Early in life I learned from the Boy Scouts that you should always leave a campsite in better shape than you found it. Much of what I have to say about our topic this year, stewardship, comes from reflecting on that lesson.
As I see it, stewardship is a gem with three facets.
The first involves taking care of something important. The key word here is “important.” We will take care of something that we realize is significant to us. There’s some self-interest involved.
A campsite may seem like an ordinary or even a trivial thing—until nature turns out the lights and you want a suitable place with access to firewood and water to cook your dinner, and a flat, dry place to sleep. Then a good campsite is precious indeed.
Americans used to drive giant gas-guzzling cars along their new interstate highway system, blithely throwing their trash out the windows as they went. Over time it became obvious that both gas guzzling and littered landscapes are not in our enlightened self-interest. More efficient cars and cleaner highways became important to us, and we became better stewards.
On a grander scale, as we humans increasingly see ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem whose health is essential for our own survival, we are getting better at caring for our physical environment. Certainly, we have a long way to go, but we have made substantial progress in raising our environmental consciousness and passing important legislation. We take care of what we deem important.
Speaking of our physical environment, I want to commend our building and grounds crews for the good work they do as stewards of our Duluth campus, polishing the halls, painting the walls, shoveling the snow, and reducing harmful chemicals in our cleaners. Please join me in thanking these folks for helping create the physical conditions that support our educational efforts.
The second facet of stewardship is that we are passing something along to others. How nice it is to arrive at a campsite and see that the previous occupants have left a little pile of firewood; I think I’ll do the same when I leave. But this “passing along” is more than a mere courtesy. It is a recognition that we don’t own the campsite; we’re just enjoying it for a while. The campsite is on loan.
What’s true about the campsite is true about things in general. In the big picture, we don’t really possess anything in a permanent sense. As the saying goes, “you can’t take it with you.” In the Rule, St. Benedict refers to private ownership as an “evil practice” that “must be uprooted and removed from the monastery” (RB 33), because it is corrosive of community. Outside the monastery, capitalists and socialists may debate the virtues and vices of private ownership, but in the end it is an illusion, anyway. Everything we have is on loan. We are born into a world that others have made, and we pass along to our descendants a world to which we have added value, or not. Stewardship, not ownership, is the final truth. So the question is not whether we will be stewards; the question is what kind of stewards we will be.
Because we don’t really own anything, our care of things is by an authority that is entrusted or delegated to us, and this is the third facet of stewardship.
When we rent a campsite, the authority of camp stewardship is delegated to us by the DNR or the National Forest Service. When we work at The College of St. Scholastica, our stewardship of students’ education is legally delegated by the State of Minnesota, the Higher Learning Commission, and the Board of Trustees, and morally entrusted by the Benedictine Sisters. In the Biblical perspective, humanity is entrusted by God with the care of creation, and persons are to act as responsible stewards of the divine gift.
Putting it all together, then: Stewardship is the delegated responsibility for taking care of important things that have been entrusted to us so that we might add value for others.
What does education for democratic citizenship or what we call "intellectual and moral preparation" include? Nussbaum proposes three things:
This year, I’d like us to discuss two practical and urgent stewardship questions. First, how can we keep a St. Scholastica education affordable for our students? Second, how can we shepherd and strengthen our mission and heritage? Both questions meet the three aspects of stewardship that I’ve identified: Affordability is crucial to our students, and mission and heritage are the DNA of our College. Our charge is to pass this heritage along to others, which requires our safeguarding it and keeping it accessible and affordable for future generations. Students and their families, as well as the Benedictine Sisters who founded us, have put their trust in our good stewardship.
A traditional undergraduate education at St. Scholastica is expensive. The sticker price for tuition, room and board for four years is now about $160,000. Even allowing for federal and state grants and Benedictine scholarships for qualified students, we are still talking about a substantial amount of money. Whatever else we are stewarding, including our students’ hopes and dreams, we are also responsible for their financial investment.
Higher education today is caught between two powerful forces. On the one hand, digital technology is threatening traditional delivery systems. We’ve seen this happen in other sectors, such as banking, health care, and journalism.
On the other hand, concerns about college affordability have reached a fever pitch. Everyone wants to know why college costs so much. The best answer I’ve seen is that, like dental or legal services, higher education is expensive because it employs a highly skilled workforce, requires costly physical and technological infrastructure, and involves substantial client contact.
But this entirely reasonable answer does little to help struggling families who have reached their borrowing limits or students whose debt levels are unmanageable. The economy is still recovering too slowly from the recession. Government is cutting back its investment in higher education. The pundits are advising students to seek the cheapest route to a four-year degree.
It’s this combination of concerns about cost coupled with the perceived possibilities of digital technology that is threatening the traditional higher education model. MOOCs are the tip of the iceberg. Add in the demographic dip and increased competition, and you’ve got higher education 2013.
I want to pause here to remind us that the pressures we feel are being felt across the country by most colleges and universities. Our colleagues at the University of Minnesota and MnSCU have been dealing with pay freezes and reductions in force for several years. Traditional enrollments are down even at some public institutions. I know anecdotally that some of our private peers are struggling with budgetary stresses.
