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Heeding the Call

A charge to amplify the stories of others started the eighth president on his journey home to St. Norbert.

His whole vocation journey has been informed by his experience as a student, says President Brian Bruess ’90. And it was a student experience that was driven by his undergraduate years at the very institution over which he now presides.

It’s a calling learned, heard and responded to in the context of higher education, and its foundation, like its latest expression, is rooted in the tripartite mission of St. Norbert College.

“The education that I received here has everything to do with how I am as a person and therefore as a president,” says Bruess. “I have a deep, deep regard and respect for the liberal arts, Catholic, Norbertine education, coupled with the belief that the way we do this here is different, unique and distinctive. 

“It’s much more complex missional and educational work than at a secular institution, even than at a religious institution that has two parts to its mission. The power of our mission is not that we’re Catholic, or that we’re liberal arts or that we’re Norbertine. The power, true transformational power about what St. Norbert College does, is the integration of those three dimensions. It’s like a beautiful Venn diagram of three circles all held together. Each of the pieces of our identity brings forth more depth – and more meaning for students.” 

It’s one thing to say you’re a liberal arts college, explains Bruess – an institution that pursues knowledge, truth, wisdom, for the betterment of society. It’s another thing to say that you use the Catholic tradition to frame the conversation between faith and reason; use Catholic social teaching to frame your thinking about human dignity and to underpin your work for the common good. And it’s another if, in doing so, you espouse the Norbertine charisms of preparing for good work, of the value of communio: “Each of those three things, independent of another, is pretty powerful. Entire colleges and universities are built on two of them. The opportunity we have at St. Norbert, and the gift we have for American education and the world, is that it’s all three.” 

These three emphases are meant to interact and create dissonance – to create opportunity for learning and new ways of seeing the world, says Bruess: “I think that’s what gives our mission such power, such breadth, such meaning.”

The nature of Bruess’ work as an administrator in higher education, as a faculty member, and now as a president has been very much informed by his experience as a student. In fact, he says, his entire vocational journey has been built on this framework. His graduate education focused on how students grow and learn: what theoretical constructs give light or definition to how they grow or develop; how they develop cognitive capacities like moral reasoning and critical thinking; how they develop skills like judgement and leadership:

“And then, how do they develop the psycho-social elements of themselves. And that would be things like their sense of self, interpersonal relationships, their care for their physical self, their spiritual self, these other dimensions. The psychology, sociology and liberal arts training I have gotten all have this confluence. And of course, this is all done in the context of our education, which is built around this very simple premise of pursuing knowledge, truth, wisdom, for the common good. 

“So, there’s an alignment and a rhythm to my education at St. Norbert, how that manifests itself in my professional life, which brings us [Bruess and his wife, Carol (Sessler) ’90] back.” 

The biggest challenge the college faces today is society’s lack of understanding of what a liberal arts education offers, says Bruess. “People hear liberal arts education and they think liberal. They think bleeding heart. They think a leftist ideology. But really the liberal arts [tradition] is based on an idea and a premise of how we see the world, how we learn, how we know. The core requirements give us breadth across the disciplines, and [our chosen major in one discipline] gives us depth and a capacity to think deeply on a particular subject. And just those acts of working down and across disciplines – looking at a range of how these disciplines interact; at what art teaches us, what truth and beauty, and what philosophy and theology teach us about the intersection of faith and reason – that back and forth, that way of interacting and learning, we think is significantly meaningful in how students grow and develop.”

At this early stage in his presidency, Bruess owns to having far more questions than answers: “What’s distinctive about St. Norbert College? Why are we doing so well? What makes the experience for students so impactful? 

“Let’s build from there. We’re in a position of strength, so let’s operate from that perspective.

“The belief that everybody has worth: That’s very Catholic, it’s very Norbertine. Frankly, if you dig in a little bit, it’s very much about the liberal arts. It’s the practice of looking for that goodness, and that worth and that beauty in what we’re doing. There’s something really inspiring and compelling about that. As a college, how do we amplify the best of what we’re doing here and pursue that next level of expression of our vision? How do we take the best of what we’re doing and make it more visible? How do we advance and make our mission more relevant by amplifying what we do best? And, of course, the way I think we need to do that is to focus on the teaching and learning and student experience.”


A story of human flourishing
The next new chapter for a college begins with the naming of a new president, and the presidency starts to feel real when the new leader gives his first opening-of-the-year address to faculty and staff. Bruess used the occasion to hark back to 1987, when the young future president walked into Boyle 103 for a class in the Society, Sex and Marriage course taught by the late Tom Faase (Sociology): “This particular day, Tom was teaching about how relationships become, evolve and flourish. He balanced intellectual rigor with accessible emotional intelligence, and a clear passion for teaching. As he so often did, he captured the imagination of each of the 40 students in that room. He taught us the importance of ever striving for a more full understanding of truth, our world, and relationships. And he proceeded to ask us a bunch of questions. What if we were expressly and persistently highly attentive to the other – really working hard to learn what the other was thinking and feeling? What if our essential purpose, in all relationships, was to, for each and every day, and each and every person, put our focus and attention on amplifying the other? If we did this, faithfully, in a loving way, might we find the fullest way of human flourishing?

“So whatever role you play – be it coach, advisor, front-line staff person, a chef, groundskeeper, a counselor, a painter, a professor – each and every one of us has the opportunity to make a meaningful difference to our students, and each one of us contributes. And so, tell stories of when you were transformed, or significantly impacted, as a student. Tell about a time when you experienced the power of reflection, or learned the clarity of thought that can come from careful analysis or the creative instruction of words. When did you experience a culture different from your own, and what did that teach you? When did you last experience the emotional power of a play or a musical performance? And when is the last time art changed how you felt or thought? Teach and learn with the intention of amplifying each other, and tell that story.”

It’s very Catholic, very Norbertine, says Bruess. It’s very much what infuses a liberal arts education. It’s the challenge for the wider community of St. Norbert College.  

Nov. 10, 2017