Hundreds of St. Thomas community members gathered Thursday for President Julie Sullivan’s “State of the University” address.

Sullivan reflected on the fall semester, discussed the many actions taken extending from the strategic plan, and looked ahead to the future as St. Thomas aims to stay relevant to society’s needs.

Below is the transcript of Sullivan’s speech.

Good afternoon,

I am grateful to you for taking time to come together for this message. Our lives are very full and our calendars keep us quite busy.

However, it is important to pause and reflect together — reflect on our successes and challenges, reconfirm our continued dedication to our students and our work, and embrace a shared vision that will help us thrive into the future as One St. Thomas.

Before I begin, I want to express my deep gratitude for each of you. Thank you for being a part of this community. Thank you for your dedication to St. Thomas.

Reflection

I would like to begin my remarks this afternoon by reflecting on the academic year. Several events this past fall semester challenged us and, I would say, also inspired us, to be better. I am proud that we responded to these events guided by our convictions and with a recommitment to our students.

First, the healthy number of incoming first-year students who came through our arches this fall was truly inspiring and humbling. Students and families are choosing St. Thomas and expect us to deliver on our promises of academic excellence, personal attention, character formation and preparation for the complexities of the modern world.

As in the past, we rose to the occasion to serve these students and pulled together to tackle the logistical challenges of doing so on a much larger scale than we anticipated.

From the energy of our new students, and from our returning students, we found inspiration.

The tragic deaths of two dear students challenged us to remember that we have the honor of spending only a few precious, vulnerable years with these young people who choose St. Thomas. It certainly challenged me to be grateful for this honor and to remember the incredible responsibility we have to each individual student who marches through the arches, attends our classes and becomes a part of our community.

This fall, we also were challenged by racism. The racial incident that occurred on our campus jarred our community. It challenged us to make an intentional commitment to be a different institution. It inspired us to make systemic changes that will help our university thrive.

In addition, this fall, we – primarily the faculty community – engaged in a challenging and thorough discussion about the St. Thomas curriculum, resulting in a historic vote of the entire faculty on a new undergraduate curriculum. This discussion challenged us to look anew at what a St. Thomas education should encompass.

Faculty were asked to ensure that our students are given a liberal arts experience that prepares them for a new and complex world. They were challenged to both adapt to the changing requirements and expectations of employers and to keep our core values intact. Again, our faculty were inspired to keep the needs of our students top of mind as they made these decisions.

While many of these events of the fall were challenging – and some very painful for our community – they forced us to recommit to our purpose and to reflect upon, as faculty, staff and administrators, why we are here and who we serve. We rose collectively to these challenges with a recommitment to serve our students, and to do so within the context of our mission and convictions.

We refer to our mission frequently; however, some of you may be less familiar with our convictions, which I am sure you noticed we are featuring in our campus banners this semester. These convictions were adopted by our Board of Trustees in October 2004 and remain beautifully articulated guideposts for our work today. Let me take just a moment to read them:

  1. We value intellectual inquiry as a lifelong habit, the unfettered and impartial pursuit of truth in all its forms, the integration of knowledge across disciplines, and the imaginative and creative exploration of new ideas.
  2. We create a culture among faculty, students and staff that recognizes the power of ideas and rewards rigorous thinking.
  3. 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.
  4. We respect the dignity of each person and value the unique contributions that each brings to the greater mosaic of the university community.
  5. We strive to create a vibrant diverse community in which, together, we work for a more just and inclusive society.
  6. We foster a caring culture that supports the well-being of each member.
  7. We celebrate the achievements of all members of our community in goals attained and obstacles overcome, and in all things give praise to God.

Our responses to the challenges of the fall were undertaken not only in the context of our mission and convictions; this work also was done in the context of our strategic plan.

Strategic plan update

Five years ago, we articulated the following vision and set forth a plan to achieve it:

The University of St. Thomas, a Catholic comprehensive urban university, is known nationally for academic excellence that prepares students for the complexities of the contemporary world. Through disciplinary and interdisciplinary inquiry and deep intercultural understanding, we inspire students to lead, work and serve with the skill and empathy vital to creating a better world.

We have made great progress on our strategic plan.  I want to point out a few of the ways I see us making that vision a reality.

