By George E. Martin, PhD, President of St. Edward’s University
Illustration by Simon Pemberton
Martin will retire from St. Edward's University on June 30, 2021, at which point he will become president emeritus and the Reverend Edward S. Sorin Professor of Leadership.
In this 200th anniversary year of the founding of the Brothers of St. Joseph by Father Jacques-Francois Dujarié, I agreed to a request to write reflections on our Holy Cross mission and its impact on the university. The Brothers of St. Joseph became known as the Congregation of Holy Cross shortly after Father Dujarié, unable to continue his leadership of the Brothers because of illness, entrusted the Brothers to Blessed Basil Moreau, CSC. From Father Moreau and the congregation he led, we received the mission which guides us today.
Every day since joining St. Edward’s University as its president in 1999, I have spent a few minutes, sometimes much longer, thinking about, or discussing with others, how university decisions and policies align with our Holy Cross mission. Our mission is our navigational chart to the goals for which we were created. At times, modifications need to be made to university policies and structures as we encounter unanticipated events or significant environmental change, but our mission’s ultimate objectives remain constant.
Father Moreau suggested that we, “Consider the greatness of your mission and the wonderful good you can accomplish.” His words should inspire all of us each and every day, no matter what challenges we are facing — small and personal ones, or those that disrupt national and world structures.
Our Mission: Our Greatest Strength
A university’s greatest strength is its mission. Mission is more important than a strategic plan, an endowment, an academic reputation, a balanced budget or a national ranking. It is the prism through which an institution identifies its strategic goals, defines educational and organizational policies, and prioritizes the allocation of resources. It orchestrates the quotidian rhythms of a university as it engages students in intellectual inquiry and creates programs that promote an understanding of the social and economic issues confronting our nation and the world, while designing ways that students may actively address them.
The St. Edward’s University mission is a gift from our founders and a continuation of the educational work of the Holy Cross Congregation. It calls us to serve God as we educate the hearts and minds of students in the cause of establishing social justice in the world.
A Call to Excellence
“Education is a work of resurrection; it is meant to be a liberation from the darkness of ignorance; it is meant to be a vehicle for the transformation of society; and it is meant to be a process that helps to make all things, especially the persons engaged in it, new.”
Our Holy Cross mission is an expression of religious faith and a commitment to serve God. It obliges us to pursue excellence in all we do and challenges us to align our strategic goals with higher levels of achievement. How can we advance the cause of social justice in the world through our students? This is the question that must be answered over and over again, year to year, decade to decade. Each time we try to answer it, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar environment with new experiences, changed conditions and the need to adjust. If we are to succeed, each adjustment requires soul-searching honesty, flexibility and agility, while remaining committed to fundamental values. No event has demonstrated this more than the Covid-19 pandemic, but there has also been World War II, the Great Depression and the Great Recession; we are always adjusting and always evolving.
Graduation Rates: A Measure of Excellence
Thinking back to 1999, the primary question facing the university was how to improve the graduation rates of our students. Graduation rates are minimal goals of excellence for institutions of higher education. Yet our graduation rates at the time were disturbingly low — a six-year graduation rate of 42% and a four-year graduation rate of 29%. Reorganization, improved mentoring and tracking helped us to reach a historic peak six-year graduation rate of 69.5% in 2015. But even as we reached it, we saw some troubling indications of future slippage back to mid-60s percentages. A whole new generation of students in an age of frozen wages, increasing bifurcation of wealth and greater economic inequality was encountering unanticipated obstacles to college completion. In response, we launched the Student Success Initiative and saw our six-year graduation rate swing upwards in 2020 to 67% and our four-year graduation rate reach a record high of 55.5%. As we emerge from the pandemic, we need to set our sights on the next target for excellence, a graduation rate of 75%.
Academic Challenge: Elemental to Excellence
Even as we were improving graduation rates, we looked for other ways to achieve excellence. We began to ask whether or not we were sufficiently challenging students so that they could realize their full potential.
