What I Want You to Know About The Mount

In the fall of 2001, I got a phone call from a professor at one of the five colleges to which I applied – Mount St. Mary’s. I had expressed an interest in history and he was a history professor. He called to tell me more about the history program and about “The Mount” in general. This man spent about 20 minutes on the phone with me, clearly passionate about the college where he taught and the students he worked with. He answered so many of my questions and made me feel that my goals were important. I decided then that it was my top choice school.

Of the five colleges to which I applied, this was the only professor who ever called me. And this is what I want you to know about Mount St. Mary’s: that one event was indicative of my entire time there. That is the kind of place The Mount is and was for me. The kind of place where a tenured professor calls a prospective student on the phone to make her feel welcome, before she even chooses to call The Mount home.

When I arrived at The Mount as a freshman in 2002, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was eager to learn everything I could about the world, about art and literature and politics. Nothing made my humanities heart beat more wildly than reading the course catalog and circling the ones I wanted to take.

The Mount is the place where I learned not what to think, but how to think. Starting with Freshman Seminar with Dr. Heath, reading Csikszentmihalyi and “flow”, Marx and alienation, through Ren/Rev with Dr. Mitra and American Experience with Towle, and all of the Great Books I was privileged to read, I learned how to ask hard questions and settle for nothing less than compelling answers. I learned to write a cogent paper with an apparent thesis and how to sift through chaff to find the wheat.

Without the required philosophy courses, and The Rule Book for Arguments, I might not know a logical fallacy when I see one. Without hearing Dr. Rehm and Dr. Miller, I might not know what utilitarianism and consequentialism look like when I see it in a presidential debate or hear it at work.

Without Sr. Birge’s course on the gospel of John, I might not have fallen in love with what remains my favorite book of Scripture. I learned from Dr. Collinge what Catholic Social Teaching really means, and that planted the seeds of my eventual graduate degree in social justice. With Dr. Mattison I read Fr. Barron before Fr. Barron was cool. I engaged my faith intellectually in ways that would not have been possible had I not been required to take theology. I am forever grateful.

In my history courses where The Civil War came alive on the fields at Gettysburg, and when Dr. Goliber proudly proclaimed that she was a feminist and a Christian, if that didn’t work for us, we should kindly leave. I stayed. I learned to love history and context and who we are as humans even more, if possible, than I had before.

With Dr. Hinds offering the very first semester of “The Catholic Novel”, I was exposed to Graham Greene and Walker Percy, who remain favorites to this day.

The breadth of reading across disciplines that I did at The Mount left my husband (with a humanities degree from Yale) impressed. I had more required philosophy courses in college than he did!

Outside of the classroom I gradually gained confidence in myself and made friendships that were deep and sustaining. Through the opportunity to be a RA (resident assistant) and through campus organizing around various issues, I gained leadership skills that have helped me tremendously in my life after The Mount.

In Dr. Trudy Conway I found someone I admired and respected deeply, and through our work with the campus campaign to end capital punishment, I found a cause about which I was (and remain) passionate. Dr. Conway, taking on the role of activist and mentor in addition to her regular teaching duties, showed me what action for justice, animated by faith looks like. With her I was able to stand witness when the state of Maryland ended the life of Wesley Baker in 2005, silently standing in protest of another life ended.

These and so many more lessons I learned at The Mount have been invaluable and have shaped the trajectory of my life in various ways. Because of the “Callings” program, and the endless talk of vocation, vocation, and being men and women for others, I took on the volunteer job as a teacher in Chicago. Because of Chicago I met Atticus, and went to Loyola, and the rest, as they say, is history.

All of this was possible because what I learned at the Mount could never be boiled down to “job skills” or merely a discipline designed to prepare me for a job. Those things are valuable and important, but learning how to think and what people are for is more important. A person who knows how to think can be taught to do just about anything, and to do it well.

This is all to say nothing of the vast spiritual resources and nourishment available to students on Mary’s mountain. Hours spent hiking to the grotto and praying the rosary on the way. The weekly praise and worship group that helped me fall in love with God, a love which is worth more than anything mentioned above. I made my first confession in years to a Franciscan friar radiating the love of Jesus, inside Immaculate Conception chapel.

We also had so much fun that I’d be hard pressed to describe it all here. From wings and Yeungs at Ott’s to epic games of mafia and so much flip cup (after I turned 21, of course), there was the kind of fun we all hope to have in our lives.

With everything you’ve heard about Mount St. Mary’s and her erstwhile (and hopefully soon to exit president), I want you to know The Mount that I have known and loved. A place to learn and grow, to love God and each other and try and fail and try again. A place where words matter, and where the actions of those in charge are expected to be just, and when they’re not just, an expectation of being called out, because as Dr. Grisez said recently, “Having taught others justice, I must practice it.”

Perhaps if President Newman had received The Mount education that I did, he might have learned that lesson.

Sarah Pilisz Babbs C’06


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  • I am in tears. Thank you for posting this. We current Mount families are praying hard. This gives us hope.

  • Cindy M

    This is beautifully written. Perhaps President Newman will take time to read it and learn from it.

