Vincent Rougeau says that higher education is “living in a real moment” of transformation and that the liberal arts still have enormous value.
the Holy Cross College is unabashedly a liberal arts institution, developing the next generation of leaders for over 178 years. But he is not afraid of change. Last July, it made one of the most transformative hires in its history, installing Vincent Rougeau as its first black, secular president.
Rougeau’s trajectory to the top was natural for the college on the hill in Worcester, Mass. He had cultivated deep roots in Jesuit institutions, including Boston College, where he was dean of its law school. The Holy Cross is one of many institutions in 2022 that find value in moving away from its traditions of placing up-and-coming individuals of color, women, and secular people in positions of power.
“I think we’re seeing a real moment in higher education in a lot of different ways,” Rougeau says. “The model is under a lot of stress for various reasons. What you are seeing, particularly in Jesuit institutions, is the recognition that passing the baton of leadership to lay people entering higher education can be an important change to make at a time when there are so many new challenges. People who have spent a lot of time with Jesuits in these institutions understand mission and identity.
The mission of the highly selective Sainte-Croix is to serve students well and, as Rougeau says, “is founded on respect for all”. It is rich in accolades as one of the best Catholic schools in the country and one of the best for money, with a 96% retention rate in the first year and a 93% graduation rate after six years. It continues to have alumni emerging on the national scene, including infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom the college will honor later this year by naming its Integrated Science Complex in his honor. But it’s also committed to branching out, with strong financial aid programs and policies like optional test admissions for new students.
“There are real opportunities to expand access to students whose parents never attended college, to reach immigrant communities and traditionally underserved communities,” Rougeau says. “That’s really where the growth is. If we don’t seek to make our environment attractive to these students, we are missing an opportunity. But once they get to campus, you can’t say, OK, it’s done. You really need to understand what their needs will be throughout their four years.
To learn more about Rougeau’s rise to Sainte-Croix, his institution’s latest projects, and some of the biggest issues facing higher education, University Affairs seated for a conversation with the President.
What is the value of a liberal arts education in 2022?
A lot of people make that decision in college and say, “This is what I want to do when I leave college, and this will get me there.” A liberal arts education lets you do that, but it also develops a broader set of skills. You have a broader understanding of history and people, math and science. What we often see among our alumni is this incredible trajectory to leadership. Anthony Fauci is a prime example. He was a classics major. He is one of many who have become leaders in their field, largely due to the type of education they received.
Speaking of Dr. Fauci, can you talk about what he means to the college, and also how the college has responded to COVID during the pandemic?
Dr. Fauci will be back on campus in June for his 60th reunion. One of the reasons we wanted to honor him is because he represents the power of a liberal arts education. He chose to take his degree in medical training and employ it in the service of the country, as a doctor specializing in diseases that struck somewhat marginalized communities – AIDS, Zika and Ebola. It is a great model for what we try to emphasize as a Jesuit institution, to be men and women for and with others, and to look beyond ourselves in how we use our formation .
In terms of COVID, like all campuses, it has been difficult to stay on top. We are a residential college and our students live close to each other. We must be careful about the spread of all diseases and ailments. Our campus is pretty much back to normal. For our first and second year students, it has been nice for them to come back. It will come and go, but we can’t stop every time we see a surge. We therefore seek to live responsibly with the virus.
One of the dominant themes around COVID, and in higher education, is the notion of the common good, which you touched on recently during a panel discussion. Why is it so important right now?
Something that I’ve looked at a lot in my academic work is how we have this tension in American culture between respect, the emphasis on individual achievement, and the notion of community. We want people to realize their aspirations as individuals and have the freedom to make their own choices. But our personal needs may need to be modified in order to support weaker members of the community. We need to spend more time as a country talking about how we do things together, how it sometimes means we can’t get everything we want…and what the benefits are.
The pandemic, social justice and critical race theory have all become polarizing topics. What is the mission of a college in the face of these problems?
An important role is to be places where there are honest and open conversations about the past, about the things we did well and the things we didn’t do well, what we could learn from it and how we could go ahead. There are still significant racial disparities around many different issues – education, the economy, and home ownership. There are different theories about the reasons. We have to be willing to have those conversations. We cannot correct them if we do not comment on them. The only thing we don’t want to do is say we’re not going to allow this to be discussed. We are not going to overcome our problems if we are not willing to face them. This is why it is important that we educate our young people so that they have a critical mind.
What are the traits that make an effective president in 2022?
I’m still working on those! Being an effective leader requires being a very active listener. You need to understand what people’s hopes and fears are. You also need to be a strong decision maker. I think some leaders fall into the trap of trying to get things done. Sometimes nothing is going to change, and the decision has to be made. Some people won’t like it. I think people respect someone who has been open and honest about why certain things need to change. If you are inclusive, people will feel able to participate in a process that produces decisions for the group. You have to be creative and innovative. The way we have done things in the past will not give us answers about how we are going to do things in the future. You must be prepared to make mistakes and learn areas outside of higher education. And then get lucky.
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