Dease's academic convocation speech, 'Achieving Our Vision,' centers on access, excellence, Catholic identity

Dease's academic convocation speech, 'Achieving Our Vision,' centers on access, excellence, Catholic identity

Editor's note: Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, spoke to faculty and administrators at the annual academic convocation Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 2, in St. Mary's Chapel. In case you missed the convocation, Dease's remarks, titled "Achieving Our Vision," follow. (Or watch video here.)


We are all familiar with our Mission Statement which, since its revision four years ago, is succinct and easy to memorize. We have posted it just about everywhere: in our hallways, on our Web site, and on the cover of matchbooks. We had even contemplated having it tattooed on the person of our new Vice President for Mission, Father John Malone; but he has fled to London where he will teach this semester.

I'm sure everyone here today could recite it from memory, but I will do it for you – this time at least. Our mission statement declares:

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

Now I wonder whether there might be anyone here who could recite by heart the St. Thomas Vision Statement. This is the declaration that charts our future. Our Vision Statement reads:

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.

These are ambitious aspirations. Elvis Presley famously defined ambition as "a dream with a V-8 engine." These days driving a V-8 is a bit expensive, and so are the dreams of this community. And like most universities St. Thomas has "more mission than money." But we are doing something about that. Under the very capable leadership of Dr. Mark Dienhart we are advancing steadily in a critical capital campaign that, guided by St. Thomas' mission and inspired by its vision, has identified three top priorities: access, excellence and Catholic identity.

Last October when we launched the public phase of this capital fundraising effort we announced a goal of $500 million. As of today we have raised nearly $348 million – almost three times the goal of the last campaign. This represents a remarkable achievement. I want to thank Dr. Dienhart and his able colleagues in Institutional Advancement for their extraordinary accomplishment in this effort which will take four more years to complete.

More than $150 million must still be raised. This will be the most difficult part of the campaign. Our most loyal supporters have made generous gifts, and to achieve success we will need your strong and enthusiastic support as well. Faculty may not fully realize the extent to which prospective benefactors look to them for signs of their support of the university and this fundraising endeavor, and they will often make momentous philanthropic decisions accordingly. They ask whether faculty and staff support the university, and whether they have signaled this with at least a small gift of their own to the campaign.

It is also important to keep in mind that the benefactor community pays attention to public statements by members of the faculty. Such statements and media appearances do in fact affect, for better or for worse, the outcome of capital campaigns. The success of this campaign absolutely needs the backing of faculty and staff and I appeal to you today for that public support.

We find ourselves at an unusually significant juncture in the development of the University of St. Thomas. We are attempting to reach a crucial new threshold which, if attained, will dramatically advance the university and considerably brighten the future for countless students in years to come.

Just how, you might ask, will the achievement of these three priorities substantially reshape our future? Let us take a look at each priority.


First: access. We all know that the number of high school graduates in this state has been declining and will continue to decrease another ten percent over the next decade. At the same time communities of color are growing – in part due to immigration. This was brought home to me recently when one of our students asked a Somali student: "What is the capital of Somalia?" She responded: " Minneapolis." Today it is estimated that there are at least 50,000 Somalis residing in Minnesota, and more in Minneapolis than in any other city in the world – except Mogadishu.

The Somalis have a saying: "One who approaches a lion does not know what a lion is."1 One wonders how much they knew about Minnesota before leaving East Africa for a new culture based on hockey, ice fishing and lutefisk. There are, of course, more serious challenges that these immigrants face as they encounter American society with its Judaeo-Christian roots, history of racial unrest and post- 9/11 mistrust. They must have moments when they fear that they will indeed be devoured.

The Somalis are simply one example. In Minnesota, as of July 1, 2007, there were approximately 206,000 Hispanics, compared with 145,000 in July 2000 – a 42 percent increase.2

Other recently arrived immigrant groups include those from Ethiopia and Liberia. More immigrants arrived in Minnesota in the year ending Sept. 30, 2005, than in any of the previous quarter-century, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.3 The percentage of Minnesota's foreign-born residents grew from 2.6 in 1990 to 5.3 in 2000, representing an increase of 134 percent.4 A recent survey revealed that of those who immigrated to Minnesota in 2004, 38 percent came from Asia, 27 percent from North and South America, 17 percent from Africa and 16 percent from Europe.5

The vast majority of these newcomers cannot afford a higher education. John Ireland founded St. Thomas in 1885 to enable immigrants and their children to take their rightful place in American society. In his recent trip to the United States, Benedict XVI urged Catholic bishops and educators and the United Nations to support immigrants. He lauded Catholic education in this country because, as he put it, it "helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society."6

This university's commitment to access, as demonstrated by making this a priority of our Opening Doors campaign, will enable countless students of little or no means to find a welcome here.