Early in our efforts to increase the size of the student body, we invited a marketing firm to conduct focus sessions with students, faculty and staff. The firm’s research revealed that our community saw itself as “nurturing,” a characteristic cited by both faculty as part of their approach to student learning, and students reporting how supportive and understanding faculty and advisors were. “Nurturing” became a word and a theme that figured prominently in the university’s marketing, and the campaign achieved impressive success in growing the number of traditional undergraduates.
But the word “nurturing” nagged at us as we engaged in deeper analysis of the student experience at St. Edward’s. We noted that an alarming number of high-performing students complained that they were insufficiently challenged and were transferring out of the university before graduating. The number of students competing for prestigious national and international awards was disappointingly small, and we could claim very few winners. Nurturing is fundamental to a Holy Cross education, but to fully accomplish our educational objectives, it must be combined with challenging students to identify stretch goals, thereby raising their aspirations and realizing their full potential.
We made the decision to create a dynamic Office of Fellowships that would reach out to students in their freshman year; alert them to competitive national and international awards; and connect them to preparatory opportunities in research, internships, study abroad and community service. These awards add much value to students’ résumés as they apply for postgraduate employment or for admission to prestigious graduate and professional schools.
The Office of Fellowships guides students through a process in which they compete for awards early in their sophomore year. These early efforts to win awards lay the foundation for success in junior and senior year competitions for graduate and postgraduate awards. Even when students don’t win the awards they seek, the learning experiences of their efforts are invaluable.
Since 2008, students have won more than 200 prestigious national and international awards, including 70 student Fulbrights, a Truman Scholarship and 71 Gilman Scholarships. These awards are stepping stones to acceptances into the most prestigious graduate and professional programs in the world, acceptances that our students win in impressive numbers each year. They add value to the reputation of our university and to every graduate’s diploma. They testify to the exceptional quality of the classroom experience at St. Edward’s, led by an extraordinarily talented and dedicated faculty.
A university’s reputation can open corporate doors: Each year, more and more of our students are invited to join the ranks of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, KPMG, Goldman Sachs, and other prestigious organizations, often as members of their premier recruitment programs. An award-winning reputation attracts more students, helping us to fulfill our mission to educate as many students as possible in the St. Edward’s, Holy Cross tradition.
Leaders for a Changing World
Father Moreau is often depicted as a quiet and humble man, and I believe he was. But he was also a man of deep faith who believed he was called by God to undertake his missionary work. He embraced that calling, resolutely introducing the word of God and the cause of social justice to France and beyond, through deploying missionaries abroad to Algiers, the United States and Asia. His objective, as is ours, was to change the world.
Our graduates are becoming part of the most prestigious universities and corporations of the world and, consequently, have opportunities to influence decisions and policies that impact multiple sectors of society and the economy. Their Holy Cross education at St. Edward’s makes them mindful of the importance of social justice to good policymaking. As the majority of
St. Edward’s students are female, and we are a Hispanic-serving and a majority-minority institution, the numbers of Hispanics, minorities and women among our graduates are proportionally higher than at other institutions, and their numbers have grown significantly over the last 20 years and will continue to grow in the next decade. Our students are a force for changing the world. They know first-hand the problems that need to be addressed and corrected and will be able in the future to open doors to others like themselves so that together they can have a growing influence on our political and economic structures.
A Reputation for Excellence
Reputation flows from mission and is fundamental to a university’s success. It helps to attract students, talented faculty and staff, and donors. It adds value to a diploma. It also corroborates an institution’s claim to excellence with measures of quality determined by outside organizations over which the institution has no influence.
Accreditations validate reputation. That is why the university maintains accreditations such as those from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), and why we are now in the final stages for accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
In a similar way, rankings affirm the quality of a university. Hence, we celebrate our rank of No. 8 for the second year in a row in the U.S. News & World Report listing of Best Regional Universities in the West. We applaud our national standing among master’s institutions that are top producers of Fulbright student winners: for the past 11 years being included in the list of top-10 producers, twice ranking No. 1.
