Saint Mary's College on the Move

August 17, 2022

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

This past Sunday, I read a sobering piece in the New York Times by columnist Ezra Klein. Surveying the worlds of Twitter and Instagram, Klein reflected on the work of media expert Marshall MacLuhan to summarize how technology is changing our brains: “Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.” But while we may think with the crowd, we are more and more alone with our machines—and often we’re “alone together.” I wonder what this means for our relationships, and I certainly wonder about the impact on our students and their college experience.

Perhaps it was our revving up for the academic year and all that musing about technology that led me back to one of my favorite poems. Written by Michael Donaghy, an American-born poet who made a name for himself in London, it is actually titled “Machines.” As I re-read it, I was struck by how much it has to say to our current moment at Saint Mary’s College. The word that came to me as I read it—though the word is not in the poem—is momentum.

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about momentum as a metaphor for the single quality essential to Saint Mary’s right now, the process of change I am observing throughout the College. Donaghy’s poem offers a way of thinking about this:


     Dearest, note how these two are alike:                                  
     This harpsichord pavane by Purcell                                      
     And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.                                       

     The machinery of grace is always simple.                            
     This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected                       
     To another of concentric gears,                                            
     Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,               
     Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.                            
     And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.         

     So this talk, or touch if I were there,                                     
     Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,                         
     Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.                           

     If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,        
     So much agility, desire, and feverish care,                            
     As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove                                

     Who only by moving can balance,                                        
     Only by balancing, move.                                                      

Obviously, its mechanical title notwithstanding, this is a love poem. The speaker addresses his “dearest” and hopes to match the “effortless gadgetry of love” in the poem to the simple “machinery of grace” represented by the bike and the pavane. But I hope you can see why it helped me to think about the machinery of our institution and the balance we need to move forward. 

Everyone knows that it is virtually impossible to balance on a bicycle that is standing still. Let the bike roll slowly, and—with a lot of attention to the steering—you can maintain some balance, but not without precarious leanings and forward motion that is hardly in a straight line. But apply some force to the pedals, and you discover—counter-intuitively—that the faster you go, the easier it is to balance and to maintain direction. You have momentum. In Donaghy’s words, bicyclists (and harpsichordists) “only by moving can balance, / Only by balancing, move.”

Right now Saint Mary’s seems to have momentum around several projects. For example:

  • We recruited four experienced Vice Presidents to the College leadership in the last nine months: VP for Advancement, VP for Student Enrollment and Engagement, VP for Mission, and Senior VP & Provost.
  • We attracted an academically talented and diverse class of 402 first-year students and 18 transfer students. Our 1,308 undergraduate students and 105 graduate students begin their classes next week.
  • We strengthened the collaboration between Admission and Athletics in ways that will allow us to customize and target messaging to our recruits.
  • We expanded our curricular profile with an undergraduate Digital and Public Humanities minor, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. New SMC graduate programs underway include the direct-entry Master of Science in Nursing that enrolled its first set of students this fall and the Master of Social Work that will enroll its first class next fall (2023). We are also launching several accelerated programs in collaboration with the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame. These guaranteed admission programs offer a master’s degree in four areas of business to SMC students who complete specific undergraduate programming.
  • We advanced Inclusion and Equity through new scholarships, campus-wide trainings, book clubs, the Office for Student Equity, and a $1million grant from the Kessler Scholars program to support first-generation students.
  • We reshaped work in the Division for Mission through several key hires, including a director for Campus Ministry and a full-time farm manager. We added significant new religious art on the campus. We supported the Laudato Si’ platform and the Sustainable Farm with new equipment and a generous operating budget to ensure it sets down roots. We relocated our student-facing Mission and Ministry offices in the Student Center.
  • We began a reimagining of our residence life philosophy. We merged the Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) with the Student Involvement Office to become Student Involvement and Advocacy, allowing BAVO the opportunity to build its programmatic work and to better support our students.
  • We used bond funding to accomplish numerous facilities improvements that enhance the campus experience for students and employees, totaling $31M in campuswide renovations over the past three years. 
  • We quickly translated the strategic plan into a comprehensive fundraising campaign. We are moving forward into the “quiet phase” of a campaign, where we will finalize our case for support and our funding priorities.
  • We considerably strengthened our financial position, including significant endowment growth through both new gifts and good investment practices. The endowment currently sits at over $330M.
  • We are definitely moving! And I suppose my thoughts inspired by this poem could serve as a framework for our hopes and plans for the year ahead: we want to maintain our momentum on the important projects we have before us; we want to use the technologies and the machines available to us to enable that momentum in creative and community-building ways; and we want to think about our students and their futures in all the decisions we make.

Yes, we want to keep the machinery of campus life ramped up—we want to keep our legs pumping those pedals and keep the wheels spinning! And we want to remember, when we face headwinds, when the signposts disappear from time to time, that we are in this together—and that the laws of motion are immutable: we “only by moving can balance, / Only by balancing, move.”


Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.

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