You can tell something interesting is in the wind when the president starts talking about ships.

“A ship in the harbor is safe,” Father Dennis Dease told the St. Thomas faculty in fall 2004. “But that is not what ships were built for. Safety, security and mere survival are not in themselves meaningful goals.”

The faculty understood, of course, that Dease wasn’t giving them a sailing lesson; he was talking about the future of St. Thomas. “To thrive we must be willing to take some calculated risks,” he continued. “In the years ahead, St. Thomas will continue to evolve and gain increasing prominence as an outstanding, student-centered, Catholic university rooted in the Twin Cities and the Upper Midwest.”

Dr. Thomas Rochon, executive vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer, put it another way to the faculty: “You will not retire from the university as you know it today. Not to change is not an option.”

What kinds of changes? What prompted them? When will they occur? Questions about the next stage in the university’s evolution have been the subject of much discussion in recent years and it is an inquiry that will continue to evolve.

The discussion gained traction in 2001 when the Carnegie Foundation reclassified St. Thomas from a “master’s comprehensive university” to a “doctoral/research-intensive university” because of the number of doctoral degrees it was awarding.

The ‘unasked for’ promotion

U.S. News and World Report uses the Carnegie classifications to decide what category to place a college or university in the magazine’s annual rankings. When Carnegie reclassified St. Thomas, so did the magazine. Instead of being ranked against 125 Midwest colleges and universities, it found itself ranked against 248 national universities, many of which strongly emphasize research.

In the years prior to the reclassification, St. Thomas ranked near the top of the Midwest category, along with schools like Creighton, Valparaiso, Bradley and Drake. Since the reclassification, it is ranked in the middle of the national category, which includes schools like Harvard, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Notre Dame and the University of Minnesota.

Questions inevitably surfaced: If St. Thomas had moved up nicely within the ranks of the Midwest universities in the 1990s, would it also attempt to advance within the ranks of the national universities? If St. Thomas was now competing against research universities, would it refocus its mission and become a research university?

Being content with the way things are, after all, never has been part of St. Thomas’ genetic blueprint.

Crossroads

“The University of St. Thomas is at a crossroads in planning for its future” said a Self-Study Report that was published by St. Thomas in 2003 for the 10-year accreditation review by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

“The ‘old’ image,” the 356-page study said, “emphasizes a regional, comprehensive university where teaching is given the highest priority and an over- arching goal is the liberal arts education of first-generation students, including many of average ability.

“The ‘new’ image envisions a university with graduate and undergraduate programs, several with national recognition, whose faculty are recognized as educators and scholars, and an institution that strives for excellence in programs by recruiting top students and faculty.”

“The new university image projects the dream of a high-caliber faculty performing more scholarly research as well as excellent teaching within nationally recognized programs,” the Self-Study Report said. “This would result in a very different institutional profile than the one originally established by founding Archbishop John Ireland, and it is a profile for the future on which there is not universal agreement.”

St. Thomas passed its accreditation review with flying colors and the North Central evaluation team called the Self-Study Report “one of the most candid and honest/open many of us have seen in our experience as consultant-evaluators.”

“St. Thomas operates with integrity,” the evaluators added. “As with any complex institution, St. Thomas faces many challenges. What particularly impressed the (North Central) team was the deep awareness of these challenges, which were openly discussed in the institution’s very candid and self-critical self-study.”

Research, liberal arts or … ?

The self-study helped bring some clarity to the messy process of setting a course for St. Thomas. Is becoming a national research university, for example, what Dease was talking about when he said ships were not built for sitting in a harbor?

“No, we don’t want to go down that path,” Rochon said in a recent interview.

“I think the discussion has ended about whether we will be a teaching university or a research university,” Dease added. “Look at the best Catholic universities in the United States. Georgetown, Notre Dame and Boston College all have sterling reputations that come from their excellent undergraduate programs. They don’t have strong research programs, and in that area they don’t try to compete with the major research universities.”

“There is something more exciting that we can actually become,” Rochon said. “And we can do so by honoring our founding ideals.”

