St. John’s College President Michael Peters | - August 16, 2009

An interview with one of our favorite SantaFeans

For the past two years, all the Santa Fe talk on the subject of higher education has centered on the slow death and now probable resurrection of the College of Santa Fe, providing a sad but fascinating case study of how mismanagement and financial woes can kill a school. Meanwhile, less than four miles to the east, Santa Fe's "other" four year college hums merrily and quietly (some might say too quietly) along as part of the most strikingly different college curriculum in the United States. St. John's of Santa Fe, sister campus to the original St. John's in Annapolis (third oldest college in the U.S.) offers a learning experience unknown at other American colleges and universities. Final grades given for courses taken? Who needs ‘em? Classroom tests on material covered? Fuhgedaboutit. A St. John's education is all about the reading, the sharing and discovery of what the great minds of history had to say, and the pleasure of agreeing or disagreeing with those great minds in a way that teaches students the almost lost art of thinking for themselves, not just memorizing facts. This learning adventure perched on 270 acres of prime east side real estate, which opened in 1964, definitely marks St. John's as the college different in the city different. Michael Peters, 63, the school's president since 2005, recently reflected on what it means to be a Johnnie (yes, a Johnnie) in a place like Santa Fe.

SantaFe.Com: I'm sure St. John's doesn't' feel to you like the "other woman" in the college relationship story in Santa Fe, and you certainly would not want to have all of CSF's problems, but I wonder if you ever feel that St. John's isn't enough of the local conversation when it comes to higher education in this town.

Michael Peters: Yes, I do and I hope that what has happened at the College of Santa Fe has elevated the thinking on the importance of private education in Santa Fe and throughout New Mexico. Well see, but I do think that private higher education has been under appreciated in the city, and what has happened here ought to have brought home that we are a big part of the city in lots of different ways, not least of which is the bottom line for the city.

SF: I guess the most obvious question about St. John's is just what makes it so different in its approach to the idea of a college education? I suspect that most people, even in Santa Fe, don't fully understand the school's operating philosophy. Is there a simple way to state it without "simple" being an insult at St. John's?

MP: What St. John's does is really to continue what has been the norm in higher education for many many years, which is to provide a liberal arts education that attempts to tie together the world and link philosophy, language, mathematics, science and music, bringing it all together in the interest of learning what the fundamentals are in order to prepare a foundation for life, not for a particular vocation. In a sense, St. John's is the beginning of someone's education, not the end of it. What we hope to do is inspire our students to pursue a lifetime of learning regardless of what they do to earn money.

SF. That sounds so appealing and so reasonable that it begs they question of why more colleges don't attempt to do this. Isn't St. John's unique in this respect?

MP. Yes, we are. There are a lot of colleges offering aspects of what St. John's does. Stanford, Columbia, Yale, The University of Chicago and many other great universities have programs that look at western civilization, the great books, whatever, but they do it for a very small part of their student body for a limited period of time. We are virtually the only place that does it for all of our students for four years.

SF: This campus has the distinction of being the only extension of the original St. John's in Annapolis. How did Santa Fe come to secure this honor?

MP: The college came here in an interesting way. In the late fifties, the college in Annapolis had decided that rather than grow the campus there, it would make sense to open another campus in order to retain the intimacy of the classroom, in which no class has more than 15 students per tutor---what we call our faculty. We acquired property in California and initially thought that we would find a second campus there. The story then gets a little apocryphal from there. The Annapolis president, Dr. Richard Weigle, was at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver when he got a call from then Ambassador Robert McKinney (publisher of The Santa Fe New Mexican) asking Weigle to have a look at Santa Fe as the site for the new campus. Dr. Weigle did that and through hard work on the part of many leading citizens the land was acquired, most of it a gift from famed local architect John Gaw Meem, and the campus opened here in 1964.

SF: What is the advantage to St. John's of being located in Santa Fe?

MP: I think what it gives us is a place in the west, a place with a very different culture from our colleagues in Annapolis, with an opportunity to engage students from the western part of the United States in a way that might have been more difficult to do in Annapolis . And it gives us a physical environment that really nurtures the mind and body and soul..

SF: Okay, let's flip the question. What is the advantage to Santa Fe of having St. John's here?

MP: Well, you've got a first rate liberal arts college that attracts students from all over the country, many of whom end up staying in Santa Fe or in New Mexico. They came to New Mexico because of St. John's. Many of our graduates have gone on to education in the state of New Mexico. The other part of the attraction for Santa Fe is our faculty. We have a world class faculty who aren't from New Mexico, who come here, fall in love with the college and the area and stay here with their families. We bring a great deal of their energy and intellectual power to New Mexico. And obviously, we do things in the community, most recently our Music on the Hill series which is growing by leaps and bounds and attracts more than a thousand folks each Wednesday in June and July.

