by Father James P. Burns, IVD, Ph.D., SMU president
On Friday afternoon, students at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota gathered peacefully on our Winona campus to speak out in support of their fellow students and against bias and exclusion. My colleagues and I are proud to see the love and concern they demonstrated, not only for their classmates but for the university they consider their home. This type of peaceful civil discourse, this willingness to stand up for what one believes is right, lies at the very core of what we believe in and teach at Saint Mary’s.
It is true that Saint Mary’s, as a Lasallian Catholic university, has faced challenges in a full expression of its vision to welcome and embrace all people of good will. We have stumbled at times. But each time we stumble, we learn: we listen and try to improve in all areas.
The desire to improve in all areas is born out in our strategic plan: Building a Future Full of Hope 2025. In January 2019, we launched the strategic planning process and invited students, faculty, and staff to share their thoughts and ideas related to the future of Saint Mary’s. In listening sessions and via surveys, we learned that a more visible and constructive approach to diversity and inclusion was a very important concern. For that reason, and because it is the right thing to do, the first of our five strategic goals (Living Our Lasallian Catholic Heritage) has a focus on universitywide diversity and inclusion. In this area, we are creating a vice president for inclusion and human dignity. This role will help guide us in these efforts. We anticipate having that position filled by summer 2020. We listened, and we learned.
During the assembly, our students highlighted several events that have sparked their concern. Last spring, Saint Mary’s had considered making some reallocations to housing (as it does each year, based upon student demographics). The university has some same-gender or same-sex housing by floor in the residence halls, and additional same-gender or same-sex housing was proposed. When students expressed questions and concerns, listening sessions were held, and university officials opted to not make proposed changes based on this feedback.
Students also mentioned a speaker the university brought to campus, someone who made a comment about the LGBTQ community which made some attendees uncomfortable. I immediately sent out a communication to our Saint Mary’s community, in which I assured them that Saint Mary’s promotes and celebrates respect and unity in diversity including race, religion, and gender and that, at Saint Mary’s, we want to make sure that all members of the community find themselves welcome and secure as they pursue their educational dreams.
Our students were also disappointed in a change to a training activity planned by a student group, Serving Others United in Love (S.O.U.L.). A member of our Campus Ministry staff changed the destination of a S.O.U.L. leader training trip because there was a misunderstanding on what would happen as part of this trip regarding a proposed discussion about gender-neutral pronouns during the trip. We have had and will continue to have conversations with our staff and the affected students regarding the concerns this decision caused. We will do our best to accelerate the timeline for already planned diversity and inclusion training.
Further, what was a matter of following university protocol was misinterpreted by students as an act of censorship when posters promoting an LGBTQ gathering were removed. The posters in question were hung without gaining approval (which all posters must have, as required by university policy); once that approval was given, the posters were rehung.
I provide these explanations not as excuses, but as clear examples of our continued good faith and interest in serving our community to its fullest. Saint Mary’s is a microcosm of our broader society— a society in which changing demographics, expectations, and even vocabulary can lead to either great discord or, as we hope, to greater understanding and inclusion.
In the hopes that we can achieve that greater understanding and inclusion, I want to reaffirm that Saint Mary’s honors and respects the human dignity of all individuals. We celebrate inclusion and diversity. We welcome all members of our community. These are two principles core to our identity as a Lasallian Catholic university. This commitment endures regardless of whether one is a student of faith or not, and includes all people of good will of any and all races, genders, ethnicities, or sexual identities.
As an institution of higher learning, Saint Mary’s knows — I know — that we must continue to work through challenges, to engage in difficult conversations, and to encourage the type of intellectual discourse on sometimes difficult issues if we hope to fulfill our mission to awaken, nurture, and empower learners to ethical lives of service and leadership. This is why we will continue to strive to be a place where we can agree to disagree agreeably; where we will assume and encourage the good of each other; and where we respect each other’s perspective and remain open to all, even amidst our differences of opinion. We will continue to listen. We will continue to learn. And we will continue to believe in the living presence of God in our students, in our community, and in our world.