Answering Pope Francis’ Challenge to Higher Education

Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis’ remarks to the 2014 Scholarship Ball.

Tonight I want to provide you a state of the college and how Benedictine College is making an impact on our students as well as your communities, the country and the world

The year started with the college enrolling the largest freshman class and the largest enrollment in our history. This makes 17 straight years of enrollment increases. But I will tell you that this is not easy. In the United States, the number of college age students is decreasing. Not only is the number of college-age students decreasing, but the number of students choosing private institutions is decreasing at an even faster pace. Between 2010 and 2012 enrollment at private colleges and universities decreased by 10% Now, during that same time, our enrollment increased by 15% So we totally turned it upside down.

There are reasons why we have continued to grow and become stronger. We still believe that if we continue to adhere to our mission to educate our students within a community of faith and scholarship that we will find success. This adherence to our mission allows us to continue to attract the best families and the best students in the world.

Pope Francis reminds Catholic universities that he wants universities who are fully credible and fully Catholic — both. In other words we need to be both academically excellent and faithfully Catholic. That is our charge and building a great Catholic college demands it. How are we doing this year consistent with our mission to educate within a community of faith and scholarship?


On the Community side, we believe a residential living environment is the best way to educate our students. That is why we continue to build residence halls. Since 2000 we have opened nine new residence hall buildings on campus and by next fall that number will be 11.

The tenth new residence hall is on the south end of campus as part of the Legacy Apartment complex. This dorm is to be called Lemke Hall after Fr. Henry Lemke, the monk who founded St. Benedict’s Abbey. The eleventh new residence hall since 2000, is the 120 bed women’s dorm to be called Our Lady of Guadalupe Hall after the Star of the New Evangelization. We have been called the Flagship College of the New Evangelization and believe it appropriate during the year of the Consecration to name the new women’s dorm after Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is located south of the cafeteria.

We also wanted to provide a better dining experience and are currently renovating our cafeteria. You may remember that we built this “temporary” cafeteria in 1966, designed by the same guy who designed the Safeway store in Atchison. We think it is important to provide a new dining hall for our students, create more space in it and a modern dining experience. Our buildings must live up to the expectations we have for our campus and these new buildings will do just that.

In addition to two new dorms and a new dining hall, dirt is being moved for a new baseball and softball field north of Larry Wilcox Football Stadium and Laughlin Track. This land was donated to the college by long-time supporters: the Asher Family and the area will be called the Asher Sports Complex.

Of course, we were excited to get this land, but we were nervous whether the college had the resources to afford a new baseball and softball stadiums. Enter our good friends Mick and Marlys Haverty. Thanks to an incredible million dollar donation from the Havertys, new baseball and softball facilities will be ready by Spring, 2015. The baseball stadium will be called Olsen Stadium after Marlys’ father. Thank you Mick and Marlys—what an impact you continue to have on the college.


Also on the community side we have had some successes in athletics. I am currently the Chair of the Council of Presidents and I often comment in meetings that it is not good for one school to become so dominant that they begin to win all the championships — unless of course it is Benedictine College.

Benedictine won conference championships in three of the four key fall sports: football, men’s soccer and women’s soccer. And went to the national playoffs in football and men’s soccer. Three of the coaches were Coaches of the Year—Coaches Larry Wilcox, Lincoln Roblee, and Rob Herringer. We had two players of the year — Cameron Fore and Ashley Washburn And now we are ranked in basketball and hopefully will get to Kansas City in March.

But what is also important to us is that we lead the conference in grade point average for both the men and women athletes and we are one of the few schools in the NAIA to be listed as a five-star Champions of Character school.


We are proud of the strength of the community aspect of our mission. But the Church also looks to Benedictine College as a leader in faith. This past year saw two significant events.

First, in September, the college was Consecrated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was one of the more moving and meaningful events on our campus. Over 1,100 people participated in entrusting the college to Our Lady. Benedictine College is a chosen place with a special mission. Chosen by the Blessed Virgin Mary to be at this place at this time and to be in the situation to now publicly acknowledge Mother Mary’s unique role in founding and preserving this school of the Lord’s service.

Of course a couple of weeks after we announced we were going to consecrate the college to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Francis decided to consecrate the entire world to Mary. Like, the guy totally stole our idea—but I guess he has the right to do that. On that day we also dedicated a 21-foot fountain statue of Our Lady of Grace. You may recognize it as a replica of the fountain that stood for years in front of the Administration building.

The second event: Just last month, the College once again found itself as a leader for the faith as Benedictine College led the National March for Life in Washington, D.C. Twenty-five percent of our students traveled 60 hours on eight buses — the most students traveling the furthest distance to stand up for life. This was an unbelievable experience and a great testament to our students who understand that this is the civil rights issue of the day. I just can’t resist having you share in this experience by watching this video. [Click here to see the video.]

Another important event this past semester was the celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica. This past November—exactly 150 years after they arrived–students marched from campus to the Mount carrying lanterns to symbolize the day of their arrival and to thank the sisters for their many years of service to the college and our students. Congratulations to the Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery for their 150 years of service to the area and the college.

A little more than a year ago, we were proud of 1980 Benedictine College alumnus Bishop Brungardt’s appointment as the Bishop of Dodge City, Kansas. And we were also excited about the recent appointment of Bishop Andrew Cozzens, Class of 1994, the new Auxiliary Bishop of Minneapolis/St. Paul and Benedictine College’s 7th 21st Century Bishop.

