AN IN-DEPTH CONVERSATION WITH OUTGOING USD PRESIDENT MARY E. LYONS, PhD
Q: During your tenure, USD has grown a great deal in reputation and significance, regionally, nationally and globally. What distinguishes the USD educational experience?
A: A distinguished university stands out from its ‘peers.’ One of USD’s distinctive characters is a curriculum built upon a liberal arts foundation. I applaud the faculty for maintaining that commitment.
USD also stands out because of the remarkable collaborations among our faculty who integrate their courses with other student-learning experiences. For example, the emphasis on research, creativity, innovation and hands-on community service explains why USD is truly a ‘Changemaker’ campus.
Q: What do you deem to be the university’s most significant achievements since your presidency began in 2003?
A: I am very proud of the university’s growing reputation — nationally and internationally — as an academically rigorous institution. I am also very pleased that the university has a fully-funded Center for Catholic Thought and Culture. This was a project I initiated during my presidency of the College of St. Benedict, but it found fruition at USD. Its aim is ultimately to help students answer, if asked, what difference it made that they studied chemistry, or art or political science etc. at a Catholic university. To that end, the center invites professors to engage and examine the intellectual and social traditions of the church, and its on-going engagement with the world, through the lens of their own disciplines. In this way, students and faculty may discover why teaching and learning in this environment offer some distinctive opportunities.
Q: How has the quality and impact of a USD education changed since you became president?
A: I think the faculty has had to adapt to, and adopt, all the different tools in an ever-expanding toolkit to help our students navigate through our ever-changing world. Some of their work could be obsolete tomorrow, so harnessing the best of technology gives our students many ways to engage their studies.
Q: What does Catholic identity mean to you, and how has USD endeavored to preserve and strengthen it?
A: The first thing, to be honest, is that I tend to shy away from the term “identity” because I think it connotes the wrong thing. I really like the term “character” better, because I think if we’re talking about the Catholic character of something, we’re talking more about its intrinsic way of being. That doesn’t necessarily require the participants to profess a belief in Catholic doctrine. The worst thing for me would be if this university became a very parochial institution where students, faculty and other members of our university community would feel like they were being marginalized because they didn’t subscribe to the faith.
Our efforts as a university are to embrace a character that is founded in the best of the church’s tradition, and the best of what the church continues to do in the world, such as its outreach to the poor and the marginalized. You look at our Changemaker campus, and the reason we have that is that this university has had a tradition of really trying to take the best gifts that it has as an academic institution and make an impact on the human condition. We didn’t get the designation because we were aspiring to that; it’s because someone else recognized that this was happening here. I really believe that this is the heart of our mission, and that our founders would not make a distinction between their religious life and academic life, because they would’ve considered everything integrated. The Catholic character for me is a great advantage for us.
For example, that we can acknowledge, if we want, that within every person there is a sacred dimension; it is something that frees us. You don’t do that at a large number of universities in the country. We talk about academic freedom. Academic freedom here at USD liberates because one can explore every dimension of the person and of a discipline. There is no conflict between faith and reason. The church gives evidence of pursuing truth without any limitation; following it wherever it leads.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing today’s college graduates? How has USD better prepared them to face those challenges during your tenure?
A: I think our faculty, myself included, want and hope that our students are provided with every opportunity to find the professional pathway in which they’ll thrive and that they can indeed apply their education in a way that provides them a livelihood.
One of our trustees made a wise comment a few years ago about the fact that, ultimately, we want our students to be happy. When I think back to my training as a rhetorician, I recall the teachings of Aristotle, who said the most important thing for a human being is happiness. That should certainly translate to our students here at USD, don’t you think?
What I hope this university has done is prepare our students to discover what their passion is, give them the tools to be successful at what they love, and then launch them into the world with a heightened sense of confidence in their abilities.
Q: Brick-and-mortar institutions such as USD are facing increasing competition from the online education market. How can USD better utilize that medium without compromising its core values?
A: I think everyone, and I don’t just mean USD, is finding their way through this technology revolution. I don’t have an answer, except that I look at the evidence of what is happening right now. It’s very rare for people who sign up for an exclusively online learning experience to finish their education, and that’s something to pay attention to. We’re still in an experimental age here, but the advancements in technology allow us to appeal to a constituency we wouldn’t normally reach. I think we might be a little behind the curve of some institutions, but we’re taking a cautious approach to online programming. The faculty is incorporating technology in so many innovative ways to enhance the student learning experience. I like the phrase ‘high tech and high touch,’ and I hope that will be a good descriptor of USD going forward. We want to enhance a very interpersonal experience, but with the best of technology.
Q: In your view, what is the greatest challenge USD will face in the future?
A: I’m very concerned about the issue of access and affordability. The financial burden for many of our prospective USD families is simply too much to bear. We are constantly challenged to invest in quality, yet capture the best and brightest students from all economic strata.
Q: What is your fondest memory as president of USD?
A: Two moments are among the happiest each year: Move-in Weekend, when I absorb the energy of the students and their families experiencing USD for the first time; and Commencement, the launching moment when I experience the joy of our families and their gratitude for the wonderful education their students received.
Q: What advice would you give to your successor, James Harris?
A: I’ve known Dr. Harris for a while, and I feel like I’m the last person to give him advice. He’s a very experienced president. My hope for him and his family is that they have the same experience of truly falling in love with the university the way I did. I did mention that, every time I went to a new presidency, I spent time in the archives of the university, and did my best to read and understand the history of the place I was tasked to manage. Who are the founders? What type of legacy am I inheriting? How do I embrace and learn from it, and carry it on? No hard rights, no hard lefts, if possible.
Q: What are your plans once you step down from your presidency?
A: After a much-needed sabbatical year, I will return in a part-time capacity to teach or to contribute wherever my abilities and the university’s needs converge. Our Board of Trustees graciously and generously established an endowed professorship in my name, the Mary E. Lyons Chair in Leadership Studies. In the fall, I will spend six weeks in Seville, Spain studying Spanish. I’m looking forward to new adventures and spending more time with my grandchildren.