Strengthening Our Bonds

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

Saint Mary’s is a community of learners, and we cherish informed, vigorous discourse anchored in a commitment to both honest exchange and respect for the dignity of each member of our community. I write today because there is misinformation circulating about the College that is demoralizing and harmful to our faculty, staff, and administration—that is, to the very people who dedicate themselves every day to this institution and who make the education and support of our students their life’s work. I’m concerned for our students, too, as this misinformation contradicts and diminishes the positive campus experience they are enjoying. To be clear: even unintentional misinformation hurts these valued members of our community, and I take seriously my responsibility to correct it. 

The origin of these inaccuracies goes back to November, when a nondiscrimination policy approved by the Board of Trustees (of which I am a member) became public before we were ready to release it. The Board believed the policy was consistent with our commitments to Catholic Social Teachings on human dignity and solidarity. Respecting our Bishop’s request that we reconsider, we stepped back from the policy in December. Bishop Rhoades immediately acknowledged this step, saying: “I am happy and grateful that Saint Mary’s College has returned to its previous admission policy.” He concluded affirmingly: “May truth and love abound at Saint Mary’s as it moves forward to bring unity to the college community.” I want to say plainly that the nondiscrimination policy advanced earlier by the Board of Trustees is no longer on the table. I hope this might help any members of our extended community who have lingered in that moment to work towards the unity we seek and to accept that the Board acknowledged mistakes and apologized for them in December. 

One reason I care deeply about redressing misinformation is that it can pull a community apart in a time when it needs connection. Words matter, and Saint Mary’s people have a long history of caring about words and understanding their impact. I believe that—as a Catholic college—Saint Mary’s should ask for and strive for a high standard of discourse, where we take care to ensure that what we say is actually true, where we check for accuracy before we share information, and where we bring disagreement into respectful dialogue that aims for understanding. This is especially important if the information could be damaging to an institution we all love or to the people who sustain it. Here are the primary examples of misinformation I would like to clear up:

  • It has been stated that we have lost our Catholic identity and that one would have to look hard to find it today. In a letter published in yesterday’s Observer, Sister M. Veronique (Wiedower), CSC ’70, President of the Sisters of the Holy Cross (our founders and ongoing sponsors), argues that our Catholic identity is alive and well at SMC. Sister Veronique also clarifies what seems to be a common misunderstanding about the Church of Our Lady of Loretto: the Church belongs to the Sisters of the Holy Cross, not the College. Saint Mary’s has no involvement or input in the liturgical decisions at Loretto. A number of students, faculty, and staff join the Sisters and their vibrant Loretto community for services, but the College provides its own Sunday and daily Masses on campus. 
  • It has been stated that our curriculum does not include a sufficient number of courses in Catholic theology and that we teach unsuitable courses in our general education curriculum. As we have been reporting regularly over the last year, the new Avenue curriculum is under construction and its implementation will lead to new general education requirements. Saint Mary’s will continue to require coursework in theology, religious studies, and philosophy, all of which are foundational in the Catholic intellectual tradition. That said, the current curriculum offerings are fully in line with courses taught at many Catholic liberal arts colleges. Moreover, the SMC faculty bring tremendous knowledge and creativity to both the content and the pedagogy of their courses.
  • It has been stated that individual faculty members are teaching inappropriate and unsuitable materials in their courses. These statements come from just a few individuals who openly admit that they have not enrolled in these classes and have not read the books and other course materials. We will protect the academic freedom of faculty members to choose the texts, materials, and methodologies they utilize in their areas of expertise.
  • It has been stated that we had a large issue with first-year retention this year (one letter saying we lost 87 students from our first-year class). In fact, the College had its highest retention rate in recent history: 98% of our first-year students chose to stay at SMC from fall to spring. 
  • It has been stated that Saint Mary’s College is behind in its fundraising efforts. In fact, we just raised the largest amount ever for our “Donor Challenge.” Additionally, we are significantly ahead in cash gifts received this year over last year. And even though we are in the quiet phase of a comprehensive campaign, we have already exceeded the fundraising totals for any previous SMC campaign. We are grateful to all of our donors! We are so fortunate that our institution is in excellent financial condition and that our endowment has experienced significant growth over the last four years, from $199.2 million in June of 2020 to $323.4 million at our last quarterly report.  

I know how easy it is for facts to get caught up in a game of “Telephone,” and at some point, the truth is lost. I hope that if you hear something about Saint Mary’s that doesn’t seem right, you will reach out to the College for clarification. In the meantime, we are taking many proactive steps to bring you the best information we can. A few months ago, we launched a digital newsletter, SMC Stories, to offer more detailed information about campus happenings and our community members. Alumnae should all be receiving the refreshed Bridge newsletter. And we are implementing an idea that came out of the alumnae and friends listening sessions in January and February: regular webinars that focus on important work at the College. Stay tuned as we roll these out!

In my first four years, I have learned a lot about being the president of a Catholic, women’s college. I am so proud of the SMC faculty, staff, and administration who, in keeping with our Catholic and Holy Cross values, consistently foster a rigorous, supportive, and inclusive college experience. Our students, too, are sources of delight and gratification. They take their academic work seriously and place a high value on creating and sustaining a loving community. Our alumnae and friends generously give back in countless ways to ensure that today’s students have ample opportunities to thrive. And the Sisters of the Holy Cross provide enduring inspiration and guidance through their partnership and sponsorship. This is the community that drew me to Saint Mary’s College. I hope we can move together into the future with a continued commitment to seek the truth and to use it to strengthen our bonds.

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D

April 30, 2024

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