Joseph A. Favazza
Oct. 17, 2019
Abbot Mark and the monks of Saint Anselm Abbey, Chair Ann Catino and the members of the Board of Trustees, Saint Anselm faculty and staff, delegates from colleges, universities and learned societies, leaders of state and local government, family and friends from near and far, students, and alumni: thank you for your presence here today. I am deeply humbled.
The Psalmist says “how good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity.” While only the monks and students actually dwell on this hilltop (unless this ceremony stretches into days, which I am not recommending), we gather today unified as members and extended members of the Saint Anselm community. In this historic moment, we powerfully affirm the past extending back 129 years, the present with all of its challenges and opportunities, and the future that we can and must embrace.
It began as a simple idea. My wife Paddy was retiring from teaching at Stonehill, I was happy but becoming more restless, and we were moving south away from the snow and cold.
Then the possibility of Saint Anselm College arose. I initially did not give it serious thought – our plan was set, after all - until Paddy said, “What have you got to lose?” So, we made a left turn and here we are, ready to face the snow and cold in a new place. Go figure.
But I am so happy that Saint A’s took a chance on me, on us. We simply have been overwhelmed by the warm and genuine welcome and hospitality that is in the Benedictine DNA of THIS place. Saint Anselm has been welcoming and inviting students, faculty, and staff (including Presidents) for its entire history. This is why I am thrilled that in just a few short months, a new Welcome Center will open that will serve as the front porch to the College. Our warm welcome won’t change, but it will sure be nice to offer that welcome in an aesthetically beautiful and technologically advanced space. And I am so pleased to announce that one of our generous alums who is here with us today has committed a seven-figure gift to help us build that space and welcome future Anselmians for years to come. This gift, along with another seven-figure gift the College has received for scholarships, gives great momentum to the final year of our Faith in the Future campaign as we close in on our revised $70 million goal.
One thing I know for sure: Saint Anselm transforms students. Even in the short time we have been here, I have met students and alumni who are so thankful for the ways that their time on the Hilltop has made them more courageous, more confident, more compassionate, and yes, more competitive in the market place.
But as a life-long learner, I am curious about the learning that actually happens at Saint Anselm that is so uniquely transformative. True to my academic roots, I have conducted some inquiry and come to some conclusions. Indulge me while I provide my short analysis.
To begin, I invoke the Image of the Trinity: 3 persons in one God. The great mystery that, according to my Irish friends, was solved by St. Patrick. Not so sure about this. My image of learning at St. A’s is also Trinitarian - but with a twist: 3 persons in one student. I use the term person here not in a theological or physical sense; no, I use in an English grammar sense. In grammatical terms, first person, second person, and third person refer to “a point of view.” Each “person” has a different perspective indicated by the personal pronouns, “I”, “You,” and “He, She, It, Them or They.” While my sixth-grade grammar teacher, Ms. Tansy, would be proud of me for finally learning some grammar, the point here is that I want to apply this construct to the process of education and especially the kind of education that is at the heart of our mission here.
Let me start with the third person. Fundamental to the process of teaching and learning is a desire, even a passion, to study what the educational theorist Parker Palmer calls “the great thing.” The great thing could be Shakespeare’s King Lear, the chemical makeup of glucose, what to do when caring for a patient after heart surgery, the 2016 presidential election, or analyzing the financial data of a Fortune 500 company. These are the great things that are the object of study every day on this campus and at colleges and universities around the globe. Third person learning is where the passion of the faculty member and the curiosity of the student collide. As a faculty member, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a student get excited about an object of study that excites you. It is this kind of engagement that often leads to further and deeper exploration of a particular area of study, which is the very definition of scholarship. We have a great faculty who are passionate about teaching and learning, continued engagement in their respective fields, and service to the college and beyond. I have some ideas about ways to support and sustain third person learning. Stay tuned.
If third person learning is characterized by a passion for the great thing, second person learning reminds us that, at its essence, learning is relational. If third person learning answers the “what must we learn” question, second person learning answers the “how must we learn and for what purpose” questions. Learning happens in a community where ideas can be debated and opinions informed. At their heart, colleges create a commons for learning where learning happens all the time within and beyond the classroom. In some cases, the most transformational learning comes from another student, the work study supervisor, a food server in Dave, a patient in the hospital, or a client in a community-based agency.
