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Inaugural address by Jacqueline Powers Doud

Tradition, Transition, and Transformation: The Good News

 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.

  1. Students are at the center of our agenda -- all of them: The system we have arranged is holistic. It is a process, a long and daily process of engaging students, one by one, to do their best. We welcome them; we advise them; we enable them to develop themselves in curricular and co-curricular activity and to test that knowledge in the city we serve. We keep inviting them back to learning when discouragement, illness, or obstacles retard their college journey.  We believe in their potential even when they do not believe in their own. Our larger more complex task is focused on exploring ways to have them rise to and surpass their own initial vision of themselves -- to believe in their own ability and to act on that belief—with a serious work ethic. Above all, we respect them. Respecting them does not mean requiring less; it means requiring more. When we do this work well, it exacts from us faith, accessibility, patience, planning, perseverance, and high academic standards for our own continual growth.
  2. Historically, higher education has not been known to assign much importance to pedagogy at the university level. We have had a long love affair with content. Knowledge, to be sure, is our métier, one that we cherish deeply and value appropriately. We consume it and we produce it. However, we often keep it to ourselves because we confuse teaching with telling. College is the only level of education in which the skill to teach and enable learning is presumed. Perhaps technology will be the occasion for according more dignity to tools and methods that motivate.  Mount St. Mary’s, mostly against the elitist grain,has long believed that methods matter. We believe that the “how” of teaching and learning is inseparable from the “what” that is taught and presumed learned. We have focused at least 20 years of research and experimentation on ways of thinking, knowing and molding an academic culture responsive to a primarily female and culturally diverse population. It is our mission, we believe, that has inspired us to tackle this project with an amazing spirit of freedom and collaboration. 
  3. At the heart of our belief about learning is its grounding in application.  As Alfred North Whitehead asserted, earlier in this century, “Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge.”10 To that end, fully half of our faculty have integrated a service-learning component in their courses across all disciplines. Our students are at Headstart; in elementary schools tutoring math; counseling battered women at Alexandria House; listening attentively at A place Called Home; interviewing for oral histories of our college; observing, treating, and learning from the ill, aged, and the lonely in retirement homes including our own Carondelet Center; tutoring English to new immigrants; and giving children new ways of seeing reality through photography. We find students not only doing good work but also thinking about what their knowledge demands of them, what responsive attitude it exacts. Combining class work with community engagement is replete with benefits for the learner and the served. As Dewey says: “Knowledge is something to be tried.” 11

What then will be our aspirations and vision for tomorrow?

  1. The transformation of Mount St. Mary’s College will have much to do with its origins rooted in the liberal arts and sciences, in the preparation of teachers and of health care providers. It is my hope, and the commitment of our faculty, that we re-vitalize the liberal arts and sciences that give soul to these professions. The dynamic, ever-changing environment of our current technological age does not exonerate us from examining the essential purposes of higher learning. We want to measurably go deeper into academic achievement. We want to focus on performance and results. Without the development of the imagination spurred by the study of literature, philosophy, the arts, and history  -- without throwing ideas in new and heretofore undreamed of combinations, we will not have truly educated. While our general focus will be on the ability to think critically, the habit of asking thoughtful questions, the practice of communicating clearly as well as the skills of persuasion, logic, and respectful listening, we want also to penetrate our prejudices. Realizing there is a plurality of dignities to discover, savor, and celebrate, we must call each separate dignity together so that we can foster unity for the common good. The re-vitalization of the liberal arts will focus on the urgent need in our city for improved teacher preparation and for better quantitative skills in our students often limited by fear rather than by lack of ability.12 We say tell our women the world is open to them; we have to mean it. Good preparation in quantitative skills doubles the number of professions open to them.
     
  2. Enabling our students to embrace and use technology will transform us as well. While we can not predict the pervasive influence of these advances, we know that technology is radically altering our structures in living, learning, and work. The American Management Association tells us that the surge in skills-deficient applicants reflects less a dumbing-down of the workplace than a higher level of competency needed to do any job. Technological skills are an indispensable tool for the future–including entry-level work. Internet traffic is doubling every three months.13 (I won’t comment on the 405 or 110!)  As we have seen already, technology does not come without its benefits and deficits. It is our commitment to assist our students and one another in discerning the right uses of this powerful tool.
     
  3. Mount St. Mary’s College, while traditional in appearance on both sites, educates half of student body over 25. In a knowledge society, we shall continue to attract and welcome, at the undergraduate and graduate levels, this fastest growing cohort in higher education. Building on our core competencies at the undergraduate level we will discern carefully and courageously and sometimes uncomfortably, where, when and how much of this cohort can best complement the traditional age students who comprise our core.
     
  4. We wish our transformation to be characterized by remarkable service at every juncture. We will fall short at times when we look outside ourselves for excuses, but let us be disabused of the idea that we serve students when we do not serve each other. Service is a form of creativity, generativity, and leadership. 
  5. We will care for and preserve our beautiful college on Chester Place and on Chalon Road. We will make it shine like a beacon -- leading our community to the treasures that are found there.  Beauty is essential to education.
  6. Finally, as our founders so eloquently state: “As the needs vary, so too does the expression of our mission.”14 We will formally and intentionally articulate the central values of our mission so that each one of us serves as a catalyst for the other in keeping vibrant and fresh our contribution to the academy, to the city, and to the world.

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. 

 

Notes:
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).

3. Ibid.

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).