The First 100 Days: Remarks at the Year-End Dinner

This past weekend marked my 100th day as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Saint Mary's College of California. In my children's elementary schools, the first 100 days of the school year are celebrated with collections of 100 "things," such as pennies or buttons to be counted, or pictures that capture memories. At Saint Mary's College, my first 100 days have been punctuated by at least 100 voices, of students, faculty, staff, alumni, regents and trustees.

I would like to thank the so many people who have been willing to share their voices with me. Faculty like Gerry Capriulo, Armando Rendon, Brother Donald Mansir and their entourages of colleagues; Jennifer Heung, Sue Marston, Elaina Rose Lovejoy, Tom Poundstone and all of the other faculty who reached out, sat on the couch in my office and who were willing to say, "Wait a minute. There's something the faculty have been talking about, and you should know." And thank you to - well, this is starting to sound like an Academy Award acceptance speech. I'll save more "thank yous" for later.

Since I've been here, I've been asked repeatedly: "How do you like it here?" I still say, as I have from the beginning, that even with all of the challenges of these first 100 days, this is a dream job. And no, I didn't "drink the Kool-Aid."

What I've heard so far is just a beginning. But it's enough to give me a sense of where we've been, who we are and where we might go.

Of course I've memorized the mantra: Saint Mary's is a Catholic, Lasallian, liberal arts college. Or let's say it in reverse: liberal arts, Lasallian, Catholic. As the Brothers say in their District Plan, we are to provide "schools that are of the highest quality intellectually, communally, and spiritually… a demanding challenge, asking of us attention and creativity…. (Families) deserve access to the excellent education and spiritual sustenance that are consonant with their human dignity" (Reaching Out, 2007:8-10).

Catholic, Lasallian, liberal arts. Sounds simple, but the competing interpretations embedded in our identity are plentiful. Let me list a few: Liberal arts versus professional education, teaching the poor or elimination of poverty, tuition-driven or affordable, education as vocation or profession, community versus individual dignity, providence versus planning, formation as required or invited, old/new, love/hate, and perhaps most importantly: the College versus the "real world."

Now perhaps the greatest thing, the tie that binds our identity, that makes us more relevant in the contemporary world than ever before, is our emphasis on synthesis, integration and transformation. In the synthesis of the trinity - Catholic, Lasallian, Liberal Arts - we find our future. Brother Antonio Botana writes (by the way, I'm a good student - this comes from the reading for Tuesday's "Soup and Substance): "We must read the original history as a myth, trying to understand what goes beyond the historical details and what has relevance for us now…." (in Kopra, 2007:37).

So let's consider, for a moment, what emerges from the integration of our competing identities:

*Liberal arts versus professional education becomes inspired pragmatism and innovation.

*Teaching the poor versus elimination of poverty becomes alleviating social inequity through educating the marginalized and changing the conditions that cause such inequity.

*Tuition-driven versus affordable becomes a sort of distributive justice. The District Action Plan states, "As educators, we serve both families with means and families without means, and we know that both those who are comfortable and those who are marginalized are in need of truly transformative education based upon the message of God's love" (Reaching Out 2007:7). We serve all.

*Education as vocation or profession becomes Brothers working with lay partners -and none of us is in it for the money.

*Community versus individual dignity becomes unity in diversity. We start with the recognition expressed by Brother Botana that: "Each person enters our Lasallian world at a different starting point and with different life experiences" (in Kopra 2007:37).

*Providence versus planning becomes structured flexibility (sounds a bit like ordered chaos).

*Formation as required rather than invited enables us, as Archbishop Miller recently urged, to embark on the search for truth grounded in faith, open to the transcendent, while preserving openness and engagement with other faith traditions (Miller, 2008).

Our standards are clear. We know that "Catholicity and the rigorous intellectual pursuits proper to the university belong together" (Miller, 2008). As Brother Edgar Hengemule writes:"We will stand for academic excellence. And we will do this with updated programs, efficient and scientifically grounded methodologies, the use of available technologies, the guarantee of the necessary material infrastructure, rigorous evaluations, efficient management, the defense of our institutional autonomy, the guarantee of academic freedom, and, most of all, the competence of our professors" (in Franz, 2007). Now there's an academic mission!

Our history, our mantra brings us to the intellectual search for "the whole truth about nature, (humans), and God, faith open to reason and reason open to faith" (Miller, 2008). Our search is grounded in scholarly inquiry, sometimes in pursuit of disciplinary knowledge, evidenced by what we achieve and the influence we have both in and beyond our community. Our and scholarly and creative activity exemplifies the quality and habits of mind that we expect from our students.

We advance knowledge and the pursuit of truth, we commit to the poor, we invest in student success, we promote social justice through transformation of people, processes and structures. We do these things because we are the synthesis that arises from the mantra. We must know who we are, and also dream about what more we could be.

I've seen much in my first 100 days that forecasts our future. I have seen ambitious work to enhance our intellectual climate and ensure student success. I have been impressed by the student work in places like the Collegiate Seminar's publication of "The Undergraduate," the Philosophy Club's "Deliberations," and the engaged pedagogy evident in service learning and community-based research. I would like to congratulate our admissions officers, who project an entering class with both a record number of underrepresented and honors students at entrance. Additionally 25 percent of the class will be Pell-eligible. Yesterday, our Senate approved a 4-year honors program, shepherded by Drs. Frances Sweeney, Frank Murray, Mary Volmer and many others. Thank you to them, and to the more than 70 first-year faculty advisors. These faculty will enter into a mentoring relationship with students and offer them an experience which will introduce them to college life and their responsibilities within it.

