October 13, 2000
When our first parents were driven out of Paradise, Adam is believed to have remarked to Eve: “My dear, we live in an age of transition.”1
In the year of our Lord, 1650, high above the city of Le Puy, France, towered a cathedral, a Romanesque structure of the eleventh century. We are told it stood there as an emblem of faith, a silent pledge of security to the homes of Le Puy that nestled on the rock beneath it. LePuy had enjoyed the prestige and glory of the First Crusade in 1095. But this little town, with its physical and spiritual charm, would suffer grave economic downturns and shameful moral problems in the wake of a plague that decimated much of its population. Following the Middle Ages, Le Puy would withstand, almost miraculously, both natural disasters and human upheavals, including religious wars and the French Revolution. It is often described by travelers today, including myself, “as the most picturesque spot in the world.”2 This green plain, with distinctive sharp mountain peaks left standing, remains precious to us as we gather here this morning, on another Mount in another century, owing our heritage to that sacred space in Le Puy which saw the birth of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Out of those homes, nestled on the rock beneath the cathedral, would come a small band of young women whose influence would far exceed anything they could imagine. That was 350 years ago this Sunday.
The education of girls and young women was always central to their work. Just 75 years ago, having migrated to the New World in the mid-nineteenth century, and then to a developing city called Los Angeles, these religious women educators established Mount St. Mary’s College -- a significant event in the history of Catholic education in Los Angeles. This college has taken a proud and distinguished place in American higher education since the initial property was purchased from the Rodeo Land and Water Company of Los Angeles for the then-hefty sum of $4,500 an acre -- a heroic investment in the troubling economic times of the late 1920s. The initial purchase of the first 36 of this 56-acre site in the Santa Monica Mountains was motivated both by its natural beauty and by its proximity to the University of California at Los Angeles which would share its resources with our College, including some its faculty.3 That partnership lives today.
Half way through its history, in 1959, Mount St. Mary’s would expand its educational mission as a regional liberal arts college to the heart of our city in the beautiful oasis of the former Doheny estate. “Divide the city” the nuns said and “serve the dear neighbor” wherever that need is. And that is how it all began which brings us to today. In this Jubilee Year, Mount St. Mary’s thrives with its 2,000 students citywide, creating a future that advances the educational legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Short by some standards, long by others, the 75 years of Mount St. Mary’s College have been ones of constant self-examination and redefinition. It thrives today because it has not ignored change and has not pretended that tomorrow will be like yesterday, only more so. Always moving beyond its comfort zone, stretching without disabling, our College has boldly embraced the often unglamorous, the high-risk, and the unknown. Recalling the words of the founder of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day: “There is a call to us, a call of service -- that we join with others to try to make things better in this world.”4
And so, Mount St. Mary’s College forged ahead with its call to educate, in its earlier years, the daughters of European immigrants -- many, if not most, the first in their families to benefit from higher education. In later years, the College observed, as did others, the changing demographic landscape of Los Angeles. Other immigrants were joining us from Mexico, the Philippines, Africa, and elsewhere. Long before it was fashionable or more soberly put, a demographic imperative, this college with the assistance and endorsement of innovative foundations, corporations, loyal supporters, a courageous faculty, and a visionary administration, undertook a deliberate action to invite the new daughters of Los Angeles to take their place in our academic community. This marked another manifestation of the ideal of our founding sisters: to love your neighbor without distinction. “To be human is to want to know,” said Aristotle.5 He did not say to be rich or to be white is to want to know. To be human is to want to know. The Mount had what these new students wanted, needed, and deserved. The experience of this evolution and transformation has been an educational tapestry of mutual enrichment, extraordinary challenge, and gratifying results.
In the intervening years between these two large demographic shifts, monumental changes altered the landscape of higher education. Costs escalated dramatically and running institutions became more complex calling forth more formal preparation and continuous development for leading them and for instructing in them. More recently, colleges and universities, including our own, have witnessed how the potent tool of technology has engulfed our budgets, changed our operations, and presented new avenues for accessing learning. Technology has underscored our interdependence on one another while enabling us to connect globally.
We are all too familiar with the evolving impact of financial aid and its determining influence on both college going and college choice. The phrase, barely recognizable today, “working your way through college” meant earning enough money to supplement your parents’ contribution or perhaps paying the entire bill yourself. Not only has the phrase disappeared, but the typical student is “packaged and leveraged” to the extent that it will take her from five to fifteen years fully employed to become debt free. But, most believe as do we at Mount St. Mary’s, in the uncommon common sense of Ann Landers: “It you think education is expensive; try ignorance.” Or in the more contemporary lyrical language of Maya Angelou: “I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now.”