The Church is looking to Benedictine College as a leader in Catholic education. Benedictine College was one of only five Catholic universities to be invited by the US Bishops to a working group on Catholic Higher Education; and one of only four Catholic Universities in North and South America to be invited by the Vatican to a Commission on the Church in America and how to implement the New Evangelization.

The college is truly supporting the faith aspect of our mission.


On the scholarship side, we continue to be recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s best colleges and the Cardinal Newman Society as one of America’s Best Catholic Colleges.

This past year’s record breaking freshman class also had the highest average ACT and GPA in our history — and the highest average ACT score of any college or university in Kansas. Our strategic plan, Benedictine 2020: A Vision for Greatness, has already had an impact on campus with our emphasis on academic excellence. We participate in several objective national surveys that measure academic performance, and they have found that we outperform our peer institutions in every academic excellence category. We also just announced a Great Books program that will start in the fall and will raise our academic profile.

Our faculty are second to none as they continue to be dedicated to teaching, but also scholarship with published articles, books and even patents. They are clearly leaders in their field and they are directly educating our students. We have also been working hard in developing a plan to renovate and expand our science building, Westerman Hall.

To accomplish our science vision to be the Catholic, liberal arts college that attracts and educates future doctors, engineers, scientists and health care professionals for the 21st century, it is imperative that we have a top-level science program. We believe that faith, morality and ethics are just as important in the sciences as in every other part of our lives. They cannot be separated. And that is why it is so important to train future doctors, engineers and scientists in a place like Benedictine College that understands the essential role of faith, morality and ethics in the sciences.

In order for Benedictine College to take the sciences to a new level, Westerman Hall needs to be transformed. This cannot be done without your help. Therefore we will certainly be visiting many of you regarding this important project.

Our Students

You have heard about our progress, but what I want to emphasize is that the key to our college is not our programs; or buildings; or even our national reputation. Rather, the most important aspect of the college is our students. And we are proud that our mission is transforming the lives of those students. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Ashley Washburn a senior from Overland Park, Kansas truly shines at Benedictine College. Originally desiring a Division 1 soccer career she went to Missouri State University, but something was missing. The soccer was fine, but she didn’t feel she was being fully formed there and decided to transfer to Benedictine College after her first semester and we are glad she did.

Her list of accomplishments on the soccer field are endless — All Conference; Defensive Player of the Year in the Conference; The Conference Player of the Year; All-American; Academic All-American—making her the first female player from Benedictine to be named both an All American and an Academic All American. The team she captained this year won the Heart of America Conference championship for only the second time in our history and she was voted by her teammates as the person who most exemplified the attributes of a Champion of Character.

But frankly, we wouldn’t be doing our job at the college if all she cared about was soccer. Ashley is also one of the founders of Fiat, a women’s group on campus devoted to the Consecration of their lives to the Blessed Virgin Mary; she regularly holds prayer groups with young women who are studying the writings of St. Louis de Montfort; she led the Varsity Catholic Bible study for the soccer team; she has interned at Children’s Mercy Hospital; she will take a medical mission trip to the Philippines this year and she will graduate this May, magna cum laude as a nurse.

This is the type of student we have at Benedictine College—committed to our mission of community, faith and scholarship. Ashley Washburn, could you stand and be recognized. Thank you.

I would also like to introduce you to junior Ryan Bax from Jefferson City, Missouri. Ryan actually came to Benedictine to play basketball. But after a year of basketball, he discovered that he wanted to serve the school in others ways—as well as totally dominate my team in intramurals.

He became a resident hall assistant so he could form other young men on their path; he was a team leader in College Ministry; when it came time to pick a student to lead the Consecration Ceremony for the college, it was Ryan Bax that we called upon; he organized the Rosary where 1,100 people simultaneously prayed as they walked the campus. It was his idea to hook up members of the football team to walkie-talkie ear pieces and have them lead the prayers.

Ryan will be participating in a mission trip to an Indian reservation in North Dakota this March. Ryan is a member of the men’s Marian group entitled the Knights of the Mystical Rose. He also takes his singing talents on the road as part of our liturgical choir. And last week when the father of one of our students passed away suddenly, it was Ryan who was there to comfort his fellow Raven and it was Ryan who organized an overflow crowd of students at a midnight Rosary at Mary’s Grotto for that student and his family.

Ryan will also be one of our first mechanical engineers at Benedictine College and his 3.8gpa has landed him on numerous Presidential and Dean Lists. Here is a great story about our engineers. When we noticed that Memorial Hall was not being competitive in the Homecoming bed races, the engineers decided to build them a new bed. And thanks to the hard work of the engineering students, Memorial Hall won the bed race this past homecoming for the first time in their history.

Ryan will take his love of community, faith and scholarship to the world and make his Church, his community and the world better for it. Thank you Ryan Bax for your commitment to our mission. Please stand and be recognized.


These are just two of the incredible students we have, but frankly I have 1,700 similar stories of young people embracing community, faith and scholarship in their daily lives.

I have just told you about some of the successes Benedictine College experienced this year. But we are not done yet. We cannot sit on our laurels, we will continue to push ourselves Forward, Always Forward, Everywhere Forward to build one of the great Catholic colleges in America.

But none of this happens without your help. Our students are here because of you and we know our success comes because of your investment in the mission. Thank you for being here tonight and for your commitment to Benedictine College. Enjoy the evening. God Bless.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.