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Innovation Leads the Way

It’s rather fashionable lately for opinionistas to deride higher educationas the most hidebound enterprise this side of blacksmithing. Both, they imply, have been hammering out their products in pretty much the same way for centuries.

Well, it’s indisputable that colleges like change even less than most folks do, but it is certainly not true that “campus innovation” is an oxymoron. In fact, most of the post-secondary institutions I know are altering the way they do business almost by the week. And St. Norbert College is one of them.

True, this adaptation is happening in large part because colleges and universities, like all modern institutions, realize they must adapt or die amid a highly competitive and disruptive environment. But at St. Norbert, we are also changing because it’s in the best interests of our students.

Take our institution-wide commitment to the sciences. We knew from the experience of other schools that once we started erecting a new building for the teaching of natural sciences we could expect a spike in the number of first-years pursuing these majors. But then we entered into our bold – and virtually unprecedented for a liberal arts college – partnership with the Medical College of Wisconsin, which has located a regional campus within the new Gehl-Mulva Science Center and will welcome its charter class next July. That’s when things really got interesting. 

How interesting? Well, six years ago the percentage of SNC first-years majoring in the so-called “hard sciences” – which for these purposes are defined as chemistry, biology, pre-medicine, other pre-health areas (e.g., dentistry, veterinary medicine), and nursing – stood at 14 percent. In the intervening years, as we enhanced our academic profile, that number gradually ticked up, so that it stood at 22 percent of first-year students arriving in 2013. 

But for this fall’s entering class, that figure is 35 percent – more than one-third of the entire class. As massive as the new Gehl-Mulva complex is, maybe it’s not big enough!

The past year also was notable because our faculty authorized a Master of Business Administration program, which we will kick off in the fall of 2015. The M.B.A. program will be housed in the new Donald J. Schneider School of Business & Economics. Both the program and school have been endowed through the generosity of Patricia Schneider, Don’s widow, as a recognition of how much the trucking and logistics entrepreneur, Class of ’57, loved his alma mater.

Now, starting an M.B.A. program may not strike you as all that radical. But I can assure you that at a classically undergraduate, liberal arts institution like St. Norbert, it was a leap. 

We’ve been teaching business here from our earliest days (when the subject was called “the commercial arts”), and it has always been one of our most popular majors. So business education is part of our DNA. But the M.B.A. program will take this commitment to an entirely new sphere – to a new audience, to a new level of expertise, and to a new collaboration with the northeast Wisconsin business community. In the process it will also help us diversify our revenue base. And a good bit of that new revenue, incidentally, will go to help make St. Norbert more affordable for our undergraduate students. 

Another entrepreneurial project we’re proud of is our new “Gap Experience.” As I write this, eight eager first-years are piloting what amounts to a more “hands-on” start to their college education than has been the norm. Under the tutelage of Laura Fredrickson, whose background is in education and environmental studies, these intrepid eight are spending their fall semester in outdoor leadership courses, followed by service trips around America and even internationally. But by this January, they will be back on campus and settling into traditional courses, right on schedule to graduate with the rest of the Class of 2018.

The Gap program is an acknowledgement that, today, there can be no “one road” to postsecondary education. It is also a Big Idea for us.

And you may remember that about this time a year ago I was inviting you to send in your own “big ideas” for the future of St. Norbert. We were delighted and gratified that more than 250 of you took us up on the offer. Our Big Ideas task force combined and distilled those to five proposals that we consider most promising – suggestions that ranged from becoming a catalyst for new businesses to developing a residential community at the edge of campus for retirees who want to stay intellectually and emotionally connected to SNC. Now we are undertaking a fuller evaluation of these prospects, and we’ll keep you posted on our progress.

All over campus we are innovating to utilize the digital environment and its dazzling new tools to best effect. It was at our behest that six outstanding liberal arts colleges in the upper Midwest came together in a kind of consortium to share best practices in digital pedagogy. And a few months ago a number of those schools, again led by SNC, secured a prestigious Teagle Foundation grant to develop pilot programs teaching core intellectual skills in non-traditional ways. Indeed, in classroom after classroom, SNC faculty members are reimagining how they teach their courses and conveying information in a much more interactive way, promoting 21st-century learning in a manner that is now second nature to this generation of students.

Finally, I would note that one year ago we opened the beautiful Cassandra Voss Center, which is devoted to studying issues of gender and identity in all their complex iterations. We started an incredible run of creative programming with the dynamic founder of GoldieBlox, Debbie Sterling, who came here for the Midwest launch of a toy designed to spur young girls to pursue engineering and the sciences. We concluded the year with a rare public presentation by the author and social critic bell hooks.  

As you know, within this annual report you’ll find recognition of you and your financial generosity to the college, and needless to say virtually none of the aforementioned initiatives would be possible without that kind of support.

One measure of your passion is the fact that Full Ahead: Campaign St. Norbert has been a spectacular success. You’ll hear more about that later this year.

Meantime, another measure is that the world is paying more attention than ever to what is happening at St. Norbert College, and to how your generosity allows us to innovate in a way that remains consistent with our mission and our values. 

Recently U.S. News published its rankings of national liberal arts colleges for 2014-15, and I’m pleased to report St. Norbert jumped up 11 full spots to 123, the highest placement in our history as we continue our campus-wide pursuit of excellence. 

But to be honest, I was just as proud when, as it recently did, Money magazine rated us as the 20th among its “Most Affordable Colleges in America,” just ahead of such outstanding institutions as Wabash, Augustana, Grinnell and Lake Forest colleges. Or when, at the same time, the highly respected Washington Monthly placed us 32nd among top American liberal arts colleges as “Best Bang for the Buck.” These institutions, the magazine said, “do the best job of helping non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.”

You can’t accomplish results like this by standing still. And taken together, these rankings suggest that St. Norbert College is a place where a student can get a great education at a fair, affordable cost. 

That was the idea when Abbot Pennings – quite the entrepreneur in his own right – got us going 116 years ago. It still is.

Nov. 13, 2014