Building The Future to Scale

October 30, 2020

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

Back in June, I mentioned that I would be living on campus in Riedinger House for my first several months at the College. I was amused that whenever I told someone this, they asked, “How does it feel to be in that miniature house?” And I had to admit: I hadn’t really noticed.  After all, I’m a fairly diminutive person, and the house just felt cozy to me. One tall student exclaimed: “But the stair railing comes up to my knee!” And while this was surely an exaggeration, I did start to notice that I hardly bent my elbow to support myself on that rail, that the ceilings were slightly lower than I’d observed, and that the bathrooms were downright tiny.

Riedinger House at Saint Mary's CollegeRiedinger House—built in 1939 as a model home for students in the domestic science program at Saint Mary’s—was a house built to scale. The plans had been drawn, and the price tag was just out of reach, so, like many post-depression homes, the house was constructed on a 7/8th scale. Sister Madeleva, who was president at the time, urgently wanted this opportunity for experiential learning, and she knew how to right-size her expectations.

That’s been a bit of a refrain for me in my first five months: build the future to scale. And I’m aware that the phrase can be used in more than one way. Some of our plans, like Riedinger House, might need to be scaled down. But we must also have some ideas that can be scaled up. We need to be ready for evolution and ready for growth.

In these early months, I’ve worked with the community to create a new strategic plan, and this concept of scale has never been far from my mind. I’ve wanted to consider what we are already doing well and might grow larger, what new ideas we could start from scratch, and what we simply need to make visible to the world: in short, what we should revere from our long history and what we should revise. We may even have to stop doing some things in order to reallocate resources toward a contemporary demand! I take a page from our founders and ongoing sponsors, the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who have boldly evolved their own work over the years, meeting the needs of the times in so many powerful ways.

I’ll be distributing the strategic plan broadly as soon as it is finalized and approved by the Board, but I want to share the process I have used so far to discover the themes that are important to our community as we contemplate the future. I undertook a preliminary planning phase starting in my first week on the job in June, asking everyone I met with what we should revere and what we should revise. I wanted to know what should never change at Saint Mary’s and what was ripe for review. As it became clear that people were open to an accelerated planning process, I moved to a more formal planning structure—inviting each academic division of the College to a discussion and meeting with staff units, students, and external audiences such as employers and community partners. Because I knew not everyone would attend a virtual meeting, I also sent a survey to people on campus, asking about strengths, challenges, and “big ideas” for Saint Mary’s.

Using what I learned in dozens of meetings and survey responses, I offered back to the community a set of themes I had uncovered. I hosted eleven “roundtable” discussions about those themes (via Zoom, of course!), and I conducted an additional survey—this time including faculty and staff, current students, current parents, and alumnae. The response was astonishingly robust and affirmative, including 657 responses from alumnae!

This feedback allowed me to create a first draft of the plan, which I circulated back to those same groups, and also to the leadership of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee. Their thinking informed the version I shared with the full Board in early October. This week, I am discussing the plan with the President’s Circle, a group of highly committed former lay Board members, each of whom served at least nine years on the Board. I expect to finalize the plan for approval in the coming weeks.

Without spelling out all the particulars, I will say that I am thrilled to discover that people want us to work on becoming a more just and inclusive community, creating a sense of belonging for everyone that is in keeping with Catholic social teachings on human dignity and solidarity. They are eager for us to be a leader in the social and economic empowerment of women, both through our core educational programs and through programs we will develop for other audiences. And they agree that we should highlight the importance of research and evidence-based practice—for students and for faculty—as a signature of our Saint Mary’s educational experience. I look forward to sharing the details of the strategic plan soon!

As I write this letter, we are inside three weeks to the end of the semester! Finals conclude on November 19, and we are all grateful that—through the compliance of our entire campus—we have been able to have a residential semester with face-to-face, hybrid, and fully online learning options. We know the nation and the world are seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases, and this is also true in St. Joseph County, IN. We have an uptick in campus cases as well, manageable so far, but worrisome with Halloween and the Notre-Dame Clemson game still ahead. We are on high alert and asking all our constituencies to remain vigilant in observing our health and safety standards.

In the midst of that, we have the ongoing good news of academic achievement on the part of our students and outstanding accomplishments on the part of our alumnae. And we recently received important external recognition for our academic work in health-related disciplines. The Lilly Endowment awarded a $1 million grant to support our creation of a Center for Integrated Health Education. We will undertake a renovation of Regina Hall to co-locate our health-related disciplines. Phase One of this project will move the Nursing Science Department into state-of-the art spaces for teaching, research, and simulation experiences in Fall 2021. I reviewed the architectural renderings for the first time this week, and it is an astonishing reimagining of space. 

Which returns me to where I began: building the future to scale. Just as Sister Madeleva figured out ways to work with what she had and to right-size expectations, we are doing the same today. I love learning that Saint Mary’s is a place of dreamers and doers, where we can use our imaginations and then roll up our sleeves to get the work done. My sleeves are rolled up, and I’m grateful for all my collaborators in building our future.

Sending warmest wishes and prayers for your health and safety.

Best regards,

Signature of Katie Conboy

Katie Conboy, PhD

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