St. Catherine University opens academic year with a focus on leadership

Honorees from the 2020 Opening Convocation

Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ, ‘44 and Commissioner Jan Malcolm (standing) with President ReBecca Koenig Roloff '76 at the 2020 Opening Celebration.

Sister Mary Madonna, Jan Malcolm receive honorary degrees in opening celebration

From its beginnings, St. Catherine University has always opened the academic year with a community gathering where prayers were shared and inspiration found in the words of guest speakers. That tradition continued this week, as students, faculty and staff crossed virtual channels to the annual Opening Celebration.

The possibilities before us

In a reflection offered by Jill Underdahl, CSJ, ‘92, St. Catherine University Trustee, she observed that “The beginning of the academic year is a time of renewed commitment and optimism about the possibilities before us and all that the year will hold.” Underdahl recalled the mission of the University founders — the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet — to love our dear neighbors without distinction, noting how, “As an institution, St. Kate’s lives out this mission of love by powering lives of meaning and guiding an inclusive community of students to learn and discern wisely, live and lead justly, and shape a better world. Students are agreeing to this mission of love by selecting an education in the context and purpose for greater social justice. Faculty and staff live this mission of love by designing experiences that engage students to see the realities as they are and to apply their learnings in ways that advocate for social justice. As individuals members of this community, we are called to live out this mission of love by responding to the needs that arise in a given moment, setting, interaction, and relationship. We live out love in the ways that we listen, prepare to show up, and participate.”  

Called to lead

As the event moved from reflection to celebration, that mission of acting out of love bloomed into how love can define leadership. “As a central tenet of our mission, leadership has been part of a St. Catherine education since our founding,” said ReBecca Koenig Roloff ‘76, president of St. Catherine University. “This year, we are called to lead more than ever as we navigate a health pandemic, economic crisis, natural disasters, racism, and racial disparities.”

In the spirit of honoring women who lead and influence, St. Catherine University celebrated the works of two women who have served as health policy pioneers in the State of Minnesota: Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ, ‘44 and Commissioner Jan Malcolm. Both women have devoted their careers to pursuing health equity with wisdom and justice, and both were awarded honorary doctorates in letters.

Sr. Mary Madonna, the founding CEO and President of St. Mary’s Clinics, is a former Commissioner of Health and a public-health pioneer. Her leadership and influence in tackling the tobacco industry and the AIDS epidemic became models for the entire nation. She began her career as a social worker, which led to her becoming president and CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis for 20 years. Upon her retirement, Governor Rudy Perpich selected her to become Commissioner of Health, making her the first woman, non-physician, and religious sister to hold the position. Sister Mary Madonna’s respect for fact-based science, knowledge of public health policy, and spiritual tenderness toward the disenfranchised made her a powerful force to reckon with.

“The most important thing is that students be themselves, enjoy what they’re doing, and do it the best they can,” advised Sr. Mary Madonna. “There’s no roadmap to what will make you famous, important, or intelligent. Good things will come your way; take advantage of them.”

Commissioner Malcolm, a veteran healthcare executive and nationally recognized expert on health policy, is serving as the Minnesota Commissioner of Health for the second time, leading public health for the state under three governors. During her tenure, she has earned a reputation for working tirelessly to address anti-smoking legislation, persistent health inequities such as infant mortality and teen pregnancy, advocating for transitional housing for people with mental illnesses, addressing elder abuse, and currently, leading the state’s COVID-19 response efforts. 

She drew from her most recent work as part of a statewide team responding to COVID-19 to share valuable reflections with the St. Kate’s community. “This is a time when we all have to stay committed to being open to learning new things, to follow the facts, and be humble enough to change course when we learn something new,” said Malcolm. “Be grounded in your values, open in your approach of listening, and seek always to build a team to collectively bring together all of the skills that are needed to bring us through a crisis like this. There is room, and a need, for all of us to lead in our own ways.”

Optimism and hope for the future

There is a wake-up call to be found in the shared experiences of COVID-19, according to Malcolm. “I am convinced that we can do better than just get back to normal,” Malcolm explained. “Normal wasn’t really very good for a lot of people. If we can learn the lessons that we’re seeing now, that the things we took for granted we can’t take for granted, we can build a more just, connected, humane, caring, and sustainable world. All of this can lead us to a brighter, healthier, more resilient future.”

That future relies on the leaders who will graduate from St. Catherine University. As Anita Thomas, PhD, executive vice president and provost reminded students who were watching the celebration, “make sure, as you’re going through this academic year, to maximize everything you can in terms of your learning.” Despite the many changes the community has faced over the past six months, according to Thomas, “one thing remains the same: we will still be the St. Catherine community, and will still produce great leaders that will lead and influence change.”