In 1987, when Joe Brom joined the Chemistry Department as a professor, the first two courses he taught were in physical chemistry. Brom immediately noticed “the classrooms and laboratory for these courses were the same ones I occupied as a student years earlier.” Furthermore, he noted, “Not much had changed since I left with my B.S. degree in chemistry in 1964. There was one computer in the entire department, an Apple IIe. I required several computers be available to students for my lab assignments, and so I often brought my class over to a computer lab that was available in the Christ Child School. There, I met Tom Connery for the first time. He brought his journalism students to the same computer lab as well. We managed to share the facility without tripping over each other.”
“I had taught physical chemistry courses at Benedictine College [in Kansas] for 12 years before accepting the faculty appointment at St. Thomas,” Brom said. “These are traditionally tough courses for chemistry majors, and during the 12 years in Kansas I never had a student receive a perfect score on my exams. During my first semester at St. Thomas, one of my nine students in CHEM 331 received a perfect score on my first exam of the semester. For the third exam that same semester, two students received perfect scores. I wondered what was going on here. I had the feeling I had moved up to a different league.”
This spring, Brom is teaching the same two physical chemistry courses he taught in his first year at St. Thomas, and he and Connery, who arrived at St. Thomas in 1982, are sharing yet another experience: They’re among a group of 17 faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences who are accepting a generous retirement plan offered by the university. Spring commencement ceremonies will mark the formal end of their faculty careers at St. Thomas.
During those careers, the 17 professors who will retire have observed remarkable change in the institution.
One of these professors – Lon Otto of the English Department – was hired in 1974 by an all-male college, and three of them – Nancy Hartung of the Biology Department, Peter Parilla of the Sociology and Criminal Justice
Department, and Joan Piorkowski of the English Department – arrived on the faculty in 1977, the same year the college began admitting women to its undergraduate programs. Eleven of the 17 professors were hired by what was then the College of St. Thomas, and two more joined them in 1990, the year the college became the University of St. Thomas. Most of these professors witnessed dramatic institutional growth between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, when the university expanded from about 2,500 mostly male undergraduate students to more than 10,000 male and female students, undergraduate and graduate. All 17 professors experienced the structural change that occurred in 2001, when the university’s president, Father Dennis Dease, joined related undergraduate and graduate academic programs and established common schools and colleges, including the College of Arts and Sciences, of which Connery became the first dean.
“This growth has opened opportunities that were almost unimaginable 30 years ago – opportunities that have benefited not only our students, but faculty and staff as well,” noted Tom Mega, who joined the History Department in 1985. “But this change has also come with a price. Within a year of starting my career at St. Thomas, I knew probably almost every faculty member by name. We had the chance to get together as a whole faculty once a month in our faculty meetings. Here, we got to know our colleagues, share our thoughts and concerns, and as a complete faculty, resolve those issues that concerned us all. We also seemed to interact on a more personal level.”
Mega fondly remembers the days before the College of Arts and Sciences faculty numbered 260 full-time members, when they could gather formally and informally.
“I recall a group of faculty, including me, who met every morning for coffee. Among us were a philosopher, a mathematician, a chemist, a former basketball coach, a business ethicist, an economist and even a former dean. Those conversations were exciting,” he said. “This doesn’t seem to happen today as our schools and colleges have erected boundaries that not only separate us, but at times have us working at cross-purposes. If I sound like an old curmudgeon, longing for the good old days, perhaps I am. But isn’t that a prerogative of being a historian?”
Yet Mega is not truly a curmudgeon. He has been actively involved in the History Department’s recent hiring of five new full-time professors and revising of its core courses and its major and minor, all of which will “launch the department into a new era.”
“It does sadden me to think that I will miss the opportunity to experience and share in the exciting times ahead,” he said.
Similar opportunities to create new courses and curricula were among the most satisfying experiences of Brenda Powell’s years on the St. Thomas faculty, which began in 1984 in the English Department.
“I especially take satisfaction from contributing to the development of the women’s studies major and minor,” she said. “Early in my career, with the support of a Bush grant for team teaching, I developed with Dr. Gale Yee of Theology what I believe was the first explicitly feminist course here: Women’s Place; Women’s Nature, which ambitiously covered the representation of women from the Hebrew Bible and Homer through Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Students loved this course, and we loved teaching it.
“I have loved working with students, both inside and out of the classroom,” Powell said, but she also noted that she derived satisfaction from opportunities to perform university service.
“These have included directing the Aquinas Scholars Honor Program and the Luann Dummer Center for Women, serving
for many years as the English liaison with the teacher education program, helping to develop the current UST mission statement, chairing the committee that developed the current shared governance document, and subsequently chairing the faculty,” she noted. “My most recent major service – on the search committee that recommended Dr. Julie Sullivan as president of UST – allows me to retire on a particularly high note.”
Like Powell, each of these 17 professors has contributed to her or his department and to the university. Combined, the professors represent almost 500 years of full-time service to the university, and they have often been active leaders on campus.
“During my own 24 years at St. Thomas, these retirees have been the leaders of the faculty on campus,” said Terry Langan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Although I know other faculty members will step up to take their places, it is difficult for me to imagine right now what campus life will be like next year without them here.”
These professors served as department chairs and directed interdisciplinary programs. They published scholarly journal articles and wrote books. They worked on committees and task forces around the university. They hired new faculty and mentored them to tenure and promotion.
Along the way, five of these professors were awarded the highest honor bestowed by St. Thomas faculty on one another – the Professor of the Year award, which was won by Hartung in 1994, by Powell in 1999, by Parilla in 2002, by Otto in 2003 and by Connery in 2011.
