Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas, gave his 20th annual academic convocation address on Tuesday, Sept. 7, in O’Shaughnessy Educational auditorium to mark the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

Introductory remarks are traditionally given at the convocation by the chair of the faculty, a position held this year by Dr. Margaret Reif, an associate professor in the College of Applied Professional Studies. Reif, who has taught at St. Thomas since 1986, read from the works of Elliot Eisner, an art and education professor at Stanford University who spoke at St. Thomas in the 1990s. His essay, “The Satisfactions of Teaching,” can be read here.  

A video of the convocation can be seen here.

Following is the text of Dease’s address:

The Great Abraham-Monckton Climate Dispute

One of the more interesting and even entertaining developments this past summer had to do with a public disagreement over climate issues between Dr. John Abraham of our School of Engineering and Viscount Christopher Monckton of Great Britain.

I would encourage those of you who may have been out of the loop in July to go to Dr. Abraham’s web site or to Google the many media stories that were written about the dispute. You will walk away from your computer with a clearer understanding of the issues and with admiration for both the scholarly intellect and the never-blink courage of our Dr. Abraham.

Last fall, Mr. Monckton visited the Twin Cities and made a climate presentation during which he ridiculed concerns in the scientific community about global warming. What he said didn’t ring true with Dr. Abraham, who has done extensive research in the thermal sciences, and he responded last spring with a Web site rebuttal of Mr. Monckton’s claims. Mr. Monckton did not take well to the criticism and fired back, threatening a defamation lawsuit and demanding an apology, removal of Dr. Abraham’s Web site and monetary compensation. He also called St. Thomas – please pardon my language here – a “half-assed Bible college.” He referred to Dr. Abraham as “a wretched little man” and “a prawn.” And he said the president of the University of St. Thomas is “a creep.” This is the first time I have been called a creep – at least by a peer of the realm, so I regard it as a personal milestone of sorts.

I recently received a note from one of St. Thomas’ friends. She wrote: “Oh, my! You’ve stepped in it now! You must challenge Lord Christopher Monckton, the Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, to a duel. It’s the only way to settle the point. … In the name of all things holy, where is (Father John) Malone, who is supposed to have your back?!”

In all seriousness, I think we learned a great deal from this experience – and not just about the climate. It deepened my own appreciation of the important role members of our academic community play in shedding light on issues that are vital to the common good. This is part of our mission. As our Mission Statement reads:

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.

The university also has a Convictions Statement. The first of seven convictions in part reads:

We value intellectual inquiry as a life-long habit, the unfettered and impartial pursuit of truth in all its forms … .

We can take great pride in scholars such as John Abraham who place their scientific learning and expertise in service to the larger good, even at the risk of personal disparagement. To his credit, Dr. Abraham knew well that of which he spoke and despite the mounting pressure he did not flinch. Thank you, John, for the manner in which you carried yourself! You have brought distinction to this university community and we are proud to be associated with you.

This international dust-up actually introduces quite nicely three subjects I want to address today:

  1. Civility
  2. Environmental Stewardship, and
  3. The State of the University at 125.

 Civility

In this past summer’s scuffle over climate change with a member of the British nobility, I must say it was Professor Abraham who conducted himself nobly. His presentation was factual and respectful. He reflected so very well the civility that has become a hallmark of this university community. I have long admired the manner in which you as members of this community conduct discussions. You have created here a culture of civility. I realized anew this past summer how personally fortunate I have been to have had the opportunity to work with people who are noble in the truest sense of the word.

I am also proud to report that the university has undertaken several efforts to promote civil discourse, including an endowed chair in civil discourse, a co-curricular program for first-year students and an annual public discourse lecture series dealing with civility. The latter, according to Dean Marisa Kelly of the College of Arts and Sciences, will “strive to promote discussion of important ideas without the aggression, anger and obstinacy that often cloud such matters in today’s world.”

The College of Arts and Sciences’ civil discourse initiatives are truly integral to our liberal arts curriculum and our goal of graduating morally responsible leaders.

Environmental Stewardship

St. Thomas, however, does more than engage in discussions regarding climate change. On Oct. 9, 2008, the university’s Board of Trustees approved the following strategic priority:

The University of St. Thomas will cultivate an ethic of environmental stewardship, and will integrate principles of environmental sustainability across the curriculum and in co-curricular activities in order to educate students to appreciate their roles and obtain tools for leadership and innovation in care for God’s Creation.

