Universities and Secularism, Points of Engagement: The Mission of Benedictine College

Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis
Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis

Remarks given by Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis at Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture November 11, 2011

Thank you so much asking me to be here today. I’m honored to address this important group on this important topic. And I’m humbled to be with this distinguished panel. This is a fantastic conference and one that needs to be held in today’s world. Very important topics in a critical time in our history are being discussed today, and I hope action will take place after we leave.

I am excited to tell you how living your mission, doing the right thing, and having faith, can help an organization rise to greatness. This is the story of Benedictine College.
I am the president of Benedictine College, which is located in Atchison, Kansas which is about 40 miles north of Kansas City.

You may have heard of us. I am from Benedictine College. You may have heard of us: We are that Catholic university in the Midwest with a winning football tradition, a catchy fight song, a Marian grotto that attracts people from all over to light candles — and 100% fidelity to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.

We were founded in 1858; just a little bit more than 50 years from the time Lewis and Clark first set eyes on Atchison, Kansas. They landed there in 1804 and had a July 4th celebration in Atchison on their trek to the west. The monks who founded the college where a tough bunch. To found a college on the border of Missouri and Kansas two years before the Civil War took a lot of courage.
To put our longevity in perspective, 80 percent of the colleges founded before the Civil War no longer exist and of the 250 Catholic colleges in America there are only 17 that are as old as we are. In fact Benedictine College has been around for so long that the Chicago Cubs have actually won a World Series since we were founded. So we’ve stood the test of time.
But there is no question that today, in our time, the College has never experienced more success and the future has never looked brighter for the College.

Since the year 2000, our enrollment has doubled from around 800 students to 1,630 full time undergraduates. This past year we enrolled the largest freshman class and the largest enrollment in our history.

We just broke ground on our eighth new residence hall since 2000. In addition to that, since the turn of the century, we built a football stadium, a soccer stadium; we’ve put turf on both our soccer stadium and football stadium, making us one of only a hand full of schools in the entire country to have turf on both a football field and a separate soccer field. We have renovated every dorm room on campus; we’ve renovated every classroom on campus. Next semester we will open a new $21 million academic center. This building will be the capstone of a $50 million campaign that allowed us to build this new center; a Grotto; increase our endowment and increase our annual fund. For us, to embark on this campaign was a leap of faith since it was four times larger than anything we had attempted before and many people told us it couldn’t be done.

Yet at the end of this campaign, in December, we will have raised well over $60 million, beating our goal by more than 30%.

During this time, we have added new academic programs including a campus in Florence, Italy, and new majors in finance, criminology, and international business. Two years ago we started a nursing program and we also have an engineering program making us one of only 18 Catholic colleges in America that has an engineering program and one of the smallest colleges in the country with one.

We have begun receiving national recognition as well. U.S. News and World Report lists us as one of America’s best colleges; the Cardinal Newman Society lists us as one of America’s best Catholic colleges; and First Things magazine after their exhaustive review of American colleges and universities, created a top 25 list. On that list was the University of Chicago, Baylor, Princeton, Stanford, Notre Dame, Duke, Virginia and in the top 25 of that list was Benedictine College. They also listed us as one of the top five Catholic colleges and universities in the country.

Through all this we have adopted the motto “Forward, always forward, everywhere forward.” This is a quote from Abbot Boniface Wimmer who changed the face of Catholicism in the 19th century by sending monks out across America to found abbeys and parishes. Fom his arch-abbey in Pennsylvania he founded 10 Benedictine abbeys including St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas, and 152 parishes while he was alive. He always said “Forward, always forward, everywhere forward we must not be held back by debts, bad years, or difficult times. Man’s adversity is God’s opportunity.” So we at Benedictine College have adopted that motto and that charism of forward always forward. We constantly push ourselves to do greater things.