  1. We hired three new academic deans in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Dougherty Family College, and the School of Education, to join an incredible group of deans who are constantly improving our academic offerings. They all respond to the needs to our current and future students with an ear to the ground, listening and adapting to the changing landscape that our graduates face.
  2. We launched a campus master plan that will have a profound impact on our physical campus. Next academic year, we will begin a significant transformation of north campus, with the construction of two new residence halls and a reconstruction of the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas.
  3. We launched the Dougherty Family College (DFC) and will soon celebrate our first graduating class. Certainly we have helped change the lives of our DFC students, who otherwise would not be able to attend a school like St. Thomas. Moreover, we as a university have learned valuable lessons and renewed a deep connection to our mission by knowing and serving our DFC students. We have learned about resiliency, understanding and empathy – and we have been challenged to be a better university. Time has flown by and now we are preparing to guide and support DFC graduates as they pursue their bachelor’s degrees.
  4. More than ever before, we are intentionally focused on retaining all of our students and helping them engage in their education in a way that helps them take full advantage of a St. Thomas education and graduate in four years. Academic Affairs and Student Affairs together launched the Center for Student Achievement. The Center for Student Achievement, our new central hub designed to connect students with resources across campus, is making a difference helping to guide and provide targeted support to students. For the first time at St. Thomas, nearly 69 percent (68.8) of undergraduate students completed their degrees in four years, marking a nearly four-point increase compared to five years ago.
  5. Our new tuition model to be implemented next year also will encourage students to stay on track to graduate while taking full advantage of the four-year experience at St. Thomas.
  6. We are recognizing the unique needs of our veteran students. The University of St. Thomas was just designated as a Military Friendly campus (for the second straight year). This reflects our support for veteran students across many areas. Beyond the opening of the Veterans Resource Center in November 2017, a range of programming and events have supported veteran students. Our goal is to make St. Thomas the most veteran-friendly campus in the Upper Midwest.
  7. We launched the Center for the Common Good to solidify our strong tradition of Tommies engaging in the community and in the world around us.

The work of the center has allowed us to engage with a network of nonprofits like Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities and Ashoka, becoming a hub that connects our students to meaningful ways to make sustainable change in our world.

Through the Center, more than 3,000 Tommies log about 60,000 hours per year, working with 200 partner nonprofit organizations, schools and agencies. And, working with faculty, the center has offered 70 courses designed to engage directly in the community.

This robust work is why St. Thomas has been chosen to host the 2020 Ashoka U Changemaker Exchange, an annual meeting of about 700 social innovators and faculty, staff and students from Ashoka U colleges and universities. Ashoka U is a select community of 45 “changemaker campuses” around the world, placing St. Thomas in distinguished company and enabling us to learn from and share with like-minded institutions.

Yet, we do this work in the community not for this recognition, but because our students benefit from these transformational experiences.  We are giving our students the skills they need to engage in the world and make it a better place.

  1. For the first time in our history, we are planning for the implementation of a two-year residency requirement on campus. Living on campus and being fully engaged in the St. Thomas experience will help students to persist, thrive and take advantage of the full range of learning opportunities St. Thomas has to offer. Work is underway to ensure that we implement this requirement in a way that is equitable and accessible to all students.
  2. Next fall we will launch the Center for Well-Being, putting the physical, mental and spiritual health of our students front and center. The best outcomes for health care are emerging from an integrated model addressing wellness from prevention and early detection, to ongoing coordination of care.

We are taking a bold step to respond to the increasing mental health needs of our students.

Opportunities to infuse our mission

Throughout this incredible list of accomplishments, we have been guided by our mission. As we look ahead to future initiatives that will advance St. Thomas, we continue to have significant opportunities to infuse our mission as a Catholic university in intentional ways.

First, we have a unique opportunity before us to ensure the infusion of Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic social teaching as we implement our new undergraduate curriculum.

The Catholic intellectual tradition is at its core about a search for truth and helping our students engage in the questions and challenges of our time. Our new curriculum must help guide the intellectual, spiritual and ethical formation of our students, while instilling academic excellence and this search for truth.

There are several opportunities to infuse these ideals, starting with the First-Year Experience. The First-Year Experience will give all new students the opportunity to explore a mission-based theme across at least two disciplines and connect it to Catholic social teaching.