On June 24, 2010, the university adopted a Climate Action Plan that serves as our roadmap to carbon neutrality by the year 2035. This is a significant step toward comprehensive campus sustainability. Paul Lorah and the St. Thomas Sustainability Committee, which was led by Bob Douglas, worked with Xcel Energy to develop a realistic Climate Action Plan for our campus. This plan will position the university to offset eventually more than 70,000 tons of carbon emissions per year by investing in green construction, energy efficiency, renewable energy and projects that sequester carbon. One of the most exciting things about the Climate Action Plan is the creation of a Campus Sustainability Fund that directly involves students by supporting service projects and applied research to reduce our environmental impact.

I want to thank Professor Elise Amel for her outstanding work on behalf of the university’s environmental stewardship, and for providing me a summary of recent highlights. For example:

  • In 2009, off-campus wind turbines generated 27.3 percent of the university’s electricity – this is enough wind energy to power all of the north campus residence halls.  St. Thomas became a certified EPA Green Power Partner because of our WindSource purchases.
  • IRT continues to use computers and printers from Dell and HP, companies rated numbers 1 and 2 for their efforts in environmental conservation.  Dell desktops and laptops consumed 25 percent less energy in the last fiscal year.
  • In February 2010, the university became a sponsor site for two HourCars – vehicles from the Neighborhood Energy Connection’s car-sharing program. UST has been one of the most active hubs for HourCar, in terms of number of new sign-ups, with at least 30 of the new HourCar members being students, faculty or staff of St. Thomas. The cars are Toyota Prius hybrids, so any mileage accrued will be more fuel-efficient than other vehicles.  Some departments have also started using the HourCar for business travel and student field trips.
  • In February 2010, Xcel Energy recognized this university with an award for the largest gas savings by a commercial customer in 2009. These savings are largely due to energy saving improvements in operations completed by the Physical Plant.
  • The new Anderson Athletic Complex incorporates a number of energy saving features that are in keeping with LEED standards. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green building certification system.
  • Every unit at the university is involved, from IRT to Food Service to Physical Plant contracts with vendors who have good records in helping to conserve energy and preserve energy. 

 Efforts among faculty to engage in sustainability have also continued.  Some highlights include:

  • Students in Paul Lorah’s Environmental Studies 151 course applied for a Pepsi grant to fund an installation of solar panels on the roof of Brady Hall last winter. In addition to creating renewable energy, these solar panels will be monitored, tested and used by students for projects in future courses.  Students have also helped design a “Donate a Solar Panel to St. Thomas” program and are creating marketing materials for the Development Office. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Marisa Kelly dedicated externally raised funds to support 10 $1,000 Environmental Stewardship Grants that support faculty efforts to integrate issues such as climate change into their courses. Sponsored projects represent a broad range of disciplines including art history, English, geography, justice and peace, philosophy, biology and chemistry.
  • Biology faculty Adam Kaye, Kyle Zimmer and Chester Wilson have worked with students to establish an organic community garden behind the house at 2140 Summit Ave. This garden is providing research opportunities for students and fresh produce to food shelves. Last month, 35 pounds of tomatoes and peppers were delivered to the Emergency Food Shelf Network in New Hope.

State of the University

I would now like to address some of the university’s recent milestones to make my case that despite the comments of a recent critic, there’s nothing half-baked, half-hearted or half-anything-else about the University of St. Thomas.

Tomorrow, Sept. 8, will mark the 125th anniversary of the formal opening of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, the forerunner of what was to become the University of St. Thomas. On that first day of classes in 1885, there were no books and no desks. Who could have imagined that a century-and-a-quarter later St. Thomas would be operating on four campuses, and that thanks to the Internet its students would have access to all the great libraries of the world?

One can only imagine the University of St. Thomas 125 years hence. A campus on Mars, perhaps? Or students doing lab work in orbiting space stations? Maybe due to longevity and widespread use of bionic parts, John Gagliardi will still be head football coach at St. John’s University? What it will look like we simply do not know. We do know, however, that the strides we make today will serve as the foundations for what are able to do tomorrow. We also know that because of the good work of our colleagues of years past, our 125th year finds the university in remarkably robust condition. Due in no small part to their efforts and ours, St. Thomas today is making steady progress on a variety of fronts, despite the challenges of a sluggish economy.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that St. Thomas is on a roll, a really big roll, probably the biggest roll ever.

