The Rev. James P. Burns spent time talking with community members in the Science and Learning Center Lobby after his address on Wednesday. The event marked the first public meeting between Burns, 14th president of Saint Mary’s, and the Winona community.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
Saint Mary’s University had a homecoming on Wednesday as the Rev. James P. Burns, the school’s new president, introduced himself to the community after being away from Minnesota for several years.
Rev. Burns addressed the Saint Mary’s University campus for the first time at a public welcome at the newly completed Science and Learning Center. More than 90 people, including Winona State University President Scott Olson, attended his speech, when he discussed his plans for Saint Mary’s, praised his new community and said he would put momentum and cooperation first.
“I’m look forward to meeting all of you, and I’m very interested in get to know more about how you see the university, its relationship to the community, and its relationship to the students,” Rev. Burns said to the crowd. “How can we make today a place of hospitality in a culture that so desperately need hospitable places?”
Rev. Burns grew up in St. Paul, spending his first 16 years in the city proper before moving to Inver Grove Heights for two years and then to Feldman Heights, where his father still resides. In returning to Minnesota, Rev. Burns is able to have a homecoming of sorts, interacting with friends both old and new, including a few cousins in Winona that he didn’t know he had.
“It’s nice to reconnect, but also find new connections with both relatives and just the broader community, especially here at Saint Mary’s,” Rev. Burns said.
Rev. Burns has only spent a few days in Winona so far, but he said he was impressed by the beauty of the area, as well at the downtown and the strong industrial backbone.
“It’s hard not to appreciate and enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds this area, and it’s just fantastic,” Rev. Burns said. “Also the quaintness, as well as the dynamism that is ongoing here in Winona.”
Prior coming to Winona, Rev. Burns served as the dean of the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College. During his tenure, Woods College experienced many successes, including a 400-percent increase in revenue since 2017 and tripling the net contributions from Woods College to Boston College since 2012.
An ordained priest and registered psychologist, he has also served as the co-chairman and associate professor of the Graduate School of Psychology at the University of St. Thomas, assistant professor at Boston University, and complete pre-doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships at Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School.
According to Ann Merchlewitz, executive vice president and general counsel at Saint Mary’s, the university performed a closed search to find Rev. Burns. After several rounds of selections, interviews with faculty and staff and a full interview with the Board of Trustees, the decision to bring Rev. Burns on as the new president was made. Merchlewitz said Rev. Burns would be the leader to bring Saint Mary’s University to its next phase.
Merchlewitz explained that Saint Mary’s has had four defining moments, including the founding in 1912, sale to the Christian Brothers in 1933, the admission of women in 1969 and the beginning of graduate programs in 1984.
“We’ve been talking a lot about momentum here at Saint Mary’s,” Merchlewitz said. “I feel we are really poised for that fifth moment, and I hope to see Father move it there.”
Despite his pedigree, Rev. Burns has a lot of work to do to follow previous SMU President Brother William Mann. Over the past few years, Saint Mary’s has been on a large upswing. “We all have aspirational plans. We want to see Saint Mary’s grow, and be strong, to thrive and move from success to success. I think the trajectory has already been set for that,” Rev. Burns said, adding that the past two presidents created a great platform from which he can work.
The university expanded its online programs and launched the First Generation Initiative to help students have access to higher education, in addition to building multiple new facilities across the three campuses, including the Brother William Hall, a new residence hall at the Winona campus. “These are things that definitely take resources, but they will benefit the campus and students for generations to come. We will be a place that will be attractive to families and student not just for the activity and motion, but for the beauty of what we’re building,” Rev. Burns said.
According to Rev. Burns, he also wants to build from of Mann’s focus on philanthropy, particularly on the idea of “time, talent and treasure.” While financial giving is important, Rev. Burns added, giving time and talent is also valuable, so expanding outreach in those areas is one of his bigger goals.
“Not everyone can give at the same level financially, but all of us can give in terms of time and talent and those are precious commodities which we want to value, honor and respect,” Rev. Burns stated.
Rev. Burns said he plans to continue to expand the university’s focus on scholarships, partnership with Mayo Clinic, and the use of technology. He also added that in the future, Saint Mary’s will continue to grow its relationship with the community.
“It’s all about relationships, and relationships begin with meeting and being with people,” Rev. Burns explained. “We had a nice turnout [at the event] of people from throughout the community, and I want to respect and honor that they came out my first day to be here with me and with our community. I think the best way to give back is for myself and members of my community to respond in kind, and be there for them.”