Jane O'Meara Sanders, PhD, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, visited Holy Names University for a brief tour on Friday, June 3. Sanders was interested in visiting the campus because of her family connection to Father Michael King, the Oakland priest who wrote, circa 1867, to the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Quebec, Canada, and invited them to come to the East Bay to start a school for local children.
During the campus tour, which was led by Sister Carol Sellman, vice president for mission integration, Sr. Carol and Sanders discussed the mission of the University and its evolution from the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart on the shores of Lake Merritt to the modern HNU that sits nestled in the Oakland Hills.
Although Sanders’ campus visit was constrained by her schedule, she generously agreed to an interview and spoke about her family’s ties to HNU, her time working in higher education, the future of education in the U.S., and the importance of an ethical perspective in education. In addition to her work as a political advisor, Sanders has served as provost and interim president of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and as president of Burlington College in Burlington, Vermont.
How did you discover your family’s connection to Father Michael King?
Well, there is a pen and ink drawing—or charcoal drawing—that was done by his niece, I believe, of the first convent, Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart on the shores of Lake Merritt. And that has always hung in our family’s summer house. I always wondered about it—I thought it was amazing. And for some reason nobody ever noticed that the drawing was done by Mary A. King. My mom kept a lot of postcards (even though Fr. King was on my father’s side of the family) and, when I started to do genealogy, I looked through them and I saw everything went back to Monsignor King, Molly King, and Mary King. Then I started to do research in old newspapers and found some articles about Fr. King. So, last year, I looked up the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and found Holy Names University. I was just very impressed with how the University has grown and made such an impact in the community over the years. I thought it was wonderful that Fr. Michael King wanted to have a school in the area with the Sisters of the Holy Names.
What were your impressions of HNU during your tour?
Well I was certainly very impressed with Sr. Carol! And the beauty of the campus. The site was amazing. To be able to look out—it’s such a broad perspective from up there. And the chapel—the stations of the cross were the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The stained glass was absolutely exquisite and Sr. Carol explained some of its history. It seemed to me to be a very forward-thinking institution, a very positive, and ethical institution, and with wonderful people at the head of it. I look forward to coming back and learning more.
What did you enjoy most about the time you spent working in higher education?
Working with the students. It’s just so wonderful. And learning from them at the same time that they learned from us. I was a turnaround president, I went to two institutions at a time when they were in dire straits and dealt with finances, governance, accreditation, and regulatory issues. So it was very fulfilling personally to turn the institutions around and get them on the right track. But then you leave and the institutions go whichever way they want to go—one kept on going and the other did not in terms of carrying out the initiative. One of the other things that I really liked to do was to broaden the curriculum. At Goddard I started an MFA in interdisciplinary arts because the students expressed a strong interest in that. I moved Burlington College to a master’s level institution and also started a center for civic engagement that brought the world in. I think to be able to move an institution to be relevant to today’s world—and yet to keep the underpinnings of the basic foundation of teaching students how to think critically, how to write clearly, and communicate effectively—is very, very important.
Given your experience as a former university president, what do you think should be the role of higher education institutions in this country?
I think it’s really important to recognize that small institutions do need to grow, not from a standpoint of athletics and expansive student centers, but to grow in terms of curriculum and the ability to deal with real world problems. To be relevant to today’s world. I think that HNU has certainly done that and should be applauded for that. Growing from a small school to a college and then a university is no small feat in these times. So I think what institutions of higher education need to do is recognize the issues facing our country and the world and be a place where those issues are discussed and debated. We all believe that it’s important, as Pope Francis said, to pay attention to our Earth, to safeguard it. So I think right now, if I were to recommend anything for a Catholic university—or really for any university—it would be to listen to Pope Francis’ teachings on economics, on the environment, and on social justice; try to reflect them in your curriculum in preparing people to actually have the ability and the understanding to effect real change in our country and in the world.
What are your thoughts about the role that education policy will play in the general election?
I think it should be a big issue, but I don’t expect it to receive as much attention as it should. We’re not just talking about higher education, we know that the first four years are the most important years in terms of learning, so we need to pay attention to providing qualified, excellent childcare and pre-school opportunities for people, regardless of their ability to pay. And that goes all the way through to higher education, where unfortunately too many students are either foreclosing their options and their potential or they’re bankrupting their futures because they cannot afford to go to college. And that is very sad. We have to ensure that everybody can get a college education now.
Do you think religiously-affiliated institutions like HNU have an important role to play in the landscape of higher education?
I absolutely do. Colleges that are founded on ethical and moral belief are wonderful places to study. I went to Catholic school—not college, but I went to Catholic high school, and Catholic grammar school—most of my life. I’ve been very impressed with the Catholic colleges here in Vermont, like St. Michael’s College, as they teach their students to think things through ethically as well as economically. Instead of being only based on what the world seems to be run by, in terms of money and practicality, they have taught—inculcated in their students—an ethical perspective. And I think that’s something that every school should do. I think religious institutions do it more easily, as it is the basis of their perspective, instead of something that’s just an add-on. Now in all colleges, they have ethics courses, but I think it’s more of a culture of ethical behavior and belief and tolerance and openness that runs through the fabric of a lot of—but not all—religious institutions.
What else would you like to add?
It’s wonderful to see, right from the beginning up until today, that HNU has been involved in helping people in the community in such a very real way, not with mere lip service, but actually working on behalf of people who were having difficulties. I’m very pleased to have this very remote connection with HNU. It’s distant but I count the University as something that I’m proud to be associated with.