Fall Freshman Class

As you may have suspected from seeing the throngs of students on campus today, we have the largest freshman class in St. Thomas history.

That we set an enrollment record with this year’s class is no surprise, given that we have set several records in the past decade, including last fall’s class of 1,352 students. This year, however, we blew by that record, enrolling 1,521 freshmen, or 13 percent higher than a year ago. Of course, these numbers will not be finalized until the 10th day of classes.

Lest you think we simply opened the sluice gates and tossed our academic standards or our financial aid budget to the winds, let me reassure you that neither was the case. The freshman class is among the strongest academically in our history, with an average ACT score of 25.49, an average high school GPA of 3.54 and an average senior class rank in the 75th percentile. We have 25 valedictorians and five National Merit scholars. 10.3 percent are students of color.

What explains the unprecedented size of the class – especially given the lingering recession, declining demographics and rising competition? To be perfectly honest, we are not exactly sure, but we do know that the traditional spring and summer “melt” that takes place when students make their final choices and some “deselect” St. Thomas, did not occur nearly as much as in previous years. Consequently, we’re happy to make room for more students here, and I know you will join me in welcoming them.

To reach such a point took another exceptional effort. I want to thank Dr. Mark Dienhart, executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Associate Vice President Marla Friederichs and her Enrollment Services team for their recruitment efforts, as well as Vice President for Student Affairs Jane Canney and her colleagues for finding beds for most of those additional freshmen. I would also like to commend Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Sue Huber and her colleagues Michael Jordan, director of undergraduate academic affairs, and Marisa Kelly and Terry Langan in the College of Arts and Sciences for reacting quickly to create more introductory course sections and recruit faculty to teach them.

Anderson Facilities

Our new freshmen are beginning their St. Thomas experience at an auspicious time. They will be able to take advantage of the new Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex, which opened its doors last week, and from there enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the construction of the Anderson Student Center. Those two projects, along with the Anderson Parking Facility on the south campus, represent a $133 million bricks-and-mortar investment, thanks to the generosity of trustee Lee Anderson, his wife Penny and hundreds of other benefactors. The new facilities will greatly enhance the co-curricular, athletic and recreation experiences of future generations of students – not to mention their ability to park their cars.

The construction of the three Anderson projects represents another milestone in our effort to provide the best possible learning and living environments for our students. In the past decade alone, we have opened or expanded seven buildings: for business, law and Catholic Studies, for athletics and recreation, for resident students, and for our child development program. More work remains to be done, of course, with the new student center opening in 16 months, and I know we must still provide better facilities for our music programs; but for now I am pleased with how we have been able to upgrade our physical presence.

Dozens of people deserve credit for their work on these projects and, in particular, on our new Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex. I want to offer special thanks to Dr. Mark Dienhart and the Development staff for raising the funds. My thanks go, also, to Mark Vangsgard, vice president for business affairs, and to Jane Canney and their staffs for their efforts in working with Opus to plan, construct and open the Anderson facility.

There is another important milestone here that most are probably not aware of: a project budget apart from our operating budget to assume the debt service and maintenance cost of the Anderson buildings. Restricted gifts and incremental revenues are projected to handle those new expenses. These new buildings, in other words, will not add to the burden of our operating budget. This is a first for the university.

Athletic Achievements

You can imagine how excited our nationally ranked football team and other fall sports athletes were when they arrived on campus in August for pre-season workouts and found the Anderson complex ready for them.

I don’t want to set the bar too high for our teams this year, but I would think that the new facilities will only make them better and could propel St. Thomas even higher as an “athletic powerhouse,” as one local sports talk show host recently called us.

Last year, our 22 teams finished 10th nationally among 435 institutions in the Division III Director’s Cup competition. They won both the men’s and women’s All-Sports trophies in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for the third straight year, and in the process 30 athletes were honored as All-Americans and seven as Academic All-Americans.

Over the summer, his NCAA peers honored Steve Fritz as West Region Athletic Director of the Year, and d3football.com ranked our football team No. 5 in its preseason poll. Last Saturday’s opening 40-7 win over St. Norbert was a good omen, I believe, for what should be an outstanding season.