In all of this swirl, we need to realize that our College is actually doing quite well. We’re financially stable. Our bottom lines are healthy. Our endowment has tripled. We’ve invested $50M in new student housing, a Wellness Center, and an expansion of our Science building. We’re thinking about a Student Center. We’ve opened new campuses in the state. We’re looking to open a new Graduate Health Sciences campus in Duluth. We’re exploring program expansion in Phoenix. We have developed international partnerships. We’ve responded to the MOOC challenge by developing a couple of our own and by creating CSS Complete to take advantage of other MOOCs. Our students are doing research with their professors. We’ve opened a Center for Teaching Excellence. Our academic reputation is strong.
Nevertheless, we—and higher education in general—face some hard decisions related to affordability. We have a strategy of program and format diversification; to it we need to add a mindset of efficiency and cost-containment. I ask your help in finding creative ways that we can increase affordability without compromising quality. Here are some possibilities that I see:
Looking at our choices through the lens of good stewardship can help. Rather than thinking in terms of turf protection or competition for scarce resources, let’s start by reflecting on how we can make St. Scholastica more affordable for our students. Let’s try to look through their eyes. We’ve all felt the heartbreak of a student departure for financial reasons and the joy of someone staying because we found a way to make it work.
The good news is that in an economy that is shifting from manufacturing to knowledge the overall demand for higher learning will only increase. We at St. Scholastica will survive and we will thrive, because we are courageous, determined, and imaginative stewards of our students’ resources. I say this with confidence, because after a quarter century, I know who I’m working with; I know you.
The second topic I want us to work on this year is stewardship of our mission and heritage. One of the most highly recommended strategies for colleges and universities in this tumultuous environment is to get as clear as possible about what makes them distinctive, and then get as good as possible at delivering on the brand promise. Indeed, unless we do this, we will be perceived to offer only a generic education, and people will look for the least expensive alternative.
What makes St. Scholastica distinctive? Here are two thoughts: We are the only Catholic Benedictine college or university in Minnesota east of St. Cloud. And usually, if someone knows about us, they know about us because of our health care programming. One promising candidate for distinction in a crowded field of competitors, then, is this: St. Scholastica is Minnesota’s (or the upper Midwest’s) Catholic Benedictine health care school. Does this mean that health care is all that we do? No, any more than business education is all that the University of St. Thomas does. Rather, it means that St. Benedict’s ideal that “Care should be taken of the sick that they be treated in very truth as Christ” is a distinguishing claim that addresses a profound human need.
I realize that “Minnesota’s Catholic Benedictine health care school” may be too stark and reductionist for some, but the idea is to combine our religious heritage and our liberal arts core with our emphasis on human wellness and well-being, broadly understood. Our challenge is to enunciate this combination in a compelling way.
But I don’t want to make a purely utilitarian argument: Concentrate on mission so that we will get noticed. At a deeper level, I want us to focus on our Catholic Benedictine heritage because I believe it can provide something important to students, something that wouldn’t be available at the vast majority of schools in the state.
We do a good job emphasizing our Benedictine values. I urge us to emphasize, as well, our Catholic roots. Think about what it would mean to integrate the following themes into the curriculum and life of our school:
Do you like these themes? Do you think our students might welcome them with open arms? This is the Catholic intellectual tradition; this is Catholic social teaching. Our Catholic Benedictine heritage is our charism, our distinctive power for influence, and we need to put it front and center in the St. Scholastica experience.
As it happens, we have a stick to prod us along in this discussion.
Last fall, the Higher Learning Commission extended our accreditation for ten years. However, it also required an important monitoring report from us in three years. We need to show that we have developed meaningful assessment measures for our General Education outcomes and also show how we are using the results to improve teaching and learning. The first of our five learning outcomes, the Heritage Outcome, says explicitly that our students will “recognize the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and its role in their college experience.”
If we are going to deliver on that promise, we need to increase student literacy about the Catholic tradition.
I’m very pleased with the work that has already begun with the revision of the Dignitas program to include modules on dignity, diversity, the Catholic intellectual tradition, Catholic social teaching, and the Benedictine values. But we need to do more.
These are some specific suggestions that I ask you to consider and act on. Many of these challenges are directed to faculty, but we all have a role to play, both in terms of personal modeling and in terms of creating a mission-driven community at our five campuses and online. For example, I want us to see our work in diversity, equity and inclusion as a fundamental living-out of our Catholic Benedictine mission and values. I’ve named Pat Pratt-Cook our Chief Diversity Officer and asked her to help lead us in this effort. We strive to be a diverse and inclusive community, not despite the fact that we are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.
Time is of the essence. Three years will pass in a flash. We need to embrace the Heritage Outcome and do everything we can to put it into action. This will be a profound realization of stewardship.
We have wonderful jobs. People come to us seeking knowledge and skills, and we have the opportunity to introduce them also to wisdom about what human life means. Our work is a sacred trust. We are the protectors of a precious mission and the gatekeepers of students’ access to it.
As always, I look forward to working with you this year. In fact, there’s no one I’d rather work with. Vivat, St. Scholastica!