St. Kate’s looks ahead

| June 21, 2016 | 0 Comments
Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Driven by mission, the Catholic liberal arts university for women plans for future with new president

As St. Catherine University in St. Paul welcomes its 11th president, alumna ReBecca “Becky” Roloff, in July, faculty and staff are preparing to transition from 18 years of leadership under President Sister Andrea Lee of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Last fall, Sister Andrea announced her resignation and later, her acceptance as president of Alverno College in Milwaukee beginning this fall.

Four leaders weigh in about their vision of the 111-year-old school and how past accomplishments will keep driving its mission, which is deeply rooted in the social justice principles of its foundresses, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Contemporary Catholic education

At the forefront for many university leaders is how to gain momentum as a Catholic liberal arts women’s university. With a student body of about 5,000 in its associate through doctorate programs, continuing to offer relevant education for its diverse student body remains a focus.

“It’s never OK to just sit back and think that the programs that we have are fine. We always have to be thinking about what’s new and changing in the environment and how are we making sure we’re keeping up with that,” said Joann Bangs, dean of the School of Business and Professional Studies.

“But, the only way we’re going to do that is to make sure that we still feel like we’re fulfilling the mission at the same time. So, when we add on business programs, we’re adding them on because we want ethical business leaders to be coming out of St. Kate’s.”

While university leaders say attracting a new wave of students is among its priorities, the undergraduate programs will remain exclusively female. The associate, graduate and doctorate programs accept men.

Bangs said that while the university offers co-educational programs at its St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses, St. Kate’s values the lessons learned from having the women-only college at its heart.

“So, it’s not necessarily only about single-sex education, but it’s thinking about education that fits women,” said Bangs, who taught economics at the university for 10 years before becoming a dean. “It’s much more cooperatively based, trying to be less hierarchical. And that way of thinking influences how we do our [other] degree programs.”

Bangs said that while St. Kate’s Catholic component attracts a large number of people, the university has to work to sell the “women only” aspect with traditional students.

“What we find is sometimes people come here even though it’s a women’s college,” she said, “and after that first year or so, [they say] . . . the best thing they ever did was decide to come to a women’s college.”

The university’s biggest challenges are shared among other higher education institutions: making the college experience accessible and affordable, while keeping in mind immigrant and first-generation college students, said Margaret Ford, a 1982 alumna who recently became chairwoman of the board of trustees.

“We want to find a way to have students find a way to succeed without burdening them with debt,”
she said.

Mission and Catholic identity

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Amata Miller, 83, outgoing director of the school’s Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity, will retire knowing that Catholic identity will continue to be a priority for faculty, staff and students.

That’s because the program is endowed, thanks to a $1 million gift from Patricia O’Connor Myser, 1956 alumna, and her husband, the late John Myser.

The endowment is critical, Sister Amata said, because the initiative builds from the bottom up. In the last 10 years, her job as endowed chair has been to develop Catholic identity with the faculty, who’ll carry it out through their teaching and programs. Instead of holding seminars or having a specific department dedicated to Catholic identity, Sister Amata said the school is intentionally and purposefully infusing the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic social teaching throughout the university. It’s a model thatSt. Kate’s is spreading across the nation, she added.

“We don’t take mission lightly here,” Sister Amata said.

“We have had to spend a great deal of time and effort over the last 10 years . . . to increase understanding, respect and appreciation for the Catholic identity of this institution — what does it mean?” she said. “Because you can’t expect the faculty to implement and carry out Catholic identity in their work if they don’t know what it is.”

Acknowledging that many students, faculty and staff aren’t Catholic, Sister Amata said St. Kate’s mission isn’t to proselytize, but to help others understand what a Catholic university contributes to their education and profession, as well as nourishing their own faith.

Mark Blegen, associate professor and chair of nutrition and exercise sciences, believes the university’s “Catholic piece” distinguishes it from competitors.

With its reputation in health care and the university’s private, liberal arts focus, Blegen, who’s Lutheran, said St. Kate’s upholds the principles of Catholic social teaching and the spirit of the Sisters of St. Joseph of
Carondelet to “love thy neighbor.”

“Because of that faith-based, mission-based perspective and moving the spirit of the CSJs forward, it’s really an active partnership with our community,” he said. “Hopefully, the community . . . is going to experience and work with us in developing new, wonderful partnerships and relationships.”

Making its mark

Key milestones in St. Catherine University’s past two decades

  • Received a $20 million gift from the university’s foundresses, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
  • Launched the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health and other programs.
  • Transitioned to university status from being the College of St. Catherine.
  • Built Coeur de Catherine, the student activities center.
  • Attracted major grants and led capital campaigns.
  • Established Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity.

Building on a health care legacy

Historically, nursing has been a signature program at the university, which will use a recent $18 million gift from the Twin Cities-based GHR Foundation to develop innovative models for health care education.

“What really attracted GHR to St. Kate’s in this respect was the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health,” said Blegen, who is also associate dean of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health. “At St. Kate’s, everything [health-related] falls under the umbrella of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health, and that was by design, so we can be inter-professional in all our work.”

Inter-professional education — two or more disciplines learning from or about one another, Blegen explained — allows St. Kate’s to prepare students for their careers.

“We’re developing the current and the future workforce to practice in the environment that’s being created now and that’s coming down the road,” he said. “We know that the health care of tomorrow is going to be delivered by a health care team. It doesn’t always have to be a physician leading that charge.”

When the grant money becomes available next July, St. Kate’s will invest it in three areas: primary care, global health and senior/long-term care. The grant will also fund international field work, required for the master’s program in public health that launches this fall.

Blegen, who has been at St. Kate’s for nine years, said strong relationships with Twin Cities and regional health care institutions will guide its broader work.

The university is “working in tandem with some wonderful organizations to say, ‘What do you need, how can we innovate, how can we help … your company or your program move forward and develop the current workforce, and here’s what St. Kate’s can do for you,’” he said.

Anticipating ‘a new ballgame’

With Sister Andrea’s nearly 20-year tenure, very few faculty members have been through such a transition. For 18 years, the environment at St. Kate’s has been fairly stable, said Blegen, who served on the search committee for Sister Andrea’s successor.

“There’s tremendous excitement and anxiety,” he said.

Any anxiety, however, is overridden by the excitement of what’s possible, he added.

“Sister Andrea did this fantastic job of getting St. Kate’s to where it is, and we really weathered the economic storm and the downturn in enrollments [among private universities nationwide],” Blegen said. “And St. Kate’s is as strong as ever.”

Board chairwoman Ford said St. Kate’s is primed to fully express its qualities as a Catholic university.

“We’re really a place where it’s safe to experience a spiritual life,” she said. “And, all who come here are embraced and they’re guided so that they can serve the community and go out and respond to the needs of any neighbor who’s in need.”

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