disciplines. There’s no question about that. But that reality has to be made explicit to everyone — not just quietly assumed. For some time, there’s been a level of “taken-for-grantedness” about the liberal arts at St. Kate’s.

It’s so much a part of what we do, and such a core part of our history, that we assumed everyone would understand that’s the way it will always be. Then the School of Health started to grow and attract attention, and the liberal arts at St. Kate’s fell below the public radar.

So now it is our job both to demonstrate and to state loudly and clearly that this University has a foundational liberal arts core. And we are working to back up that statement with a stronger base, by providing more majors, more innovative programming for our students. We’re at a thrilling point in our development as an institution, and we have to get that message across.

Silva: There’s real power in publicly declaring that we’re a school — the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences. Forming one strong school reorganizes the liberal arts and raises them to the institutional prominence they deserve. It helps attract strong students and faculty. It organizes and solidifies our mission.

We’ve developed a concept paper that frames what we are doing and what we will be doing in this School. The paper tells the story of our disciplines, of what’s happening to them now and where they are going in the future. It’s a comprehensive assessment of who we are and where we are headed.

Mother Antonia McHugh, CSJ
Marla Hanley, Associate Dean for
Integrated Learning
Marla Hanley, associate dean for integrated learning: St. Kate’s is at a turning point. When an institution takes a step toward a new public identity, we need to pause and check our language, to remind ourselves — and the outside world — what’s our foundation, where we’re centered. We live and breathe what we’re doing here inside the liberal arts at St. Kate’s, but our transformations might not be obvious from the outside. It’s healthy to have people ask, “Tell me again: Will you still be here? Are you going away?” It helps us to have to explain that we are here, that we’re more vital than ever, and that it’s centrally important that we aren’t going away.

Silva: Colleges and universities nationwide are grappling with this issue: How do you make the liberal arts appealing and highly valued for the prospective student? In a tough economy, how do you convince students and parents that the skills gained with a liberal arts degree will lead to a job? It gets down to that.

Joanne Cavallaro, professor of English: I was just at a career development workshop, and it’s clear that the skills employers say they are looking for in new hires — the ability to write clearly and concisely, to solve problems and work with a team, to analyze situations and put them in context with what’s happening in the real world — are the outcomes of a liberal arts education.

And yet people don’t necessarily see a liberal arts education as practical. The truth is that the liberal arts do prepare students for meaningful work in the ways that employers are looking for.

Lynda Szymanski, associate professor of psychology: Not that long ago, I had a parent contact me. Her daughter was a psychology major who eventually wanted to become a nurse. The parent asked me, “Why does she need this other stuff? What are all these psychology classes going to teach her?”We talked about the value of the liberal arts and how they will make her daughter a more compelling person, how her psychology degree will ultimately make her a better nurse. It was a good exercise for me. It helped me to be able to explain the importance and currency of what I’m teaching.

St. Kate’s is home to a high percentage of first-generation college students. Is the question of future employment more important to their parents than it is to parents who’ve earned a college degree?

Hanley: Many of our liberal arts faculty are first-generation college graduates themselves. So we’re used to that question. We’ve lived that question.

Silva: It makes sense that any parent would be concerned about future employment. It’s our job as a School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences to tell our story to everyone who wants to listen. Where are the opportunities for a liberal arts student to study abroad or do research with a faculty member? How might a student get mentored so that student could get ready for graduate school or a
prestigious fellowship like a Fulbright or a Truman? We are developing a practical liberal arts at St. Kate’s, an education that prepares our graduates for the real world. We are imbedding that perspective into all of our disciplines, and we want to articulate that to prospective students and their parents.

Hilden: It reminds me of students I’ve known who’ve come to St. Kate’s with the goal of earning a “practical” degree like nursing or business. These young women definitely did not enter college intending to study something“impractical” like philosophy. Then they took a philosophy class and they fell in love with it. They say, “Where has this been all my life?” They worry that they can’t tell their parents about their new academic love because their parents will be afraid they’re throwing their hard-earned money away on the impractical analysis of thoughts.

Because we’ve seen this story play out so many times, we’ve developed a brochure in philosophy intended for parents in which we talk about practicality. We explain what it means for an individual student to live an empowered, engaged human life but also be able to pay the bills after she has earned her degree. It’s about connecting the study of philosophy with the practical. You might not be able to buy a Jaguar your first year out of college, but you will become a different sort of human being, the kind of human that employers truly do want to hire.

