Spring 2019 Faculty Address

Good Evening,

It’s great to be here tonight for my second spring address to the faculty at Saint Mary’s. I’m glad you all could join me at this crazy time of year.

I want to start by thanking Executive Assistant to the Provost Linda Ryerson, who made tonight happen.

I would also like to extend a special “thank-you” to the leaders who have served in interim capacities this year to help us through some big transitions:

  • J. Michael Thompson, Interim Vice Provost for Enrollment and Communications
  • Mary Kay Moskal, Interim Dean in the Kalmanovitz School of Education
  • Yung-Jae Lee, Interim Dean of the School of Economics and Business Administration
  • Lauren MacDonald, Interim Dean, Library and Academic Resources
  • Shawny Anderson, Special Assistant to the Provost

It has been an amazingly eventful year, with a countless number of task forces and new initiatives, as well as changes and transitions. We’ve also faced some challenges and had some difficult conversations. In spite of that, we’ve continued to do our work and do it successfully.

I’ll focus on just a few highlights and accomplishments this year:

  • We’ve received some important external recognition:
    • Money magazine ranked Saint Mary’s among the Top 20 Most Transformative Colleges, which recognizes colleges whose students do far better than would be expected for students from their academic and economic backgrounds
    • The WASC Senior College and University Commission accepted our Interim Report with no further interventions until our next reaccreditation review, and
    • The School of Economics and Business Administration (SEBA) was reaccredited for five years with AACSB
  • We received a $1M National Science Foundation (NSF) S-STEM grant, which will provide student scholarships and summer research programming for incoming first-year students.
  • With the support of its advisory board, the School of Science has raised more than $800,000 in endowment and annual funds to support student research with faculty.
  • We successfully launched the EMBA China program and the Women’s Executive Leadership Certificate.
  • The School of Liberal Arts launched a new scholarship program to support students’ participation in internships with non-profit and public sector employers. And the first six scholarship recipients were just announced.
  • We launched the Academic Growth and Innovation Fund, which supported 10 innovative programs or initiatives that have the potential to yield $3 million in new net revenue within the next three years
  • We hired 12 new, incredibly accomplished faculty colleagues who will join us in August. 
  • We are sending our graduates off to top-notch PhD programs, medical schools, and law schools.
  • We have had a very successful year of fundraising, and we are less than $4 million shy of achieving the $125 million goal of our Comprehensive Campaign, Defining the Future: The Campaign for Saint Mary’s.

Two particularly special moments stand out for me—having Mahershala Ali ’96 here for the screening of Green Book, and the Professor of the Year event honoring KSOE Professor Joan Peterson.  And speaking of the Professor of the Year, I am thrilled to announce the 2019–’20 recipient, Dr. Ken Brown from the Department of Chemistry!

Now on to the main part of my talk. In the good Catholic custom, I have structured my talk around three themes—Miracles, Tradition & Evolution, and Collaboration.

Miracles

Some of you have heard me refer to Saint Mary’s as a truly remarkable place. What I mean by that is that the College has been able to accomplish surprisingly wonderful things, particularly for our students.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way. At a recent Board of Trustees Student Life Committee meeting, I overheard Brother Thomas Jones say about Saint Mary’s, “Little miracles happen here all the time.”

Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • María Elena Durazo, who was one of 11 children born to migrant worker parents, graduated from Saint Mary’s, earned a law degree, was the executive vice president of UNITE-HERE International, and was recently sworn in as a California state senator.
     
  • Mahershala Ali grew up in Oakland and came to Saint Mary’s in the High Potential Program.  Since graduating from Saint Mary’s, he’s had a successful film career and won two Oscars. He also established the Moonlight Scholarships, which benefit students in the HP Program.

Of course, these don’t meet the technical definition of “miracle,” in the sense of surpassing all known human or natural powers. But I would say these are examples of God at work in people—people with a deep commitment to the Lasallian, Catholic, liberal arts mission of the College. Saint John Baptist de La Salle himself used the word miracle to describe the kind of transformational work we do with students.

Tradition & Evolution

This good work we’re doing, leading to great outcomes for our students, is inspired by our Lasallian Catholic tradition.

“Tradition” is a tricky word. The more formal definition is about identity and beliefs. We’ll call this tradition with a capital “T.”  The informal definition is about practices and doing things “the way we’ve always done them.”  Sometimes, people mistake the latter with the former. A great example is the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye is agonizing over whether it was okay that his daughter chose her own husband. Tradition was very important to him, but was his daughter’s action in opposition to Tradition with a capital “T”?

