Go Forth

Inauguration Speech by Susan M. Donovan, Ph.D.

October 27, 2017

Chairman Mudd, members of the Bellarmine Board of Trustees, I am honored and humbled -- and also energized -- that you have entrusted me today with the responsibility of leading this great institution of higher learning into the future.

Talented faculty and staff, I am deeply grateful for the hospitality and support that you have extended to me and my husband Bill and our family, since the beginning of our work together.

Students. You are our reason. You are the ones. Thank you for showing the world “the Bellarmine Knight” in you this week with the service projects.

Alumni, parents, members of the Bellarmine family and the Louisville community, thank you for your easy fellowship. Colleagues from so many other distinguished colleges and universities, Mayor Fischer, thank you all for wishing me well. Father Linnane, my friend and mentor, thank you for such kind words; you have always boosted my self-confidence, and now is definitely a welcome time for that!

And members of my family and my extended family, and my friends – and especially my sister, brother-in-law, and niece – I know you know how much it means to Bill and Caitlin and Meghan to have you with us here today in our new home.

This morning, many of us attended the inauguration Mass at St. Agnes. It was a beautiful celebration of faith and learning – which, when you think about it, is a good way to describe the promise of our life in community at Bellarmine University: “A Celebration of Faith and Learning.”

In fact, we sang a hymn this morning that was aptly entitled, “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning” -- and as I sang, the lyrics struck me as an expression of the heroic purpose and the unique value of a liberal arts education in the Catholic Tradition. The words seemed to illuminate Bellarmine’s own Latin Motto, in veritatis amore, “in the love of truth.”

The second verse of the hymn says:
“God of wisdom we acknowledge
that our science and our art
and the breadth of human knowledge
only partial truth impart.
Far beyond our calculation
lies a depth we cannot sound
where your purpose for creation
and the pulse of life are found.”

These words -- written by Thomas Troeger of the Yale Divinity School and set to the tune of the Welsh hymn “Hyfrydol” -- evoke not just the compatibility of faith and reason but the necessity of nurturing both in our lives.

It is the perfect hymn for a university like ours -- a university teaching at the intersection of the liberal arts and professional studies, and rooted in the Catholic educational tradition -- because the lyrics go straight to the heart of our added value. Our bright students come to us from all faith traditions and no faith tradition. Our faculty and staff are determined to impart on these young people “science and art, and the breadth of human knowledge.” And we are determined to teach them how to create new knowledge for humankind. But also, yes: we impress upon them the importance of faith, of spiritual life, of ethical behavior, of developing and maintaining a coherent and grounded interior life of honesty, integrity and compassion. Our faculty, our students, our graduates go forth from here with faith and learning to make the world a better place.

This inauguration week our students marked the occasion by demonstrating these values with a variety of community service projects. They collected canned goods for Dare to Care, they delivered 123 blankets and pillows to Norton Children’s Hospital, and tomorrow they will prepare and serve meals with me at the Franciscan Kitchen, which provides about 400 meals a day to the hungry and the homeless.

“Explore the world. Start within.” And so we help our students find their “purpose” in “the pulse of life,” explore the ultimate questions, and search for truth wherever that search may lead. On a college campus, young people grow up. What kind of adults will they be? At Bellarmine our mission is to help students “develop the intellectual, moral, ethical and professional competencies” so they will go forth into the world with “successful living, work, leadership and service to others.”

In our mission statement, the words “moral and ethical” are right there with “intellectual” and “professional.” In today’s world we need “the smartest person in the room” to also be a good person. Seeing to that outcome is a mission worthy of our dedication and our life’s work.

We hear many vocal critics of higher education these days. They like to challenge us with the question, “is college worth it?” It is a question that seems to dominate the media and the public imagination. Popular criticisms include that college costs too much; that a liberal arts curriculum is no longer relevant because it doesn’t match the needs of the work force; and that college campuses are bastions of liberal political thought that exclude competing views. And, in the most time-honored cliché of all, they say we live in an “Ivory Tower.”

Those of us who are devoting our hearts and minds to educating university students accept valid critiques. We tend to be open-minded, and we are critical thinkers. We need to maintain our passion for continuous improvement. And we do need to find ways to make college more affordable. But we also need to do a better job defending the liberal arts against the anti-intellectualism that too often dominates our culture.