Donor Participation

St. Thomas set another record last year, but it had nothing to do with the size of our freshman class or how well our athletic teams performed. It involved you, as donors to the university. For the year that ended June 30, 53 percent of our workforce made a financial gift to the university as part of the Faculty and Staff Annual Campaign.

That’s an outstanding number, near the top among Minnesota private colleges, I am told, but what’s even more impressive is how much the number has increased over the last two years. In 2008-2009, 17 percent of faculty and staff made a gift. That’s right, 17 percent. The following year, the number jumped to 40 percent. And now, 53 percent! Foundations, corporations and other donors pay close attention to this number, and participation at this level will impress them.

Credit goes to our Development Office, and John Bannigan, director of the Annual Fund, for creating a strong program to encourage faculty and staff members to give to St. Thomas programs and scholarships of their choosing. A little friendly competition among departments has spurred donations, too, with 19 departments achieving 100 percent participation.

You have my heartfelt thanks for your generous support.

‘A Great Place to Work’

The creativity, cooperation and collaboration necessary to bring in a large freshman class, open a complex building and achieve record participation in the annual fund – to name just three projects – is clear proof that we have faculty staff and administrators committed to excellence.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.

The weekly newspaper recently named St. Thomas a “Best Place to Work.” We placed ninth among the 10 large employers that were honored – those with at least 1,000 full-time Minnesota employees, based on a survey in which 40 percent of our faculty and staff participated.  The newspaper’s stories about each of the honorees included tips on “How To Get a Rockin’ Workplace,” and said the following about St. Thomas:

(1) Create a collaborative culture where people feel free to express their opinions,

(2) Focus on developing people, and

(3) Make sure you look at the whole person.

It is my opinion that the University of St. Thomas shines in these areas, and I want to thank you for your special role in that. As I told a Business Journal reporter during an interview, this recognition simply confirmed for me what I have known for many years: that St. Thomas is a great place to work. It is my good fortune to have been part of this community for more than four decades – as a student, faculty member and administrator – and I have always had a profound appreciation for your commitment and dedication.

Matching Challenge Grant

So … when you add up everything that I have just talked about, plus much, much more, what do you have? You have a pretty good University of St. Thomas, in my eyes.

And in the eyes of our benefactors. We launched our Opening Doors capital campaign three years ago with an aggressive goal of $500 million, which is twice the amount raised during our previous capital fundraising effort: Ever Press Forward. Despite the onset of the recession the following year, we have made steady progress toward achieving that half-billion-dollar target and ended our last fiscal year on June 30 with $390 million in gifts and pledges – or nearly 80 percent of our goal. That total has since climbed to $400,350,311.

One benefactor, who has chosen to remain anonymous, is so impressed with St. Thomas’ achievements that he has generously issued a major challenge to us. It gives me great pleasure to announce that this anonymous benefactor has pledged to match gifts that we raise over the next six months – up to $25 million.

This challenge has several restrictions. Any donations must be “new” gifts as of July 1, 2010 that are not in payment of existing pledges. One million dollars of the match will be reserved for gifts between $1,000 and $24,999, and the other $24 million will match gifts of $25,000 or more. Half of the $25 million will be reserved for the School of Law, $5 million for undergraduate and graduate scholarships, and $7.5 million for other priorities in our Opening Doors campaign. Any gifts – from individuals, foundations or corporations – will be eligible for the match. As of today, just over $5 million of the $25 million has been matched.

Success in completing this challenge will bring our campaign total to at least $440 million – or 88 percent of our goal. Success will mean additional resources for so many deserving programs and especially for our students in the form of scholarships and grants.

And success will say a great deal about how the University of St. Thomas is viewed by our friends. I find it astonishing, when I stop to think about it, that someone would be so willing in these times to make such a generous investment in our future.

* * * *

I am immensely grateful for benefactors such as this individual and for the talented and committed faculty and staff who serve this university so ably. To recap my three themes today, you are creating here a culture of civility, a commitment to the common good and inclusive of the planet, and a university of which we can all be very proud.

As we reach the end of Milestone Year 125 and remember with gratitude the pioneering work of those who have gone before us, perhaps we might take inspiration from the words of one who, like, John Ireland emigrated from Ireland in the wake of the Great Hunger there, and settled as a farmer in Manitoba. His name, somewhat unusual for an Irish immigrant, was Nelson Henderson. At his son’s college graduation he told him: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

Bless you, and have a wonderful year!