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University of Mary President Monsignor James Shea is shown here at the announcement in February that the university had raised more than $100 million in Phase 1 of its capital campaign. IMAGE: University of Mary

Monsignor James Patrick Shea, president, University of Mary: How liberal arts colleges can thrive, not just survive

BISMARCK, N.D. – Liberal arts colleges, like nearly all higher education institutions today, face very real financial and cultural challenges.

Such schools are urgently searching out strategies to ensure their survival in the face of economic and societal headwinds.

Our part of the country has a number of such institutions, all of which share an impressive legacy and, by virtue of their liberal-arts foundations, provide solid preparation for career and profession.

As the beneficiary of a 1,500-year legacy of Benedictine education, we at the University of Mary believe that panicked reactions to the current challenges can be dangerous to a school’s actual survival. Fear-based “flight or fight” decisions can stampede schools into making impulsive decisions in an effort to stave off decline for the short term by sacrificing essentials needed to survive and thrive in the long term.

Long-term success is not served by sacrificing the wellbeing of students in a desperate effort to scrape along.

Our founders and sponsors, the Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery, were early pioneers to Dakota Territory. And they always have acted in the belief that a higher purpose, steadfastly held to, will prevail.

Successful colleges rely on deep foundations of wisdom without nailing themselves to a slavish imitation of the past. A very real asset of a small liberal arts school is the nimbleness to be flexible and responsive to change.

To thrive today, schools must navigate their future using both common sense and intelligent innovation.

With innovations such as our Year-Round Campus option, we are addressing critical student issues such as time to completion, cost and debt loads. Our goal is to let students graduate with less cost, less debt and higher lifetime earnings potential.

Our students take their first steps into global awareness through life-changing semesters on our campuses in Rome and Peru. Furthermore, our strong emphasis on service teaches them that none of us live for self alone, but to meet the needs of others.

Common sense would also tell us that thriving colleges forge strong connections to their local communities while holding up a beacon of invitation to anyone, anywhere, who is attracted to its mission.

Our expectation of the entire university is to model a “community of care,” so students experience in person how enriching the mission of their alma mater is, and as alumni, remember that with gratitude.

As a Catholic university, we gain wisdom from Scripture, and so we remember the book of Proverbs, which says, “without vision, the people perish.”

To not merely survive, but truly thrive, requires sturdy confidence in a university’s vision, along with the determination to remain generous and positive in trying circumstances, refusing to take the slippery path of negativity and division.

And for the University of Mary, that positivity and confidence arise from living amid the Benedictine Sisters’ certainty that God is guiding our work.

This has been both core and key to longevity.

Community, respect, service, moderation, prayer and hospitality are our values intentionally integrated into all aspects of campus life. When students tell us, “You are who you say you are!”, we feel we have succeeded in genuinely living that culture of caring.

Liberal arts colleges have their deep traditions of exploring the values that should be inherent in all areas of study, from the arts and sciences to business to athletics and beyond. Curriculum that explores the relationships between faith and reason is uniquely positioned to fulfill those fundamental human yearnings for a life that is about more.

We intend with each student to offer them an education of excellence that’s about more than a job or a career, but opens the paths to build an integrated and intentional life. That’s the essence of the liberal arts.

Ultimately, we work for a greater purpose than our own survival. We exist for our students’ wellbeing, rather than viewing them as simply walking ATMs.

Simply, we believe in the future and a loving Providence.

To survive and to thrive means we know to keep our ears open and our eyes alert to the needs of our culture, and to meet them based upon our belief in the value of each human person and our obligation to help them reach their highest potential and purpose.

Monsignor James Patrick Shea


University of Mary

Bismarck, N.D.