Annual Convocation Speech Focuses on Facilities, Mission and Enrollment Challenges

Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas, gave his 21st annual academic convocation address on Tuesday, Sept. 6, in O’Shaughnessy Educational auditorium to mark the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.

A video of the convocation can be seen here.

Following is the text of Dease’s address, “Where Do We Go From Here?”


It is indeed a pleasure to greet you today, new and returning faculty and professional staff, as we embark on this new academic year. It is such a source of energy to experience the eagerness and enthusiasm with which you take up your service each fall. Your work makes such an enormous difference in the lives of our students. I hear so often from them, both current and past, about how much they appreciate you. You educate, motivate, inspire and, in the process, change lives. And they never will forget you. Please forgive me for not having passed along all of these commendations as often as I should have. Just know that what you do in this noble undertaking we call Catholic higher education adds great value to people’s lives.

Changes to the Physical Campus

We have had an extremely busy construction summer, thanks to our decision to tear up the lower quadrangle for new sidewalks, lights, a sprinkling system and an underground storm water filtration system. Also in the quad we took down 13 trees, planted 30 and installed a new flagpole and a larger, more proportionate flag.

Our summer projects, in addition to the quadrangle, included:

  • Renovation of McCarthy Gym. We added locker rooms for our varsity soccer and softball teams under the basketball floor that we installed in the swimming pool area a year ago. There also is a new fitness center on the second floor and an elevator.
  • Re-roofing of Aquinas Hall – for the first time since it opened in 1930!
  • Renovation of the 2085 Grand apartment building for the housing of undergraduate students in our Residence Life system, and two houses on Summit Avenue for use by students.
  • Continued construction of the spectacular new Anderson Student Center.

What an impressive addition that will be! And, how it will enrich student life! As I have indicated before, when the Anderson Student Center comes on line, there will be no added financial burden to our annual operations. The ongoing operational expenses of the new center will be covered by capital campaign gifts and by new revenues the facility will generate. This was also the case with the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex. Except for the construction of residence halls, which are typically self-amortizing, this, I believe, is the first time in St. Thomas history that buildings have been added without additional expense to the general fund. This more sparing approach is due to the changing economic environment and represents a good example of how in the years ahead we will need to find more ways to cut costs.

We also continue with our fundraising efforts in our Opening Doors capital campaign. We stand at nearly $450 million – 90 percent of our goal – with 14 months remaining in a campaign that will transform this university and benefit generations to come.

Improvements such as these reflect our confidence that a first-rate, physical campus will continue to play an important role in higher education of superior quality. As the Division of Student Affairs puts it:

“We are committed to the development of the whole person through our resources, programs and collaborative efforts and through a high degree of personal attention in a spiritually and intellectually stimulating campus environment.”

This kind of commitment requires high quality, up-to-date physical facilities.

Keeping Our Eye on the Ball (Minding Our Mission)

At this point some might observe that while all of this construction is necessary and, indeed, exciting, let us not forget that our mission is not to build buildings. It is to educate students – so let’s be sure we keep our eye on the ball. The ball, of course, is our mission – the purpose for which we exist. It is stated succinctly in the St. Thomas Mission Statement, approved by our Board of Trustees in 2006:

“Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.”

That’s our talk, but what about our walk? Are we, in actual fact, doing what we say we do? Are we, truth be told, minding our mission?

You bet we are! Our progress has not been all brick and mortar, by any means. It would not be inappropriate to see the striking changes in our physical campus as indicators of our dynamic vitality – as testimony to the quality of our imagination, our ability to dream and our facility for envisioning ever more excellent ways of doing what we do. The new buildings are indeed wonderful, but so are the even more remarkable accomplishments in our academic and co-curricular programs. There are some stunning examples from last year of extraordinary achievement in carrying out our core mission:

1. While St. Thomas is still in the early stages of its Writing Across the Curriculum program, the model that you have developed is already recognized as comprehensive, flexible and of proven benefit to our students in their post-graduation life and work.

2. We have achieved specialized, professional accreditation for our major graduate programs. In the past 10 years we have seen initial American Bar Association accreditation for the School of Law, renewed professional accreditation for Social Work, Education, Professional Psychology, Engineering and Divinity; and just last January, accreditation for the Opus College of Business by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, International. As our Bulletin announcement said: “Less than 5 percent of the world’s business schools hold AACSB accreditation, which is widely regarded as the highest standard of quality for business education and can take years to achieve.” I congratulate Dean Christopher Puto, the faculty and administration of the Opus College of Business for this major accomplishment.

3. Our program in Social Work is ranked number 53 nationally and has received special commendation for its programming in social justice.

