New president inaugurated at the University of St. Thomas
For the first time in a decade, Minnesota’s largest private university inaugurated a new president Friday.
Rob Vischer was named University of St. Thomas president after a nationwide search last year.
He spoke one-on-one with 5 EYEWITNESS News about the challenges facing higher education and his own priorities moving forward.
“Higher ed is going to be under so much pressure in terms of the value proposition,” Vischer said. “Families want to know there’s a return on the significant financial investment they make in college.”
According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, undergraduate enrollment at colleges and universities across the state fell by almost a third in the last decade, with 300,000 undergraduates enrolled in 2011 compared to about 208,000 in 2021.
The numbers are not quite as dramatic at the state’s private universities, which cumulatively had about 46,000 undergraduate students in 2017 compared to about 44,000 in 2021.
Vischer said the University of St. Thomas welcomed a bigger freshman class this past fall than the year before.
But he believes all universities will have to prove their worth, especially following the pandemic, which changed the face of higher education in many ways.
“I believe colleges have to be focused like a laser on outcomes, meaning graduation rates, but also, is every student on campus emerging with a good job?” Vischer said.
Vischer said expanding on the school’s push for diversity and inclusion will also be at the forefront of his priorities.
“We’ve had a great increase in diversity over the last few years. From the fall of 2018, our entering class was only about 16% students of color. This past fall, it was 28%,” Vischer said. “But we also need to make sure when the diversity is there; we’re following up with the inclusion. That has to be the priority.”
The University of St. Thomas opened a new nursing school this past fall under a dean who was a Hmong refugee, where they are working to incorporate culture into patient care.
RELATED: University of St. Thomas’ brand-new nursing school aims to diversify the profession
As a lawyer, Vischer has also done work around racial justice and was even the first person to be awarded the Minnesota Lawyer Diversity and Inclusion Award back in 2017.
“Given that we in the Twin Cities have been at the epicenter of a global reckoning with racial injustice, at St. Thomas, we have to be leaders in that,” Vischer said. “We want to be lead agents for justice but also for the interpersonal healing that has to take place as we move forward in our region.”
He said the university offers a community justice project, where students examine the need for legal or policy reform and then work to make changes.
“Our law school has a very strong focus on restorative justice. We were first leaders in that space around the priest sex abuse crisis. We actually helped bring together victims of priest sex abuse and representatives of the Archdiocese for those difficult conversations. And we’ve extended that now to some of the racial justice issues,” Vischer explained. “You can’t just sit in the conversation; you have to figure out how that translates to action.”
He also believes universities statewide and across the country have to be ready for a rebirth.
“Universities are realizing that innovation has to be the way of doing business,” Vischer said. “It’s bigger than job skills. We really need to connect with young adults where they’re at, and that means they need to [be] part of a robust, thriving community.”
He said a warning from the U.S. Surgeon General earlier this month about a rise in feelings of loneliness among young adults underscores the importance of creating a sense of community among the college-age demographic.
“I think the most important priority is building what Pope Francis calls a culture of encounter,” Vischer explained, “being a place where we ensure that every person in our circles has the experience of being seen and known and valued.”
Vischer began serving as interim president of the University of St. Thomas in June of 2022, a role which became permanent in January of 2023 and made official with his inauguration Friday.