Faculty-Staff Institute Talk, August 2011

 

By Dr. Larry Goodwin

Each year we examine one of the core values that define our culture here at the College.  Our value this year is hospitality.

We've defined hospitality as follows:  "Creating a welcoming atmosphere personally and institutionally.  Listening and responding sensitively to all.  Extending warmth and acceptance to all.  Welcoming new ideas and being open to change."  

I want to offer a reflection on hospitality, and then apply it specifically to our College strategy.

Hospitality is not unique to the Benedictines; we find it in many other religious and humanistic traditions.  But it is essential to the Benedictines, whose monasteries have always enjoyed a special reputation for receiving unannounced guests.  In Chapter 53 of the Rule, Benedict says that "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say:  I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

Hospitality is closely connected to the Benedictine idea of community.  As we saw in our discussions last year, Benedictine communities are about the transformation of persons, whether in the pursuit of holiness and the love of God in a Benedictine monastery or in the pursuit of truth and the love of learning at a Benedictine college.  Transformation means change.  And change requires hospitality.  To be changed, we must be open, receptive, vulnerable.

Benedictine hospitality is also closely connected to our core value of respect.  To welcome the other as Christ is to say, "You may be the way, the truth, and the life for me today."  That's respect!

And hospitality expresses the very essence of the love of learning.  The learner is open, not closed; curious, not complacent; hungry, not content. 

In recent years we have talked about hospitality mainly in terms of cultural and racial diversity, openness to others who are different from the majority culture here at the school.  We have worked hard to recruit international students and domestic students of color into our community, and - with somewhat less success - to bring people of color into the staff, the faculty, the administration, and the Board of Trustees.  We've had challenges, but we are moving in the right direction.

We know, however, that diversity means more than skin color and cultural mores.  Our College statement about diversity lists age, gender, sexual orientation, and economic standing, in addition to race and minority status.  We could also add political persuasion, physical ability and body shape to the list. All this seems obvious enough, and yet it remains controversial, as well.  For example, I'm sometimes asked how, as a Catholic college, we can allow a club for gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual students.  I respond that our Catholic Benedictine heritage requires that we extend hospitality to all the children of God.

However, hospitality is not completely open-ended.  It doesn't mean openness to just anyone or anything.  We don't want to embrace laziness or bigotry or violence, for example.   Indiscriminate hospitality is confusion, not virtue. 

So, how do we decide which things we will be open to and which not?  There's a saying that I very much like:  "Nothing human is alien to me."  As a broad principle, we may say that we should be hospitable to whatever enlarges our common humanity, and inhospitable to whatever diminishes our humanity.  Since being human involves things such as self-determination and inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we can see how more detailed criteria for hospitality could be developed.  My point here is not to create a list, but just to note that hospitality is not openness to everything. 

Hospitality is not just a matter of welcoming someone.  The Army welcomes volunteers, but then sends them to basic training that is designed to minimize their individual identities.  I remember standing in front of a mirror with a group of recruits - in our new lookalike fatigues and with our freshly-shaved heads - trying to figure out which one we each were.   It was clear to me in that moment that the Army had its own identity, and I was expected to assimilate to it.

When you enter our community, you should not have to surrender who you are.  You should not have to leave your identity and your history at the door.  Benedictine hospitality means that we welcome the other in anticipation of the distinct gifts he or she may bring, gifts that may change who we are.  A community that is committed to transformation must itself be open to change. Those who join us are changed, but we also become a new community.  

Hospitality - even to the right things - is not easy.  The road is not always smooth.  Because hospitality involves change, and because change is often difficult and unsettling, we resist it.

An example that comes to mind, and about which I will say more later, is our increasing activity in graduate, extended, and online learning.  Over the decades we've perfected our systems and rhythms for teaching and nurturing traditional undergraduates.  Now we are staking our future growth on non-traditional programming.  We are being asked to develop new formats, to operate in new environments, to meet the needs of different learners.  We've opened distant campuses; some programs are migrating to the Internet.  Many of us are excited by this extension of our mission to a broader group of students.  But we may also fear a loss of control.  We worry about student support, program quality and mission integration in this new world.  We may yearn to go back to the way we were and focus primarily on undergraduate education in Duluth. 

