On Shepherds and Stewards

In December, College leaders - Brother President Ronald Gallagher, Brother Stan Sobczyk, vice president of Advancement, and Ray Larkin, chairman of the board of trustees - came together with Executive Editor Barry Shiller to reflect on the year just ended, and how they see it directing a course for the future of the College. Excerpts from their conversation follow in the pages to come.

Shiller: Looking back on the last year, has it been what you anticipated?

BROTHER RON: I am now getting a much better idea of what we need to do and the challenges we face. This is a complicated institution! I have been pleasantly surprised by the warm reception I received throughout the Saint Mary's community - for example, at the reception in Sacramento last summer [see Saint Mary's Magazine, Winter 2005]. It impressed me to see the number of our alumni working at various levels of state and local government in positions of influence, and I think the alums were impressed with each other.

LARKIN: What has pleased me the most has been to see the College return to its core values. For years, the College was focused on mending fences and fixing problems. Now, to see the outstanding freshman class, the resurgence in athletics; whatever we're doing, we're doing it right.

BROTHER STAN: What's going to keep this place vital is to stay true to the mission and the emphasis on teaching. When alumni talk about the College, they are really talking about the teachers who inspired them. As De La Salle wrote, teachers should be guardian angels to the students, as good shepherds know their sheep. Just today, Brother Mel mentioned a 50-year-old student who felt that seminar had 'invigorated a part of his life that he didn't know he had.' One of the challenges for the College moving forward is to remember that half the student body is not 18 to 22 years old; graduate and non-traditional-age students make a major contribution to the vitality of the College.

LARKIN: In the last year and a half, we've also spoken more about the declining number of Brothers. They are the heart and soul of what makes SMC unique; but we all understand that 20 years from now, there will be far fewer Brothers. Given that, how do we protect the underlying values of the College? Keeping alums involved and hiring faculty, staff, administrators, and coaches who understand the mission will become ever more important.

BROTHER RON: That is a new challenge for the Brothers. Fifty years ago, there were around 40 Brothers teaching at Saint Mary's, and the College was much smaller. We didn't have to think about being the heart and soul of the mission; we just lived out our vocation. We now spend more time getting people invested in the mission. The College has done a wonderful job in this, particularly in the last 10 years, with Carole Swain's efforts to invite people into what we call the Lasallian formation process [see Saint Mary's Magazine, Fall 2005].

BROTHER STAN: The thing that strikes me about the mission is that we have a responsibility of stewardship, not just for the mission and the Institute, but to our donors. One of the ways to ensure that trust is to consistently turn on students who go on to lead ethical lives, based on the principles and values they learned here. It's what happens to students after graduation that is the ultimate test of a Saint Mary's education.

Shiller: What are the strategic priorities for the next several years?

BROTHER RON: When the College celebrates its sesquicentennial anniversary eight years from now, we would like to see a number of major projects completed, including the new School of Education building and new recreation facilities. On the short term, we've slated improvements to Oliver Hall and air-conditioning for classroom buildings for next summer, and we're looking at opening a short-term recreational center in some of our space in Rheem. As for academic planning, examining the curriculum is an important issue before the faculty right now. We also need to make better and wider use of our various institutes, like the Bishop Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, Culture and Action, and develop others. We need to find the resources to endow and enhance these and other educational programs. This spring, we will initiate a strategic planning process to identify other priorities.

Shiller: How can the College's alumni and friends contribute to meeting the College's strategic objectives?

BROTHER STAN: Students always come first. More than 20 percent of our students are on Cal Grants, so the question becomes: How do we keep Saint Mary's affordable and accessible? A few weeks ago, donors and scholarship recipients came together at a luncheon, and one student got up and said, 'I am one of seven children, and I couldn't have come to Saint Mary's if it hadn't been for the person sitting at that table. When I am his age, I will contribute to Saint Mary's to help a student stand up here and get the education that I got.' That is what Saint Mary's is about.

LARKIN: We have trustees who could barely afford to come here as undergraduates who have become very successful and now are eager to give back to the school. Recognize what you have taken away from the College and express gratitude by writing a check to the annual fund. And stay in touch - come see a basketball game, or baseball, or women's soccer. For the long term, we need help to build the endowment, to give us the freedom to stay focused on our core values.

BROTHER STAN: It is not just the matter of giving back to the College. The College can also offer advantages to alumni: networking possibilities, connecting with other people professionally and socially. The Jerome online community is one way to do that, and we need to expand into chat rooms and the like. I recently met an alum in Chicago who followed basketball statistics on our Web site more closely than most people on campus. That demonstrates how technology can help us connect people with the College.

Shiller: Imagine you are looking back on your term of service after 10 years or so. What would you like to say happened here?

BROTHER STAN: I would love to say that we, as a community, were able to have the resources to help economically disadvantaged kids get a quality SMC education and better their lot and that of their families. Because of my own personal background and training, I would also love to see our School of Education turning out first-rate teachers at the elementary, secondary, and even collegiate level who become the guarantors of the Lasallian tradition. After 40-plus years as a Christian Brother, to have our College continue to educate the poor and prepare outstanding teachers, would certainly make my life worthwhile.

LARKIN: I'd like to see that the mission of the College was not only preserved but enhanced, by the leadership, by the way we minister, teach, coach, and learn. In the short term, I would like to look back four years from now and say we got the new rec center built. That is one of the key things that our students lack, and, like it or not, it's a reason why kids will decide to go here or not.

BROTHER RON: What I would like to see is that you could walk on this campus and see the core traditions being lived out. I would like to see that we are publicly recognized as a superb institution. I'd also like to see first-rate facilities across the board (some of the residence halls are 75 years old), and activities that look at important issues, such as the events this fall around the "Inherit the Wind" performance and the symposium on Saint Mary, women's spirituality, and the arts. Most importantly, I would like to see our endowment triple so that students who can't afford it can come here, our programs are endowed for research and upkeep, and the intellectual and social and creative activity that ought to be going on at a place like this is ensured for the future.