These are just a few examples, but they are enough to give you a sense of the vitality of this university. I’m confident that many more will be called out by the decennial self-study that will begin this fall. These suffice, however, to demonstrate that even amidst the many external distractions and challenges, such as shrill political cries for top to bottom reforms, sensational media stories about unemployed or underemployed college graduates with huge debts, and the seemingly endless troubles in the economy, we have indeed been keeping our eye on the ball. Ours is a community that knows its core mission and is able to call on impressive reserves of imagination to envision how better to live it.

Swinging for the Fences (Minding Our Vision)

Granted, we know our mission; but, do we know where all this committed talent and energy we call the University of St. Thomas is taking us? Is there anything of our future that we might be able to divine at this point in our history? Do we have a “vision”?

We do have a “vision,” and the best way to describe a “vision” is the point we expect to reach sometime in the future if we continue to carry out our mission with diligence and excellence – if we not only continue to keep our eye on the ball but are willing to swing for the fences. St. Thomas has a clear and unambiguous – and I might add, ambitious – vision statement. It emerged from our last round of university-wide strategic planning and was approved by our trustees in 2006:

“We seek to be a recognized leader in Catholic higher education that excels in effective teaching, active learning, scholarly research and responsible engagement with the local community as well as with the national and global communities in which we live.”

And clearly we are underway.

  • Eighty percent of our incoming freshmen indicate that St. Thomas was their first choice, versus 70 percent for other Catholic institutions of similar selectivity, 66 percent of other Catholic schools in general, 73 percent of other public universities of the same selectivity and 71 percent of other publics generally. This is a solid indicator of the quality of our reputation; or, in marketing parlance, the strength of our brand.
  • Since 2007 our retention and graduation scorecard for our Black, Hispanic and Asian students has improved dramatically. In these graphs green is good; yellow is fair; and red indicates a serious problem. The university has made dramatic progress.


  • Where does St. Thomas rank nationally in academic outcomes? In fall-to-fall retention, we are in the 96th percentile. In six-year graduation rates, we are in the 74th percentile.
  • Significant numbers of our graduates apply to medical schools. From 2001 to 2007, St. Thomas students averaged 28.3 on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), versus the national average of 27.3.
  • The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) measures active learning. Student engagement represents two critical features of collegiate quality. The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities. The second is how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning.

NSSE data also show that in community service and volunteer work, St. Thomas students ranked significantly higher than those of other institutions.

It is well known that faculty student interaction contributes to student learning. NSSE reported that St. Thomas seniors ranked higher in terms of strong relationships with faculty members.

These are some of the indicators that show that we are, indeed, making headway in the pursuit of our vision. The picture that emerges is one of a university that is functioning well. We know where we want to be, and we are getting there.


This is not to say that we are not facing some serious challenges.

For one, how are our graduates faring in the job market? Oscar Wilde famously observed: “It’s better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.” We all know, of course, that St. Thomas graduates are captivating, but are they also working? One year out, 61 percent of the undergraduate class of 2010 are employed full time, but two years ago it was 81 percent; 16 percent are employed part time, double the number of two years ago; 8 percent are not employed and seeking employment versus 6 percent; and 10 percent are not employed and not seeking employment versus 1 percent. (This category includes those in graduate school: 23 percent of 2010 alumni are enrolled in graduate programs, 85 percent on a full-time basis.)

I do not have data at this time from various graduate programs.

Clearly a troubled economy has made finding a job more difficult for our recent undergraduate alumni, and I suspect for our graduate alumni as well.

Economic turmoil has also meant that U.S. higher education has come under fire in recent years for its high price tag and the rate of its price increases. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, has said:

“Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.” 1

Recalling Bok’s observation, The Economist recently observed:

“This is a bit hard on compulsive gamblers and exiled royals.

“The cost of tuition cannot forever rise faster than students’ ability to pay. Industries that cease to offer value for money sooner or later get shaken up. American universities are ripe for shaking.” 2

Though I do not agree that on average the cost of a higher education is outpacing students’ ability to pay, The Economist’s sentiment accurately reflects the prevailing perception in Congress, the media and society. And we can expect the barrage of criticism only to continue.

Here in Minnesota, family income this past decade has kept pace with the rising cost of a St. Thomas education. According to Dr. Sandy Baum, the well-known economist of higher education, this also has been the case nationally. She has observed that the average out-of-pocket cost of undergraduate higher education has not increased in the last decade, due to boosts in Pell Grants and institutional financial aid.

The dark cloud on the horizon, however, is that not all of the financial aid awarded a student derives from earnings on dedicated, endowed funds – “endowed scholarships,” as they sometimes are called. At the undergraduate level, U.S. higher education has been discounting tuition at increasingly higher rates. We all know that the rate of increase in the discount cannot continue endlessly, yet we must remain committed to ensuring that a St. Thomas education continues to be affordable for all. (Here at St. Thomas we actually brought our discount rate down several percentage points this year.) The rate of increase of the discount is a real issue that needs to be addressed.

