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Securing America’s Future:

The Power of Liberal Arts Education

Robert Gavin

Former College President, Macalester College
St. John’s University (MN), Class of 1962
Robert Gavin was president of Macalester College from 1984 to 1996. He was also interim president of Haverford College from 1996 to 1997, president of Cranbrook Educational Community from 1997 to 2001, and interim president of The Science Museum of Minnesota from 2003 to 2004. He was a faculty member at Haverford College from 1966 through 1984, except for two one-year stints as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley. Gavin was also provost at Haverford College from 1980 to 1984.

Over his career he served on numerous educational, nonprofit, and corporate boards, including being elected to the School Board of Haverford Township and serving a term as its president. He served for nine years on the board of his alma mater, St. John’s University, and as a consultant on undergraduate science at liberal arts colleges across the nation. In retirement he continues to serve on educational boards and serves as chairman of the board for The Hartford Mutual Funds.

Gavin received his BA in chemistry from Saint John’s University, Minnesota, in 1962 and his PhD in physical chemistry from Iowa State University in 1966. While a faculty member he published numerous papers in the field of physical chemistry and taught courses in chemistry, computer science, and philosophy of science.
As a senior in high school I knew two things: 1) mathematics and science fascinated me and 2) I loved playing football and wanted to do so in college. When I visited colleges and universities and talked to coaches and players, one place, St. John’s University, stood out. While the others tried to impress me with fancy weight rooms, special dining facilities and players who had “made it” in the NFL, the coach at St. John’s, John Gagliardi, asked me about my plans after I completed my undergraduate work. Was I thinking about getting a PhD in science or mathematics or an MD? The current football players talked a bit about the team, but mostly about their courses and majors. Here it was clear that you would be a student first and an athlete second. Athletics was important, but you would be there to get an education.
 
At registration in the fall of my freshman year, I met Dr. Mark Hughes, a young faculty member in the chemistry department. He told me that my science and mathematics course selections were appropriate for either science or pre-med, but then spent time urging me to apply for admission to a high powered European history course and a writing-intensive English literature course.  I took both of those courses. The professors broadened my horizons and have enriched my life ever since. As my advisor for four years, Mark Hughes continued to guide me not only in science and mathematics, but also in fields such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, and art. The four years at St. John’s were like being a kid in a candy store; there was so much to choose from and so many talented faculty willing and able to help you.
 

The current football players talked a bit about the team, but mostly about their courses and majors... Athletics was important, but you would be there to get an education.

 
Lest one get the impression that the football coach who attracted me to St. John’s University was not interested in excellence on the football field in addition to excellence in the classroom, I should say that John Gagliardi retired in 2012 as the winningest coach in college football history, coach of four small-college national championship teams, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and winner of every national award for which he was eligible. He was a great teacher of the sport and of values for life.
 
My career as a faculty member also derives from my experience at St. John’s. In my senior year, Dr. Jack Lange approached me about being a teaching assistant in his mathematics courses. The mentoring Dr. Lange provided about preparing and executing university-level classes was the model that I followed during my teaching career.
 
The faculty members that inspired me as an undergraduate are now retired, but I know first-hand as a member of St. John University’s board that there are men and women on the faculty today have the same devotion to their students as those of some fifty years ago had. 
 
The liberal arts education provided by St. John’s gave me the skills that I need at every stage of my career. In addition, it enriched my family life, my social life, and my involvement as a citizen in my communities. My wife and I share reading interests in history and spend hours together in art museums. We are constantly sending and receiving books in numerous fields with our five children and now are starting to do so with our grandchildren. A liberal arts education continually renews and enlivens all stages of your life.
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