Another priority is excellence. St. Thomas has a long tradition of striving for ever-greater quality, and recently we received some highly encouraging recognition for our commitment.

In the last
academic year St. Thomas, led by Dr. Michael Jordan in Academic Affairs, participated in the Collegiate Learning Assessment. CLA is designed to measure an institution's contribution, or value added, to the development of undergraduate students. It analyzes student learning between freshmen and senior years in four defined areas: critical thinking, problem solving, analytic reasoning and written communication. 

In August we received the assessment results. We were informed:

The University of St. Thomas contributes more to the learning gains made by students than 91 percent of the 176 four-year undergraduate institutions participating in 2007-2008 CLA.  The University of St. Thomas performed well above expected.7

Wow! What a smashing academic success! This represents a real triumph for St. Thomas faculty and is tangible evidence that the creative and grueling hours that you put in have, indeed, yielded huge learning dividends for our students. Breathtaking results like these testify to the exceptional quality of undergraduate teaching and learning at St. Thomas and to the fact that our "commitment to excellence" is given much more than lip service.

It is appropriate, therefore, to take a few moments at the beginning of a new academic year to take some well-deserved pride in our accomplishments. It is clear that there have been significant developments, especially in academic programs and instructional methods, worthy of celebration.

We have been taking advantage of a growing body of research on student learning that demonstrates the superiority of active learning techniques. Students' understanding of subject matter goes deeper and their retention runs higher when they are asked to apply, integrate and otherwise actively engage the material under study.

I attribute St. Thomas' excellent CLA rating in large part to this faculty's early and ongoing use of active learning methods – sometimes described as the opposite of the "sage on the stage" approach to teaching and learning! Active learning both in and out of the classroom is essential for today's students even in relation to understanding and retaining basic concepts.  The students who come to us today are used to engaging and interacting. 

There is a tremendous range of active learning strategies, some involving technology and some not, that can be used alone or in combination to jump-start student engagement. Here are just a few:

  • Engaging students in group work that involves analysis, critical thinking and student presentation.
  • Using a case-study or a role-playing approach.
  • Making original fieldwork the focal point for a class or a January Term.
  • Having students teach what they are learning, either to peers or in community outreach settings, through service learning.
  • Enabling students to participate in the professor's research, sometimes including peer review and the presentation of findings at academic conferences.
  • Incorporating a range of interactive technologies – from what we call "clickers" to Blackboard discussion groups, to the development of podcasts and personal Blackboard learning portfolios.

Many offices and programs support active learning at St. Thomas. They include the Faculty Development Center; the Grants and Research Office (formerly known as the Faculty Grants Office) but now also supporting with institutional funds the faculty-student collaborative research that was previously part of the Bush Grant for Inquiry-Based Learning and Faculty-Student Collaboration; the Faculty Center for e-Learning; and the Center for Intercultural Learning and Community Engagement, which will coordinate existing efforts such as service-learning and the Tutor-Mentor Program with other campus offices to further our institutional priorities, especially with regard to access. These programs have a marked and growing synergy.

Most important, however, has been this faculty's eagerness to become active learners themselves, exploring new pedagogical techniques and implementing them both inside and outside the classroom. You are distinguishing yourselves as masters of a multitude of active learning strategies.

This kind of engagement, previously typical only at the graduate level, has transformed undergraduate teaching and learning at St. Thomas. Let me give just a few examples from across the disciplines – knowing that there are hundreds more.

Active learning and faculty-student collaborative research has long been the hallmark of science education at St. Thomas, not only in labs and in fieldwork but also in the classroom.

Simon Emms' first-year biology students learned about global climate change by watching Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," developing and administering a survey on climate change, and then critically investigating the film's veracity when it was challenged by a British court. Jayna Ditty and Amy Verhoeven, also of the Biology Department, revamped and expanded their award-winning text, Active Learning Tools for Bioenergetics. Geology students, led by Lisa Lamb, Tom Hickson and Kevin Theissen, conducted original field research and even identified new geological structures. Physics faculty members integrate their own research projects into courses to make them accessible and relevant for student participation. Chemistry students and faculty conduct research and give presentations at national conferences to disseminate their work.

Active learning has also been integrated into other disciplines and interdisciplinary programs at St. Thomas.

Philosophy students in John Stoltz's and Marie Pannier Feldmeier's classes enjoy using a Student Response System, also known as "clickers," for responding to questions. In English, Alexis Easley's students were actively involved in the Victorian Symposium last spring by planning, publicizing, researching, presenting and responding. Last January, Leslie Adrienne Miller participated in an e-learning workshop that allowed her to integrate podcasts of poetry readings and a blog report of students' responses.

Business 200 students, coordinated by Barbara Gorski, have for years completed a required community service component in our Opus College of Business.

