A conversation with St. Lawrence University’s 19th president, Kathryn A. Morris
In February, the St. Lawrence Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Kathryn A. Morris as St. Lawrence University’s 19th president. From that point on, Morris took full advantage of the digital bridge from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Canton, New York, to visit with campus constituents via virtual “meet and greets” on Zoom—29 “meet and greets” to be exact. In one of these sessions, Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs Karl Schonberg took the opportunity to introduce President Morris to the campus through a Q&A and learned that her liberal arts roots are deep and she is eager to get to work on the next chapter of St. Lawrence.
Karl Schonberg (KS): What have you learned that most excites you about St. Lawrence University and why you wanted to join in the next chapter of our history?
President Kate Morris (KM): In my letter of application for the presidency at St. Lawrence, I said that it would have to be a truly special institution that would lure me away from Butler University, where I have been very happy for the past 24 years. From the very first time that I read the presidential profile, I thought St. Lawrence could be that place. The more that I learned about St. Lawrence, the more confident I felt that it was, in fact, that special institution that could be the next academic home in my career.
Obviously, I like the fact that St. Lawrence is a liberal arts college with a long history of success, and that it is positioned to do well going into the future. The academic program, the cocurricular program, and the intentionality with which people take the institutional mission: those are all things that have been really appealing to me.
There’s a variety of things that have really caught my attention, and it gets tricky to mention any of them because I’m sure I’m missing a whole lot of other topics that would be similarly of interest to me. But I have to say that what most excites me is the sense of community at St. Lawrence.
KS: We all feel that the community here is so interconnected and that the North Country wouldn’t be the same without St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence wouldn’t be the same place without being in the North Country. Can you speak a little bit about your first impressions of the North Country and what struck you about what you have experienced so far?
KM: I should say that my introduction to the North Country was a number of years ago. My college friends and I would often get together in Lake Placid for informal reunions after we graduated, and we have taken a family vacation in the Thousand Islands region. I saw St. Lawrence’s location in the North Country as a real bonus.
My first experience here in Canton, however, will always be intertwined with the pandemic. For my initial visit in February, we started out in Lake Placid, where we did our four-day quarantine as required by the state of New York. As we were driving from Lake Placid across the Adirondacks to Canton, I was struck by the way that the snow clumps on the top of the tall pine trees. I don’t know if there’s a name for that, but it is really beautiful, and it sent me back a few years. I did not go to college right after high school. I took what we would now call a gap year as an exchange student living with a host family and attending a local high school in Austria. It is the only other place where I remember seeing the super tall pine trees in a slightly mountainous area with the snow clumped everywhere on the top of them—an absolutely stunningly beautiful winter landscape very reminiscent of my time in Austria.
Also, I will always think, with happiness, of our first tour of the local area. We had to do that pandemic style as well, meaning our tour guides were in one car on a cell phone, and my husband and I were in the car behind them with our cell phone. We drove caravan-style all throughout Canton listening to our guide on speaker saying, “Up here on your right, you’re going to see....” That was fun and different, and not the way that you expect a campus and community tour to go.
Every single person we met, whether they were affiliated with St. Lawrence or not, was incredibly warm and welcoming. One morning, while we were staying at the Best Western University Inn, I didn’t realize the kitchen was closed and I called to order some food. To our surprise, they actually reopened the kitchen to cook us some food. I kept trying to say, “No, no. You don’t need to do that,” but they did it even though they didn’t know who we were or why we were there. This is one more story that demonstrates the welcoming nature of St. Lawrence and the surrounding community.
KS: You were a student at a liberal arts college as an undergraduate, but you actually have deeper roots with the liberal arts in that you grew up on a liberal arts college campus. How has that shaped your sense of what a liberal arts education is and how a college campus like St. Lawrence can influence the world around us?
KM: You are right. I didn’t have to ask anybody what a liberal arts education was all about or what a liberal arts college was because it was literally all around me as a child growing up. I grew up in a neighborhood where homes could only be sold to and bought by faculty members. My father was a psychology professor. On one side of our house, there was a biologist, and on the other side, there was a film professor. Across the street, there was a theater professor, a geology professor, and a sociology professor. And then, when you went a little bit farther out in the neighborhood, there were people who came from chemistry, English, history, music, and a bunch of other different disciplines.
I grew up in this neighborhood playing with the children of these other faculty members and that emphasis on liberal arts education was infused in everything we did. With a film professor on one side and a theater professor across the street, one of the things that the kids did a lot when we were growing up was create movies.
I think that came out of observing what our parents did. As a psychologist’s daughter, sometimes, we had lab rats at our house, and I taught the neighborhood kids how to train lab rats.
At Halloween, the chemistry professors would do things like have a big cauldron with dry ice in it that would smoke. And when you went to trick or treat, of course they would tell you why that was happening. The importance of the education and learning how the world works is something that was part and parcel with my childhood. It was a great way to grow up. When it came time for me to go off to college myself, I was looking for that same kind of environment.
As an undergraduate, I was not involved in the student government association, and I wasn’t the type of person who was going to stand for election for a leadership position. I did my own thing as a psychology student, worked in the admissions office, and did a few other things that I found to be really interesting.
My senior year, however, I got a letter from the dean of students saying that I had been selected for a leadership award. And that really surprised me because I didn’t hold any official leadership position on campus, certainly not any elected leadership position. When I read the letter, I learned that this leadership award was for “quiet leadership.”
The award was for someone who had a positive influence on the campus in a way that was quiet—maybe not that person who was out in front as the president of the student government association or the president of the senior class, but who was still a leader. And, frankly, that was the first time that I ever thought of myself as a leader. That was the first time that it occurred to me that a person can be a leader in ways that did not involve being elected.