Building for Mission
In service to our mission’s call to excellence, the university must provide facilities and a physical environment of the highest quality. The John Brooks Williams science complex is an example: The university needed to replace outdated facilities in order to provide students with the laboratories for 21st-century science. Trustee Hall provided faculty and students with modern classrooms to replace the worn-out dormitory rooms of André Hall that had been converted into classrooms. As the student population grew over the last two decades, so did the need for student residences and offices for a larger faculty. Moreau Hall was followed by Dujarié Hall, the three buildings that compose the Residential Village, and the St. André Apartments.
Mindful of our environment, the university repurposed buildings when possible. Thus, Fleck Hall science laboratories became modern classrooms, and an additional floor of meeting and reception rooms was added on to what once was its roof. Doyle and Premont halls were converted into office buildings and were joined by a new building for the expanding School of Behavioral and Social Sciences, creating a pleasant courtyard on the northwest side of campus.
The iconic Munday Library, a research center for the 21st century, made possible by the generosity of Bill and Pat Munday who provided all the funding, opened in 2013. Motivated by their own awareness of the interconnectedness of the world and the need for understanding and cooperation to bring about peace and justice in the world, the Mundays created a library that brings the rest of the world onto the St. Edward’s campus.
As the number of students grew, so did the need for more square footage devoted to health and wellness, a need addressed by the construction of the Health & Counseling Center and the Recreation and Athletics Center. Existing buildings, such as Main Building and Holy Cross Hall, deteriorating from decades of use, underwent complete interior and exterior renovations, enhancing their beauty and aligning them with today’s needs. In all, 27 buildings were built or completely renovated in the last 20 years.
Then there is technology, ever and increasingly present, seen and unseen, and essential to modern education and all university operations. The university has invested tens of millions of dollars in technology in the last decade. Without current technology, the university could not maintain the quality of our academic instructional and support programs.
It’s impossible to imagine how we could have served our students during this pandemic-traumatized chapter in our history without the long-term investment in technology and the extraordinary Instructional Technology team that supports our faculty and students.
The university committed to beautifying the campus, planting more than a thousand trees and creating pleasant outdoor gathering spaces. Many of the diurnal experiences of campus life take place as we walk to and from buildings or stop to enjoy a cup of coffee or to share an outdoor lunch with friends. Our beautiful campus adds much to these activities and our quality of life.
Serving All Students
“If at times you show preference to any young person, it should be the poor. ... If you show them greater care and concern, it must be because their needs are greater and because it is only just to give more to those who have received less. You must be ‘all things to all people,’ like Saint Paul — little with the little, great with the great, seeing in all only the image of God imprinted within them like a sacred seal that you must preserve at all cost.”
Inspired by our Holy Cross mission, St. Edward’s strives to make it possible for students of every economic background to be part of the university. The university is committed to making significant investments in innovative and supportive programs for low-income students so that they are sufficiently represented in the student body. Our mission places us in the forefront of American higher education efforts to serve low-income students, both because we started earlier than most institutions, and proportionately our dedication of resources to low-income students significantly exceeds that of most other institutions.
Most notable is our College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which serves migrant students. It has received significant recognition over the decades, including two featured stories on national network news channels. St. Edward’s is one of only four pioneering institutions that introduced CAMP 49 years ago. Ours is the only one of the original four that still exists and the only one that still supports students beyond their freshman year to graduation. Students receive tuition and housing support, free tutoring and counseling. They also have opportunities to participate in internships, summer research and study abroad through the Luci Baines Johnson–Ian Turpin Scholars program. Graduation rates for CAMP students match those of our overall student population, exceeding both Texas and national graduation rates.
The McNair Scholars Program for first-generation, low-income students who wish to pursue graduate studies dates back to 2003. It has 212 alumni and an amazing success rate: 18 PhDs, 3 Doctors of Physical Therapy, 2 Doctors of Pharmacy, 1 Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, and 83 master’s degrees to date. Currently, 29 students are pursuing doctorates, nine students are enrolled in master’s degree programs, and one is in medical school.
