Rob Vischer took over the University of St. Thomas in January during a pivotal period in its 139-year history. Once a small Catholic liberal arts college, St. Thomas is now the largest private university in Minnesota and is eyeing to expand its influence across state and national lines.
As undergraduate enrollment at Minnesota colleges and universities has dropped by almost a third over the past decade, Vischer reported St. Thomas’ 10% gain. In the past six years, it’s opened a bachelor’s program in nursing and a two-year college geared toward minority and first-generation student success. St. Thomas is also in the middle of making an audacious jump from Division III athletics to Division I, strengthened by a $75 million gift—the single-largest private monetary gift given to a Minnesotan university—for a multiuse sports arena.
As the dean of St. Thomas’ law school from 2013 up until his selection as interim president last year, Vischer may not be able to take credit for the university’s full string of successes, but he is in the position to capitalize on them. One of his most essential objectives heading into this academic year is helping to expand the university’s recruitment and impact while maintaining its core Catholic values, which he considers essential to its success.
“This year will be a key year, but it’s not the only year on that journey, and wherever the journey takes us, we can’t lose sight of that thread that goes back to our opening in 1885 as a Catholic university, where we have to [bring] along every student in our school and help them discern what their particular calling is,” says Vischer. “How can they discern how their gifts, life experiences, beliefs and values coalesce in a way that can connect and help meet the needs of the world around them? That’s the thread.”
A holistic student approach for today’s “loneliest age cohort”
If the pandemic taught Vischer anything, it’s that real human interaction can’t be taken for granted; in-person engagement is a source of energy within itself. In an age where universities increasingly embrace online education, Vischer understands the efficiency of the online space, but he is doubling down on the on-campus undergraduate experience.
“One of the aspects of post-COVID life is we realize that delivering knowledge through a laptop screen fell short of what we expect from an educational experience, especially for undergrads, where so much of it is the socialization, the give and take, the relationship, building—all of it. It’s a pillar of what society needs,” says Vischer.
“When you look at survey data both before COVID and after COVID, young adults are the loneliest age cohort in America—lonelier, even, than the very elderly. What does that mean for our society? What does it mean for the responsibilities that colleges need to take on?” says Vischer. “And I think it at the heart of it is, we have to take relationships seriously. We have to help our students develop, not just into great productive employees, but into thoughtful, conscientious, other-centered persons.”
How can St. Thomas maintain positive growth as a religiously affiliated university?
Vischer draws on the pillars of Catholic education to inform his mission, and he credits it to his university’s success. However, as recent closures suggest, Christian institutions are among the most frequent to close or come to the brink, such as King’s College’s (N.Y.) July decision to cancel fall classes.
It’s a trap for a religiously affiliated institution to recruit solely based on their students’ identity as the number of practicing Catholics continues to dwindle and as the remaining few favor secular institutions, says Vischer. Instead, they must integrate their values as Catholic institutions into their student mission.
“Are we able to strive to ensure that every student who sets foot on our campus has the experience of being seen, known and loved? If we succeed in doing that, I don’t care what else happens. We win. Every student has a strong sense of belonging and connection. Holy cow! What a great business model that is!” says Vischer. “It also happens to be authentic and genuine living out of our Catholic identity, our mission. And it’s not simply a function of how many Catholic students you have sitting in the classroom.”
The value proposition
While Vischer is determined in his commitment to developing students’ minds, bodies and spiritual connections, he is equally lucid in providing students with an education conducive to real economic and financial opportunities.
“You have to execute, and you’ve got to deliver a remarkable experience that also is a strong value proposition. Your mission as a religiously affiliated university can never be an excuse to deliver less than world-class employment outcomes and return on investment,” says Vischer. “You can’t say, ‘Well, we’re not all about that, because we’re a Catholic school, so we’re trying to do X, Y and Z.’ No, no, no. You’re also taking tuition investments for meaningful, rewarding career development, and you’re doing more than that.”
The ability for students to better their financial viability extends for those at all stages of the economic ladder, says Vischer. This past May, St. Thomas graduated its fifth class of predominantly BIPOC and first-generation students from its two-year Dougherty Family College, most of whom were debt-free. He believes there’s more work policymakers can do to invest in state grant programs that can open students to options both at the private colleges and public colleges level.
“We need all hands on deck when we’re talking about social mobility; when we’re talking about giving meaningful opportunities to those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder or the margins of society,” says Vischer. “We need everybody leaning in.”
Room for improvement
Vischer cherished his time as a student-facing academic at St. Thomas, dating back to becoming an associate law professor in 2005. Now, as a full-time administrator, Vischer is itching to find a solution to reintegrate himself back into student life on top of his new duties.
“Even if I can’t know 9,000 students personally, can I be present, accessible and available enough where they feel that connection, where it’s more personal? I haven’t figured it out, but I know it means I have to be out of my office,” says Vischer. “I can’t just be on donor meetings. I need to be walking around campus and leave time to sit down, chat with students and check in to see how they’re doing. That’s as vital as anything else I do as president.”