Through it all, these professors taught St. Thomas students – thousands of them.
There, too, these professors saw significant change. Today, about half of St. Thomas students are female and a tenth are U.S. students of color.
“I started at St. Thomas the year it became a coeducational college. There were few women in my classes – only one, I believe, and she was from St. Catherine’s – and few women on the faculty. I was the only one in biology at the time,” Hartung said. “This spring, I teach classes with more than 50 percent women, and there are many women on the faculty throughout the university, including the new president. And that is only one aspect of the much more diverse institution St. Thomas has become.”
The retiring professors say that although today’s students may represent more diverse backgrounds, they are essentially the same as the generations who preceded them. What has changed is the context in which they come to college.
“I do not think students have changed that much over the years,” Brom said. “That which has changed are the experiences and academic tools that students bring to the table when they arrive in our classrooms. For example, we used to worry about computer competency for our students. We even required these experiences. My 13-year-old grandchildren today have more computer experience than our freshman students in 1987. We don’t need to require this expertise today. Does that mean my grandchildren will be better students in college four years from now? I do not believe so. They will bring a different skill level with them, but they will experience the same challenges for learning as our freshman class of 1987.”
Other professors agreed with Brom’s assessment of today’s students.
“Their environment has changed,” said communication and journalism professor Tim Scully, who joined the faculty in 1990. “They have to work more, and they have more distractions, such as Facebook and text-messaging, that keep some of them from focusing their attention on their education. Otherwise, they seem to be just as curious and excited to learn.”
To reach today’s students, several of the retiring professors say they’ve adapted the way they teach.
Sue Smith-Cunnien is one of them. Smith-Cunnien joined the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department in 1990. At that time, she said, “For me, class preparation was more about making sure I had the latest demographic statistics and could cite the latest research on the topic. Now, class preparation also includes devising inquiry-based or writing assignments that will encourage students to engage the material in a more active fashion.
“As someone who went to college when professors lectured and students took notes, I had a fondness for the ‘banking’ model of education,” she said. “But the many and varied faculty development teaching workshops that I attended over the years convinced me of the power of active learning. Although I have never become as proficient at that model as I would like, I am committed to it and have adopted many practices designed to get students actively engaged with the material at hand.”
Several of the retiring professors pointed out that they could not have changed their teaching techniques, created new courses or pursued new lines of research without generous support from the university.
“St. Thomas enables people,” said Bob Werner, who joined the Geography Department in 1991. “If you want to learn something, the institution supports you, for example, with a wide range of grant programs to give you time and money for research or adopting new teaching methods. If you want to travel to a faraway land, if you want to study at an important library or learn in a certain laboratory, the university will fund you and provide reassignment time. St. Thomas invests in its faculty to foster their success.”
- Carlos Badessich, Modern and Classical Languages
- Joseph Brom, Chemistry
- Thomas Connery, Communication and Journalism
- Palahela Dayananda, Mathematics and Actuarial Science
- Steven Hansen, Computer and Information Science
- Nancy Hartung, Biology
- Amelia Kritzer, Theater
- Jeffery McLean, Mathematics
- Thomas Mega, History
- Terence Nichols, Theology
- Lon Otto, English
- Peter Parilla, Sociology and Criminal Justice
- Joan Piorkowski, English
- Brenda Powell, English
- Timothy Scully, Communication and Journalism
- Susan Smith-Cunnien, Sociology and Criminal Justice
- Robert Werner, Geography
- Sue Focke, Art History
- Carole Jacobs, Communication and Journalism
- Lisa Keiser, Health and Human Performance
- Lynda McDonnell, ThreeSixty Youth Journalism
- Patricia Reinhardt, Modern and Classical Languages
A number of the professors were especially grateful for opportunities the university provided them to develop study-abroad courses, which they regarded as life changing – both for them and their students.
For instance, Smith-Cunnien called her chance to visit South Africa in 2005 to develop a course “truly transformative.”
“It was the International Education Center and CAS Dean Tom Connery who provided the funding for that first trip,” she said. “Without the encouragement and support of the university to step outside the box, my life and my teaching and my research would now be so different. This is yet another reason to be eternally grateful for the career I have had at St. Thomas.”
But the singular aspect of their careers for which these retiring professors are unanimously grateful is their students. Students kept these professors going, in fact.
“Truly what has kept me here and has kept me interested, engaged and growing through all these years has been my work with our students and the value that St. Thomas places on that work,” Hartung said.
Others confirmed her view.
“The students gave me energy, and the challenges of teaching were amazing,” Scully said.
Werner, too, took joy in students.
“Students do amazing things,” he said. “Students volunteer in a wide range of activities. Most of them work, in addition to taking a full load of classes, and they’re civil and polite, too. They help poor people in Alabama, they paint churches in Venezuela, and they tutor immigrant kids in Minneapolis. I am humbled to think that I play any small part in these achievements.”
“I am especially grateful for the students I have come to know over the past three decades,” he said. “The relationship I have had with my students has carried me through some difficult times. Although it may sound trite, I am convinced that I have learned more from my students than they have from me.”
Smith-Cunnien echoed his sentiment.
“As many have observed, to have a career in teaching is to be a lifelong student yourself, and that has been a privilege and joy,” she said.
Brom expressed similar gratitude.
“I returned to St. Thomas because it was my dream job,” he said. “I wanted to help the Chemistry Department advance in offering our undergraduates the opportunity to conduct meaningful research in chemistry.
“I am a Tommie. Some have said you can’t go home, but I did, and it has been a privilege.”
Read more from CAS Spotlight.