The Bill and Pat Munday Scholarship makes it possible for almost 150 students a year to attend St. Edward’s and go on to distinguished achievements after graduation. The Mundays have shown their generosity and faith in St. Edward’s through almost $50 million in donations, and our community is deeply grateful.
The university’s admission and retention policies illustrate our commitment to opening doors to all students and to supporting their successful journey to graduation. More than 41% of our students receive Pell grants, federal aid that goes to the lowest-income students. The university awarded scholarships and financial aid grants from annual revenue to 98% of freshmen and 87% of transfer students, at a cost of $79 million, in Fiscal Year 2020. The average net tuition for students receiving institutional grants in 2020 was $16,907.
In a world where only 40% of Americans are able to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense, many of our low-income students experience major life disruptions when faced with urgent needs for help with much smaller costs such as a car repair or a visit to a doctor. These events can result in a student missing days of school and possibly needing to withdraw. To address such emergencies, the university established the Hilltoppers Overcoming Obstacles Fund (HOOF), which has been instrumental in increasing retention rates.
Family financial planning for higher education has also changed dramatically in an economy that has seen almost no significant increases in wages for 20 years. Parents and students make plans for accumulating as many higher education credits as possible before leaving high school. They take advantage of programs such as advanced placement and dual credit courses. In addition, many students consider a two-plus-two path to a baccalaureate degree, attending a community college first and earning an associate degree, then transferring to a four-year institution for two years to complete their baccalaureate degree. This new reality has required us to adjust policies to continue making it possible for working-class and middle-class students to become part of the St. Edward’s community.
The Evolution of Higher Education
Father Moreau sought to save souls through education. That is why he tried to extend his reach beyond France to other countries and continents, and why he tried to serve as many students as possible. While we are not trying to convert any of our students to Catholicism and, to the contrary, embrace people of other religions and facilitate their religious observances on campus, we are missionaries of education for social justice and for equality of educational opportunity. Thus, just as Father Moreau tried to reach as many souls as possible, we try to provide a transformational, personalized educational experience to as many students as possible, while optimizing the number of economically disadvantaged students in our hilltop community.
The determination of how large a university we can and should be changes with environmental developments, periodic assessment of how well we are fulfilling our mission, and the amount of resources available. I remember much consternation voiced in our community in 1999, when we announced our intention to double the size of our full-time, undergraduate population from 1,800 students to 3,600 students. It took many years and much creative energy to overcome unforeseen obstacles.
Trouble started just a few months after our announcement; the Tech Bubble burst in 2000, spreading droplets of disruption throughout the economy. Just eight years later, the Great Recession descended on our country, creating a financial crisis second in severity only to the Great Depression that lasted from 1929 to 1933. Accompanying these events was a national, 10-year decline in the college-going population in the United States, a trend that started in 2008. Yet despite these many challenges, we exceeded our goal of doubling undergraduate enrollment for the first time in Fall 2015. Our student numbers dipped slightly below 3,600 in Fall 2019 and, of course, nothing is normal in 2020–2021.
As we make adjustments to recover growth, the Covid-19 pandemic is tearing our economy apart and will leave behind great economic, social and political disruption. Planning for the post-pandemic era will require a methodical, strategic analysis of how we preserve our mission and optimize the size of our student population and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students included in it. If we are true to our missionary zeal for social justice and serving the disadvantaged, we will discover the way forward, which inevitably will be different from our past.
If we are to honor Father Moreau’s international vision, the way forward must also include the restoration of the global opportunities that were shut down by the pandemic. Currently, we can neither send students abroad, nor can we welcome students from other countries to our campus. Holy Cross has long known the value of sharing knowledge and values with other peoples. As an academic community,
St. Edward’s is keenly aware of the need for students to experience other cultures, on campus and through study abroad, if they are to be educated for the interconnected and interdependent world of the future.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Our Holy Cross mission exhorts us to meet people where they are, to welcome their life experiences and recognize the legitimacy of their perspectives by integrating them into the educational dialogue that defines the university and prepares students for their future.
