Program Genesis

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota received a $1.7 million grant from the Kern Family Foundation in November 2019 to support the character and virtue initiative in the School of Education.  The genesis of how Saint Mary’s University embraced this initiative includes several providential opportunities and relationships.

One year earlier, Ms. Liz Huntley, child advocate, litigation attorney, and author of More than a Bird, spoke at University Convocation in August 2018.  Her keynote address called for greater attention to the role of character education, especially in the lives of young people who are marginalized racially or socio-economically.  Sharing her life experiences, Huntley described how communities of character and virtue contributed to her triumph over poverty and abuse toward a flourishing life.

As faculty and staff discussed Huntley’s presentation, they began to ask: how can we become more intentional and deliberate about the character education that we provide at Saint Mary’s University?  At the same time, Father James P. Burns, IVD, Ph.D. became the fourteenth president of the university.  In his inaugural address in October 2018, Father Burns said, “What is most critical for us to focus on is our distinctive difference; what we uniquely have to offer.  That is none other than our Lasallian and Catholic identity.  An identity that has embedded in it the key import of virtue, ethics, and character education.”

This renewed vision for Saint Mary’s University was shaped by several years of involvement by Father Burns with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue at the University of Birmingham (UK).  Realizing the impact of the Centre’s teaching, research, and programs in the United Kingdom, Father Burns proposed a similar initiative, yet in the context of American higher education, and grounded in the Catholic mission and identity as well as the three century-rich tradition of the Lasallian virtues as lived at Saint Mary’s University.

Sharing a commitment to character formation, quality education, and dynamic programs that create long-term, systemic impact, Saint Mary’s University was encouraged to submit a grant proposal to the Kern Family Foundation.  Building on its strong reputation among our state’s educators and educational administrators, Saint Mary’s University in partnership with the Kern Family Foundation is enhancing its curriculum to ensure that character and ethics are at the foundation.  

Alongside this initiative in the School of Education, the university’s strategic plan “Building a Future Full of Hope 2025,” unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees in October 2019, introduced a university-wide initiative on character education and virtue formation.  Comprising faculty and staff throughout the university, the Character Education Advisory Council, the committee appointed to oversee this effort, is working to expand the integration of character and virtue throughout the academic curriculum and campus life.  An early achievement of the Character Education Advisory Council is the authoring of the Position Statement, a foundational document that explains the approach to character education and virtue formation at Saint Mary’s University.  Several key anonymous donors have offered their support and significant financial resources to extend the reach of this work throughout Saint Mary’s University.  

Guiding this work is the shared conviction that today, more than ever, school leaders require formative opportunities aimed at strengthening their leadership and decision-making skills from a virtue and character perspective.  Students desire schools that not only impart knowledge but develop their character, model virtuous living, and foster community.  Therefore, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota aspires to become known nationally as a leader in character education and virtue formation to foster the flourishing of our students, establish new partnerships with school leaders, and better serve our community.