Connection and Community

1. Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting two small luncheons for staff and faculty. I had just returned from the American Council on Education annual meeting, which included presentations by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, and Michael Mandelbaum, author of That Used to be Us. These presentations, along with our ongoing attention to technology planning, improving student retention and ensuring long-term sustainability, influenced my participation in those lunchtime discussions. I came away from them struck by the difference between being connected, accessible technologically and linearly, and being in community, sharing fully in the presence of others.
(Note: This Bulletin message illustrates my attempt to use an imperfect medium to combine personal reflection and news items. Readers primarily interested in updates on committee work can turn to paragraphs 4, 6, 7, and 8).            

2.  Our communal character was the subject of comments made by Dr. Richard Yanikoski, the 2011 Montini Fellow, whose remarks can be read in the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute publication, Veritas (March, 2012). In his lecture, Dr. Yanikoski addressed competing perspectives on individual freedom, institutional autonomy, community engagement, faith, intellect, and church authority. He referred frequently to Ex corde Ecclesiae, stating that it “explicitly recognizes the importance of both academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and it also specifically protects freedom of conscience and welcomes individuals who are not Catholic.” At the same time, the official document “provides very little guidance regarding how best to promote all these freedoms simultaneously” (p. 6).           

3. At Saint Mary’s, we increasingly exemplify shared engagement in deciding how to best live our mission. Dr. Yanikoski’s recommendation for us is already built into the fabric of our community: to “provide 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” (p. 10).  Perhaps an even greater challenge lies in ensuring that “others” are valued in their difference.                  

4. One important place for community dialogue about perspectives in tension is the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence (CCIE). The CCIE continues to review Cabinet-level planning, funding proposals, national conference presentations, and administration of the SMC Climate Survey. Last week’s meeting included a presentation by the “Hiring for Mission Task Force,” which spurred discussion of ways to ensure that all members of our community share a commitment to understanding and advancing our mission. At the heart of this project seems to be a concern that the dwindling physical presence of Christian Brothers on our campus may diminish our Catholic identity and leave us less able to guide our students’ development as their spiritual and intellectual journeys intersect. As the ensuing CCIE discussion demonstrated, the very conversations that we have about our Catholic identity – their intentionality, openness, inclusiveness, and intensity – mark the uniqueness of our campus community and the shared desire to “pry open some room in students’ lives for intellectual and spiritual quests of enduring value” (Yanikoski, p. 5).

5. To the untrained eye, grand statements about intellectual and spiritual quests may seem disconnected from the everyday education of our students. However, I see faculty and staff living these ideals in the classroom and the library, in working groups and committees, in the redesign of the Core Curriculum and in administrative and academic program reviews. The recommendations of the Undergraduate Student Success Task Force (SSTF) are consistent with such ideals as well, as we work to improve student persistence and timely graduation. The more we invest in the development of our students, the more likely they are to reap the benefits of our community.

6. The challenges are clear. Our four-year, freshman graduation rates dropped to an all-time low with the class that entered in Fall 2007, and the percentage of SMC freshman entrants reaching but not completing their senior year has grown over the past four years to almost 15% of the entering freshman class. Over a quarter of seniors deemed eligible to participate in commencement last spring did not complete their degrees. Thanks to the work of our Office of Institutional Research, we now know more than ever why students leave. Many of them simply do not become attached to our community; over 60% of students who leave in their first or second year for reasons other than academic difficulty cite “isolation” and “emotional problems” as factors. Students who struggle in either of the first two Collegiate Seminar courses are also less likely to stay; over half of those receiving F, D, W, or I grades in either of the first two Seminars were not retained.

7. We have begun to reverse the trend in four-year graduation rates, undoubtedly aided by increases in the academic preparation of new students and investments by faculty and staff in our First Year Experience programs and First Year Advising Cohorts. First- and second-year retention rates have improved significantly for the freshmen classes entering Saint Mary’s in fall 2009 and fall 2010, with nearly 87% of those freshmen classes having been retained for one year. Changes made by the SSTF should help ensure this trend continues. Among these changes are increasing the opportunities for faculty advising in New Student Orientation; allowing students who are on academic probation in a major to declare a new major; and, beginning in 2013, allowing students to participate in undergraduate commencement provided that no more than two courses or course credits remain in order to satisfy all degree requirements.

8. These changes have been made in consultation with academic administrators, staff, and faculty governance groups such as the Senate and Admissions and Academic Regulations Committee. Over the past few years and in a similarly consultative fashion, I have developed protocols and forms found on my web page that address various administrative processes, such as requests for faculty lines, banking of course reassignments, and deferral of sabbaticals. In each case, the new form or “Memorandum of Understanding” has been an attempt to make practices more transparent, consistent, evenly applied, and congruent with policies in the Faculty Handbook. The Academic Senate Chair, as a standing member of the Council of Deans, has participated in their construction and review, and in many instances, other faculty governance bodies, such as the Faculty Welfare Committee, have also been consulted. In coming weeks, the Senate is likely to review suggested protocols for approval of personal (non-scholarly and non-family or medical) leaves and a policy for workload accounting of ranked faculty that spans two years.

9. Despite the various levels of consultation, I understand the need for greater communication in the development and presentation of these changes. My routine dilemma is one presented at the beginning of this message: how to go beyond the linear, asynchronous forms of communication, such as email, and promote engagement consistent with the community we claim to be. Email, text messages, and podcasts are valuable media for conveying transactional and instrumental information, but they are easily lost, misunderstood, and can discourage dialogue. Would a weekly blog be useful? A monthly newsletter with updates on the work of key committees, institutional data, achievements and essays of faculty and staff? Both? Or something completely different?

10. I invite whatever suggestions you may have, in conversation over lunch, a phone call, or a private email ( I am often in awe of the very quality of intellectual solidarity evidenced in our “community of freedom” (Yanikoski, p. 8) and, with your help, hope to build and sustain it.


Beth Dobkin