The Scroll: Change Confronts Us All – and Not Just a New President

Now that the St. Thomas community has had a few weeks to react to the announcement of a new president, it strikes me as a good time to talk about change – that relentless engine that prods, pushes and pulls us along, no matter how reluctant we are.

Dave Nimmer

Dave Nimmer

I admit I’m no poster child for new ways and different strokes, but I’ve also learned that dreaming of days that never were is neither productive nor practical. So I’m trying to find comfort in the months ahead, and what I see is reassuring.

First of all, St. Thomas is positioned well in the marketplace: a hefty endowment, a strong faculty, an attractive campus, a supportive staff and a good reputation. Together, they create an environment that will survive in the competitive world of higher education.

Our mission statement makes it clear who we are and what we’re about: “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 common good.”

That means to me UST is primarily devoted to teaching, turning out enlightened students who can find jobs and know what to do when they get one. It also means we’re Catholic and always will be engaged in that delicate dance between faith and reason.

If new leadership does, in fact, prompt new ideas, they will come at a propitious time. Higher education, in my opinion, increasingly will be under the gun in the months and years ahead.

The University of Minnesota recently was challenged in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal about what the story termed “administrative bloat” that may contribute to higher tuition.

A front-page story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune described an “open rebellion” against the president of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, from professors, students and alumni who feel he is autocratic and insensitive to academic traditions. On the other hand, one Gustavus faculty member says he thinks the president is being blamed for a crisis that affects all of higher education.

I don’t know whether crisis is the right word, but I’ve got a pretty good hunch what the issues will be at four-year colleges all over the country:

  • How to keep college affordable, especially in light of online alternatives that offer a degree AND direct contact with employers who are interested in hiring its graduates.
  • How to preserve the integrity of a liberal arts core curriculum while acknowledging the need to teach specific skills to land jobs.
  • How to control budgets judiciously, with a surgeon’s scalpel, not a forester’s axe.

To me these are reasons enough to welcome a new leader and some new thinking. I have a hunch that among the qualities of Dr. Julie Sullivan impressing the search committee was her ability to manage high-powered people and bottom-line budgets. And this is coming from a guy who worked for 15 years at the Minneapolis Star, giving nary a thought to changing lifestyle patterns that would spell doom for afternoon newspapers.