Building on the Best of Who We Are

Welcome back from the Thanksgiving holiday. The months leading up to this brief respite were filled with activity, and in the weeks ahead we will likely resume the pace.

We have made substantial progress in many areas, with much work ahead. Our WASC Special Visit showcased the willingness and ability of our community to address our challenges openly and honestly, and to affirm our commitment to achieving inclusive excellence. We could not have achieved so much so quickly without the work of those who participated in the process thus far and helped prepare the special visit report: Robert Bulman, Jane Camarillo, Tom Carter, Mary McCall, Rebecca Proehl, Myrna Santiago, Christopher Sindt and Frances Sweeney.

I also appreciate the time, talent and energy being invested in our deans' searches and searches for the Dean of Admissions and Director of Institutional Research. These key searches, while critical for the functioning of the College, occur at a time of persistent economic uncertainty. We know that our past pattern of substantial annual tuition increases is no longer sustainable. We have experienced an anticipated, and hopefully temporary, enrollment drop in undergraduates, increased need for financial assistance and little growth in select programs. Our net tuition revenue will increase only if we build on the nature and quality of our programs to improve our reputation, thereby attracting greater economic diversity and ability among entering students, and if we improve student success and time to graduation for all of our students.

The Academic Blueprint 2020 will address these needs and outline a strategy for achieving distinctiveness over the next ten years. The Academic Blueprint Task Force(ABTF) includes faculty and staff who deserve special recognition for their participation in crafting a draft document for community review: Michael Beseda, Jerry Bodily, Jane Camarillo, Dean Elias, Tomas Gomez, Jennifer Heung, Sam Lind, Brother Mark McVann, Myrna Santiago, Frances Sweeney, Ed Tywoniak, Chris Ray and Steve Woolpert have all been indispensable.

Although there are important operational objectives that must be achieved in the coming decade, many of which are presented in the Building on Strengths Plan, the blueprint focuses on our academic identity and positions the College as a future leader in teaching and learning for innovation and collaboration that advances social justice. Our mission and values are enduring; as a liberal arts, Catholic, and Lasallian institution, we have been and will remain committed to liberating through education, connecting intellectual and spiritual journeys, affirming the Christian understanding of the human person, and bringing diverse people to grow together in knowledge, wisdom and love. We continue to value a high-quality education, faith in the presence of God, inclusive community, respect for all persons, and concern for the poor and social justice.

Our mission gives us purpose, and our values will remain constant regardless of who our students are or which academic programs we offer. At the same time, we understand that our students come to us with their own needs and aspirations, which must shape the way we fulfill our mission and live our values if we are to practice what we believe. We must seek to understand their unique experiences, perspectives and aspirations, and allow them to inform the direction of our academic programs and services, not just based on anecdotes or impressions, but guided by assessment data and relevant research. For instance, according to recent student and faculty surveys of Student Engagement (NSSE & FSSE), our students' reports of their educational experience doesn't match very well the perceptions our faculty have of that same experience. Our undergraduate students are not only challenged academically, but stressed and feeling disconnected; they have high hopes for engagement with faculty, but this enthusiasm wanes, rather than grows, during the course of their college career. Based on data from a recent survey of our graduate and professional students, we know that graduate students, perhaps even more than the undergraduates, need much greater attention given to career and placement services. And while graduate students have less interest than undergraduates in athletic or recreational facilities, both graduate and undergraduates increasingly use and are interested in outstanding library services.

Many of these and other challenges are operational, for instance, in providing basic services to students, or designing physical spaces that enhance a sense of community, or having Internet access across campus. Our academic vision must go beyond the operational; our academic programs must be innovative, relevant and distinctive. This may require more collaborative teaching and research, study abroad, internship and field experiences, and opportunities to achieve learning goals in radically different ways. We must embrace distinctiveness as an institution, differences as professionals in our roles and responsibilities, and uniqueness in the experiences and perspectives our students bring to us.

After considering our mission and values, our planning documents and discussions, and our unique strengths at this point in Saint Mary's history, the ABTF has identified the following directions for the next decade: engage with the global community, promote learning and teaching for innovation and collaboration, and build leadership that advances social justice. These three directions will form the basis of the Academic Blueprint 2020, and each direction will include strategies to achieve them. There may be other valuable ways to achieve progress, and the ABTF will be open to considering those that capture the imagination and commitment of faculty and staff.

Our Academic Blueprint is designed to take us into the next decade with focus, commitment and distinction, building on the best of who we are while preserving the authenticity of our mission. And while we keep one eye on the future, the other must be on our students of today, building connections with them and creating a world of possibility for them.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the road ahead. Best wishes for a holiday season filled with faith, hope and love.