Academic Convocation 2014 Celebrates Mission

By: Mark Tarnacki
Convocation Neuhauser Hornat Blanco

From left, Very Rev. Stephen Hornat, President John Neuhauser and Karen Talentino, VPAA, listen to a speaker at Academic Convocation on Sept. 26.

At the annual Academic Convocation of Saint Michael's College, September 26 in the McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall, President Jack Neuhauser distilled the purpose and worth of a liberal arts college in clear terms:

It is, he said in opening remarks, "To teach, to create new knowledge and understanding, to serve our community…[and also] the encouragement and development of young adults…[in] making sense of the world and addressing ultimate questions of meaning in our lives [while] preparing for productive careers in the wider context of service to the wider society."

A series of awards, presentations and talks celebrated that mission and illustrated its good outcomes during Friday's mid-afternoon ceremony that continued a tradition begun by President Emeritus Paul Reiss in 1986. Winners of prestigious annual faculty awards for service, teaching, and scholarship/artistic achievement went, respectively, to Greta Pangborn of the computer science faculty, who received the Norbert A. Kuntz Service Award; John O'Meara of the physics faculty, who won the Scholarship and Artistic Achievement Award; and Nat Lewis of the English faculty, who received the Joanne Rathgeb Teaching Award.

As has become the tradition, last year's scholarship award winner, Education Professor Mary Beth Doyle, delivered the Convocation Address, titled "Imagine: From Isolation to Belonging" about her long work for greater and more complete inclusion in our schools of students with disabilities. Distinguished alumnus Jose C. Blanco, Ph.D. '79 was inducted into the college's Alumni Academic Hall of Fame; and student, Victoria Barnum '16, secretary of academics for the Student Association, illustrated her own stories of what it looks like when the college is succeeding in its mission through the personal attention gifted Saint Michael's professors and mentors provide students.

Barnum described her at-once exciting, challenging and reassuring experiences as a student with early advisers and professors like Maura D'Amore of English and Ray Patterson of Religious who took her under wing and guided her, respectively, through a challenging course on Moby Dick and the addition of a Religious Studies major to her American Studies major and Art History minor.

"I have never felt lost or concerned with the academic environment at Saint Michael's," Barnum said, describing how helpful and approachable all of her professors have been. She told of her relief to find tutoring help already in place for a required mathematics course where she'd feared the worst based on high school experience—though she came through with an "A"; she also spoke of Patterson being a "floor visitor" for her first-year dorm beyond the classroom, and D'Amore's humor, cartoons and baked goods to engage students on great literature.

"The time you spend with students during your office hours, at individual appointments, or even just a minute or two after class has a great impact on our success," Barnum told faculty, "and that success spreads into our other courses as well. I have never been afraid to ask for help…because it was offered even before I asked...[so] thank you for always going above and beyond."

In his invocation preceding Neuhauser's and Barnum's remarks, Mathematics Professor George Ashline prayed the "prayer of Saint Francis" asking God to "make us instruments of your peace" in recognition that the Convocation fell during the Week of International Prayer and Fasting for Peace.

Karen Talentino, Vice President for Academic Affairs and master of ceremonies, read the citation honoring Jose Blanco '79, this year's inductee into the college's Academic Hall of Fame. She spoke of his 35 years in academics, consultancy and financial services, including in top posts with American International Group in Europe through 1992 supervising investments in diverse areas; then earning a doctorate in economics from Utah State University with research in health economics and financial economics; teaching finance and economics at colleges in California, Ohio and Mexico; and consulting for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on improving the economics surrounding medical records and health care costs. Blanco also has an MBA and at Saint Michael's studied economics and political science, she said.

Jose Blanco speaks at Academic ConvocationIn his acceptance remarks, Blanco's chief theme was gratitude—to his family, Saint Michael's basketball coaches and teammates, teachers, roommates and Edmundites. He spoke of a coach who urged players to be "a three dimensional person," developing physical, intellectual and spiritual selves. Blanco traced the ideas and thought patterns central to his later business success back to Saint Michael's days. From the college he took the lesson "that success does not define us, failure does not define us either, but having the will to continue and persevere through any impediment or obstacle is what matters," he said, concluding that "there are days in life that are so good, it's as if God has just handed us a little piece of heaven…today is one of those days."