Yes, excellent private liberal arts colleges are expensive, including those like Bellarmine that educate 40 percent first generation and 30 percent Pell Grant eligible students. But we know the investment in college pays off. College Graduates earn on average $1 million more over the course of their work lives than high school graduates do. So at Bellarmine we counsel families individually and try to help them meet their needs with a $55 million institutional financial aid budget every year so that they can afford to make the wise investment in a Bellarmine education. More importantly, we educate leaders with a sense of gratitude and compassion. As for meeting workforce needs, it is well documented that training in narrow skills that will quickly become obsolete does not afford the same job security as a liberal arts education does. The data prove that graduates from schools like Bellarmine are better prepared for long-term professional success. Liberal arts graduates disproportionately outnumber others in leading fields like business, the arts and government. Only about 2 percent of American baccalaureate degrees are granted in the liberal arts, but they are 11 percent of the ranks of the Fortune 500 leaders, 12 percent of Philanthropy 400 leaders, and 12 percent of the U.S. Senate. In a survey of 320 CEOs, 74 percent said they would recommend a 21st Century liberal arts education to develop more dynamic workers.

Of course, a liberal arts education is not just about making a good living. It’s also about making a good life. People who understand scientific inquiry, who appreciate literature and the performing arts, who know how to synthesize information, who think critically and creatively, who know how to collaborate with others and communicate ideas effectively – these are the people who build strong families, strong communities and a strong culture, as well as an innovative work place.

As for the charge that college campuses are dominated by the liberal end of the political spectrum -- I guarantee that you will not find a wider variety of competing thoughts and philosophies across a broader range of issues and ideas, than you will find on a college campus, including this one.

The idea that teachers and learners remain cloistered in the ivory tower, out of touch with the “real world,” is the most preposterous charge of all.

Our higher education enterprise is idealistic … and intensely pragmatic. Our faculty members, our staff and our students put their faith and learning to work in everyday life in the community at large. In education, in business, in health sciences, in communications, in environmental studies -- We go forth with faith and learning to make the world a better place. For example:

  • In education, Bellarmine goes forth with its literacy project within the Jefferson County Public Schools, giving teachers and principals proven tools to lift children out of poverty. This project involves about 60 JCPS elementary schools with the greatest number of children at risk of reading failure, and trains the 500+ teachers and principals who serve them. As a result of this Bellarmine project, in its third year, up to 12,000 children will benefit from evidence-based literacy instruction in grades K-3 during the 2016-2017 year and beyond. This is in addition to the 16,000 children who have already benefited in years one and two of the project.
  • In Business, Bellarmine goes forth with social entrepreneurialism and creative economic solutions to urban problems. One professor volunteers at a state prison teaching life skills and leading a non-denominational worship service for inmates. Another helps students become IRS certified tax preparers and they provide free tax services – this year to 200 low-income clients, saving them $40,000 in tax preparation fees and generating $298,600 in refund money. A third faculty member will take students to the Louisville Urban League this year to analyze data and help them understand and communicate the community impact of their social service programs in health, housing, education, jobs and justice.
  • In health sciences, Bellarmine goes forth into the community to heal, through the Michael E. Hobbs Service Learning Clinic, the nation’s first endowed physical therapy clinic, and three other pro bono clinics throughout the community including a pediatric clinic for infants through 8-year-olds with neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida. The Physical Therapy program also collaborates in a dance therapy program to reduce symptoms for people with Parkinson’s. disease And students and faculty in physical therapy, nursing, exercise science and medical laboratory science collaborate in an Active Steps program for people with diabetes in the West Louisville neighborhood of Park DuValle.
  • For the environment, and in line with Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, the encyclical on the environment -- faculty members serve on the boards of local and statewide conservation groups, including Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light and the Kentucky Conservation Committee, while students and faculty members share their expertise with the community through K-12 school visits, service projects and consultations for sustainable neighborhood planning. Students rebuild local wetlands, and a student-led food recovery network gathers perishable campus food that would otherwise go to waste and provides it to community agencies who feed the homeless.
  • In communications, Bellarmine partnered with WaterStep and the Louisville Rotary Club so that people around the world could have better instructions for water purification. In connection with a service-learning trip to Costa Rica, faculty and students designed wordless instruction manuals that eliminate all language barriers so that people anywhere can learn how to clean contaminated water by following the pictures.

