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After 100 years, SMU looks to the future (06/16/2013)
By Chris Rogers


     As Saint Mary's University celebrates the end of their 100th year of schooling, Brother William Mann guides the school towards its future goals.

One hundred years ago this summer, Saint Mary's University (SMU) ended its first year of classes. As the school celebrates a century of inspiring and empowering students, it also looks ahead. At a historic moment in the school's history, SMU seeks to build on its foundation and expand its offerings.

The man guiding the community toward those goals says the school's mission of providing quality higher education that is affordable and accessible to all is crucially important in the twenty-first century. Brother William Mann became the president of SMU in 2008 after serving as the second-in-command of the international Catholic teaching order the De La Salle Christian Brothers.

Brother William had been serving on the Board of Trustees for SMU, and was already familiar with the draw of Winona and the school, but what called him to dedicate himself to the university as its day-in, day-out leader was a belief that higher education is crucial to success in the 21st century. "I really believe that higher education has a significant place in the education journey today," he said. "Not just a one-shot inoculation, but a lifetime of ongoing education."

With graduate and bachelor's degree completion programs offered in Minneapolis and distance learning centers in Oakdale, Apple Valley, Rochester, and Minnetonka, non-traditional students, students who never finished college, and students continuing their higher education are a core part of the university's identity. "We are placing graduate programs near where people live and work. That's part of a person-centered relationship," Brother William explained.

The "person-centered relationship" Brother William referred to stems from teachings of Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, the patron saint of teachers and the founder of the De La Salle Christian Brothers. De La Salle dedicated his life to teaching poor children in 17th-century France. He labored to empower disadvantaged children through education, and felt that teachers had a spiritual call to build personal connections with students.

That relationship "is at the deepest core of the Lasallian tradition," Brother William said. It is a sacred relationship, he said. At a Lasallian school "nobody should become lost; nobody should be able to become invisible," he continued.

That Lasallian tradition also plays out in SMU's admissions policy. Having the brightest students is not the indicator of success for a Lasallian school, Brother William said, but rather the indicator is: "What do you do with the people that come here?" SMU has reason to think it is doing well by those standards. The school was named as the best school for minority students for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education by Forbes Magazine in 2010.

The Lasallian tradition also informs SMU's focus on ethical leadership education. Higher education should make people more successful and better people in the workplace, at home, and in civic life, Brother William said. "If you're part of the fraction of Americans that receive a college education, you'd better be making the world better because of it."

The school's latest strategic plan doubles down on the school's academic core and seeks to expand the reach and impact of its work. Among these new steps are plans to offer more online education, increase the school's endowment, and consider increasing its enrollment.

SMU currently offers three online courses in business subjects. The school will soon offer three more in business and education. SMU is taking a moderate approach to online offerings. "We're starting it small because we want them to be quality," Brother William explained. When asked why the school was pursuing that change, he said, "It is all part of the SMU you know, but it is more relevant to people's lives." People talk a lot about making higher education more accessible, but "part of accessibility is geography," he said, "if we can put education close to student's homes and workplaces that's important."

A more robust endowment will enable the school to expand its philanthropy, Brother William said. SMU offers finanical aid to over 90 percent of its students. Increasing enrollment is an ongoing conversation, he said. Significant growth of the residential campus is unlikely, but the university is seeking to find the right number of students for each of its programs.

When asked if, given the difficult economy and changing structure of society and higher education, it was a difficult time to be heading a university, Brother William acknowledged the impact the 2008 financial crisis has had on students, families, and individuals. However, his task does not seem as difficult as when Brother Leopold, the first Lasallian brother at SMU, took over the debt-heavy, student-light school in the middle of the Great Depression, he said.

"I am as convinced now as I have ever been that a college education is the game changer. What it allows in terms of maximizing human potential, interconnection, and what we bring to the workplace and the home setting, it is so transformative that despite our present challenge there is no reason to think it is any less empowering," he said.

What is more, "Higher education is the stimulus package that works," he added. "This is not the time to give up on the American model of higher education."

 

 

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