The University of St. Thomas is perpetually in transition. It started as a men’s liberal arts college, evolved into a coed comprehensive university with a renowned business school and has since begun to offer engineering degrees.

Recently, the turbulence has continued. The faculty voted to gut the liberal arts core curriculum (tinyurl.com/st-approve), albeit with significant opposition (tinyurl.com/st-oppose). Students will now graduate from St. Thomas without ever having taken a college-level math class (although they will be required to take a “quantitative analysis” class). St. Thomas has opened the Dougherty Family College, a two-year college designed for those students without sufficient preparation for the four-year college experience. It has also rebranded itself, adopting the slogan “All for the common good” and placing a new emphasis on social justice.

Now, as the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse reported in his April 5 column, St. Thomas may be forced out of its historic athletic conference, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC).

This is a symptom of St. Thomas’ constant transition. The fact is, my alma mater is no longer a peer institution to St. Olaf, Carleton or St. John’s. These colleges have stayed much more committed to their liberal arts mission than St. Thomas. Defeating St. Olaf in football 97-0 isn’t a good look, but at the end of the day, we just aren’t in the same category anymore.

Stable athletic conferences are built on common identities. The Big Ten, for example, is an association of northern, research universities that legitimately see each other as peers. The Ivy League is a collection of elite, private universities that place emphasis on undergraduate education. This is in contrast to the MIAC, which consists of liberal arts colleges and St. Thomas.

Finding a home for St. Thomas outside of the MIAC is nontrivial. An obvious solution is for it to try to join the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC), which is home to the Division III football powerhouse UW-Whitewater. But all WIAC members are also part of the UW system, which is clearly not a good culture fit, either. Joining the Division II Northern Sun conference is also an option, but this would likely mean that the popular Tommie-Johnnie game would come to an end.

To find a new home, St. Thomas needs to find an identity. With the declining commitment to the liberal arts and the constant transition, it’s not entirely clear to me where St. Thomas wants to go. Opening the Dougherty Family College seems like a clear commitment to being “All for the common good,” but the university has let tuition and fees rise to $1,306 a credit, or $41,792 for two 16-credit semesters. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent strategy that the university is pursuing. The St. Thomas community needs to seriously ask itself: “What do we want St. Thomas to be? What do we need St. Thomas to be?” Once we have a model and a clear path forward, we can concern ourselves with finding an athletic conference with similar values. First, St. Thomas needs to decide where it’s going.

 

Ryan Slechta, of Arden Hills, is a graduate student and University of St. Thomas alumnus.