Our theme in this Centennial year is "For the love of learning." I think it's the perfect signature.
We'll be celebrating throughout the fall, including especially our big birthday party on September 10th. After the break this morning, we'll also watch the Centennial video and listen to the words of some of our great Benedictine Sisters. So, we're primed for remembering and celebrating.
I'd like to spend my time now reflecting on our Centennial theme and its future as we enter our second century.
Our school was started as a women's college at a time when women in this country led lives that were circumscribed compared to today. They couldn't even vote. The Sisters understood that the love of learning would empower young women and help them achieve personal and professional success. We have since become a co-educational college, but one that is still guided by the ideal of inspiring the love of learning in students.
The important point, it seems to me, is the kind of learning that the Sisters have called us to love. The higher learning that Mother Scholastica dreamed would flourish here is two-fold: education of the head, to be sure, but also education of the heart. We give voice to her vision today in our mission statement when we talk about providing intellectual and moral preparation. Benedictine education includes both workforce preparation and the transmission of transcendent values from generation to generation.
The basic insight is that intellectual development is important, but it is not enough, because intelligence is morally neutral. Jimmy Carter and Bernie Madoff are both smart men, but their lives turned out very different. An educated person has power, and the question is how the power will be used. Benedictine education develops our minds; it also helps us love the right things. Head and heart-reason and morality-belong together. They should be complementary aspects of a whole human being.
But it isn't always so. We can hardly follow the news these days without encountering yet another example of smart, educated people doing mischief-especially, recently, in the banking industry. And history in general is replete with examples of intelligence gone wrong. On a visit to the WWII concentration camp at Buchenwald in Germany this past May, I was both horrified and fascinated by the cruel combination of intellectual ingenuity and evil purpose on display. The methods of dealing death and disposing of remains were-dare I say it?-exceptionally well-thought-out and clever. In that camp I saw what can happen in the extreme when we decouple intelligence and morality. I came away more convinced than ever of the importance of the integrated learning we are committed to here at St. Scholastica.
Each June at reunion weekend, the College honors alumni who exemplify the love of learning that our founders intended. They are successful professionals who have chosen to use their power for good. This year's honorees include a physician who serves disadvantaged youth, a nurse who reaches out to the vulnerable and the underserved in rural Alaska, and our own Stephanie Sklors who helps students from low-income families prepare for and succeed in college. This is what Benedictine love of learning looks like on the ground. Mother Scholastica would be proud.
And we, too, should be proud of the work that we do. If there was ever a time our society needed the love of learning, it is now.
We live in stressful times, and in stressful times, people crave simple answers to complex problems, and they are tempted to follow false prophets. When I browse the self-help section at airport bookstores, I am saddened by how desperate we seem. And easy answers are readily at hand. In this digital age where we have access to practically infinite sources of information, we can find a paper, a pundit, or a politician to justify any point of view.
In this situation, the love of learning, real learning that integrates head and heart, is more important than ever. We need citizens who are critical in their consumption of information, who are able to recognize and resist seductive illusions, who can distinguish what is really worth knowing from the overwhelming mass of what can be known, who are able to live courageously and productively with complexity and ambiguity and diversity.
An example of this kind of learning was provided by Professor Martha Nussbaum when she spoke on campus last year. Education is "not for profit," she argued, because it is more than preparation for a job; it is also preparation for democratic citizenship. A college degree should guarantee not only the knowledge and skills necessary for economic success; it should also cultivate the habits of mind and heart that are necessary to preserve a successful democracy.
What does education for democratic citizenship or what we call "intellectual and moral preparation" include? Nussbaum proposes three things:
Authenticity, connectedness, empathy.
Thinking about higher education in these terms is refreshing, and it reminds me of the kind of learning the Sisters have called us to promote. The Catholic Benedictine tradition believes that God is love and that love is the final truth about life. This is the overwhelming insight at the end of the intellectual journey. We come from love and, in the end, we return to love; along the way we are to take care of one another. Love means feeling the feelings of others and acting so as to maximize their self-creativity. Educators who believe in this view of the world will create a campus climate and a curriculum that cultivates rigorous thinking, and also imagination and courage, justice and service.
We foster the Benedictine love of learning in many ways: By modeling it, by engaging students in the study of the liberal arts, by providing opportunities for service learning, and by striving to be a diverse and respectful community.
As we stand at the end of our first century, we have every reason to celebrate Benedictine education and all that we and generations before us have done to promote it. As we begin our second century, we also face a significant challenge and a great opportunity in advancing our love of learning.
The challenge-as you well know, and as our admission counselors can attest-is that fewer and fewer people can afford to pay for what we love.
Traditionally, higher education has been an investment shared by three partners: government, students and their families, and colleges and universities. All three are under stress.
Government used to pick up two-thirds of the cost of higher education, leaving the other one-third to students, families and institutions. Now the ratio is reversed. Higher education is a declining public funding priority, and government is not going to solve our problems.
Many students and their families are also at their financial limits. St. Scholastica graduates already have the dubious distinction of ranking at or near the top of loan indebtedness for Midwestern higher education institutions.
Colleges and universities, too, are feeling the pressure. The only thing going up faster than tuition in our country is institutional financial aid-for most of us, that means increasing the discount rate to our students. This has been happening here at St. Scholastica in recent years, and it is not a sustainable trajectory.
In addition to the economic pressures, the demographics are moving in the wrong direction. The number of high school graduates in Minnesota is declining slightly. We face increasing competition for fewer traditional students.