No one at St. Kate’s wants to give students the message that the ultimate goal of their education is to be able to buy a fancy car. So while today’s St. Kate’s education is practically focused, it’s about much more than that, right?

Catherine Spaeth, director of global studies: Through the liberal arts at St. Kate’s, we’re preparing students for life but with valuable skills. We live in an international world, one that is much larger and more open than it ever was. We’re teaching our students to broaden their perspectives, to become citizens of the world, to learn to live with other people.

Silva: Recently I talked with a prospective student from Massachusetts. Her qualifications were stellar: a 4.0 GPA, super-high ACT scores, serious interest in music, languages and arts. My task was to convince her that St. Kate’s had something unique to offer that other schools didn’t. It was exciting. I was able to talk about our honors program, about her potential for significant international
experiences, how that could lead to important honors and awards like a Fulbright scholarship, about the focused attention and support available from our faculty. I also was able to talk about who we are as an institution of higher education: our values, our history.

Does a liberal arts grad from St. Kate’s offer future employers a different set of skills and qualifications than a liberal arts grad from another institution?

Heitzeg: All of our teaching is closely connected to the mission of the University, to the social justice mission of our founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Some things we just do better here.

Hanley: Our student body is more diverse than that of other colleges and universities. That reality alone makes the liberal arts experience at St. Kate’s richer and more exciting. Our students look at the liberal arts — and the world — from a different perspective, from a current, realistic perspective that’s in line with the rest of the world. Our graduates are more vital, more aware of the world beyond the gates of the University.

Mother Antonia McHugh, CSJ
Linda Szymanski, associate professor
of psychology

Spaeth: Our study-abroad programs and offerings grow every year. Students who’ve had an opportunity to experience another culture, to discover how their area of study can be applied globally, bring valuable perspective and understanding to any work situation.

Szymanski: Part of the stated goal of the new School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences is to formalize and support student-faculty collaboration and research, not just in the sciences but also in the humanities. So we will produce students with key faculty-guided research experiences. This is unique and very appealing to employers.

How would faculty-student research happen in fields like English or philosophy?

Hilden: I’m in philosophy. No philosopher collaborates. But to think about how to push against some of those traditional pedagogical and methodological boundaries will be good for us. It’s going to be challenging, but it will cause us to expand and create a better experience for our students. This can’t be a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to research. For those of us who don’t engage in empirical inquiries, this will be a challenge. But we’re excited.

Silva: There is more literature being published now on people doing this sort of research and collaboration in the humanities. We’re on the cutting edge here, working out how we will push against established boundaries and think differently for our students. For some students, this will require intense mentoring, but we’re up for the challenge. The result will be more alumnae going on to graduate-level work, earning scholarships and publishing research.

What are your hopes for St. Kate’s new School of
Humanities, Arts and Sciences?

Flynn: My dream is for us to be able to offer more scholarships for our students, so they don’t have to work so much to pay for their education.

Hilden: My dream is to have 30 philosophy majors.

Cavallaro: I’d love to see all liberal arts disciplines have more majors. That’s really what all this work we’re doing right now is about. We can say we have a strong liberal arts foundation, but if we don’t attract the students, where are we? My dream is that our revitalized curriculum and realigned structure as a School will attract more students.

Heitzeg: I dream about lots and lots of students who say they came to St. Catherine University specifically because they wanted to major in the liberal arts. I want the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences to become a magnet just like the School of Health is now.

Silva: I want to go out on a limb and say that to take the School to the next level we need an endowment, an annual gift that will provide a consistent source of funding for our programs. That level of support will help give us the prominence we deserve, help us hire more faculty and bring in students from around the country and the world.

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Mission-Driven Education

“It is the three elements of our mission — women, Catholic and liberal arts — that make a St. Catherine education both powerful and unique; and it is these three elements that are at the very
heart of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences.”

What Innovation Looks Like

“The School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences will develop research, analytical and cultural capacities through building community among
diverse learners, guiding their exploration of complex global issues, providing powerful skills to integrate knowledge across disciplines, fostering individual intellectual and cultural enrichment and engaging the learner in authentic work. This education will allow students to demonstrate their facility with the most sought-after skills for work, leadership, citizenship and graduate education.”

— Concept paper, School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences, 2009