St. Edward’s officially became a Hispanic-serving institution in 1990. In 2016, we became a majority-minority institution. The faces of our students have changed over the years, reflecting the increasing diversity of our country. This diversity enriches the educational experience of all students and better prepares them to lead our society in the future.
Diversity among students has created a need for greater diversity among those who serve them. While diversity within the ranks of administrators, staff and faculty has not increased at an ideal rate, the university has made significant progress and is committed to accelerating the rate of change moving forward.
In July of this year, the university will welcome Dr. Montserrat Fuentes, the first Hispanic woman to serve as our president. She is extraordinarily accomplished in both her academic and administrative achievements and ready to lead the university beyond the pandemic and through the next decade.
In 2015, the St. Edward’s Board of Trustees introduced changes to its bylaws that are accelerating turnover among its members and facilitating the recruitment of younger, more diverse classes of trustees. Eight new trustees joined the board in 2019–2020 and 2020–2021; all are under 50 years of age, and there are five people of color that include the first Moreau Scholar, the first CAMP student and the first McNair Scholar ever elected to the board.
New realities require new structures and policies. All St. Edward’s employees, including the president and members of the Board of Trustees, are required to take diversity training. The “Great Colleges To Work For” and the “Campus Climate” surveys are scheduled regularly, and their findings, along with the “Equity Scorecard,” are shared with the university community.
Four years ago, the President’s Advisory Council for a Respectful, Inclusive Community was established. It includes 26 voices drawn from students, staff, faculty and administrators, and reflects community groups traditionally marginalized. Each year it makes recommendations to improve the way we serve all members of our community. To date, the council has made 12 broad recommendations. These recommendations were approved and have generated 27 initiatives; 16 are completed, and 11 are in progress.
Last September, after brutal killings of Black men and women (including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, and Eric Garner), the President’s Task Force on Systemic Racism was created and is designing six educational events about structural racism and ways to eliminate it in American society. The first event occurred in December, “Mental Health: The Intersection of Racism and Trauma”; the second in February, “Racial Healing Circle”; and the third will be held in April, “Competence to See, Courage to Act: Racism, Anti-racism and You.” Other events are being planned for later this spring, and the task force is inviting our community to share personal reflections on systemic racism for posting on the university’s website.
We are also called by our mission to provide equity for all members of our community in our compensation and benefits programs. A long-term commitment of the university is providing high-quality health insurance at the lowest possible cost. One way we do this is by calibrating employee insurance rates to salaries, so those with lower salaries pay lower rates. We also maintain competitive salaries; the university has given annual raises almost every year since 2000, sometimes at rates as high as 6%. The only year we failed to give a raise was this year, a consequence of the pandemic. There is still an ongoing national argument over a $15 minimum wage; St. Edward’s, however, saw the need early and established the $15 minimum wage in October 2016.
Preserving Our Legacy and Our Future
One winter night in the year 2000, I invited three Brothers of Holy Cross to dinner in downtown Austin. We — Brothers Richard Daly, Richard Critz, Stephen Walsh and I — were already developing a friendship as they supported me in my first year of learning about Holy Cross and St. Edward’s. It had become apparent to me that the St. Edward’s community was special and distinctive among Catholic colleges and universities, and that the reason for this could be traced directly to the Brothers and their leadership of the university.
Beginning in 1948, when Brother Edmund Hunt, CSC, became the first Brother-President of the university, St. Edward’s assumed a distinct culture that was shaped by a charism unique to the Brothers of Holy Cross. Brothers were everywhere on campus, in the president’s and deans’ offices, teaching in the classrooms, and constituting a significant part of the student body. They were woven into the fabric of the university community, and through love, caring, generosity, and humility; by example of their spirituality, lived every minute of every day; and by meeting all people where they are, in the Holy Cross tradition; they converted the whole community to their ways and their values. No preaching, no institutional programming was necessary. Everyone experienced Holy Cross every day, throughout the day, and knew firsthand what was meant by a transformative education.
