Reflections on Our Common Purpose, Inspired by Brother Donald

One of the many gifts given to me by Brother Donald Mansir was the book, The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking, by James V. Schall.   “An intellectual life, a contemplative life, is itself filled with activity, but activity that is purposeful, that wants to know and to know the truth” (Schall, 4).  In the frenzy of activity, the reports to be written and read, memos to draft, meetings to attend and problems to solve, our common purpose can become obscured.  Honoring the spirit of Brother Donald and the lives of the Christian Brothers means keeping that purpose at our center.

As a campus community, we have been working harder than ever to create the best possible learning environment for our students.  The undergraduate Core Curriculum implementation process has been moving ahead, and faculty investment in Collegiate Seminar has been reenergized.  We completed the first cycle of a new Strategic Initiatives funding process, which brought increased staff and faculty support for the Core Curriculum Committee, operating funds for the Office of Institutional Research, the Intercultural Center and Performing Arts, and restoration of a position in Human Resources dedicated to staff development.

Implementation of the Academic Blueprint continues.  We are allocating the first collaborative research awards to graduate students; inaugurated the first academic center in the Kalmanovitz School of Education (KSOE), the Center for Environmental Literacy; expanded faculty development awards to include support for pedagogical innovation; and added student scholarships for January Term travel.  The Social Justice Coordinating Committee continues to map the integration of social justice into our curriculum.  Development of five-year, bachelor’s to master’s programs in Leadership and Accounting is moving quickly.  Work on a new technology strategic plan and the search for a new chief technology officer has commenced, marked by a clear focus on advancing learning, teaching, scholarly activity and administrative functions.  Redesign of Galileo and Dante is proceeding with the aim of increasing faculty office and student study spaces.  Finally, the Student Success Task Force has begun to identify strategies to improve retention and time to degree for undergraduates.

Our accreditation activities have also been time-consuming. The KSOE secured verbal reaffirmation of accreditation from the California Commission on Teaching Credentialing visiting team last month, and though improvements in some program elements are expected, the team commended the school for its clear Lasallian identity, devotion to students and progress in creating inclusive community.  The School of Economics and Business Administration received a positive report from an AACSB consultant, who viewed faculty productivity and curriculum development as demonstrating excellent progress toward achieving initial accreditation. At a national level, the Department of Education continues to pressure regional accreditors to increase accountability for learning outcomes and provide external benchmarks for student performance. As Brother President Ronald Gallagher and I learned at a recent retreat of the Association for Independent California Colleges and Universities, distinguishing private, not-for-profit universities from for-profit ones is critical, particularly given concern among legislators about low graduation and high loan default rates among students at for-profit educational institutions. 

Finally, the work of the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence continues to evolve.  When we formed the committee three years ago, co-chair Robert Bulman and I asked Brother Donald to be a member.  He objected at first, saying that he might “cause trouble” and certainly wouldn’t agree with me all the time. I responded that was all the more reason I wanted him on the committee. Brother Donald wrote about teaching as conversation, and learning as “a profound and dynamic communion of reciprocity and mutuality.” His life work of gathering differences within communities of hospitality exemplified the role of inclusion in his presentation of Catholic intellectual tradition. Inclusion requires liberal learning; “It is this exciting freedom to take into our souls what we are not, to take it in without changing or destroying what we take in, that constitutes the purpose of the liberal arts, which are designed to teach us how to be open to the various levels of being” (Schall, 37).

Brother Donald’s wisdom, support and encouragement helped the CCIE reach its current status as a standing, institutional committee with oversight of campus-wide development activities, resources to support initiatives across campus and a strategic planning process that will have widespread impact.

Since coming to Saint Mary’s, I have wanted to teach in the Collegiate Seminar, and this semester Seminar Director Charlie Hamaker has been my mentor in Greek Thought, generously including me in as much of the experience as the demands of my position allow. My participation in Seminar is less about experiencing the joys of teaching again than deepening my understanding of our students, core curriculum, pedagogical approaches to Seminar and the role of the Great Books in Catholic intellectual tradition. Here, again, I have found Schall’s writing instructive:  “Any adequate concept of ‘liberal arts’ and ‘liberal education’ would, to be intellectually complete and honest, have to attend to the Greek and Roman classical traditions, to the Hebrew and Christian revelation, to the patristic and medieval experience, and finally to modern claims, especially those arising from science and politics, even when they claim to be ‘autonomous.’” (27) As we continue to align our curriculum with agreed-upon learning objectives, we must maintain intellectual honesty while giving students the permission and opportunities to explore and learn from difference.

There is no better place to do this than at Saint Mary’s College. I truly believe that we share a common purpose, expressed in the Saint Mary’s College mission and, as Brother Donald wrote, embodied by people “committed to serious study, work(ing) for interdisciplinarity and integration of knowledge, and see(ing) teaching as a strategy to promote the common good.”  Though he has left us in body, his spirit will endure.

Bethami Dobkin