However our motto and our attitude always reminds me of a story I once heard about John Wooden, the famed UCLA basketball coach, one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports who recently passed away. I was told this story by Lucius Allen. Many of you may remember Lucius Allen; he was a guard from Wyandotte High school in Kansas City, Kansas and when he was a senior probably the second best high school player in the county, the first being Lew Alcindor, Jr., Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

He grew up watching UCLA basketball on TV, and at the time UCLA basketball was considered very up-tempo style, they would press the entire game, they would run the floor, they would get a lot of lay-ups, they would score a ton of points because of their up-tempo pressure defense, pressure offense style. So he was excited about joining the UCLA Bruins and getting to do what he thought he did best, which was run the floor.

Lucius Allen signed with UCLA and he was excited about the first practice because he figured “Well, this old man will probably just take a bunch of basketballs and roll them out onto the court and we can just go up and play, and run up and down the court all day and have some fun.” So he gets ready for his first practice. He walks to the first practice and he’s all ready to go and all excited.

John Wooden then walked in the room, sat them down and said, “Okay boys, take off your shoes and socks.” And John Wooden proceeded to use the entire first practice to show the UCLA basketball team, some of the most highly recruited players in the country, how to put their socks on, how to put their shoes on and how to tie their shoes so they wouldn’t get blisters.

Over time, of course, Lucius and his teammates did learn how to run the UCLA press and also to push the ball up the court. But I use that story to illustrate that much like UCLA basketball under John Wooden, Benedictine College is. Even though we are building buildings and moving forward and have already surpassed our largest campaign goal in the history of our College, even though we are moving “forward, always forward,” we are doing this through our fundamentals, through our foundation, through our mission.

A lot of people have asked me, what is the secret of Benedictine College? What is going on there? What’s your secret to success? My answer is simple.

We made a decision a few years back that we were going to embrace our mission, we were going to be a mission-driven place. Everything we did, every decision we made, was going to be consistent with that mission. And that has made all the difference.

I like to talk about our mission in pictures. We have our four pillars which provide our strong base. We are a Catholic college, we are a Benedictine college, we are a liberal arts college, and we are a residential college. And those four pillars support our mission which is to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.

Community. Faith. Scholarship. Those terms, those words, are key for us. They are interactive and they play off of each other and are very, very important to our success.
I’ve had my cabinet read this book by Jim Collins called Good to Great. It details how to take a good organization and make it a great organization. In that book, Jim Collins says if you want to take a good organization and make a great one, one of the things you have to do is ask yourself, “What do you do better than anybody else in the country?” And we believe we do our mission better than anybody else in the country.

There are certainly schools out there that have strong communities, certainly schools out there that have strong faith-life on their campus, and certainly schools out there that have strong academics. But we don’t believe that anybody combines all three of those as intentionally or as well as we do: Community, Faith, and Scholarship.
But like any organization, like any business, like any law firm, like any school, or even a basketball team, without a strong foundation, that mission cannot stand. So those four pillars of ours — Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts, and residential — have to be strong.

Some people claim that it’s hard to live by your mission, that there’s so much room for interpretation (especially when it comes to being truly Catholic), or that our pillars can’t really unite our organization. But from my perspective, it’s really pretty simple.

We’re a Catholic college. We make no bones about it. We believe that if we’re going to tell people we are Catholic we are going to mean it. There’s no great mystery here.

Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an Encyclical on Catholic higher education. Ten years after that, the United States Bishop issued its rules or norms ― basically a blueprint ― on how to do this. Blessed John Paul II always reminded us that there are no coincidences with God. Therefore there is no coincidence that our growth, our success, is tied directly to our embrace of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the U.S. Bishops’ norms that came out 10 years ago.

One small example is the bishops’ requirement that a Catholic professor who teaches theology in a Catholic college in America should sign a document, a mandatum, promising the local Bishop that while teaching the tenets of the faith, they would teach those tenets consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Now I want to repeat what the mandatum requirement is. A Catholic who teaches at a Catholic college or university, who teaches the tenets of the faith in the Theology department — must teach those tenets consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

I have always put this in the “duh” category.