During my years on the faculty at Rhodes College in Memphis, I had the good fortune to collaborate with one of the early pioneers of service-learning pedagogy. I always remember the frustrated question from one of my best students: “Prof. Favazza, I take amazing classes and then I have amazing experiences volunteering out in the community. Why can’t these two things connect?” So I began to experiment with integrating service in the community with my classes and, I can tell you, the first couple of attempts were total disasters. But I once I had a wise mentor say to me, “Whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly.” So I persisted and my faculty collaborator and I ended up publishing one of the first monographs on service learning pedagogy in the field of religious studies and theology.
Second person learning at Saint Anselm is alive and well especially when you consider that a quarter of our students do some type of community service or engagement through the Meelia Center every week and that many of our faculty connect service to the classroom. But if I can dream with you today, I would like to deepen second person learning on our campus. Again, stay tuned.
If third person learning is about the great thing and second person is about community, first person focuses on reflection. First person learning happens when the learner explores classic questions of meaning and identity: Who am I? What are my deepest values and what does this mean for my next steps? I have learned Spanish (the great thing), I have taught Spanish in the community (relational), and now I ask: who have I become and will become because of these experiences (reflection)? What we learn challenges and affirms our identity at the same time. It forces us to ask introspective, spiritual, and vocational questions about who we are and what we want to be.
This must sound old fashioned in a context where it seems the point of college is to simply get a degree and a job. A degree is great, and a job is even better, but without first person learning a degree is not much more than a trophy and even well-paying jobs can be destructive to the soul. Pay attention: The point of education is giving you the ability to know what is worth thinking about, and knowing what to think about is the result of knowing who you are. I have a few thoughts about how to support first person learning here at Saint Anselm. Once more, stay tuned.
So there you have it: My analysis of the kind of learning that happens on this campus that transforms students into Anselmians. Of course, we know that these three types of learning are not sequential or in any sort of a hierarchy. Students move fluidly between third, second, and first person learning each day. The amazing thing is that our faculty, staff, and the monastic community all work together to pay careful attention to the learning that happens on this campus. Here, learning is not a spectator sport. It happens when we study the great thing, through engagement with communities, and by serious introspection and contemplation. The three persons of learning. We are committed to an education that simply is transformative.
Since arriving on the Hilltop, I’ve been asked, “what is your vision?” My vision must be one that emerges from listening carefully to the campus community, fully understanding the Catholic mission lived through its Benedictine identity, and honestly assessing the present and potential human, physical, and financial resources we have.
So as I think about the future and how best to support and advance the three persons of learning, here are my thoughts. I reserve the right for these to change - especially as we embark on a campus-wide, highly consultative three-year strategic planning process. As another wise mentor once said, a good idea without a constituency is an orphan. My goal is to begin with a set of ideas, allow them to take shape through broad campus input, and build momentum and consensus for a limited set of strategic priorities that will improve the student experience and elevate the institution. So let’s start with the ideas.
- For its 130 year history, Saint Anselm has established itself as one of the top liberal arts schools in the nation through its high quality undergraduate programs. Without compromising this reputation, we have the capacity to offer a few targeted graduate programs that respond to the present demands of the market and build on existing faculty and programmatic strengths. Tomorrow, the Board of Trustees will vote to approve (at least I hope so!) our first such program in Criminal Justice. But we know we have opportunities in other areas as well: nursing and healthcare, business, education, and politics just to name a few. Such programs will extend rather than weaken the Saint Anselm experience.
- In addition to new graduate programs, we must add a few targeted interdisciplinary undergraduate programs that both respond to the interests of prospective students and families but also provide students, especially those in the liberal arts, the opportunity to gain skills beyond their major. In a world where it seems every job involves data analysis and the use of digital technology, we have to make sure we are offering courses and programs to all of our students in a range of areas such as data analytics, cyber security/criminology, social media, graphic design, and computer programming. We want to strengthen the liberal arts and the best way to do this is by promising students who want to study English, and History, and Theology, and Sociology the opportunity to also take a few courses in other areas to give them more of a competitive edge as they apply for jobs and/or graduate school.
