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Le Moyne College President Linda LeMura on the Campbell Conversations


Le Moyne College has recently been through a couple of controversies lately, first about incidents related to its annual "Dolphy Day" student celebration, and then over its choice of Cardinal Timothy Dolan as its graduation speaker.  

This week on the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher speaks with Le Moyne's president, Linda LeMura, about those issues, and also about the value of a liberal arts education, a Jesuit-oriented liberal arts education, and the challenges that liberal arts education is currently facing.

Interview highlights

On becoming the first lay woman in the world to lead a Jesuit institution of higher learning

I just went about my business first a professor, a teacher and a scholar, doing research with undergraduate students and graduate students. Then, I was tapped to be a chair, and then ultimately a dean. From there, the opportunity to become provost became available. Then I anticipated that if I was to become a president, I would need to lead the Jesuit system, so to speak. Because historically, the presidents of Jesuit institutions are either Jesuit priests or on occasion lay men. I was about to leave Le Moyne after serving seven years as provost to move on to become the president of La Salle University in Philadelphia. One thing led to another, our sitting president moved on to become president of St. Louis University. And our trustees and our faculty rallied around and asked me to stay on.

On higher education becoming increasingly dollarized

In light of the very difficult economy in which our families find themselves in, it's clear that the higher purposes of higher education have taken a backseat to the notion of job preparation. As a result, higher education has become commodified in a way that I think is reaching dangerous levels. Historically, students would move on after high school, go into colleges and universities in part to become better educated to become good citizens, to explore what they would be good at in the marketplace of ideas. All of that has been turned upside down and I think there was an inflection point in 2008 with the great recession where suddenly the investments that were up to be made in tuition and higher education in general needed to have a very clear return on the investment the moment the student walked across the stage.

On what is distinctive about liberal arts higher education

It encourages students to ask deep, important questions. On its face, you hear things, about developing writing skills. Whether it's technical writing skills or writing for a general audience. You hear about critical thinking skills, the ability to look at evidence and to be analytical. Asking questions that are deep and sometimes uncomfortable, having quantitative reasoning skills. All of the skills that would make a 21st century student nimble as he or she attempts to navigate a very choppy, volatile economy. And from our own tradition, we place a premium on ethical thinking, philosophical training, theological training. Ethics across the curriculum is a big part of a Jesuit education.

On “Dolphy Day,” an annual day of partying among students. It was held on April 16 and there were two allegations of sexual assaults during this year’s event.

Dolphy Day has come under some scrutiny lately. In so far as some occurrences on our campus around the Dolphy Day date. I can't say too much about the details only because they're still under investigation. The biggest concern for us, truthfully, is keeping Dolphy Day safe for students of Le Moyne and for students of neighboring campuses who like to partake in the festivities. We are going to continue to take a look at our practices and policies around Dolphy Day to make sure we continue to move forward with this wonderful tradition, or at least with the very best of the tradition, which is celebrating spring and community.

On the protests of some students over the choice of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of the Diocese of New York, to speak at commencement.

Credit Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston / Flickr
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, this year's commencement speaker at Le Moyne College

Our former president selected him roughly 3 years ago. Actually we expected to have him as a speaker in the last couple of years, but his schedule precluded him from joining us sooner. He was selected because he's one of the most important voices in Catholic education in America. He recently had a pretty big say in who would be elected the next pope, he had a vote. I think he's going to be an incredibly compelling speaker. He's gregarious, he has a wonderful sense of humor. There are some controversies, certainly, surrounding the Cardinal. But that's okay, that's what a Jesuit education is all about. We want our students to ask the hard questions. It's a fantastic opportunity for us to learn from him.

Was the level of protest coming from some students a surprise?

To be completely forthcoming, yes it was. I never imagined the depth of concern. And, frankly, I underestimated our students. I underestimated their concern for social justice, their concern for those who have been abused and marginalized, their concerns for reparation for those who have been abused. My hat is off to these 20- and 21-year-olds, who are already beginning to see the big picture, which is a function of having a liberal arts education in our tradition.