Change is hard.  Hospitality is hard.

And hospitality is difficult also, because diverse viewpoints, by definition, can lead to disagreements.  Ask our legislators in St. Paul and Washington.   Sometimes, people disagree for reasons of self-interest.  But people of good will may also disagree because they each think they're really right.  Why be hospitable if you think you're right?

And this brings us to an apparent puzzle about hospitality:  It seems to conflict with certainty, the conviction that one is right. When I was at St. Catherine's, I taught a course on atheism.  A student informed me that she did not read atheists because she knew they were wrong.  If you think you already have your arms around the truth, how can you be genuinely open to a different viewpoint?   If I'm unalterably opposed to raising taxes and you are unalterably opposed to cutting social programs, then hospitality will be perceived as weakness, as "caving in."

There seems to be an inverse relation between hospitality and certainty.  The more sure I am, the less hospitable; and the more open I am, the less certain I am. 

On one level we can resolve this apparent dilemma by invoking a distinction we made a few years ago in our discussion of respect.  It's the distinction between people as human beings and people as distinct individuals.  We deserve respect for our humanity; we earn respect, or not, for our actions.  So, it is possible to welcome someone as a human being, and yet disagree with their decisions or their policies.  There's a difference between senators who debate vigorously and then go for a drink together and those who really cannot stand one another.

At a deeper level we can navigate the apparent conflict between hospitality and certainty by practicing humility.  There's more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in any of our philosophies.  We welcome the other because we realize that our individual points of view are always partial, and so we are open to the other who might bring something that enlarges us.  To paraphrase the saying that's painted over our Intercultural Center:  None of us has it all together, but together we might have it all.

So, hospitality is not the enemy of certitude.  The opposite of hospitality is not certainty; it is war.  The way of the wise is to live with convictions, but also to be genuinely open to other viewpoints.  The Benedictine Sisters are masters of this.  They are committed Catholics who also welcome other traditions.

Hospitality, in the end, is a matter of imagination and courage-trying to understand how it looks and feels to live in the world from another's point of view, feeling the feelings of others, at the risk of being affected, stretched, changed.  Every time I ignore a panhandler on the street, I wonder:  Is it because I don't want to get scammed, or is it because I don't want to get involved?  Hospitality is not for the timid.

If Benedictine hospitality does not mean openness to everything, it does require special openness to some things.  Benedict says:  "Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received" (RB 53).  In the Biblical tradition we are to be especially attentive to the poor and the stranger.  "I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me to drink; imprisoned and you visited me."

This means that hospitality can hurt us.  It requires our openness to pain and suffering.  As Joan Chittister puts it in her commentary on the Rule:   "The message to the stranger is clear:  Come right in and disturb our perfect lives" (141).  

And here, in my opinion, we come to the heart of the matter.  Hospitality is important at our college because we want to be a diverse and inclusive community-yes; because we want to respect one another and get along-yes; because we want to foster the love of learning-yes.  But most of all, hospitality is important because our Catholic Benedictine ideals call us to understand, to feel, and to improve the human story.

Here are some ways we can foster hospitality:

  • By continuing to work at diversifying our population and becoming a more inclusive community.
  • By insisting on strong liberal arts requirements that cultivate moral imagination. 
  • By finding ways to foster the special talents of our students.
  • By supporting study-abroad opportunities that can enlarge worldviews.
  • By emphasizing moral courage through civic engagement and social justice opportunities.
  • By exercising, to the extent possible, a preferential option for the poor in our financial aid policies.
  • By modeling hospitality with one another and being open to change.

I'll conclude these remarks by talking about hospitality in terms of College strategy.  Hospitality means openness to new ideas, to change, as well as to persons.

