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University Convocation Remarks

Delivered August 19, 2009 on the Winona campus

As we gather as one university community for our annual University Convocation Day, I want to offer a warm welcome and thank each and all of you for being here today. A special word of welcome to those of you who are new to our Saint Mary’s community; we are grateful that you have joined us, and we welcome the gifts and energies you bring to our common mission. May this new year be fruitful and enriching for each of you.

I am particularly mindful today – my second University Convocation Day with all of you – of two things: (1) that four or five months ago the university began, and I hope that you have sensed this, the walk out of that long period of transition about which we spoke in August 2008; and (2) that at my inauguration in September 2008 I invited you to join me in dialogue and engagement for the sake of our Lasallian Catholic mission, joining together to make Saint Mary’s University the best possible university we are capable of becoming.

And so I would like to spend a few moments sharing some thoughts on how I think we have moved forward with that agenda – together and by association. The first part of my remarks will focus on the Lasallian understanding of the phrase: “together and by association.” The second half will look at the two publications that you received as you entered today and how they demonstrate our movement on the agenda of excellence.

First, what does the phrase “together and by association” mean, as used in the 17th century by John Baptist de La Salle and the first Brother-teachers, as developed over the years by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and as I mean them in the context of Saint Mary’s and our relationship to one another?

In this regard, I find myself thinking of a painting that I have here in my office, an image of Mary, patroness of our university, Mary, our sister, seen within the context of her family in what we think of as the flight into Egypt. This is an image that captures for me the spirit of this other-centered woman for whom our university is name, an image that situates her in a partnership on behalf of the life of a child.

I found myself a few weeks ago thinking of this painting when I attended the funeral of one of our undergraduates – who was snatched away in the blink of an eye in a car accident – sensing how very important it was for his parents that we stand with them not only in moments of accomplishment and joy, but also in moments of anguish.
Mary and Joseph … an image that re-focuses, re-grounds, and reminds me every day for whom and with whom I choose to spend my life’s energies. Mary with Joseph, patron of all Lasallians, the man who cared for the child who was not his own with all of the love of a parent. Mary and Joseph, partnering together to guide and guard the one entrusted to their care on his journey and growth in age and wisdom. In the moment captured in this painting they are sacrificing all, fleeing for the life of this holy child, doing whatever is required of them, spending their life’s energies to protect and defend the life and the future of their son. This is the story of so many parents and guardians and families, all throughout human history and even in our day.

Mary and Joseph … a story and an icon that inspired our predecessors at the time of the Lasallian origins, in each and every small community of three or four or five Brother-teachers in a particular school or city. They were working together to provide a quality education and so, by this means, helping others realize that they are brothers and sisters in one human family and to “realize their dignity as the children of God.” Consequently, by association with all of the other Brother-teachers in all of the other schools of the network, they committed themselves “with determination, if not to change the world, at least to change something in their world, to contribute to a breaking up of that infernal cycle [of ignorance and exclusion] of which the poor [and the working class] were the victims.”

With this understanding as backdrop, let’s look at the documents you received when you came in today. First, the Saint Mary’s University Annual Report. We have chosen as a unifying theme the phrase “together and by association” to illustrate the belief that the work of each school or department and every area or work group at every level of the university is truly essential for the accomplishment of our common mission for the good and the fullness of life (Jn 10:10) for all. The report reflects the endeavors and achievements of the past academic year across the entire university. Throughout the report, certain phrases or ideas from an individual report have been highlighted to call attention to the unique work that each department has done in listening, dialoguing, engaging, relating, and working together – and by association – for the good of our students with all of the other departments and area groups of the university.

It is clear to me as I reflect back on the past 15 months of our work together that each of you – administrators and staffs – have the best interests of Saint Mary’s University in mind when you do your work, whether that is coaching, teaching, paying bills, developing new programs, or relating and interacting in so many and varied ways with students, alums, and benefactors. It is only with such a united effort of a diverse population of individuals striving for communion in diversity that we can ever hope to achieve the synergy necessary to assure the excellence we seek for our students and one another. I invite you to read the report, to reflect on the work accomplished, and to contact any department head with your questions and/or affirmations. I want to express my personal appreciation to each of the vice presidents and their staffs for your faithful stewardship and dedication to Saint Mary’s during this past year.

The second document that I want to reference is the small 4x5 card that has the university’s current eight planning priorities printed on one side. These priorities are the product of a number of listening sessions – both in Winona and in Minneapolis – that were conducted in the Fall of 2008 with a variety of audiences. These are what I heard you saying to me, what you affirmed as the important areas of growth, what you wanted me and us to focus our united efforts on in the next few years. The vice presidents have been asked to use these eight priorities in all of our planning for the coming year. Academic departments have been given these priorities as a guideline for their activities to assure the excellence of teaching and to guide our efforts on behalf of student engagement and learning. And student organizations will be asked to consider these same planning priorities in their programs for the coming year.

Again – only together and by association – can the goal of creating a university that empowers students to lead lives of ethical leadership and service be realized. These eight planning priorities open a pathway that we can take together to achieve our mission. I invite you to consider these planning priorities in your own individual work, whatever it is, and to engage in conversation with your work partners in how you can use these priorities in your work together. Significant conversations of dreaming and planning and creating together can inspire and motivate all of us to do our best, and then, together and by association, the university will by God’s grace and our own good efforts be its best.

A year ago, when we gathered together at our Minneapolis campus, I proposed the image of a journey through the multiple trails or pathways up and through our Winona bluffs as a way of deepening understanding of and appreciation for Lasallian mission: the core of which focuses on quality education, the interior and spiritual journey, and the preferential option for the poor; and the current accents of which include the rights of the child, social justice, the emerging needs of families, and migration. We continue to explore those pathways today precisely in our consideration with Dr. Kathleen Sells of the majestic vista that a “liberal education” opens before us as a Lasallian institution of higher education committed to excellence of teaching and student engagement and learning.

Before concluding, I would be remiss if I did not take this occasion to share with you something that I shared at a dinner in April 2009 with our university’s major donors. When I think of the major benefactors of this university, I include each and every one of you. I understand and appreciate the many and varied sacrifices you make every day on behalf of our students and their families. Furthermore, the participation of many of you, each according to your own means, in support of the Annual Fund and of our strategic fundraising initiatives – such as scholarships for needy students and like the proposed science facility – means a great deal, and is deeply appreciated. This makes a huge difference in successfully engaging our friends and donors to contribute to our future when they see that you and I also esteem and believe in this university for which we work.

I’d like to conclude with the story of two Irishmen, who were out walking in the snowy mountains of Europe:

  • During a time when you could expect to be rescued by a Saint Bernard dog, who would come find you with as a small cask of brandy around its neck …
  • caught in a small avalanche … buried up to their necks in the snow … looking to the horizon in the hope of some sign of rescue …
  • “Look at what’s coming to rescue us,” says one; “man’s best friend.” The other looking and looking and finally spotting it says, “but will you look at the mangy dog that’s bringing it.”

And so as we begin again as a university community – in this time of economic challenge, concerned about enrollment, faced with the obligations and work before us – some among us might see difficulties and obstacles and problems. But I see opportunities for greatness, positive and exciting possibilities, because I know you and because I know, after these 15 months of our working together, that I can count on you. Together and by association we can do something really great for the glory of God and for the good of our students and their families.

Again, welcome back, good luck, and God bless you.