Carol Bruess' communication and journalism students will collaborate with students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis in a unique service-learning opportunity. Mark Neuzil's advanced reporting students learned to produce slide shows, podcasts and videos. Steve Hoffman used videoconferencing to connect his political science students to a fellow professor and class in Belarus. Camille George has become internationally known for her work with sustainable engineering, leading courses with long-term impact in St. Vincent and Mali. Greg Mowry and students are developing a sustainable fuel source in Tanzania.

One of the most striking things about these examples is that they come from our undergraduate program. St. Thomas' graduate programs, with an already strong reputation for their focus on
active learning, have taken these concepts to a new level.

A stellar example is the award-winning Mentor Externship program in our School of Law. In each year of study, law students are paired with respected lawyers or judges in the community.   Students are able both to hone their lawyering skills and to experience personally the traditions, ideals and ethical standards so necessary to their careers.

Another example is the Aristotle Fund in our Opus College of Business. MBA students manage this investment fund, originally established by an anonymous donor, in a course taught by Mary Daugherty. Student analysts follow specific investment opportunities, using analytical skills and tools from the course, and then debate and actually execute the preferred stock purchases and sales. Local investment professionals serve as volunteer mentors.

Graduate students in other disciplines benefit greatly from active learning in class, as well as in the local and global community.

For example, Tatyana Avdeyeva arranged for her graduate professional psychology students to provide services to Boys Totem Town. Serene Thornton's social work students spend an hour observing at a county Human Services Department as a springboard to a discussion of Catholic social teaching and principles of social work and social justice. Doctoral students in Educational Leadership travel to Washington to study the role of national leaders in educational policy.

Additionally, our graduate programs coordinate with each other to meet students' needs for active learning, such as through the joint JD/MBA degree, and also to provide service to the community while gaining professional experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in our Interprofessional Center, which brings together graduate students in professional psychology, social work and law where they acquire cross-disciplinary clinical skills that will enable them to better serve those in need.

As mentioned previously, over this past summer we established the Center for Intercultural Learning and Community Engagement, also known as CILCE. We are fortunate to have found a very capable first director for this enterprise: Meaghan Allen Eliason, whom I am pleased to welcome today. As we reflect on how we have carried out our commitment to excellence, we must not forget the accomplishments that earned for St. Thomas the coveted "Community Engagement" classification by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2006. We formed CILCE, which will build on the activities of the former Center for Community Partnerships, to more fully coordinate these efforts, connect them more closely with our strategic priorities and mission and extend them more completely throughout the university. 

I am especially pleased that both of the principal core curriculum innovations passed by the St. Thomas faculty last year so clearly reflect our own commitment to active learning:

  • First, the bridge courses emphasize the importance of integrating knowledge across fields, in this case theology and a student's intended major.
  • Second, the writing across the curriculum initiative will create for students not only another opportunity to write but also to engage in a writing and revision process that stimulates critical thinking.

While we laud these achievements and are energized by their success, we also are well aware of our challenges:

  • Commitment to active learning challenges faculty to master and adopt new teaching techniques, such as how to prevent the unintended isolation of a student of color that can happen when a class breaks up into self-selected work groups.
  • Each departmental mission needs to specify student learning objectives and how those objectives will be actively met in the curriculum. 
  • Each department needs an assessment plan and should think creatively about pedagogies to enable student learning both within the curriculum and in service to the community.

In the universitywide effort of a couple of years ago in which this community generated a new mission statement and a vision statement, it also created a statement of our convictions. The second of these convictions reads: "We create a culture among faculty, students and staff that recognizes the power of ideas and rewards rigorous thinking." Let it suffice simply to say that this faculty is clearly living out that conviction.

Catholic identity

The third priority of our capital fundraising effort (third in sequence but not in importance) is Catholic identity. Funds raised for this purpose will enable us to more effectively carry out our mission as a Catholic university. To quote our Strategic Plan:

The Catholic identity of the University of St. Thomas is manifested in various ways. It can be seen through the University's continuing examination and engagement with Catholic intellectual, social and spiritual tradition; through its embracing of the richness and complexity of the meaning of Catholicism; through the dedication of all members of the University to active exploration of the contributions they might make to the education of morally responsible leaders who are committed to the advancement of the common good; and through its unique mission as a university in and of the city.8

The Self-Study Report prepared for our last North Central decennial visit called for "further discussion of the Catholic nature of the mission [of the University] … [to] seek consensus on common goals of the undergraduate and graduate programs." The report refers to units that had identified the need to discuss and better understand the meaning of the Catholic mission of the university and to bring that understanding to the curriculum.9

In the university's Convictions Statement, Conviction Number Three concerns the interrelationship of faith and reason. It reads:

We actively engage Catholic intellectual tradition, which values the fundamental compatibility of faith and reason and fosters meaningful dialogue directed toward the flourishing of human culture.