We can also show how to integrate ideas and perspectives across disciplines and communities in the new Integrations in the Humanities courses.

The new Signature Work Requirement advances our mission by asking upper-class students to call on their entire St. Thomas experience to reflect on, engage with, and respond to a problem.

And, finally, the Enhanced Curriculum Experience will encourage students to explore learning experiences outside of their primary majors. There will be opportunities for new mission-based minors, certificates or other guided experiences.

I want to encourage and challenge faculty to fully embrace these opportunities to infuse our mission and create innovative experiences for students that connect with the mission in robust and meaningful ways.

Secondly, I want to emphasize once again, and for as many times as it takes: We are all called to embrace our institution’s responsibility to combat racism. We can take guidance directly from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent pastoral letter on racism, emphasizing that every human being is made in God’s image, and how racism manifests itself among individuals, institutions, systems and structures. Let me quote that letter:

“As a nation, we have never sufficiently contended with the impact of overt racism. Nor have we spent the necessary time to examine where the racist attitudes of yesterday have become a permanent part of our perceptions, practices and policies of today, or how they have been enshrined in our social, political, and economic structures.”

Our Action Plan to Combat Racism has begun to take root, and it is here to stay. At St. Thomas, we are going to “spend the necessary time.” The letter goes on to say:

Racism can only end if we contend with the policies and institutional barriers that perpetuate and preserve the inequality – economic and social – that we see all around us.”

We need to examine our own institutional barriers at St. Thomas. We need to examine our policies when it comes to hiring, retaining employees and faculty, recruiting students, providing financial aid, creating curriculum, reporting bias, etc. So many of you are engaging in this work already and I want this to be a permanent and sustaining part of each of our jobs and how we operate as a university. It is up to us to ensure that this work persists and sustains cultural and structural change at St. Thomas and beyond.

For me personally, this has challenged me to think about my own racial identity and stereotypes. I have joined a CEO cohort in the Twin Cities that is meeting regularly with facilitators and trainers from the Wilder Foundation to more fully understand racism as a social construct and as a system that I and others have been socialized into. I just finished reading the book, White Fragility. I am examining my own “white fragility” and seeking to determine where my prejudices play a part and where I need to re-examine my actions and interactions with others.

I am pleased to share that our Board of Trustees also has embraced this commitment to more fully understand and combat racism.  They have formed an ad hoc task force of trustees to help us become a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community.

I also want to mention how our Catholic mission ties so directly to our renewed focus on sustainability at St. Thomas – a commitment firmly rooted in Catholic social thought.

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, known as Laudato Si, also called, “On Care for Our Common Home,” compels us to pay increasing attention to how we care for our people and our planet. Emphasizing love as a motivating force, Pope Francis calls on everyone – individuals, institutions and nations – to do their part to protect the environment. By doing so, we will improve the lives of the poor today and guarantee a better world for future generations.

This compelling call to embrace our Catholic mission will guide our work to create a more environmentally conscious campus. Our goal at St. Thomas, is to “catalyze university-wide engagement and create an embedded culture of sustainability that prepares students to be sustainability leaders during their university years and beyond.”

Thanks to the work of many people on campus, we are answering this call. Last year we completed our first comprehensive sustainability assessment and earned a silver STARS rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Now, our sustainability council, comprised of faculty, staff and students from a number of disciplines and roles across campus, is proposing a comprehensive action plan to advance this commitment to sustainability. We will infuse sustainability in our academic programs, student life, facilities and operations, public engagement, and administrative functions.

Staying relevant to society’s needs

In our sustainability work, we are called to look ahead, and to reframe our work to better prepare our institution and our students for the future.

I want to mention other ways that we are preparing for the challenges of tomorrow.

At St. Thomas, we have a strong tradition of helping our graduates stay relevant to the changing forces in the economy, the constantly shifting demands of the workforce and the needs of society.

We prepare students for the complexities of the contemporary world. We do this first and foremost by instilling a strong liberal arts foundation that provides resilience and flexibility for a lifetime of learning and adaptability.

At the same time, thanks to our faculty and deans who are attuned to their external partners, we stay very closely connected to the emerging skills and competencies demanded by employers and needed in society.

