Thank you so much for joining me this evening…. This was the year that we joined Colleges That Change Lives, we opened our campus for a day-long Gaelebration, we sponsored Saturdays of Service, we celebrated the Black Catholic experience, and we held many great conversations – about interfaith issues, generations X and Y, the Catholic intellectual tradition, Lasallian higher education, social justice, race and ethnicity, sex and spirituality, multidisciplinary approaches to poverty, atheism, justice and citizenship, and Vatican II 50 years later. And these are all “extras” in an academic life already rich with intellectual discovery in and out of the classroom, performances, lectures, concerts, advising and, of course, the meetings, and more meetings, and yes, more meetings.

Some of us will continue to meet this summer over the issue of meetings, but I think a fundamental way to support the faculty who are here is to have more of them. Toward that end, we will be adding at least six new tenure-track faculty lines this year. Those aren’t replacement lines; we’ll continue to do that, but new positions.

Before going further, however, I need to acknowledge the people who keep it all going, starting with my staff, particularly, of course, the keeper of my office: Gloria Janas. Thanks as well to Robert Henderson, Jan Jones, Chandra Commer, Carole Wolf, and Chris Procello. The fact that we have accomplished so much this year, that we are still here – and for the most part, still like each other – is a testament to you, and to the skill and effort of staff and faculty leading important initiatives like the implementation of the new Collegiate Seminar (Jose Feito) and the Core Curriculum (Jim Sauerberg). Our faculty leadership has been stellar, such as the chair of our Institutional Review Board, Keith Garrison; our Rank & Tenure committee chair, Norrie Palmer; our Senate chair, Claude Malary; and our director of Faculty Development, Steve Bachofer. We are ahead of schedule on our efforts to achieve AACSB accreditation and on our WASC self-study, led by Chris Sindt and with faculty contributors Yung Jae Lee, Frances Sweeney, Myrna Santiago, and Gloria Sosa. Just this week we received a bit of news about the first phase of the WASC accreditation process: the review of our Graduation and Retention Report received the designation of “highly developed,” the highest level of accomplishment conferred by our regional accreditors. If I add all the contributions to the core curriculum (at 35 faculty members), program reviewers, senators and other countless committee members, I would have to name most of the faculty and take the rest of the evening. Instead, I’ll extend a thank you to you all.

Finally, for many of us, faculty and staff, life has improved considerably this past year as we made a bit of progress in our facilities and gained stability in our technological infrastructure. We’ve added five new faculty offices with the beautiful renovation of the Psychology Annex and will be creating more faculty offices and space for Jan Term over the summer. I think you’d agree, too, that it’s been a great first year for our chief technology officer, Peter Greco.

My last “thank you” is a very special and personal one to our president, Brother Ron, for bringing me to Saint Mary’s and supporting me for the past five years. It’s great to be here.

A few years back I asked the Committee on Teaching and Scholarship to build on the Professor of the Year tradition and propose additional recognition awards for faculty. They came up with four: Teaching, Service, Scholarship and Creative Activity, and Early Career Awards, each with a $5,000 stipend. The first year, there were so few applicants that we didn’t award them all. This year, the process was truly competitive and embraced by faculty; in case you didn’t hear, the winners were Cynthia Ganote for Teaching Excellence, Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo for Research, Rebecca Carroll for Service, and Keith Garrison for Early Career Achievement. And, of course, each year we recognize one particular individual for outstanding overall achievement whom we anoint: “Professor of the Year.” This past year we celebrated the achievements of Becky Proehl. Next year, the 2014 Professor of the Year will be Myrna Santiago.

We began this sesquicentennial year by looking back, searching for those foundational moments unique to the College and illustrative of our enduring mission. How did this particular constellation of Christian Brothers, who got their start in what we now call elementary and secondary education, move into tertiary education, blend it with liberal arts and world classics, divide into two communities on a small college campus, and then evolve into this thing we call Saint Mary’s College?

We know the College began with Christian Brothers giving immigrant boys career preparation infused with love and spiritual support, a blend of vocational training and faith encouragement. Over the generations, the Brothers increasingly recognized and cultivated the intellectual as well as professional development of their students.

As Saint Mary’s emerged from the first 100 years, two concurrent trajectories – the focus on transforming students through education, and the importance of shared discovery as a key to that transformation – came together. Now, at 150 years, we’ve become a place of discovery, shared by a diverse community of partners, intersecting faith and reason, and centered on students with the understanding that their discovery of a life worth living is our most important mission. We remain inspired by this mission and the courage and conviction of the Christian Brothers, which we all, as partners in this journey, have pledged to uphold and sustain. This foundational orientation of the College – shared inquiry, exemplified in diverse communities of conversation, and focused on student transformation – positions us well to meet the challenges of the next 150 years. Let’s look ahead with this conviction about our identity in mind as we consider two topics that continue to spin in discussions about the future of higher education: affordability and technology.    