I could keep you here all day with examples of our community engaging in community service. But I’m not going to! Suffice it to say that Bellarmine University, students, faculty and staff go forth into the world with faith and learning, performing more than 24,000 hours of community service each year.

And our alumni continue to live lives of leadership and service after they graduate. A husband and wife team who met as students at Bellarmine raise thousands of dollars every year for a food pantry in Appalachia, then lead about 30 alumni every year on an annual service trip to do home repairs for the families in need. A Bellarmine double major in theology and psychology has led emergency response programs all over the world for Catholic Relief Services. An education major operates the Dream Express bookmobile to promote literacy and to give children in poverty circumstances an escape from their lives and a view of a life they would not ordinarily see.

Far from being out of touch with the real world, Bellarmine University and its graduates are deeply engaged in society, working to improve the human condition.

And we will not back away from our responsibility toward our neighbors, our city, the region and the world. We will intensify our commitment. We will provide an anchor in the storm of indifference and a beacon of light for our fellow human beings at the margins. This university on the hill will continue to serve as a community of teachers and learners who understand that the liberal arts, professional and graduate education, are the keys that open doors for every person with a Bellarmine education.

Bellarmine was founded in 1950 by Monsignor Alfred F. Horrigan – well-known and respected as a parish priest and a human rights activist. Father Horrigan put this school in the vanguard of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and it will proudly and diligently remain there. In 1973, a physicist by training, Dr. Eugene V. Petrik, became Bellarmine College's second president. Enrollment was declining and the college was in dire financial straits. Dr. Petrik re-energized the college, expanded its academic programs, and built it into one of the region's leading private colleges. Mrs. Petrik is here with us today. We will proudly and diligently build on that legacy of fiscal acumen and stewardship, too. Then, in 1990, Dr. Joseph J. McGowan brought his Jesuit sensibilities and his New York City street smarts from Fordham to Bellarmine. His Vision 2020 resulted in an explosion of growth that included myriad new academic programs and a construction boom the likes of which this university had never seen. He served for 26 years and he was the epitome of a transformational president. He died unexpectedly in March 2016, shocking this community. I know that the celebration of his life at St. Agnes was a cathartic milestone in the history of this place. And I know that interim president, Dr. Doris Tegart, helped the community heal.

Today, here we are in Knights Hall, gathered for another ceremonial moment in our family history.

Where will we go next?

We will need to build the endowment, one of the most important measures of a university’s strength and resilience – and a vital prerequisite for making college more affordable. We will need to review our graduate and professional curriculum to make sure we are offering programs that are mission-driven, strategic and market-sensitive. We will look for ways to reduce costs, increase revenue and reallocate resources consistently within our mission. Opportunities for continued growth and improvement abound. We will seize them. And, we will continue to go forth into the community, with faith and learning, to make the world a better place.

Soon the Bellarmine community will engage in a strategic planning process that will chart the course for the next seven to 10 years. I believe in shared governance. This will be a broadly collaborative process. It will be thoughtful and disciplined. Given the intellect and creativity here, and the pursuit of excellence in Bellarmine’s DNA, I feel certain that our aspirations will be numerous and impressive, requiring difficult choices as we set out our priorities with finite resources. But I have learned already that we are not in this alone. Our parents, our alumni, our donors, our friends are generous -- and they are with us for the long haul. We would not be here today without them, and we cannot get to where we need to go without them, either.

We are fortunate and blessed to work in higher education. We are fortunate and blessed to work on this beautiful campus -- with each other and our talented students. We are committed to our mission and to “the good of this place,” where faith and learning flow together. In the words of this morning’s hymn:

As two currents in a river
fight each other’s undertow,
till converging they deliver
one coherent steady flow,
blend, O God, our faith and learning
till they carve a single course,
till they join as one, returning
praise and thanks to you, the Source.

I conclude with my gratitude to my husband and my daughters, to make the move from our life in Baltimore, and with a special sense of gratitude for the people who are not here, my parents, who have passed, but believed in an education for their children. I go forth with the inspiration that they have given me, and you as well. In veritatis amore.