Life at the university changed in the final decades of the 20th century. The number of Brothers on campus declined significantly, and there were no indications that this decline would be reversed.
That night at dinner, I waited until just before dessert to raise two questions: How do we keep the conversation going about what it means to be a Holy Cross institution carrying on the vision of Father Dujarié and Father Moreau? How do we keep the conversation part of the university’s circadian cycles, just as when we had large numbers of Brothers in our midst?
By the end of the evening, we agreed that we could not duplicate life with an abundant number of Brothers, but we could reinvent it and build on the energy and resources of all educational institutions sponsored by the Brothers through a national (and eventually international) center that would be sponsored by St. Edward’s but be overseen by a board of directors selected by member institutions. The board would determine annual goals and design conversations that would celebrate achievements, monitor ongoing developments and environmental changes, and support additional initiatives to enrich dialogue about what it means to be a Holy Cross institution. Thus, the Holy Cross Institute at St. Edward’s University was born.
Brother Stephen volunteered to arrange meetings with school leaders and Brothers’ communities in other parts of the country, and we traveled together to share our ideas and to measure support for them. We were met by more doubts than explosive bursts of enthusiasm but, with time and continuing dialogue, appreciation for the concept increased. Contributions to fund the initial operations and convocation began to appear and, with them, expressions of growing support. The first annual convocation was a huge success. Each year that followed saw an expansion of participants. In less than a decade, the institute became international, as the annual convocation welcomed members from Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. Today, Dr. Marco Clark, the new executive director of the Holy Cross Institute, is in ongoing conversation with Holy Cross institutions around the globe, all of whom are part of our annual convocation and participate in the virtual bi-monthly lecture series hosted by Dr. Clark.
On campus, faculty groups read about the history of Holy Cross and discuss the writings of Father Moreau. Dr. Clark and Father Peter Walsh, CSC, director of Campus Ministry, share daily reflections and historical information about Holy Cross. The university’s website provides information about Holy Cross, such as this year’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Brothers of Saint Joseph, the original name of the Brothers of Holy Cross.
The conversation about Holy Cross and the legacy of the Brothers is sustained and robust. We celebrate our past, plan our future, and remain faithful to the mission bequeathed to us by Father Moreau.
In Memory: The Brothers of Holy Cross
We have added informative visual reminders of our Holy Cross legacy throughout campus for members of our community to experience every day, and for campus visitors to learn about the historical contributions of the Brothers of Holy Cross to the St. Edward’s community. In honor of the Brothers’ 200th anniversary, we will formally open and bless the Brothers of Holy Cross Garden on April 15, as part of the 15th international convocation sponsored by the Holy Cross Institute. There are three remaining 20th-century buildings that memorialize Holy Cross in the university’s history: Sorin Hall, Holy Cross Hall and Fleck Hall. Since 2000, the university has added Moreau Hall; Dujarié Hall; LeMans Hall; Hunt Hall; the Brother Stephen Walsh, CSC, Campus Ministry Building; and the St. André Apartments. Currently, we are adding nine historical plaques to be placed in front of the buildings. A stroll across campus will now provide multiple opportunities to learn and reflect on the history of Holy Cross at St. Edward’s.
Our Mission Is Our Future
“Never look back. Always walk ahead until you are in possession of the glory of God.”
“Those who teach justice to many will shine like stars for all eternity.”
The history of the Congregation of Holy Cross and St. Edward’s is filled with seemingly insurmountable challenges: fires, tornadoes, severe financial struggles. Yet out of each trial, the university emerged stronger, larger and financially sound. The Brothers never lost hope and remained confident as they trusted in Providence. I am unable to count the number of times I have heard a Holy Cross Brother, in casual conversation or in a formal presentation, express his trust that God will provide.
God is still with us, and so too is the inspiration of Holy Cross. Just as our mission has guided our past, it will guide and assure our future.