Nearly every university claims to contribute to the intellectual and moral formation of students.  The mission of Saint Mary’s states: “Enriched by the Lasallian Catholic heritage, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota awakens, nurtures, and empowers learners to ethical lives of service and leadership.”  Advancing this mission requires intentionality of faculty members to foster the character development of students that is central to their flourishing.

Beginning in the fall 2020 semester, Saint Mary’s launched faculty learning communities to support faculty members in their understanding and appreciation of university character and virtue education.  The inaugural seminar included 12 faculty members and academic leaders from across the university as well as various academic disciplines and representing undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and online education.  

The seminar meets bi-weekly over the course of a semester to allow time for reading, discussion, and reflection.  “If an instructor is going to support character education and virtue formation, then personal and meaningful reflection are essential,” said Joyce Bautch, Ph.D., associate professor of theology.

Character Education in Universities: A Framework for Flourishing by the Jubilee Center for Character & Virtues serves as a foundational reading during the seminar.  Participants are introduced to an Aristotelian framework for character education, particularly virtue ethics and how this approach to ethical living contributes to personal and societal flourishing.

After participating in the 2020 seminar, Susan Cosby Ronnenberg, Ph.D., dean of the college, emphasized how character and virtue education advances the goals of a liberal arts education as “fostering growth for the whole person, not simply and strictly siloed vocational training in the professions.”

While no single definitive list of virtues exists, certain categories of virtues have particular relevance to the Lasallian Catholic character of Saint Mary’s.  Participants are introduced to the importance of the cardinal virtues, theological virtues, and the twelve virtues of a good teacher as identified by Saint John Baptist De La Salle.  

Character Education in Universities also identifies moral virtues such as honesty and justice; civic virtues such as civility and service; intellectual virtues such as open-mindedness and patience; and, performance strengths such as resilience and teamwork.  Critical to the cultivation of character virtues is what Aristotle called phronesis, that is, the practical wisdom to integrate the virtues and navigate particular circumstances.

A virtue-based approach to ethics is also valuable for graduate and professional programs.  “Institutions of higher learning are starting to emerge from the miasma of a singular focus on technical skills in order to engage in conversations about how to better imbue elements of character education into the curriculum,” said Antar Salim, D.B.A., associate professor in business administration.

The faculty learning communities also introduce methods of character education that are suitable for university-level education as well as adult education.  Pedagogical practices grounded in an Aristotelian approach to character education include: “habituation through practice; reflection on personal experience; engagement with virtuous exemplars; dialogue that increases virtue literacy; conversation about situation variables; moral reminders that make norms salient; and friendships of mutual accountability” (Lamb et al., 2020).

As students and their families look at college options, they are expecting more than a strong academic program,” said Brian Schmisek, Ph.D., provost and dean of faculties.  “Our faculty development in the area of character and virtue education sharpens the existing strengths of a Saint Mary’s education.  Our faculty help students make connections between academic disciplines and real questions, so that our graduates are formed as persons who will lead ethical lives of service and leadership.”

A second faculty learning community was launched at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester.  Applications are now being accepted for the next seminar during the fall 2021 semester.  More information about the faculty learning communities including application instructions is available on the character and virtue education website.

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