We are left with only two solutions: rein in costs and find new sources of revenue. The latter can be done through capital fundraising such as our Opening Doors campaign that is raising $130 million for financial aid endowment. It also is being done through our increasingly successful annual giving program; nevertheless, this is not enough. We will need to find new sources of revenue through operations so that in the future we will not have to resort to serious cost cutting. This means that all of us – faculty, department chairs, deans and directors, administrators – need to contribute, each in her or his own way, to maintaining an entrepreneurial culture.

Our environment is changing rapidly. If in the days ahead we are not adapting, we will not be thriving. This university has flourished in years past because it has fostered an entrepreneurial culture.

Ten-Year Self-Study

In the fall of 2013, a visiting team from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, our regional accrediting body, will arrive on campus for our decennial review. This year, therefore, we will prepare the first draft of our required self-study. Those of you who are veterans of this process know that it is not until you find yourself facing another 10-year review that you truly realize how short a time period a decade can really be.

This year will present us with a golden opportunity to examine the precise nature of our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and to marshal our impressive talent to identify appropriate responses. The 10-year self-study will offer us the opportunity to think strategically and plan broadly for the coming decade. I thank you in advance for seizing this moment to help chart our future: to identify major challenges; to assess our preparedness to meet them; and to identify how we will need to evolve to better serve the educational needs of our students, our community and our world.

I encourage you to embrace this opportunity, think outside the box and summon the courage we need to make the changes we need. We must be entrepreneurial not only to flourish but just to survive. If that spirit dies, we die.

The Board of Trustees will spend this year in a process of strategic direction setting, as distinct from strategic planning. The former is of a more general nature than is strategic planning. The next round of university-wide strategic planning will take place only after we have completed our self-study and have received commendations and recommendations from the Higher Learning Commission’s evaluation. To inform its strategic direction setting, the board is very much looking forward to the self-study.

We will learn much about ourselves from this self-study and from the subsequent external peer review. I remember the wealth of information and knowledge we gained from the self-reflection 10 years ago, as well as my own feelings of pride as I read of our achievements and heard the exceptionally complimentary remarks of the visiting team. This time around I expect we can be even prouder of our academic accomplishments of the decade past and the boldness of our vision for the one to come.

I want to offer special thanks to Professor Lucy Payne, who will serve as Accreditation Liaison Officer, and to Professors Wendy Wyatt, Department of Communication and Journalism, and Marty Johnston, Department of Physics, for agreeing to serve as co-chairs of the Self-Study Leadership Team. Theirs is a critically important role in an effort that will reach into the heart of the university.

The Self-Study Steering Committee has now, in draft form, both a guiding philosophy and goals for this important undertaking. Its Guiding Philosophy statement reads:

“The University of St. Thomas is committed to fostering a productive campus-wide dialogue that results in an honest and comprehensive self-study and achieves the following goals:

1. Review and evaluate the extent to which we fulfill our mission, vision and convictions for effective teaching, scholarly research and community engagement, and make appropriate recommendations.

2. Review, evaluate and recommend ways to continue building an assessment culture and processes that allow us to better understand and respond to our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities across the entire institution (academic and non-academic).

Specifically, review, evaluate and recommend ways to strengthen processes for:

  • Program review;
  • Learning outcomes;
  • Planning and strategic growth.

3. Review and evaluate our campus climate and make recommendations to strengthen:

  • Cultural diversity;
  • Collegiality and civility;
  • Inclusiveness;
  • A sense of partnership and shared mission.

4. Review and evaluate the ways in which we provide a value-added education and recommend ways to continue increasing that value.


These are noble goals, indeed, and the brightness of our future will depend in large part upon our ability to achieve them in this academic year. For this self-study to be fruitful, we must all bring three important qualities to the effort.

  • Candor. An effective self-study requires honesty and disciplined self-examination.
  • Nobility. The undertaking will be successful to the extent that individual units, departments, schools and colleges can rise above self-interest and consider the common good of the university. St. Thomas has been fortunate that for many years there has existed here a culture of collegiality, respect for one another and regard for the overall good. The community has come to expect this of it is members. Anything less is unworthy of this university.
  • Spirit. Do not hesitate to think boldly. In ways that we do not yet clearly see, we will need to change and adapt. That will be challenging, but it also will be worthwhile.

For the energy, intelligent reflection and collaboration you will bring to this effort and for all that you do, I say “thank you.” Know that your hard work will make us even better at educating students “to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.”

1  Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, 2003

2  Schumpeter (Adrian Wooldridge), The Economist, July 9, 2011, p. 64