An aerial view of the lower quad. (Photo by Mike Ekern '02)

Academic Convocation: Gratitude and Hope for 2020-21

Nearly 600 St. Thomas community members gathered virtually over Zoom for yesterday's academic convocation. Two important topics – the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice – were frequently addressed during the hourlong event that featured speeches by President Julie Sullivan, faculty and staff. Executive Vice President and Provost Richard Plumb served as the emcee.

"St. Thomas is incredibly fortunate. We have challenges in front of us, but we really are blessed with the quality of the faculty and the staff that we have," Plumb said. "Your dedication and your commitment give me hope, and hope is what's going to get us through this year ... I know it's going to be a fantastic year."

The St. Thomas mission and convictions, which Plumb called the "road map" to guide the university through the challenges, were a focal point of the convocation. Seven faculty and staff members each had an opportunity to share their own prepared reflection on one of the convictions.

President Julie Sullivan started her remarks by talking about gratitude, one of the seven convictions. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am for you, and how proud I am of you for the enormous effort every one of you has put into the reopening of our campus this fall," she said. "The 2020-21 academic year will likely go down as one of the most challenging, yet most fulfilling, years to launch in our 135-year history. Your efforts to launch this year have been nothing short of extraordinary."

Sullivan highlighted the transformation of north campus by the completion of two new residence halls, a renovated Ireland Hall, a new dining facility and the Iversen Center for Faith. She also spotlighted the First-Year Experience, Living Learning Communities, Theme-Based Learning Communities and the creation of Tommie Corps.

She quoted Pope Francis in what he calls a culture of encounter, "being fearless in the ways we look beyond ourselves to the needs of others. A culture of encounter requires a listening ear and an open heart. It requires us to step out of ourselves and our own fears and insecurities to seek relationship with the other, and within the other, to encounter God."

Sullivan noted that Pope Francis points out that authentic encounters do not have to be in person. "I believe our commitment to this culture of genuine encounter and relationship with one another and with our students is providing us the creativity and the energy to persist in delivering the St. Thomas full-person, personalized education."

Regarding systemic racism, she said that she is hopeful about changes that can be made for two reasons: the younger generation not standing for the status quo, and the changing nature of discussions within St. Thomas as well as among leaders of Twin Cities organizations. Sullivan shared specific steps that the university is taking this year in its journey to becoming an anti-racist community: augmenting the Action Plan to Combat Racism; commissioning an external diversity, equity and inclusion audit of the university's policies and practices; supporting and expanding the work of the Racial Justice Initiative; and hosting Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on campus in the spring.

Sullivan closed by saying, "There is much to be grateful for, and we begin with each other. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, and the culture of encounter moves us to walk the journey of our lives tenderly holding each others' hands, even if figuratively or virtually, and knowing all the while that it is God who is our veiled and shining companion. ... I am certain that what we are learning today and how we are adapting as a community and as individuals will continue to propel us forward as a shining light for all."