Affordability must stay top of mind. Every time I see one of those headlines about student debt or soaring tuition, I look to see if Saint Mary’s is on the list. Earlier this month, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran the story, “Low-Income Students Pay High Net Prices at Many Colleges, Study Finds” (May 8, 2013). I scanned the table of private colleges, anxious that we’d make this particular list. I saw several familiar names: Boston College, St. Louis University, Saint Joseph’s University, Catholic University, Dayton, Stonehill, Santa Clara. No Saint Mary’s! Let’s keep it that way.           

And an email yesterday from the Chronicle noted that, in general, college and university presidents aren’t meeting the affordability challenges by renegotiating faculty contracts or reducing “the sticker price” of education. Rather, they’re focusing on fundraising and increasing revenue-generating programs.

We built some of those things into our Academic Blueprint, and they’ve been paying off. In the past few years we have doubled the number of scholarships for Jan Term travel, increased the number of graduate students and added graduate student scholarships, raised nearly 30 percent of the funding necessary for a new library, and developed new revenue-generating partnerships in leadership and business programs. And, consistent with our inclusive excellence efforts and at the initiation of one of our trustees, this past year we held the first Lavender Alumni Reception.

A final, crucial way to be more affordable is by keeping more of our students here, completing their degrees, before their financial aid runs out. That goes for both undergraduate and graduate students. It costs a lot more for us to recruit new students than to take care of the ones who are here, and there’s nothing more distressing than a student who leaves with a mountain of debt and no degree. So let’s continue to build a retention culture that advises students at every step of their academic journey, catches them before they fall, creates connections among academic programs, and expands their opportunities for success. Or maybe we should call it a commencement culture, one that focuses on getting students to commencement and prepared to start a new chapter in their lives.

I noted two hot topics in the future of higher education: affordability and technology. Often the latter, technology, is seen as a way to address the former, affordability. We’re getting better at using technology to become more effective and efficient in our business processes. At the same time, we know that infusing technological innovation in high-quality teaching tends to cost more, not less.

Rather than chasing the latest “disruptive innovation,” our energies are better spent advocating for the essential, enduring education that we know must be provided to students across income levels. The need for a Saint Mary’s education isn’t going to go away. In fact, leaders in technology industries continue to value learning in diverse communities and consider personal interaction to be essential to a great education. Over the past few months I’ve been talking to technology executives about our new library, and I’ve found that they’re searching for education that fosters human connection and a culture of collaboration. These senior leaders at places like Facebook, Symantec, and Intuit know this basic fact: they can have the most advanced technological tools in the world at their disposal, but without the skills and motivation to collaborate, the technology doesn’t matter. Nothing matches the vitality, creativity, and collaboration that comes from getting everyone in the same room, at the same time. When it matters, we still meet face-to-face. We will never give up that hallmark of a Saint Mary’s education.

We’ve also claimed a piece of the discussions about technology and online learning by inviting Michael Sandel, Harvard professor of justice, to speak on campus as part of our “Year of the Great(est) Conversation(s).” We could have simply required our students to enroll in his MOOC, or watched one of his lectures as a group. But we didn’t, because we know the difference between a MOOC and shared inquiry. We have innovators in every school, across disciplines, from our award-winning MBA programs to iPad-enhanced instruction in math and education. We have garnered acclaim for both our Collegiate Seminar pedagogy and our hybrid graduate programs.

At the same time, we can be perfectly clear that although we believe that good conversation can happen in many formats across space and time, that ideas can be exchanged in the publication of manuscripts across millennia, and that learning can be aided by online platforms and collaboration software, we also know that our distinctiveness, and the foundation on which this great university will continue to be built, is the campus of the Great(est) Conversation(s). We are thinkers, innovators, and creators who will be known for a blend of liberal learning, facilitated and opened up by technology, centered on the student experience, and motivated by faith seeking understanding.

Last year, I asked that we call the sesquicentennial the “Year of the Great(est) Conversation(s).” Now I’d ask us to consider ourselves becoming the “Campus of the Great(est) Conversation(s)” and continually showcase our academic distinctiveness as a “functioning model of what life can look like when first-rate intellectuals examine their faith, live their faith, and enjoy positive relationships in community with others who believe differently or not (at) all” (Dr. Richard Yanikoski, former president and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities). I will continue to sponsor two “Great(est) Conversation” events a year that address a great idea, include and synthesize perspectives from more than one discipline, create space for audience – and particularly student – participation, include a common “text,” and advance liberal learning by engaging in multiple modes of inquiry and demonstrating their impact in a diverse and digital world.

So here’s what’s on the horizon: Continuing the Great(est) Conversation(s). Building a culture of timely degree completion. Integrating technology throughout our curriculum in a distinctly Saint Mary’s way. Continuing the renovation march toward faculty offices and learning spaces. Supporting scholarship and creative activity, and fully realizing the inclusive community that this campus embraces. It’s a tall order, but nothing beyond our reach, and I’m with you all the way.

Beth Dobkin
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

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