SF: On paper, at least, a town which calls itself the City Different and a college in that town whose educational approach is indisputably different would seem to have a natural affinity for each other. Do you sense that affinity at all?

MP: I do. We are the college different for the city different. We do offer something that is distinct for the city, but the big challenge we face is that we are probably not engaging the broadest cross section of citizens in Santa Fe. We would like to do better at that.

SF: I guess my question was really toward that very point. To what extent do you think Santa Fe embraces this differentness and includes that in its thought processes and experience?

MP: I think that the Santa Fe's attitude toward St. John's is changing and that the leadership of the city is recognizing what we bring to the city. There is probably the perception in the minds of some that because we are private, our sticker price looks pretty high, our education is not vocationally oriented and because the majority of our students don't come from New Mexico that we are somehow some kind of elitist institution not connected with the rhythm of Santa Fe and the rest of New Mexico. I think that perception is wrong and part of what we are trying to do with things like Music on the Hill is try to make more connection with the community.

SF: What was your first encounter with Santa Fe and under what circumstances?

MP: My first encounter was when I came out here to interview this job. It was September and it was rainy and cool. Like so many people who had not been here, I was confused and thought Santa Fe was Scottsdale. When we moved here in January our friends in New York said, "gosh, I guess you are going to get rid of your winter clothes". But I should add that on the first visit, because it was cool and rainy, you could smell the pinion fires and it was just wonderful.

SF: With your background in the military service and your impressive record at the think tank Council on Foreign Relations, had you been interested in academia before this job came your way?

MP: I had been on the faculty and in administration at West Point and my last position when I was in the Army was as chief of staff at West Point. One of the reasons I took that job was that I was thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It occurred to me that higher education was something I enjoyed before and maybe this was what I would do in the future. So when I left West Point that's what I thought I was probably going to do. As it turned out I got the opportunity to be at The Council on Foreign Relations, which was also a piece of what I had spent my time doing. But all along I had kept in the back of my mind the idea of getting back into higher education, and when this opportunity came up, I jumped at it.

SF: Was attending West Point something you thought about a lot as a young person?

MP: It was something that was always in the air.. My dad had been in the service and had great respect for the West Pointers he had known. When it came time to apply for college, I applied to West Point and got a presidential appointment, reserved for sons and daughters of active duty military.

SF: And the military legacy goes on in your family?

MP: Yes, our son is a lieutenant colonel in the Army and just assumed command of a training battalion at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina.

SF: Of the three main points in your inaugural address, the second had to do with connection to the community. How has that connection been enhanced in these last four years?

MP: We have worked hard to get to know as many of the citizens of Santa Fe as we could. I have tried to work closely with the city leadership. We have continued to pursue what the college has done for so many years, offering lectures, community seminars, concerts and the like. We've worked hard to try to build a group of friends of the college to help connect with the community and it is through them that we developed Music On The Hill. What we learned was that many people in the city couldn't even find the St. John's campus. Part of the idea behind Music On The Hill was to get people to the campus in the hope that might then find other ways to connect with the college. .

SF: Here's a question you have probably never had thrown at you. Because the St. John's experience is so unusual it probably seems a little quirky to some people. Are the students here at all quirky, vis a vis Joe and Jane coed elsewhere?

MP: I think it does take a particular kind of student to pursue a St. John's education. Because it is an all required curriculum, there are no majors. Every student takes what is on the curriculum. It takes a particular kind of student to want to engage in that, and it takes a great deal of intellectual courage to take it on. You have to take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, four years of language, two years of Greek, two years of French, you have to take seminars and music. That means you can't hide, you can't just focus on what you think you are really good at. You have to take it all, and there are lot of students who aren't willing to make themselves that vulnerable intellectually.

SF: Does St. John's have to go out and find those kinds of students or do those students find St. John's?

MP: It's a combination of both. We couldn't survive by doing nothing and waiting for people to find our website, but for a good majority of our students, we are their first choice. Our real challenge is to make students aware that we exist, because we are persuaded that there are plenty of students for whom this would be the right education. I am less persuaded of their knowing about us so our challenge is to get out there in front of them and make them aware of who we are and what we do.

SF: Some people might sneer that a St. John's graduate's most often used phrase after finishing four years of college is most likely to be, "would you like fries with that order?" In fact, how many go on to graduate studies in particular disciplines?

MP: Most of them.. They do the kinds of things that graduates of almost any liberal arts college do. And in proportion to the number of our graduates, St. John's produces more Phds than any other college in the country.

SF: Is that a verifiable bragging point?