Neuhauser and Talentino next presented the major faculty awards: Greta Pangborn, the Norbert Kuntz Service Award winner, "assiduously avoids the limelight," Talentino said, yet contributes with selfless generosity to faculty governance, including work with the Faculty Welfare and Development Committees, Educational Technology Committee (chair), Enrollment Management Task Force and Management Committee, and she has "legendary status" as Faculty Assembly secretary, producing  amazingly clear minutes of complex meetings. Talentino also noted the personal touch that Pangborn brings to teaching, making her loved by students with whom she often travels to conferences; also, she advises students in four challenging degree programs.

John O'Meara, the Scholarship and Artistic Achievement Award winner, was cited for being a "very productive scholar" in experimental cosmology, working around the world at prestigious observatories, publishing often in top science journals and continually scoring large grants to fund his work; but he also has "a tremendous gift for explaining his research" so students and the public can understand and has made frequent media appearances with well-known outlets to do so, Talentino said.

She said Nat Lewis, winner of the Rathgeb Teaching Award, was long overdue for recognition. He holds student to rigorous standards for critical thinking, reading and writing, and treats students "as adult learners…with instructive care and conscious dignity," she said, noting that a colleague's observation that he "makes the difficult look easy" in the way he might masterfully weave pop culture into "heady conversations about style, and content" or terms like "reality and truth." His teaching is "sometimes funny, always generous and attuned to keeping everyone in the discussion," she said, which gives a Lewis a reputation as "a model of intellectual rigor" while being a "really cool dude"—inspiring students to emulate his best qualities.

In her convocation address, Mary Beth Doyle used slides of students she has worked with through years of advocating for greater classroom inclusion of students with disabilities, offering the prime example of people with Down syndrome who now expect and receive meaningful educational experiences compared to 50 years ago—not because they have changed but "because the attitudes and expectations of people in power, that is, people without disabilities, have changed"—as they must continue to do across the broad range of disabilities, she feels. "My work is built on the premise that…torture is not an effective strategy when teaching our most vulnerable children and youth," she said, citing many inhumane methods still legally applied to people with severe disabilities in the U.S. today. She took the audience through specific examples of students she's known, saying how one taught her that "middle schoolers mirror the behaviors of adults in their lives—if adults are kind, thoughtful and inclusive, so too are the children." After her moving series of real-life cases, she concluded, "this work has been painstakingly slow. People with intellectual disabilities are the only group of people that continues to experience rampant prejudice and discrimination." So her work is not done yet, said Doyle, who ended voicing hope that "one day Saint Michael's will be able to say...we're an inclusive community."

Retiring professors honored with promotion to emeritus status and honorary citations:

  • Edmundite Father Joseph McLaughlin, Religious Studies. His citation recognized his work since 1978 in both religious studies and history along with his commitment to social justice and a love of Ireland that he brought to his varied courses; his published scholarship on local history, the Society of Saint Edmund and other Catholic topics; his service as a trustee, as Superior General, for the local water district; and for his priestly ministry.
  • Carey Kaplan, English, for her 40 years as a leader in the scholarly exploration of women's issues alongside activism in that area; as well as her grace, style, humor ("a sharp wit that never cuts") and impressive seriously scholarship across a broad range in her field. The citation noted the students and colleagues who flocked to her office for wisdom empathy (and chocolates) because they appreciated "her conviction that inhabiting fully the worlds of language and ideas is a deep and enriching pleasure."
  • Birger Benson of the Business Administration and Accounting department. His citation noted the "remarkable" breadth and variety of his career prior to or alongside his 35 years at Saint Michael's: Harvard MBA, entrepreneur, business consultant, Army Ranger/platoon leader, military science professor. He set high standards for himself and students and built durable bonds with students, the citation noted.
  • Dennis Voigt, also of Business Administration and Accounting. He was cited for his humble and unassuming ways, but also leadership on key College initiatives such as panels on pensions and retirement, and on adapting the "4-4" curriculum. He also was known as a thoughtful, attentive and responsive teacher, his citation stated and was a successful business consultant.

The Very Rev. Stephen Hornat, SSE '72, Superior General of the Society of Saint Edmund, gave the benediction, and a reception followed in the Teaching Gardens. Additionally, on Monday, September 29, the College had a special celebration of the Feast Day of Saint Michael with Mass followed by a cookout and live music on the lawn in front of the Chapel.

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