What is our long-range plan for strengthening the Catholic identity of St. Thomas? Four priorities emerged from our strategic planning process. The fourth regards sustainability and has already been mentioned.

The first priority states:

St. Thomas will further engage its Catholic identity by exploring the meaning and heightening the understanding of Catholic intellectual tradition throughout its curricular and co-curricular activities.

The second priority reads:

St. Thomas will give witness to the social teaching of the Church in its communal life, and will integrate principles of social justice across the curriculum and in co-curricular activities in order to educate students to be morally responsible leaders.

The third priority asserts:

St. Thomas will foster an academic community that is known for civil and respectful dialogue that both honors its Catholic tradition and is open to learn from those of other traditions and viewpoints.10

These are noble goals. In pursuing them, however, we must be careful to steer a course between the twin dangers that confront a Catholic university: secularism and sectarianism. The winds of secularism would propel us into total and noncritical assimilation of a culture that, judging from the media at least, has become materialistic, sensualistic and superficial. An "assimilated" Catholic university would have little left to offer that is distinctive. There are forces, on the other hand, whose definition of "Catholic" is far too narrow – one based on litmus-test correctness. Such protectionist approaches to maintaining Catholic identity leave no room for dialogue, or for engagement of the world's great challenges and heartaches. We must attend to both identity and dialogue at the same time, since for a Catholic university that is truly such, dialogue is part of identity and identity is part of dialogue.  

The Catholic wisdom tradition has long been distinguished as one that has been able to accept such core tensions. It is a community held together by faith. The Catholic university's mission is to bridge the divide between reason and faith, science and religion, philosophy and theology.

In a recent PBS documentary, noted science writer Margaret Wertheim described a growing movement among scientists and theologians who regard the two areas of inquiry as capable of mutual support.11 She introduced the work of George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who has lectured here at St. Thomas. She writes:

He insists that the universe is full of meaning and purposefulness. He points out that for all science's great achievements it is not necessarily the field which can show us the point of either our own lives or of the universe as a whole. That task is outside science, he says; instead it is to be found in our own experience as human beings living in the world. As he explains: "The whole of human experience, I think, tells us that there is a point, that there is meaningfulness to things. When I hold the hand of a dying friend, and see the expression of hope and joy – even at the moment of death – in that friend's eyes, I can see that there is meaningfulness to existence that goes beyond scientific investigation."12

For the late John Paul II "faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises… . "13 In an encyclical letter the late pope published 10 years ago he wrote:

Human beings seek to acquire those universal elements of knowledge which enable them to understand themselves better and to advance in their own self-realization. These fundamental elements of knowledge spring from the wonder awakened in them by the contemplation of creation: human beings are astonished to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them, all sharing a common destiny. Here begins, then, the journey which will lead them to discover ever new frontiers of knowledge.14

It is our hope as a Catholic university to contribute to this quest and serve as stewards of Catholic intellectual tradition. It also is our hope that, like Thomas, the scholar whose name we bear, we will seek wisdom wherever it is to be found. In the spirit of that scholar Catholic universities of the 21st century should be distinguished by the questions they ask and not just the answers they give.


By way of conclusion let me once again express my gratitude to faculty and staff for all you do to advance the mission of this university, and particularly for your efforts on behalf of access, excellence and the Catholic identity that have long been a hallmark of your life and work in this community. Because of your efforts we are well on our way to making the words of our Vision Statement a reality:

… 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.

God bless you with a happy and productive year!

End notes

"For Me Wearing Pants is the Same as Being Naked," Dhimmi Watch (June 18, 2008).

2 "Hispanics Now 15% of Population," (April 30, 2008), p. 1.  

3 "Record Number of Immigrants Arrive in Minnesota," Minnesota Department of Administration, Office of Geographic and Demographic Analysis (July 11, 2006), p. 3.  

4 Melissa Taylor Bell, Immigration: A Megatrends Backgrounder, A Publication of the Council of State Governments, p. 4.

5 "Economic Impact of Immigrants," Office of the Legislative Auditor, State of Minnesota (May 2006), p. 3.

6 Benedict XVI, "Address to Catholic Educators," Washington, D.C., April 17, 2008.

7 2007-2008 CLA Institutional Report, p. 3. See also 2007-2008 CLA Institutional Appendices.

8 University of St. Thomas Strategic Plan: "Catholic Identity."

9 Report of the Self-Study Prepared for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (August, 2003), p. 34.

10 University of St. Thomas Strategic Plan, Office of Mission.

11 Margaret Wertheim, "Faith and Reason," a PBS Documentary.

12 Ibid.

13 John Paul II, Introduction, Fides et Ratio.

14 Ibid., 4.