So: We are very good at what we do, but what we do is increasingly unaffordable. The wealthy schools will continue to do well. And the least expensive schools will likely see enrollment increases. But the great middle-the modestly endowed, tuition-driven, high-priced colleges like our own-need to think creatively about ways to move forward.
What are our options? I see three: Strengthen quality; increase efficiency; open new programs.
We can work to get a larger piece of a smaller pie by continually improving the student experience. People respond to quality. Our recently established Center for Teaching Excellence, faculty efforts to improve student writing skills and undergraduate research opportunities, the One-Stop Shop we opened last year, our new first-year Orientation program-these are examples of your hard work to improve an already strong educational environment for our students. These kinds of activities demonstrate our love of learning and increase our appeal. Thank you. Please keep them up.
Second, we can find ways to operate more efficiently. Instead of thinking only in negative terms (cutting positions and programs), let's think in terms of stewardship and creating a culture of achievement. Let's find ways to do more without increasing our costs. For example:
These are efficiencies that we can achieve for the love of learning.
Third, as always, I urge us to be on the lookout for new educational niches that are consistent with our mission. The more diversified our enrollment portfolio, the more stable we are in a volatile environment. New programs such as football, our online initiative, and the physician assistant program enlarge our application funnel, keep us financially healthy, and allow us to leverage financial aid to help our neediest students.
Are there new program possibilities with our sister college in China, United International? Are there opportunities for us to open programs in Arizona or New Mexico where there is a large Hispanic population but very little Catholic higher education? Because we love Benedictine learning, we will look for opportunities to expand it.
Among new possibilities, the most interesting recent development in higher education is the appearance of MOOCs, that inelegant acronym for Massive Open Online Courses. At Coursera.org, or edX I can find entire college courses-including presentations and interactive exercises-taught by professors from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania-all for free. I read recently that one of the Harvard courses has an enrollment of 120,000 students.
These websites provide clues about a future that is rushing toward us and that has the potential to revolutionize student learning, the faculty role, and the higher education business model.
Let's imagine a world where outstanding college courses are posted online for free. Why would anyone pay tuition? One answer is: Because they need guidance through the material, support in their efforts to understand it, and certification that they have actually mastered what they studied.
What is the role of a teacher, if excellent courses are already posted online for free? I think the faculty role will shift from conveying information to insuring understanding. Fewer lectures and more one-on-one and small-group work.
I can imagine a traditional residential learning community that operates year-round where students access information in a variety of ways: through the library, through internships, through public lectures, through online MOOCs before they come face-to-face with a professor. This is what is called the "flipped-classroom" in the literature: students listen to the lecture as part of their homework, and then use class time otherwise. The idea is not so radical: It looks to me a lot like the tutorial model that has been in place at Oxford University for centuries-now adapted for the digital age.
There are at least two advantages to this approach: One is that it allows students to move through course material at their own rate. Failure becomes an opportunity to back up and try again. If people learn at different rates and in different ways, why do we insist on bundling them together in cohorts that move lockstep Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for 65 minutes for 15 weeks? People with different abilities, different experiences and different learning styles are expected to learn chemistry or literature or philosophy in about the same amount of time. Does this make sense? The assessment movement has shifted our attention, rightly, from seat time to demonstrated outcomes. Is it really so important that it takes Johnny longer to demonstrate the outcomes than it does Jane? The point is the competency, not the clock.
The second advantage I see is that this model concentrates faculty work on what faculty uniquely do best, which is to get inside the head of the learner to test mastery of a subject. Nobody else can do this except the expert-so why not increase this dimension of the faculty workday? It also seems to me that if faculty are spending most of their time working with students one-on one or in small groups, we need not fear the loss of our mission and values.
Looking beyond the traditional residential community, we can imagine the "non-traditional" world where learners come to a college with a portfolio of life and work experience and perhaps some MOOCs in hand, asking for a pathway to a degree or a certificate. They will pay, not for access to information that they already have or can download for free; they will pay for an expert to help them turn it into productive knowledge.
So here's my proposal: Recognizing both the financial hurdles our students face, as well as the interesting possibilities opened up by technology, let's work to create new pathways to a degree for more and more students. Keep doing what we are doing well, but also leverage competency-based learning to create new options. Wouldn't it be wonderful if our College were viewed as a great place to go because we provide so many ways for learners to earn a degree?
For example, can we develop a pathway that allows someone to bring up to three years of transfer work, prior learning experiences, and MOOCs-in any combination-and complete a degree here by taking the final year in the Extended Studies format? Such a pathway-while not for everyone-would provide a significantly less expensive route to a degree for some students without compromising our standards.
I've asked Don Wortham, our vice-president for strategic initiatives, to lead us in this exploration. He has already convened several working groups of faculty and staff, and we will offer more opportunities during the year for interested people to join in the discussion. What's emerging is something called "Project ABCD," where A stands for "Alternative Pedagogies," B stands for "Big, open, online courses," C stands for "Credit validation," and D stands for "Degree options."
Here are some ways you can help:
Some educators look at the struggling economy and disruptive change and get the shakes. But I'm betting we will see the possibilities. We are a learner-centric college with a proven history of flexibility and adaptability. We are driven by Benedictine values and a curriculum that emphasizes spirituality, wellness, community, and personal attention. In a knowledge economy where people need credentialing across the lifespan, in a society where baby boomers will soon be retiring and in need of health care, in a culture that is morally adrift and desperate for meaning, The College of St. Scholastica is holding the right cards. We're smart enough to play our hand well.
It was for the love of learning that our College was founded; it is for the love of learning that we have come to this place; and it will be for the love of learning that we reimagine our work for a second century. Happy birthday, Saints!