For the past decade we have been growing, both in the traditional and the nontraditional markets.  Now we are adjusting that strategy.  We believe we have reached our capacity with traditional students here on the Duluth campus.  We don't want to become much larger, lest we lose the small-college sense of community that is important to those who choose us.  We also face demographic and economic realities.  Fewer 18 year-olds in Minnesota means that continued growth would be increasingly difficult.  The recession continues to take its toll on our current students and on prospective students and their families.  So, our plan is not to pursue further traditional growth and to remain a residential undergraduate College in the enrollment zone of 2,000 to 2,200.

But not growing overall is not an option.  Not growing means entering a slow downward spiral.  Revenue stays flat and costs go up, so we begin to cut positions and programs and services to make ends meet.  The downsizing makes us less attractive to prospective students, and enrollment declines, leading to further cuts which results in smaller enrollment, and so forth.

To remain healthy, to pay competitive salaries and benefits and to develop a strong physical and technological infrastructure, we need to increase our revenues, eighty percent of which come from tuition. 

And so we plan to increase our graduate, extended and online (GEO) enrollments by 5-10 percent per year.  It will not be long before the so-called non-traditional students outnumber the traditional students at St. Scholastica.  We will maintain our fundamental commitment to the traditional residential undergraduate experience - let me repeat that - but we will also expand our reach to nontraditional learners.  This is the strategy that the board of trustees has directed us to pursue.

The question is not whether we will do GEO, but whether we will embrace GEO, really be open to it, see it as an expression of our mission, and become leaders in the nontraditional market.

GEO programming meets a huge need.  We say that learning is necessary across the lifespan, and in our volatile economic environment, this is more true than ever.  People want to complete degrees that they began years ago, but never finished.  People want to advance in their careers or reinvent themselves when the economic sands shift.  People of all ages are hungry for learning that addresses both head and heart.  The middle-aged manager and the single parent have every right to claim their place at St. Scholastica.

The Internet provides an enormous opportunity for transforming how education can happen.  Online learning is here to stay, and adaptable colleges like ours will figure out how to integrate their missions and their learning outcomes into this new reality.  The Benedictine values have thrived for fifteen centuries through a lot of change.  I have every confidence that we can successfully incorporate these resilient ideals into the digital environment. 

The one-College philosophy does not mean that all our programs are the same, because our learners are not all the same.  Rather, it means that all programs in all formats exemplify one mission, one set of values, one set of educational outcomes.  How we reach those outcomes will vary.

The GEO environment is extremely competitive, because the Internet removes the geographic advantage that regional colleges such as ours enjoy.  Our online and blended GEO programs compete with programs nationally and internationally.  To be a GEO contender, we need to be committed to mission and quality, open to new possibilities, and quick on our feet.

Embracing GEO growth and becoming a leader means being sensitive and responsive to the special needs of adult learners:  responding swiftly to their inquiries, evaluating their transcripts quickly, and welcoming them into the community before they second-guess their decision or are courted by another school. 

Hospitality to GEO means creating shared governance that really works, combining academic creativity with expertise in enrollment management and marketing.  It means respecting one another's areas of expertise, sharing authority and holding one another accountable for results.  It means teamwork.

Openness to GEO means designing approval processes that insure timely delivery of new or adapted programs.  I want to revive a saying we used to have:  At St. Scholastica, a good idea in the morning can be a tradition by late afternoon. 

 Our College has a history of welcoming new populations of students. 

  • We were a women's college until the late sixties, when we began accepting men.
  • We opened 2+2 programs in Brainerd and on the Iron Range back in the 80s, and so made a St. Scholastica degree accessible to community college students in rural areas.
  • We designed the Encore! program in the 80s and 90s to accommodate workers who had been laid off when the Iron Range economy crashed.
  • We were the first private college in the state to accept the MN transfer curriculum as fulfilling our general education requirements except for Religion and writing-intensive, thus lowering the barriers for students in the public systems to transfer and earn a St. Scholastica degree.

These are all examples of our hospitality and adaptability.

GEO presents the next big opportunity to extend our mission and brand nationally and internationally.  I urge us to seize it.  Hospitality is openness to change.  There's nobody I'd rather face the future with than you.  As always, I look forward to working with you.

Larry Goodwin

August 2011