I am proud that we are developing ideas and curriculum with external input, and I am proud that St. Thomas has the reputation for listening to employers and adapting to the changing world.

It is with this eye toward the future and a response to the needs of our society that we are developing our College of Health. Every year, we turn students away from St. Thomas who seek a career in nursing. This demand is evident in the statistics. According to the state demographer, over the next two decades, more than 600,000 Minnesotans are expected to reach age 65 or older.

At the same time, Minnesota’s medical care field — doctors, nurses and other primary care roles— is expected to grow by tens of thousands of jobs by the year 2024.

Our College of Health will embody the university’s commitment to Catholic social teaching, with a focus on concern for the marginalized and underserved, and in defining health and wellness in terms of the dignity of the whole person.

While other colleges offer isolated programs that address certain areas of health and wellness, we have a unique opportunity at St. Thomas to create undergraduate majors and graduate programs in a new, interdisciplinary approach.

We have a unique opportunity at St. Thomas to create undergraduate and graduate programs with a new, interdisciplinary approach and to train integrated health care teams (social workers, mental health counselors and nurses) focused on the whole person.

Because of our expertise in health care business analytics and artificial intelligence, which is playing an increasingly important role in diagnostics, and our powerful focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, we are uniquely poised to offer health care programs that are not just about healing the sick, but also explore systems changes that will improve the health outcomes of individuals and communities.

I am excited about the possibilities to showcase our students in the health care field. As you know, we are in the process of hiring a founding dean and a director of nursing for the college.

Our interdisciplinary approach is spreading throughout St. Thomas, and it’s a model you will see more prominently in our near future, as we work to develop a new academic STEAM complex on the south campus.

Visioning currently is underway for a STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math – experiential learning complex for our students.

The future demands workspace, lab space and collaborative space that will bring students together in cross-disciplinary teams. The design will allow a new kind of collaboration among students and faculty and will create a hub of innovation.

We have built our St Thomas science and engineering programs to be empowered by the liberal arts, and now with this new expansion we will, in turn, allow our science and engineering programs to foster the technical and digital literacy to empower our liberal arts graduates. We often say that our engineers are better engineers because of their liberal arts background.  Similarly, our liberal arts majors will be better prepared to apply their liberal arts skills because of their technical and digital literacy.

The new space will help us meet the increasing demands for engineering and lab space. It will provide collaborative performance space for our music programs, as well as a venue to showcase our other disciplines to the community. The space will allow for a living and learning lab and it represents what future St. Thomas students will expect from us.

This vision of bringing together the best of St. Thomas to provide a cutting-edge experiential learning space for our students will set us apart. It will help us attract talented students who are yearning for this creative educational excellence.

I want to mention a final priority as we look to the future, and it is about affordability and access for our underserved and underrepresented students.

Our St. Thomas education is very valuable. We educate life-ready, values-based leaders who can persuasively communicate, see connections and solve complex problems in a rapidly changing world. We give an incredible amount of institutional aid to help our students afford a St. Thomas education, and we have generous donors who offset the cost of tuition for students across need levels.

Yet, there remain way too many families and students for whom a St. Thomas education is out of reach. I believe we can and must do more, especially to ensure that we are remaining accessible for all families and students.

The financial aid needs of today’s low- and middle-income students and families are not being adequately met in our country, and demographics show that high school graduates are coming to us with more need than ever. We must be an institution that finds creative ways to be accessible to more underserved and underrepresented students.

We must continue to strive to create a vibrant diverse community in which, together, we work for a more just and inclusive society.

Closing

As I close, I want to thank you for your contribution to this greater good. Your dedication to our students is immense and ever-flowing. Every day, I see visible signs in you that our mission is front and center.

I am excited to see the progress represented by the rejuvenation of the spiritual heart of our campus, the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas. Our chapel will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. In May we will break ground on a 23,000-square-foot expansion that will honor our Catholic roots while becoming an inclusive place for people of all faiths to gather and worship. This will be a visible sign of renewal for our campus.

It will be sign of hope to our community and it will inspire us to continue to renew and refresh our commitments.

I am grateful to you, staff, faculty and students, who make up this community of St. Thomas. I have never known a group of people as loyal and intentional. You are dedicated to improving the St. Thomas experience for our current community as well as for future generations.

I am honored to be on this journey with you.

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