However, not many people agree with me on this. In fact, of the 250 Catholic colleges in America there’s only about 20 of us whose entire Theology department has provided the mandatum to the local Bishop. We are proud to do that.

Other Catholic colleges and universities will claim that this is a breach of their academic freedom to be required to have a mandatum. Therefore entire Catholic colleges’ and universities’ theology departments have ignored the Bishops’ directives and have not signed the mandatum, or have not publicly stated that they have signed the mandatum, claiming that they have a right of academic freedom to do this.

Now I‘ve got to tell you that I believe that this argument about academic freedom is spurious. Let me give you an example. At Benedictine College we have an education department, a very good one. We are supplying the teachers for many Catholic grade schools and high schools in the country and we are very proud of our Education Department. The State of Kansas has indicated to us if we want to have an education department, and if we want our teachers to be certified as teachers in the State of Kansas, then we must do A, B, C, and D. In fact, they even tell us what we have to teach in our physics classes and some of our science classes to our future teachers if we want to be certified in the State of Kansas. And you know what we do? We do A, B, C, and D. And we have no one on our faculty who claims that this is an infringement upon their academic freedom.

On the other hand, we are a Catholic college and our Pope and our Bishops have said that if you desire to be a Catholic college, then you should do 1, 2, 3, and 4. Therefore, we do 1, 2, 3, and 4 and we don’t make a claim of a loss of academic freedom here, either.

Our theology faculty receive the mandatum from the Archbishop or they don’t teach theology. I take an oath of fidelity to the Church, or I don’t run the college. We follow the guidelines the Church has given us. It’s just that simple. It’s not an academic freedom question or a “separation of church and state” issue; it’s just plain, basic, old-fashioned truth in advertising.

In order to be a Benedictine college, you need to follow the wisdom of the Rule of St. Benedict. Since this is the oldest organizational constitution in the world still in use today, it makes a lot of sense to draw on lessons that have stood the test of time. So we do that. We have studied the rule and drawn up our 10 key organizational values, which we hand out to every new employee, post in every classroom and public space on campus, and which we use to guide our basic decisions.

In order to be a liberal arts college, you need to have a strong core curriculum that ensures that all students are exposed to the great achievements of thought and culture, regardless of their major. So we do that. In addition to a “traditional” liberal arts core, all of our students also have to take three courses in theology and three in philosophy, to make sure they have a great framework of values to support their major courses.

In order to be a residential college, you need a certain percentage of students living on campus, and you need to have an intentional formation program. So we do that — 80% of our students live on campus, and we have a dynamic student life program that helps them all achieve their potential inside and outside the classroom.

These are the pillars which support our mission to educate our young people within a community of faith and scholarship. This is our key, our foundation, our blueprint for success.

Everything, including our new strategic plan, which we fashioned from Baylor 2012’s and Houston Baptist’s plans, points to this. In fact, our definition of academic excellence is the education of men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.

So Academic excellence does not begin and end at the classroom door — it happens in the cafeteria, in the residence halls, on the athletic fields; on the sidewalks. We believe there needs to be an integrated approach to education and academic excellence demands this from us.

Thank you again for inviting me. God bless you.


Stephen D. Minnis, J.D., has been president of Benedictine College from 2004 to present. A native of St. Joseph, MO, Mr. Minnis received his Bachelor’s degree from Benedictine College in 1982. He obtained his Juris Doctorate degree from Washburn University in 1985 and Master’s of Business Administration degree in 1993 from Baker University. Mr. Minnis began his legal career in the county prosecutor’s office for Johnson County, Kansas. At Sprint Corporation, he held the position of director, state regulatory and general attorney for 14 years. He served as president of the Benedictine College Alumni Association from 1991 to 1995 and joined the Benedictine College Board of Directors in 1992, serving until October 2004 when he became president of the college. Steve’s wife, Amy (Kohake), graduated from Benedictine College in 1984 and currently teaches in the Education Department at Benedictine College. The couple has three children, Matthew, Michael, and Molly.


Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.