The consequent impact of cost is felt not only in the post-baccalaureate years but has also changed the profile to today’s student who must couple study with significant outside employment. As Peter Drucker says: “One cannot rent, hire, buy or otherwise obtain more time; it is the one universal condition we all share.”7 Therefore, time required for necessary employment as well as time on task required for study are gargantuan challenges faced by most of today’s students. Mount St. Mary’s College has long recognized that when the primary barriers -- time and money -- separate a young woman from the right and privilege of a higher education we have an obligation to do all in our power to enable her to surmount these barriers.
Many students whose first language is other than English enter our colleges and universities where oral and written communication is the very foundation of all that follows in the pursuit of a degree and career. Mount St. Mary’s welcomes this population and engages, where necessary, in what Alexander Astin calls our most important work: remediation.8 We do it with vigor, with respect, and with dignity through an ever-evolving structure called the Alternative Access Program. This is the same institution that, in the summer of 2000, through it Minority Access to Research Careers Program, sent 18 students to research university laboratories across the county to explore with mature scientists topics ranging from DNA genome studies to AIDS research to pediatric medicine.
Equally noteworthy, these students serve as an example of potential and possibility for their peers. They also reflect the guidance, support, and scholarship of a faculty, lay and religious, women and men, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and others, carrying on the legacy of the original six women of Le Puy who, in their own words, “committed themselves to the practice of all the good works of which woman is capable and which will most benefit the dear neighbor”9 -- or in the parlance of today, a faculty and staff who have sought and found creative ways to enable students to surpass their own expectations, and to prepare for professions and serve society.
Fortuitously, without our seeking such recognition (but always glad to get it!), Mount St. Mary’s College was recently identified by a cohort of women and men in our profession, as a place where “good work” is present. Good work, they said, is work of high quality and work that takes into account, in one way or another, some conception of the broader public good. Surely, this is our self-definition and one we take for granted, but reflect on less than we might or should. Knowing, above all, that there are many types of good work, what then, is our own at Mount St. Mary’s College? It stems from our tradition; it manifests itself in our transition; it will inspire our transformation. It is not only our good work; it is our good news.
What then will be our aspirations and vision for tomorrow?
For those of us fortunate enough to know some of the ten valiant women who have lead the journey of this college in its various transitions and transformations, for the select few who have know all of them, and for all of us, who know them by the fruits of their labor, we quiet our minds and recall in thanksgiving the unique and varied gifts of Mother Margaret Mary Brady, Mother Dolorosa Mannix, Mother Marie De Lourdes LeMay, Mother Agnes Marie O’Loughlin, Mother Rosemary Lyons, Sister Rose Gertrude Calloway, Sister Rebecca Doan, Sister Cecilia Louise Moore, Sister Magdalen Coughlin, and Sister Karen M. Kennelly. As its eleventh president, leading an already distinguished institution into the twenty-first century, I, along with my remarkable and esteemed colleagues, will advance the educational mission of these ten wisdom women -- these Spirited Lives15 whose seeds were sown across a continent, three and one-half centuries ago. I assume this position with gratitude, humility, and great expectations. I hold the tradition sacred, and the transition with care, as we embrace the good news of our transformation.
1. Inge, W.E., Dean of St. Pauls, London at the beginning of the 20th century. In The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations compiled by Robert Andrews. (Columbia University Press, NewYork, 1990).
2. Dougherty, CSJ, Sr. Dolorita Marie et al. in The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, (B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis and London, 1966).
4. Day, Dorothy, In The Call of Service by Robert Coles, (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1993).
5. Aristotle. In Happiness and Contemplation by Josef Pieper and Ralph M. McInerny, (St. Augustine Press, Indiana, 1998).
6. Landers, Ann. In Investment in Learning: the Individual and Social Value of American Higher Education, by Howard R. Bowen with the collaboration of Peter Clecak, Jacqueline Powers Doud, Gordon Douglass, (Jossey-Bass Publishers, SanFrancisco, Washington, New York, 1977).
7. Drucker, Peter F., Management Challenges for the 21st Century, (HarperBusiness, a division of Harper Collins, New York, 1999).
8. Astin, Alexanderina keynote address delivered at the American Association of Colleges and Universities Conference in January 1999.
9. Dougherty, CSJ, Sr. Dolorita Marie et al. in The Sisters of St.Joseph of Carondelet, (B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis and London, 1966).
10. Whitehead, Alfred North, The Aims of Education and Other Essays, (The Macmillan Company, 1967).
11. See Minnich, Elizabeth Kamarick, "Experiential Education: Democratizing Educational Philosophies," in Liberal Education, (Association of American Colleges and Universities, Summer, 1999).
12. Tobias, Sheila, Overcoming Math Anxiety, (W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London, 1993).
13. New York Times, Daily Breeze, October 3, 2000.
14. Sisters of St. Joseph Mission Statement posted in the Carondelet Center, Los Angeles, California.
15. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life by Carol Coburn and Martha Smith, (University of North Carolina Press, 1999).