Message from the President: Finding Our Way

June 25, 2013

Where am I?

I find myself asking that deceptively simple question more often than I care to admit.

It happened again just the other day. I attended an academic conference in Annapolis, Md., one of our most historic and charming locales. And being as compact as it is picturesque, Annapolis is a wonderful city for walking.

But as many times as I’ve visited – and having lived in Maryland a decade and having had a son-in-law-to-be at the U.S. Naval Academy, I’ve been there often – Annapolis still tends to turn me around, as it did again this time when I went out for an evening stroll. The place can be confounding. Narrow streets radiate from the old-town center like threads of a spider web. Some simply stop, for no apparent reason; others continue on but change names as if to taunt you. So before you know it….

Where am I?

Today’s ubiquitous GPS apps make such situations less stressful than once was the case, of course, but these marvels are not foolproof. In Annapolis, a street that my iPhone promised would lead me straight back to the hotel instead dead-ended into someone’s garden. Oh well; there’s always my “fallback” geo-positioning system – asking this guy on the porch.

Ahem, where AM I?

As it happens, this is also a question we in higher-ed ask ourselves more and more these days. Ours is a field that, you may have heard, is being “disrupted” – buffeted and threatened by everything from technological innovations and for-profit gamblers to changing demography and the big public universities. It is a world where a college, if so inclined, can offer a course in calculus or Shakespeare’s comedies to not 30 students but 30,000.

In such a world, we ask, where does the traditional, faith-based, residential, liberal arts college belong?

Well, at St. Norbert College we firmly believe we belong right at the front of the parade.

Yes, liberal arts colleges need to be more conscientious about preparing students for careers. But that has always been a priority at SNC, from our strong range of majors to our outstanding network with the region’s top employers. Yes, we need to embrace digital tools to maximize the contemporary classroom experience, and we are pursuing those opportunities on many fronts. And yes, we are aggressively working to keep costs down and tuition affordable. Competition is supposed to make organizations smarter and more determined, and it is.

But here is the true value proposition: The things that liberal arts colleges like St. Norbert do best are the things the modern workplace demands. Employers want people who can think critically; who can communicate effectively; who can adapt quickly to change; who work effectively in group settings. They want employees who are firmly grounded in ethics, and who, when they have to make the most important decisions, have enough history and philosophy to appreciate the consequences.

We also believe that more than ever, our region relies on institutions like SNC – which still pulls two-thirds of its students from its home state – to assure long-term economic vitality.

The Norbertines knew from the order’s beginnings almost a millennium ago that “Where am I?” is not a trivial question. Indeed, one of their charisms, or key values, is termed “localitas.” It’s the principle that says that while you are part of this overarching community, your work and your commitment – your life – belong right here, where you stand.

So where are we? I’d say right where we need to be.

Tom