Just how St. Thomas might change was the focus of a talk Dease gave to the faculty at its annual convocation last September.

“You and I have been setting the stage for this endeavor for several years now,” Dease said, referring to the Self-Study Report.

“The knowledge gained from that self-examination has served as a most useful springboard to a process of envisioning the future of the University of  St. Thomas, given sufficient resources. The vision can be summed up in two words: access and excellence.”

Achieving that vision, he continued, “will require a sizeable infusion of funding.”

Clear priorities

While the university has not announced a capital fund-raising effort, Dease made it clear that when it does the top priority will not be new construction projects, but will be to provide an even wider range of students with access to an even better St. Thomas education.

This focus on access and excellence will result, he said, in:

• An increase in applications across the university.

• More student financial aid for deserving students and less pressure to increase  tuition discounting.

• Stable enrollments in a time of demographic change.

• Higher retention and graduation rates.

• Sufficient resources to recruit and retain the very best faculty.

• Better facilities.

Dease has said on several occasions that the next step in the university’s development will be to create depth within the university – not breadth. “The university has reached a point in its development where the challenge is no longer one of growing bigger, just better.”

Access in a changing world

The next generation of students will require a different university. St. Thomas is part of a changing world that includes an increasing racial minority and immigrant population in the Twin Cities, coupled with greater competition for students that will increase as the projected pool of high school graduates decreases.

According to findings from the Minnesota Private College Research Foundation, between 2003 and 2013:

• The Minnesota pool of high school graduates will decrease 10.3 percent.

• The number of white high school graduates in the region will decrease 18.7 percent but the number of high school graduates of color will increase 51.9 percent.

• The percentage of the state’s high school graduates who are students of color will increase from 12 percent to almost 20 percent.

“The demographic changes which are now occurring throughout the Upper Midwest and some other parts of the country will continue to draw attention to the need for us to do a better job in educating more low-income and minority young people in order to remain economically competitive and to maintain social stability,” said David Laird, president of the Minnesota Private College Council.

In announcing the results of MPCC research on financing higher education, Laird said there is clear documentation of the social and economic transformation of students from the lowest economic quartile as a result of a college degree.

“Upon graduation, these students look every bit like their upper-income peers,” he said. “When we look at their times to degree, their enrollment in graduate schools, the types of jobs they receive, their salary levels, and their worries as well as their satisfactions – these characteristics are statistically the same as their peers.”

Dr. Mark Dienhart, executive vice president and chief administrative officer, said the university’s history and its understanding of itself calls for service to students who are diverse on a multitude of dimensions, including race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and age.

“St. Thomas, as an urban university, must seek ways to be educationally relevant and responsive given the many needs of our community and its people,” he said. “While it is impossible to be all things to all people, there are reasons to strongly support and enhance access by a wide range of students.

“One of these reasons is, undeniably, social justice. Another equally compelling reason is the need to assemble a learning community in which students grow and thrive as a result of contact with other students very different from themselves.”

Describing excellence

St. Thomas’ leaders also have been giving shape to the concept of excellence.

“I realize that excellence can be an over-used word in higher education,” Dease explained in his talk to the faculty, “but I think virtually everyone would agree it is a function, on any campus, of the quality of the people who form an academic community.

“Excellence is about recruiting, retaining, developing and nurturing the very best teachers and scholars.

“Excellence is about attracting, enrolling and graduating gifted students of diverse backgrounds and academic interests.

“Excellence is about shaping a vibrant, challenging ‘life of the mind’ environment on campus that not only spurs the intellectual and affective development of its members, but builds character and enhances the integration of faith and reason among students, faculty and staff.”

Finding its own path

While St. Thomas has not chosen the national research university path, it is not on the path of a traditional liberal arts university, either. It is finding its own way.

“The two well-trod paths in higher education are those of the liberal arts college and the research university,” Rochon told the faculty last May. “St. Thomas at one time looked a lot like a liberal arts college, but it does not anymore. This leads many to suspect that we are in the process of becoming a research university. After all, that is the only other option, isn’t it?