I've seen fundamental excellence and a strengthened identity in our graduate and professional programs. Our graduate programs are student-centered, often with diverse students, and always with a commitment to addressing social injustice. We will seek endowed scholarships for our graduate students to maintain academic quality and diversity in our programs. I look forward to the new leadership of our Graduate Council, now chaired by Dr. Chris Sindt, and the creative collaboration that might be possible in our new School of Education. Our colleagues in the School of Economics and Business Administration are bringing us innovative and globally conscious programs. However, more than the daring of their programs, I have been impressed by the openness of their hearts and their commitment to collegiality.

I've also seen incredible enthusiasm and interest in creating an inclusive learning community at Saint Mary's College. Thank you to the faculty who have empowered students to share their voices with the rest of us, so that we may learn from their experiences. Thank you, in advance, to the dozens of faculty who made commitments during our "Pathways to Inclusion" Forum, commitments to serve as mentors to students and other faculty; to facilitate and participate in difficult community dialogues; to organize and implement professional development workshops in teaching, learning and intercultural communication; to develop policies and procedures for handling incidents of intolerance; and to assess our diversity requirement to ensure that it furthers our pursuit of inclusive excellence. These commitments and others will be advanced by our new College Committee on Inclusive Excellence, to be chaired with me and Dr. Robert Bulman and to be supported by an operating budget of $100,000.

So when people say, "I'll bet you didn't know what you were in for when you took this job," they're right. I'm still not entirely sure. But the expertise is here, the energy is here, and the readiness to dream again is here. And I do think that the holy presence of God is here, "free(ing) us to look for the good and redeeming qualities of others" (Kopra, 2007:26).

And here's where we are poised to go with all of this. Brother Ronald Gallagher has said that we "aspire to be known nationwide for the strength of our academic programs as well as the distinctiveness of our curriculum." Our academic programs will be strong because we will promote scholarly inquiry; we support, validate and celebrate the accomplishments of our colleagues. Our programs will be strong because we will cross boundaries, synthesize, integrate, use our research to change the world. Our programs will be recognized for the access we offer to diverse learners, the quality of intellectual and spiritual engagement we provide throughout our community, and for the contributions of our graduates in making the world a better place.

Our curriculum will be distinctive for what it is and what it does. If we truly want to advance liberal learning in a distinctive way, one that brings together critical thinking and storytelling, problem-solving and empathy, linear logic and creativity, we need to understand the difference our students bring and let it influence the way we teach. Our students often come to us either trained in receiving knowledge and searching for its representation on a multiple choice test, or imbued with the gift of waxing eloquently and engagingly about nothing. In My Freshman Year, Rebekah Nathan (2005) writes about the challenge for some students when asked to "say what they think."

"Professors are always asking what you think of this and think of that,' maintained one Japanese student. "It's great, but it's scary when you're not used to this." One Korean woman remarked to me, "Everything here is, ‘What do you want? What do you think? What do you like?' Even little children have preferences and interests. I hear parents in restaurants. They ask a three-year old child, ‘Do you want French fries or potato chips?' Every little kid in this country can tell you, ‘I like green beans but not spinach, I like vanilla but not chocolate, and my favorite color is blue.' They're used to thinking that way." (82)

The beauty of our curriculum is its capacity to transform both the student who needs the freedom to think boldly and uniquely, and the student who needs to be grounded in good reasons. We are distinct in what we do; we invite academically strong, intellectually curious, and diverse students with a conscience into learning relationships, we cultivate the connections among faith, reason, zeal, and compassion, and we prepare students to change the world, to make it a better place.

And, in our spirit of synthesis, we will transform students through engagement with inclusive and non-traditional learning opportunities. We will model collaborative inquiry. We will promote the use of technological innovation for student self-discovery. We will provide increasingly robust opportunities for experiential and pre-professional learning, bringing the College and "real world" together. We will celebrate and support collaboration in teaching and research, in student/faculty scholarship and creative works, in leadership and teamwork, and in modeling crucial conversations in our community.

But don't worry about all of that right now. Finish giving and grading your exams, immerse yourself in scholarly and creative pursuits, enjoy time with your friends and family, go a little wild, and have a lot of fun. I'll be around, working on ways to start summer school by June 2009 and ways to consolidate and generate funds for faculty teaching and scholarships. I'll be pouring over personnel, course load and budget data to look for alternative ways to enhance course offerings and support innovative teaching, so that faculty can teach to their strengths without fearing low enrollments. I'll be dreaming up sales pitches to prospective donors for our learning resource center, endowed chairs and professors, and scholarships for international study.

I'll be doing all of this, but it might get a little lonely. Come by and see me sometime.

Works Cited

Botana, Antonio FSC. In Kopra, G. (2007). "The power and relevance of the Lasallian heritage today." MEL Bulletin 25, Brothers of the Christian Schools, Rome, Italy.

Franz, Craig J. FSC (2007). Reflections on Lasallian higher education. St. Mary's Press, Winona, MN.

Miller, Michael CSB (2008). "What makes a Catholic higher education distinctive?" John F. Henning Institute and The Bishop John S. Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, Culture Inaugural Lecture, April 5, 2008.

Nathan, Rebekah (2005). My freshman year: What a professor learned by becoming a student. Cornell Press, Ithaca, NY.

Reaching out, touching hearts: The Brothers of the Christian Schools, District of San Francisco Action Plan 2007-2011 (2007). De La Salle Institute, Napa, CA.