Tradition with a capital “T” is enduring, whereas customs and practices change over time, usually in response to changes in the environment.  Saint Mary’s and the Christian Brothers have certainly made changes in response to changing times and circumstances. In fact, it traces back to Saint John Baptist de La Salle, whose spirituality has been called “mystic realism.” He didn’t avoid the practical but embraced it. And he certainly did not shy away from change.

This sense of pragmatism has led the Christian Brothers to evolve their methods and practices in education across the generations. This evolution has been a hallmark of Saint Mary’s College. We began in San Francisco, moved to Oakland, and in 1928 moved to the hills of Moraga. Our curriculum has evolved over time as well. One can only imagine the debates around the introduction of the Great Books curriculum in 1940 or when Saint Mary’s decided to admit women for the first time.

Saint Mary’s finds itself at another period of challenge and opportunity, as the landscape of higher education has been changing incredibly rapidly around us. The number of traditional college-bound students is declining. People’s perceptions of the value of higher education are changing.  Many of the students coming to college in the 21st century are approaching higher education with more of a career-oriented focus, and they are from populations who were previously underrepresented in higher education. New forms of competition are emerging, and there is strong pressure from families, accreditors, and legislators for colleges to contain costs.

These are challenges that demand a response in order to ensure our survival into the future. 

As the saying goes, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” –Will Rogers

And unfortunately, many colleges and universities have been “run over.”  Since 2016, 65 private not-for-profit colleges have closed or merged. Most are smaller and have less robust endowments than Saint Mary’s. They’re the canaries in the coal mine. And, they offer a lesson.  Many of them weren’t proactive and waited too long to make necessary changes.

Because we are in a position of relative strength, given our endowment and the progress we’ve made in improving our bottom line, we have the opportunity to be proactive and be intentional and strategic in how we respond. 

And we are trying to be proactive. Several groups, including the BAR Task Force, the Academic Senate, and the Council of Deans, are exploring ways we can be more efficient with our resources; identifying opportunities for additional revenue; and experimenting with innovative programs and initiatives that could not only yield new net revenue but also enhance our quality and distinctiveness.

We have already made progress. As I mentioned earlier, through the Academic Growth and Innovation Fund, we have supported 10 innovative programs or initiatives that have the potential to yield $3 million in new net revenue within the next three years.

In addition, a faculty task force has been analyzing data on instructional costs and examining factors that impact those costs. One of the task force’s proposals has been acted on by the Senate, and the task force will continue its work next year.

Our efforts to respond to external challenges will require us to not only try new things but to do our current work differently. But of course, we all know that change is hard. How many of us have struggled to make changes in our personal lives like exercising more, losing weight, eating less meat, or using less gasoline? Old habits die hard. But we have the advantage of coming from a tradition that knows how to adapt without losing its essential identity and values.

Here is how I like to think about it. We are a college that’s on the move but hasn’t forgotten where it came from.

Collaboration

But we can’t adapt as an institution through individual efforts. It would be like trying to change the direction of a cruise ship with one small paddle.  We need to collaborate—across departments, across schools, across the faculty-administration divide. Like change, collaboration is not always easy. It can be complicated. It can take more time and effort. Sometimes, there are structural barriers. It requires trust. In other words, it won’t happen automatically; it has to be very intentional. And, I’ve seen some great examples of intentional collaboration this year:

  • Our faculty working together: The Rank and Tenure Task Force
  • Collaborating across schools: The new master’s in Biotechnology
  • Collaborating across the faculty-administration divide:
    • The Senate Executive Committee meeting with Senior Administration
    • The Faculty Salary Policy Task Force
    • The Shared Governance Task Force

At this moment, we have opportunities for adaptation that will support and improve collaboration by clarifying and aligning processes across campus.  We have opportunities for improving transparency and the way we communicate.

And by clarifying and improving processes and fostering transparency and better communication, we can build trust.  And trust is the key. If we can trust each other, then it will be much easier to engage in the kind of creative and collective problem solving we need to do sustain the College for another 150 years. It won’t happen overnight, but we are starting to take the necessary steps to get there. 

 

As my talk draws to a close, I would like to share some words from Bernie Orsi, class of ’65 and Trustee of the Kalmanovitz Charitable Foundation. He said, “In Saint Mary’s, God created a very special place on this Earth. The College’s work with future generations should and must be sustained.”

As I noted earlier, we are facing challenges in sustaining the College’s work. You might feel overwhelmed or even helpless in light of those challenges. But there is something that every one of you can do to contribute to the collective effort, even if it’s very small. 

As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Let’s keep moving forward, together.

Thank you.

Margaret Kasimatis
Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs