A Remarkable Year: The Strategic Plan in Action

With Saint Mary’s last fiscal year in our rearview mirror, looking back, it is clear the year was marked by a variety of notable accomplishments.




Among the many highlights over the past year was a $2.7 million Hispanic Serving Institutions Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (HSI STEM) and Articulation program grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Awarded in the fall, the federal grant supports Caminos a Las Ciencias (CALC): Pathways to Science. The strategic initiative is grounded in the strengths-based educational approach employed in the College’s successful High Potential Program, and is designed to significantly enhance and expand the curriculum and resources offered to Saint Mary’s Hispanic and low-income students.

School of Science Dean Roy Wensley, who served as the principal investigator and project lead for CALC, said, “The STEM grant helped fund key student services, faculty and curriculum development and assisted in the founding of an important new STEM Center. In addition to a study space, computer workstations and chemistry, math and physics tutoring services, the new center provides aspiring scholars of color with a welcoming place to pursue their interest in STEM.” “Our mission is to improve the outcomes for these students,” said Ameer Thompson, director of the CALC program. “Every student who comes to Saint Mary’s and wants to study science should have a chance to do so.” 

The year would also prove to be a notable one for Saint Mary’s advancement efforts. The College’s impressive fundraising efforts were underscored by a December gift of $1.6 million for the College’s new Library & Learning Commons facility. Vice President for Advancement Lisa Moore '96 said, “The generous donation came from an anonymous donor who wanted to be an early investor in the Commons, which will support SMC students’ rigorous academic experience and serve as the intellectual, social, and collaborative hub of the College.”

In early winter, educational opportunities at SMC increased even more as a result of a $224,694 award from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The funding supports the development of INSTEP, a new undergraduate special education teacher preparation program. A partnership between the Justice, Community and Leadership program in the School of Liberal Arts, the Teacher Education Department in the Kalmanovitz School of Education, and Los Medanos Community College, the initiative establishes an innovative transfer program where after completing two years of instruction at Los Medanos, aspiring educators can complete two years at Saint Mary’s and graduate with a liberal arts BA in Justice, Community and Leadership and an Education Specialist credential. The program is scheduled to launch in fall 2018.

December also marked the launch of the College’s new two-year marketing campaign, led by Vice Provost for Enrollment and Communication Hernan Bucheli. The marketing initiative featured headline-driven branding messages highlighting Saint Mary’s as a top-tier institution of higher education. The bold digital and outdoor ads championed the College’s academic reputation in a contemporary style, and targeted Bay Area commuters at BART stations, on Bay Bridge on-ramp billboards, and with County Connection bus wraps. The initiative included an eye-catching new 30-second institutional commercial that was featured during the College’s televised athletic events, including men’s basketball, and across all of Saint Mary's digital media platforms. The comprehensive marketing campaign helped to stamp a memorable imprint on the collective consciousness of the Bay Area and, as a result, the branding effort would have a considerable impact on enrollment for fall 2017.

Even while the academic year was displaying vibrancy, Saint Mary’s leadership recognized that the state’s higher education environment was becoming increasingly volatile. Colleges and universities—particularly smaller, independent, private, tuition-driven schools—were facing declining enrollments and tighter budgets. At the same time, California’s state universities were experiencing enrollment growth, the UCs by some 10,000 students. And, with affordability a critical issue for students and families, the ability to provide robust financial aid packages in order to compete with other institutions had become increasingly significant. It was clear that SMC needed to prepare for the challenges affecting liberal arts institutions in California, and across the nation. In keeping with strategic commitments to ensure that Saint Mary’s remained on firm financial ground, a cross section of SMC community groups, which included faculty, staff, students, senior administrators, and consultants, gathered in January to examine opportunities to ensure affordability and support greater innovation and efficiency in the College’s operations.

Meanwhile, ever in pursuit of supporting the academic distinctiveness of the College, Saint Mary’s held its third annual Faculty Scholars' Reception. At the mid-February celebration, which celebrated support of faculty research and scholarship, 10 faculty members were granted research awards, ranging from $7,500 to $9,000. 

Also in February, the nation’s eyes would focus on the remarkable success story of Mahershala Ali ’96. The SMC alumnus, who launched his acting career on the stage of Saint Mary’s LeFevre Theater, won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in the film Moonlight, which also won best picture. The critically acclaimed actor had picked up a Screen Actors Guild award for his Moonlight character a month earlier. In his Academy Award acceptance speech, he thanked all of his acting teachers, which made SMC Theater Professor Rebecca Engle—Ali’s first drama teacher—beam with pride. The two would reunite shortly for a very special occasion.  

In March Ali returned to campus to meet with students from the High Potential and performing arts programs and former professors. He also hosted a Moonlight screening, followed by an onstage Q&A session with Engle. Inspired by Ali's visit, the College established a new $30,000 Moonlight Scholarship, funded by private donors, to honor four rising HP seniors and two incoming first-year students.

Arguably, March Madness for SMC started a month earlier. In a February report about ESPN's primetime spotlight of the Gaels versus rival Gonzaga, the San Francisco Chronicle called Saint Mary's the nation's basketball capital, at least for one day. The story “St. Mary's spotlight dimmed by loss to Gonzaga," noted the huge fan turnout in support for the men’s basketball team, which included a free pancake breakfast and barbecue for students.  SMC’s enthusiasm for the team continued with the men’s basketball team’s March celebration of a NCAA Tournament bid—the first since the 2012-2013 season—in front of fans and media during a Selection Sunday Watch Party in McKeon Pavilion. The 7th-seeded Gaels went on to defeat the 10th-seeded VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) Rams before falling short against the second-seeded Arizona Wildcats in the second round of the Big Dance. The Gaels (29-5) finished the season with the highest win percentage in SMC’s program history, and tied their record with the single most wins.