MP: It is, and they focus on things that might not surprise you, like philosophy, and political philosophy, political science. We have Phds in nuclear physics and we have medical doctors and cancer researchers, the whole range. But I think that because of the intensity of the program at St. John's, often times our students haven't spent a lot of time thinking about what they are going to do when they graduate. Their focus has been on their learning and the engagement with the program. So when they graduate, our students often take several years to both decompress and consider what they want to do with the rest of their lives. And they are in Santa Fe, so why not?

SF. That's a perfect segueway to my next question, because it has been interesting to me observe St. John's graduates who do in fact wait tables or dip gelato and yet everyone of them I have encountered harbors no sense of frustration or resentment about their present circumstances. Do you think there is an inner calm about a St. John's graduate that you might not see so readily among graduates of other schools?

MP: Well, I hope that this is what that reflects. Our students, by the nature of what our program offers, are not so obsessed with what their first job is going to be, about getting out there and making a lot of money. They are much more reflective and I hope they see their lives in a much greater context than just what they are doing to earn a living. It's not that this isn't an important part of life, but it is only a part of life, not all of life. I hope that kind of perspective is what you are seeing reflected in the graduates you see around town.

SF: So is it fair to say that St. John's vision is not so much aimed at finding a job as finding a purpose in life?

MP: I think it is finding a life that has meaning, a life of meaning and contribution. Part of that is related to your life vocationally, but it is also related to your life as a parent or as a citizen of the city and the world. Unfortunately, in my view, too much of higher education has become pre vocational, with a focus on what are you going to do when you graduate? There is a loss that we suffer by thinking that way.

SF: And I've been a little surprised at the number of people in Santa Fe who express the view that St. John's doesn't really prepare you to do anything specific in the way of a career. I know that there is a good answer to that, but I'd like to hear it in your words.

MP: My answer is that it doesn't prepare you for a specific thing but it gives you the background to do just about anything you want to do. The kinds of things that our graduates have gone on to do is quite positive. At St. John's degree is certainly not going to prepare you for your first job but it's going to prepare you perhaps for your eighth job, or your tenth job, and one of the things we know is, increasingly, people are changing jobs very frequently from one vocation to another and this is an education that gives you a real foundation for that as well.

SF: Is the enrollment controlled on both campuses and is it the same number on both campuses?

MP: The target number is the same, about 450 undergraduates and a hundred graduate students. This fall It looks like we will open at 431 and probably about 90 graduates. That's down a little bit because of the economy.

SF: For a college with such a small student boy, do you think there is ever a sense among the students that they are not getting the full college experience with all its peripheral activity?

MP: That probably influences some students, certainly some before they come, some even after they get here and they say gosh, there's no fraternity here or this that and the other. If that is very important to them they go some place else. But for the students who stay and thrive on the program, we try to offer them good extracurricular activities. We don't have intercollegiate sports, but we are introducing intramural sports, which is something I am real excited about.

SF: Other than dropping out, is it possible for a student to fail at St. John's?

MP: Yes, students can fail at St. John's. We review every student at the end of sophomore year to determine whether we believe they can successfully complete junior and senior years. Those whom the faculty feels have not demonstrated the ability to complete the program are asked to leave and/or do some remediation before continuing.

SF: Colleges often like to brag about the number of applicants they receive and how many students they accept. How does that work here?

MP: We don't play that game, or the college ranking game, because we think that is focusing on the wrong kind of things. We don't think that there is a number one college. because the number one college depends on the student and what the student wants to do.

SF: How many New Mexicans are enrolled on the Santa Fe campus?

MP: It's about ten percent of our student body. The Graduate Institute is a significantly higher percentage. We get a lot of teachers in New Mexico, for example, who take our programs over the course of summers because they can take our program over four summers.

SF: Tell me a little about the new Graduate Institute Building, already under construction.

MP: We had a capital campaign that wrapped up last June and as part of that, one of our graduates from the Graduate Institute , Dr. Norman Levan, gave us five million dollars to build the building to house the Institute. It will open for classes next August..

SF: Okay, here comes your personal quiz with the final four questions everyone gets asked in these interviews. What turns you on most about Santa Fe?

MP: The land, they sky, the colors and the interesting people.

SF: What turns you off most about Santa Fe?

MP: Spring. The wind comes and the juniper pollen kicks in. I've never been allergic to anything before in my life. It's awful.

SF: If the gods frowned on you and said sorry, you can't live here anymore. Where would you choose to go?

MP: We would want to live someplace closer to our grandkids. Our daughter, also in South Carolina, has three wonderful children so we would probably head back east.

SF: But if the gods smiled on you and granted you any one wish you want for Santa Fe,---and this case, we'll say for St. John's as well---what would that be?

MP: It would be for a better appreciation in Santa Fe for the contributions the college makes to the life of the city. And for out part, for the college to continue to work at making it clearer what the connections are between the college and city. I really hope that what happened with The College of Santa Fe will register with folks in the city, making them more aware that these little institutions deserve to be protected and supported and nurtured.

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