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Old College, New Horizons

March 7, 2018 | By Anthony Muljat (SF17)

Students and board members gather for dinner on February 23.

As the St. John’s Board of Visitors and Governors gathered last month in Santa Fe, board members met many key members of the college community.

On February 23, students got some face time.

Several board members joined students for a formal dinner in Peterson Student Center, where they had wide-ranging discussions about the college and the Program. A common theme was the enduring role of St. John’s in a changing economic and cultural environment.

“Liberal education right now is really at a crossroads, and seeing everything that’s happening in our country, and frankly, the world, it seemed that this was a good moment to serve and participate in trying to sustain what I think is a really important institution of higher learning,” said Lydia Polgreen (A97), editor-in-chief of Huffington Post, who joined the board last year. “I really believe in the classical liberal education as a salve to what ails America right now, so when I was asked to serve, I was absolutely thrilled to join.”

To help graduates translate their St. John’s education to a vocation, one of the board’s primary initiatives is to expand and enhance the college’s career services programs. Senior board member Pamela Saunders-Albin (H15) stressed that, despite cultural shifts concerning the perceived worth of liberal education, the St. John’s Program still offers the best value to young people entering the workforce.

Nani Detti (SF20), left, listens to Board of Visitors and Governors member Lydia Polgreen (A97).

“The ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing; the ability to learn complex subjects on one’s own initiative; and the ability to have civilized discourse on issues that are potentially very difficult: all of those things make an excellent employee.”

Emily Axelberg (SF20) agreed with Saunders-Albin, and added that a St. John’s education provides a grounding in personal values that extend into public and professional life.

“I think, in the past, education acknowledged the primacy of that concern, that you’re going to have a totally neurotic political body if you don’t work hard on the question of how to live well for yourself, before you make those secondary choices,” Axelberg said.

Student ambassador Graeme Thistlewaite (SF20), who attends the board’s meetings on behalf of the student government, believes that the current board will continue to uphold the educational values of St. John’s.

“From the very first meeting (I attended), I was very touched with how much the board members really do seem to care about the college and understand the Program, and want to preserve it for what it is,” Thistlewaite said. “You see in movies, of course, that the board members are these cold people, only worrying about the bottom line, and that’s not been my experience at all.”

Emily Axelberg (SF20), left, and Pamela Saunders-Albin (H15) discuss the college’s appeal to prospective students.

Another issue the board is tackling is the college’s financial solvency.

“After ’08, the higher education world changed dramatically,” said Tom Krause (SFGI01), chair of an ad hoc board committee on enrollment issues. “We felt those changes more strongly than other colleges might have.”

To this end, the board is launching a capital campaign to expand the college’s endowment. Returns from a growing endowment, increased giving to the annual fund, and cuts to the operating budget are expected to eliminate the college’s structural deficit by fiscal year 2021.

Christopher Denny (A93), professor of theology at St. John’s University, explained that the campaign will directly affect students by allowing the school to offer more aid, thereby reducing tuition costs.

“I want alumni to step up during this coming capital campaign and give money to the school, so our endowment will grow,” Denny said. “Large endowments are how healthy colleges decrease the burden of student debt.”