KS: There are all kinds of questions that have been asked in recent years about the value of higher education and the value of the liberal arts in particular. At St. Lawrence, we know from our day-to-day work about the impact we have on students and the power of the work that we do here, but we also know that those questions are out there. What do you see as the best ways to talk with prospective students and their families—all audiences for that matter—about the value of St. Lawrence?
KM: We have everyday experiences that reinforce that what we do at St. Lawrence is important. We also know the work we do is effective because there is a lot of research that shows meaningful outcomes of a liberal arts education. In particular, the research demonstrates that high-impact pedagogical practices, such as intensive first-year experiences, integrating writing and speaking into course content, or activities that cross both academic and cocurricular experiential learning like study abroad, have a lasting impact on students academically, intellectually, and personally.
The other source of knowledge that helps us to know what we do matters is that employers, both frontline people who hire and senior-level CEOs of companies, also value what a liberal arts education should be: critical thinking skills, public speaking skills, excellent writing skills, problem-solving ability, and teamwork. Those are the very things that graduate schools, professional schools, and employers really want. Despite the rhetoric that is out there questioning the value of the liberal arts, we can rest assured that what we do matters and we need to continue to do it.
Our challenge is how we communicate that to other people. I am a strong proponent of using a combination of data and storytelling to make an argument. How do we make that argument about the value of a liberal arts education and about the value of the St. Lawrence education in particular? Numeric data tells us, for example, the students’ success rates, graduation rates, placement rates, student debt, employment, career tracks, and more.
The numbers, however, are not enough. It’s really important to have good stories to tell because the personal anecdotes are the things that tug at the heartstrings, and they are memorable to people. We need our story to be memorable to our audiences: prospective students and their families, our alumni, and friends and supporters who want to continue to partner with us and the things that we’re trying to do to support students.
KS: At St. Lawrence, we take responsibility for educating students for the world that they’re going to live in, not just in the year when they graduate, but the world that we can’t quite see yet that’s 10, 20, and 30 years into the future. Can you talk a little bit about how we might want to imagine liberal arts education adapting to the changing world of this next decade and beyond?
KM: The rhetoric about what needs to change in higher education and in liberal arts education has been around for a while, and it implies that higher education has been stagnant for the last 150 or 200 years. The reality is that higher education in general, and liberal arts education in particular, has been on a trajectory of evolution and development across time. Liberal arts colleges have figured out ways to expand the umbrella of what can be studied there, while still being very grounded in the liberal arts. St. Lawrence has done this through approval of four new majors announced this spring.
The rise of internships over the past two decades and other high-impact educational experiences have also created opportunities for students to apply everything they’ve learned in the classroom in real-life problem-solving environments. “Internship” in higher education 25 years ago was a dirty word. And now it’s something that the vast majority of liberal arts institutions have embraced.
I obviously can’t see into the future, but I’ve got a few ideas about things that I think are likely to happen in the next iteration of a liberal arts education.
I think there will be a continued trend of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary educational offerings for students. Students are already combining majors and minors in interesting ways, and many of our new curricular innovations that we offer are at those intersections between disciplines.
I also think that we might explore new forms of credentials for students. The kind of traditional credential that students receive is a transcript or diploma, which really only shows the academic achievement. Perhaps it is time to explore a cocurricular transcript that documents the activities students have engaged in or a credential that students could earn that’s based on a combination of their academic and their cocurricular work.
In some ways, liberal arts education is based in partnerships. We’ve seen tremendous growth in the dual degree, the plus 1 or plus 2 kinds of offerings where students do their undergraduate work at St. Lawrence and then get an MBA or a Master of Science at a partner institution. Other partnerships could be with high schools creating meaningful pipeline programs where students can start earning college credits while creating a direct pathway to St. Lawrence. I think we’re going to see a lot more of these types of activities and also collaborations across institutions for curricular purposes to benefit both the students and the institutions.
Another important component of a 21st-century liberal arts education is continued focus on the importance of issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. This will entail diversification of the student body, the faculty body, the staff body, and also paying really close attention to a sense of belonging among all members of the campus community.
KS: What do you say to the question about the post-COVID moment for our campus. We will never divert from our core liberal arts mission and the idea of being a residential college, but I think we are on the verge of some really interesting and challenging conversations in the coming years about how to imagine the opportunities that are ahead of us.
KM: We have to recognize that this year has been such a difficult year for all of us, and it doesn’t matter if you were a student, faculty member, staff member, or member of our alumni. It has been exceptionally difficult.
From what I understand of the work that faculty, students, staff, and alumni have done over the past 18 months, St. Lawrence is ready to embrace change while staying true to its liberal arts foundation. I have been so impressed by how everyone has been so thoughtful about how they will make things better in the post-COVID world—technologically, pedagogically, and interpersonally. It shows something great about the human spirit, especially for those of us in higher education who are thinking very carefully about how we will make things even better. I am eager to see how we can build on the momentum that St. Lawrence has and convert that to fulfill the potential of each and every Laurentian.
Kathryn A. Morris earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Gettysburg College and earned her master’s and Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. She has served as a member of the board of trustees at her undergraduate alma mater since 2015. She comes to St. Lawrence after a distinguished career at Butler University, where she most recently served as the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs for the past nine years. Prior to her time as provost, Morris served as department chair and professor of psychology. Her academic areas of expertise include social psychology, the psychology of gender, methodology, and statistics. Morris was a charter member and the first president of Butler’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and has received numerous honors and awards during her tenure there.