Photo by Tim Rummelhoff Photography
“Education is activism," says Anita Thomas, PhD, executive vice president and provost at St. Catherine University. “That's why I was drawn to education as a whole. For me, higher education is the ultimate platform for making systemic change and helping people think critically. When you think about the leaders of the world and the importance of higher education, it is about training our change agents."
Thomas grew up in a family of educators that understands the power of education to drive social change. Her parents lived through the civil rights era and raised her to believe that education is a key to empowerment and social movement. Her upbringing and training as a counseling psychologist have rooted Thomas' professional discipline in helping everyone she meets connect with their own unique style of resilience. It's a practice that's become her true north over her 20 years in academia.
"What drew me to St. Kate's was the mission and the emphasis on training women to lead and influence. It resonates with me to help women grow, become more resilient, and focus on their sense of calling in a way that maximizes their mental well-being."
The University's commitment to Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Catholic Social Teaching also drew her to this role and felt like coming home to her. She previously spent 10 years of her career at Loyola University in Chicago, strongly rooted in Jesuit pedagogy. "When you teach from those guiding principles, you are empowering students to think about real-world problems and have a better sense of social justice — not just in terms of equity for people, but the systemic barriers preventing equity."
Thomas is clearly energized by her work and responds enthusiastically when asked how she perceives her role as provost. Her vision is to coordinate the St. Catherine academic experience, so every person — no matter their role — places the student experience at the forefront of their work. "My job is to make sure that the student life experience, as it relates to their intellectual development, is maximized at the University."
For Thomas, this student prioritization means leading and supervising deans and faculty in a way that supports them to pursue their passions, and in turn, their students' intellect. It involves ensuring the curriculum and programs are innovative and operate with best practices. It also means serving as a liaison with student affairs, so the balance of students' curricular and co-curricular experiences optimize their intellectual life development.
To achieve this balance, Thomas is leading the University through the creation and implementation of an academic master plan. Already in development, it's the cornerstone of the Strengthen Academic Excellence priority in the University's strategic plan.
"For me, academic excellence is fostering intellectual life development so that we have lifelong learners who are active in their communities — solving problems and making change," Thomas says.
The plan will start with a vision statement to guide the "why and how" of educational outcomes. It will ensure that all students and faculty entering the classroom have a collective understanding of the intended experience and outcomes at St. Kate's.
"There is something about being a Katie, and there's something about being at St. Kate's," Thomas says. “I want that something to be much more intentional. I keep running into people who say, You know a Katie when you meet her. But I ask how? What does it mean in terms of “Katies do X'?"
The vision statement and definition of a Katie will lay the foundation for the rest of the plan. The University will then build on it and further clarify the role of Catholic Social Teaching within the academic experience, aligning the curriculum to maximize the intellectual life experience. Thomas adds, "Then, we'll start to see a more targeted interdisciplinary focus. Within a couple of years, we'll see a major shift in how career development is integrated into the student experience.
"This is really exciting work. We would love to have more people involved, because St. Kate's is a community. I am one of those collective people who thinks that we are all better working together. If people are excited and want to know more, or want to contribute, let's connect."
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