Returning the focus to the financial stability of the College, President Donahue announced the Voluntary Separation Incentive Program (VSIP) for qualified employees. Structured to recognize the loyalty and contributions of SMC staff and faculty, and consistent with the College’s Lasallian Catholic values, the VSIP initiative offered eligible employees substantial incentives and transitional support to separate from the College. The program was one of several measures implemented to align the College’s infrastructure and operating costs with the size and scope of SMC’s student population and programs that serve them.

April highlights included another well-deserved honor for Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry Brenda Hillman. The SMC English professor was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Founded in 1780, the American Academy is one of America’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers. A nationally celebrated poet, Hillman was among 288 new members inducted into the Academy; they included international and national scholars, artists, philanthropists, and business leaders.  The month also saw a campus wide recognition of Philosophy and Integral Professor Steven Cortright. Faculty, staff, and alumni packed into the Soda Center to celebrate his selection as 2017 Professor of the Year. President Jim Donahue introduced Cortright and gave a glowing account of his contributions to Saint Mary’s. During his tenure, Cortright has given “wise leadership” to the College, Donahue said. He has introduced “innovative philosophy classes” within the Philosophy Department and he has contributed while still “advancing his own scholarship.”

April included a notable recognition at the annual Visionary of the Year gala, co-sponsored by the School of Economics and Business Administration and the San Francisco Chronicle. Priscilla Chan, Bay Area philanthropist, pediatrician, and wife of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, was honored at the third annual event. The Visionary award program nominates six forward-thinking Bay Area leaders working to improve the lives of people everywhere. An audience of about 200 from the Bay Area’s social, financial, and political scene including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, former Secretary of State George Shultz along with President Donahue and SEBA Dean Zhan Li, gathered in San Francisco’s War Memorial and Performing Arts Center to celebrate Chan for her philanthropic efforts toward addressing shortfalls in health care availability and educational opportunities for children in need.

During De La Salle Week, the weeklong celebration of the life of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, patron saint of teachers, founder of the Christian Brothers and SMC‘s Lasallian heritage, Saint Mary’s recognized Brother Peter Bray, FSC, EdD, vice chancellor of Bethlehem University, the first university established in Palestine and the only Christian University in the Holy Land. Brother Peter received an honorary degree at the College’s annual Convocation. Donahue said Saint Mary’s was extremely honored by Brother Peter’s visit. “Brother Peter’s role as the vice chancellor at Bethlehem University reminds us as educators that regardless of what happens outside of this campus, the education of our students is our utmost priority.”

In addition to the Convocation, the College held its second annual Lasallian Research Symposium, which featured several Saint Mary’s faculty presenting on topics such as examining trauma in former foster youth who are now parents, and exploring self-acceptance through the performing arts. Other mission-related highlights included the national coverage of SMC’s new Interfaith Sacred Space, which was the subject of a lengthy profile in the spring 2017 issue of De La Salle Today, the Christian Brothers Conference national publication.

April included another achievement for the College. 1Day1SMC for 2017 was the most successful effort of its kind for Saint Mary’s. A record number of donors—1,910 in all—made up of alumni, faculty staff, students, and friends of the College, gave $341,675, setting records, and unlocking all of the challenge gifts proposed during the one-day fundraising initiative. The 24-hour philanthropic event was just a part of the overall success the College saw with its advancement efforts. Saint Mary’s received more than $13.7 million in philanthropic gifts for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, reflecting an 85 percent increase from the previous year. The remarkable growth in giving was made possible thanks to the loyal support of alumni, parents, faculty, staff, students, and generous friends of the College.

May also included news of stronger connections between SMC and the town of Moraga. Town council members unanimously approved the College’s Master Plan—which was five years in development—displaying both confidence and sense of an ongoing partnership between Saint Mary’s and the local community.

As the fiscal year wound down, Saint Mary’s recognized the achievements of the College’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional studies students at the 2017 commencement ceremonies. The celebration featured hopeful messages from undergraduate commencement speaker John Diaz, an award-winning journalist and editorial page editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, and graduate and professional studies commencement speaker Deborah Richardson MA ‘13, an inspiring alumna and human rights crusader with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The duo challenged the graduating class to reject polarization in society, and to stand against injustices for the common good of their communities and the nation.

While the College was confronted with challenges to ensuring stability, affordability and the realization of the goals within the strategic plan, the fiscal year ended with clear signs of institutional health, and financial and academic vitality. Saint Mary’s Board of Trustees approved operating and capital budgets of $126 million for 2017-2018. The budgets reflected operational savings of $7.6 million as a result of 38 staff, nine faculty, and 18 reduced-services faculty members participating in the College’s Voluntary Separation Incentive Program. Additionally, while the College’s enrollment projection for the upcoming year originally forecast the number of freshmen at 615 and transfers at 160, first-year student deposits ran well ahead of those estimates. The incoming class would prove to be one of the largest first-year classes within the last five years, with 650 first-year and 161 transfer students.

The success of the enrollment effort can be attributed, in part, to the interest generated in SMC by the College’s branding campaign. As a result of the external outreach, the number of people visiting the SMC website increased by 25 percent between December 2016 and April 2017. Additionally, the total number of ad impressions—that’s how many times people have seen SMC ads anywhere, from the Bay Bridge to social media—was 72.6 million, which is roughly the combined population of Washington, California, and New York.

Overall, the past fiscal year reflected many examples of strategic accomplishment, academic distinction, and Saint Mary’s unwavering commitment to its Lasallian Catholic mission. It was a remarkable year that underscored both the distinctive excellence and resilience of the College.