“It is not the only other option. We are instead in the process of becoming a teaching university. The teaching university is kind of a hybrid.

“A teaching university is one in which there is a substantial liberal arts presence and a substantial professional education presence. That may sound like the two are in parity, and they may be with respect to student numbers, but they are not in their role within the university.

“The liberal arts represent the pulsing heart of the teaching university. The teaching university relies on the liberal arts for breadth, understanding, context and the ability to analyze conflicting ideas while holding them in your head at the same time. … The teaching university also acknowledges what has been long known in professional education: that learning comes from direct encounters with problems and issues as they are found in the world.”

Rochon said a teaching university emphasizes problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, community-based learning “and any other formats or settings that enable students to learn by doing.”

“For a host of reasons, research universities are unable to become teaching universities,” he said. “There are too many cultural, contractual and financial obstacles in the way of making that move. Most liberal arts colleges would also have difficulty becoming teaching universities – they are too small, too under-resourced, and again too mired in the culture of what they are already doing.

“The path of a teaching university is one that resonates closely with the 120-year-old ideals of St. Thomas. It is a path that we are exceptionally well-positioned to develop further.”

Faith and the teaching university

How does the concept of a teaching university intersect with St. Thomas’ Catholic heritage?

“In searching for bridges between the liberal arts and professional study,” Dease said, “we should not forget to look to our faith-based nature.

“This aspect of our mission may very well provide us with an opportunity to make a unique contribution to the national quest to integrate the liberal arts and sciences with professional education.

“The St. Thomas community can draw on Catholic intellectual tradition to fashion a vision of the complementary roles of liberal and professional education that is more integral and unified.”

Because St. Thomas is a faith-based university, he said, “we are privileged to be able to draw on a rich intellectual tradition, namely, the heritage of Catholicism and the other major faiths represented within our walls.

“Moreover, we enjoy the freedom to address the individual student’s ‘calling’ at a far deeper level than might be the case elsewhere.

“In fact, to raise with a student the question of ‘calling’ can open the door to a most fruitful dialogue – one that engages the academic discipline, as well as the student’s professional aspirations, dreams and spirituality. Out of all this there will emerge for the student, and her or his own personal life, ‘meaning.’”

What will it take?

“What will it take to achieve these noble goals?” Dease asked in his talk to the faculty last fall. “The answer can be summed up in one word: endowment.”

“This type of excellence cannot be achieved through operating revenues alone, but also requires a larger endowment,” he said. “That endowment is needed to fund chairs and professorships. It is needed to fund research and provide enterprise dollars for schools and academic units. And perhaps most important, it is needed to fund scholarships and financial aid for worthy and needy students.”

As of June 30, St. Thomas had an investment portfolio of $352 million, of which endowment totaled $249 million. The university typically spends 4 percent to 5 percent of its endowment each year, and it grows through investment and gifts.

While that seems like a lot of money, the amount available to spend each year “is actually rather modest when one considers the endowment dollars per full-time-equivalent student,” Dease said.

The next step

Last fall Dease said the university has arrived at a critical moment in its history, and asked the St. Thomas community for help “as we take our leap forward.”

“I would like you to think about the future of St. Thomas under the three themes of ‘Access, Excellence and Catholic Identity.’ How can we make progress and achieve breakthroughs in each of these areas?”

Academic and administrative departments met during the fall to discuss the three themes; their comments and ideas are being forwarded to a University Task Force on Strategic Planning. That task force will draft new strategic priorities that will be submitted to the board of trustees in May.

Once it sets a course – whether it’s coeducation, opening new campuses or transforming itself from a college to a university – St. Thomas has a history of making it happen.

“Each of our previous campaigns has changed the institution dramatically,” Dease said. “I have no doubt that success in this new effort will result in an even more remarkable transformation, impacting this university in ways we can yet scarcely imagine.

“We are good today, but if we are not planning to be better, we are letting down the students of the future.”