- And speaking of strengthening the liberal arts, we are so fortunate to have institutes and centers that not only extend the transformative power of the curriculum, but also bring the world to Saint Anselm. The first among peers is the nationally known New Hampshire Institute of Politics followed by the regionally acclaimed Alva de Mars Megan Chapel Arts Center, the up and coming Center for Ethics in Business in Governance who already has a strong record of outside funding support, the Gregory J. Grappone Humanities Institute who we hope, with the help of friends, will soon occupy a state-of-the-art space on campus, and finally, our mission-critical Center for Saint Anselm Studies. Together, they create partnerships and invite people with different perspectives into constructive dialogue and discourse. We must do a better job of telling the world about the innovative and impressive work of our students and faculty in our institutes and centers.
- When you cut through all the bells and whistles, the most foundational indicators of educational quality in higher education are retention and graduation rates. Prospective students and families want to know: Do students persist and do they graduate in four years. With a 3-year average retention rate of 90% and a strong 4-year graduation rate, we can be proud - but we can do better, especially with students from underrepresented populations. We must build flexibility into our mode of instruction and our academic policies. More summer and winter term online courses, an easier academic path for our transfer students, and dual enrollment courses with area high schools, especially Catholic high schools, would play a role in retaining students and keeping them on track to graduate as well as attracting transfer students to us. I am so pleased that the Faculty Senate just recently approved a new academic calendar that will allow us to roll out a robust January term in 2021. Courses offered during the J-term will assist students to stay on-track and offer learning opportunities in other formats such as digital boot camps and skills development courses.
- Another strategy to support students in the three persons of learning is to break down silos and to create a dynamic Student Success Commons in the new Jean Center. Here, students will find support in one stop whether they are seeking academic support, assistance in finding an internship or studying internationally, or exploring a career or graduate school. Beyond making it easier for students to find support, I want to guarantee that every student who graduates from Saint Anselm has at least one high impact learning experience defined as an internship, study abroad, or undergraduate research. These are the most transformative experiences we can offer students on a campus that is already transformational. We must figure out a way to get this done.
- We live in a world where the struggle to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities is facing a crucible. It is not enough to want such a community; we must take direct action. We must review all of our policies to insure that we are not making it more difficult to recruit, admit, hire, and retain students, staff, and faculty of color. As my esteemed predecessor, Fr. Jonathan DeFelice, has said, “inclusiveness is a way of being in the world, a state of heart and mind that knows that when we step into the unfamiliar, when we open ourselves to that what is new or different, we become more than we might have been." Living inclusively requires that we do the hard work of looking inside ourselves to examine our biases and assumptions. Every Saint Anselm employee will have the opportunity for training and development so that together we understand that being a Catholic and Benedictine college means that we are a diverse and inclusive college. As a young boy living in Memphis on the day they slew the dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King, I cannot stress enough how important this is for me.
- Finally, let’s shine a light on who we are: a Catholic and Benedictine college. Our monastic community gives so much to the identity of this place, including a daily rhythm of prayer and work. I want us to explore a program that plays to this strength. If study abroad is a prime example of second person learning, then why not a “study within” program as an example of first person learning? I believe that there are students all over this country who would say yes to an invitation to live for a month or a semester on this campus and be part of the monastic rhythm of prayer combined with a program of study of eastern and western sources of contemplation and action. This is very much an unformed idea, but I am confident that we have many in this community who could help give shape to what could be a model of true transformative education.
So, here are a few ideas. I have others, and we will discuss and debate all of them, guided by the knowledge that successful graduates are not just defined by a good job and generous support to their alma mater (though we really like that) but also a strong sense of compassion, thankfulness, humility, joy, kindness, and, most especially, empathy.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual dinner sponsored by the Manchester NAACP where I heard a young woman of color talk about the challenges she had faced in her life and her hopes for the future. And then she said something that so resonated with me as I thought about this event today. She said, “As I think about my future, I do not plan to limit my challenges but to challenge my limits.” I leave this thought with you today as we begin this new moment in the history of Saint Anselm College. We will not limit our challenges out of fear or conflict or timidity; rather, we will challenge our limits by coming together to accomplish the hard but necessary things to keep this college vital for the next generation and the generation after that.
Again, thank you for your presence here today and may God bless Saint Anselm College.