Brian Bruess began his position as the first president of both the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph and St. John’s University in Collegeville on July 1. A native of Monroe, Wisconsin, he previously served as president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and in a variety of roles at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, including as the school’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. His wife, Carol, is a professor emerita of communication and former director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. They have two adult children. The following interview conducted by editor Joe Towalski in September was edited for length and clarity.
Q. With all the challenges that come with being a first-time president of both campuses, what are the biggest ones? What are you looking forward to?
Bruess: The biggest challenges we’re facing are what all American education faces right now due to really intense headwinds, and the pandemic has accelerated them. One challenge is declining demographics: fewer high school graduates in the upper Midwest, a demographic downturn in this region of between 12 and 15 percent in the number of high school graduates. There’s simply fewer students available for colleges like us to pursue.
Another challenge for American education is affordability and the student debt crisis. Those are ones that we’re managing pretty well if you look at our federal loan default rate, our net price, and our students getting jobs early and paying back their debt. A third of them don’t have debt.
Then there’s a larger societal critique of the value proposition of higher education. Is it even worth it? Of course we know it is, but how do you encourage people to look more deeply and to get past the headlines and to really see the impact on quality of life, whether it’s their health and well-being, or their development, their faith or their job earnings over a lifetime? That’s a challenge.
What am I most excited about? If you could have been in the room, or on the Zoom that I was on, during the search process with the corporate sponsors at St. John’s Abbey and sisters at St. Benedict’s Monastery … I just really admire them for the clarity of their vision and the strength of their voice around this construct of “strong integration” [of the two campuses]. They’ve established this idea that they want two separate corporations — St. Ben’s and St. John’s — that they want to be distinctive, held up unapologetically as Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts, residential, focused on the empowerment of women and men, but taking great advantage of strong integration — so being more nimble, more adaptive, more responsive to face these headwinds. Their strength of voice around their recommitment to the two places is absolutely extraordinary.
Q. What makes a Catholic college or university Catholic?
Bruess: In our case, the Catholic tradition, the Benedictine values, you have to think of them like a Venn diagram. The Catholic tradition manifests itself in a particular way through the Benedictine charism. For us, it’s about the Catholic intellectual tradition. It’s about the integration of faith and reason. It’s about the common good, the dignity of the human person, about justice, about care for people. You take all that, and all the cascading values that come from that, and the question is: To what extent have we incorporated those constructs into the student experience, into the curriculum, the co-curriculum, in the lived experience of faculty and staff? To what extent have we inspired people to live those values, to know them through their experience and then to carry them forward?
That’s powerful. That’s a different education than at a public university or at a different religiously affiliated institution. Because of how we do it through the Benedictine tradition, it’s unique in Minnesota. It’s different than any other Benedictine institution because of how we do it here. If you walk the halls of the abbey or the monastery or the abbey church, if you celebrate the Eucharist in the abbey church or Sacred Heart Chapel, you’ll notice nuances. I think folks need to understand that Catholic is a wildly diverse experience, but at its core are these principles of intellectual tradition, of integration of faith and reason, of this liturgical tradition and the social tradition — all that brings to bear powerful educational opportunities for students.
Q. Are there aspects of that tradition you would like to focus on more?
Bruess: The most effective Catholic colleges or Catholic communities are ones that know their values, live them and remain open to the perpetual renewal of what they mean.
We’re constantly learning more deeply and more fully what it means to be Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts and residential. I’d like to see us take a more systematic approach with our faculty and staff, just like we do with our students, around what it means to be Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts and residential. The more we do that, the more we teach and inspire the very charism and tradition that we have.
Also right now society is suffering from terrible polarization. I would love to imagine every six months or a year that we get better and better at teaching students and faculty and staff how to not put our mission and traditions in boxes. It’s not either you’re Catholic or you’re not Catholic. It’s how do we teach people to understand the beauty and the complexity of these traditions and avoid these like/dislike, red state, blue state, Catholic, not Catholic wedge issues of the day. We have to make this joyful for students. So how do we do that? We do it by not necessarily using monikers to teach, but we use experiences and issues and people. This generation of students is not interested in monikers. They want to know how the tradition, the values of our mission, relate to their life, relate to solving world problems.
Q. Addressing polarization, being able to have conversations across ideological lines, some of that came out during the listening phase of the Church’s current worldwide synod process. It requires an ability to listen to others, doesn’t it?
Bruess: This generation, if we’re willing to listen, has a lot to teach us. If we want to really engage and rebuild the Church, we have to listen better. I’ve seen so many students in my 30 years in Catholic education who failed to engage because no one listened to them.
Q. You were at St. Norbert and then St. Catherine and now you’re here. It seems you have a personal commitment to Catholic higher education. Why are you so passionate about it?
Bruess: It is my belief that schools like St. Ben’s and St. John’s have a profound impact on students in a way that public universities cannot have. That was just a calling to me. It was far more interesting to be involved in something that had a more explicit, direct purpose to what I valued. It was really my first clear vocational call.
I went to St. Kate’s, and every four years my job changed. I was given opportunities that I probably shouldn’t have been given. Through that, I saw the influence a community can have on students. I had about 12 years of intentional vocational discernment about the college presidency. Am I capable of doing it? What would it be like to do it? Could I do it in a way that would be effective and true to my values? Over the course of that discernment period, I answered, “Yes.” There’s a calling to the work. It helps that I love the work, but I think at the core it’s because it has real purpose. Right now the need that society has for what we do, to me, feels greater than when I started 30 years ago.
Q. How do you see your relationship with the monks of St. John’s Abbey, with the sisters at St. Benedict’s Monastery and with the bishop of the Diocese of St. Cloud?
Bruess: All three of those leaders are very important. Abbot John [Klassen] and Prioress Susan [Rudolph], are sponsors. It’s their will and desire on behalf of their communities that we’re their ministry. The bishop has a very important role in the diocese canonically and otherwise as spiritual leader and shepherd. So I view them differently but equally important in terms of the health and vitality of the place. I look to them as leaders. They have expectations of me and these two places, and those expectations need to be exceeded. I think of them in some ways as partners.
With the sisters at St. Benedict’s and the monks at St. John’s, there’s also a physical presence and spiritual presence that’s also absolutely part of this. As I said before, there’s the clarity of their vision and the strength of their voice about what they are looking for. Both are exceptional in their roles, as is the bishop. They’re really good sponsors. They understand they’re sponsoring, that they’re not governing and they’re not managing. They’ve done their part, and they’re looking to us now to exceed expectations. I see them as really critical players in this.