  • Well said fellow alum. The Mount formed me, nurtured my hungry mind and gave me the skills for success, it wasn’t just about the programs available. It was the entire community spirit and identity that is indicative of all who go there, faculty included. It gave me the insight to look at my world and understand it better than most of my peers who did not have the benefit of a Mount education. It made me someone who can call herself an intellectual, who can analyze and grasp concepts, and who can do it all and still embrace her Catholic faith to the fullest.

    I hope and pray that this president will not continue to poison the atmosphere at the school…it’s that environment that has been instrumental in nurturing so many wonderful successful people.

  • Mary

    We have so many of the same favorite teachers!!! I graduated right before you started.

  • Its obvious the Mount faculty and alumni need to lawyer up and retake the place before corporate crassness completely destroys in a decade what took 10 to build.

  • Trudy Conway

    You are as awesome as ever, Sarah! I have the fondest memories of you as a student and passionate death penalty activist. Thought of you when Maryland repealed the death penalty!! Love all of you great activist students!!

    Trudy Conway

  • John A. Bruno, Jr., M.D.

    Now, I could not agree more about my own time at MSM, that is, being a time of wonder and just a great experience. I remember fondly Dr. Meredith, the best teacher I encountered and I thank him to this day (I graduated before you were born).

    HOWEVER, you do a great injustice to President Newman. As a member of the current Board of Visitors (Science) I spent some time with him and listened to his vision for our beloved school. Nothing in your beautifully written article mentions any encounter you personally had with him. Indeed, your entire perspective commences with the assumption he is some sort of evil soul out to do bad things.

    So you write a lovely bit of prose and the implication is somehow the new President by changing the curriculum will be destroying the school. I would ask you to speak (as I have) to the current students. You will find he is admired and liked.

    Then I ask you to consider that when change threatens some professors, well, that’s how this all got started.

    Come to think of it – be honest now – did you speak to any of your former professors before penning this? Did they perhaps request you do so?

    I got news for ya – MSM was in great danger before he arrived. Change either comes or the place will be doomed. Yes, it’s that serious, IMHO.

    • Sarah B.

      Dr. Bruno,

      Thanks for your comment. I’d like to address a few things you said:

      1. I was not asked by anyone to write what I wrote and it is very rude of you to suggest I was somehow persuaded to write in defense of my college. I haven’t spoken to any of my professors in years. In fact, I don’t even live on the east coast any longer. I’ve been in IL/IN since the fall of 2006. My only dog in this fight (so to say) is that I care about what happens to a place that I love, a place I have supported financially since that time. In fact, despite getting a graduate degree from another institution and having a husband with two degrees from two universities, we have chosen to only give financially to the mount, because I believed so strongly in the mission and core and that the Mount needed our money more than the others. This, obviously will be changing and our funds will go elsewhere if we sense that the Catholic identity and liberal arts core are being gutted.

      2. I do not think that President Newman is evil. Not at all. I sincerely believe that he is the wrong person to be at the helm of The Mount, but that doesn’t mean I think he’s a terrible person. I don’t know him, and I am sure that he cares for the students and loves his family. But that doesn’t make him the right person for the job, and the actions of the last 6 months, particularly revoking the pensions of less skilled workers and support staff who have given decades to the mount as support staff tells me he has very little grasp on the moral obligations a leader has to the people he is responsible for, as persons not shareholders interested only in the bottom line. He intends to water down the Catholic identity of The Mount because “Catholic doesn’t sell”. His intentional decision to allow the Mount’s inclusion in the Cardinal Newman Society guide lapse tells me what I need to know about his dedication to the Catholic identity of The Mount, and I am not impressed.

      3. Gutting the common core and the Catholic identity will only backfire, because without those things to set the Mount apart, it will be lost among all the many, many second tier liberal arts schools up and down the east coast. If anything we should be leaning even harder into those things that set us apart from other institutions of higher learning.

      Of course we are free to disagree about whether and who ought to be in a leadership position, and what the vision for the future ought to be, because that’s what families do. I will continue to pray for our institution and for your family, as we navigate this tough time.

      • John A. Bruno, Jr., M.D.

        Dear Sara B. (please call me John):

        I am so glad to have received your response. You may find it ironic that, like you, my sole charity for any substantial donations (time and money, especially money) for many years has been MSM because I also believe in their ‘mission’ and, as a small school with a pitifully small endowment, my contributions can make a difference.

        Now, you seem to have a ton of information about Newman’s “actions of the last 6 months”. What is your source of that information if not from the faculty (or heaven forbid internet comments)?

        Specifically, I take issue with your presumptions and conclusions as follows:

        “He intends to water down the Catholic identity of the Mount because ‘Catholic doesn’t sell’. Perhaps your Catholicism is not what I learned at MSM. (I’m gonna be rude again). Fact is, there has been a small percentage of students on campus (the rest of the students refer to them as the “God-squaders”) who are hyper vigilant , intolerant toward others (did you know the current student population is more than 25% non-Catholic?) and my own description of that form of “Catholicism” would be akin to Evangelicalism.That is NOT what I learned. My religion says Jesus is love and tolerance, for starters.

        Rest assured Jesus and Catholicism ain’t goin’ nowhere under Newman. He loves them both and will preserve them at MSM.

        Cardinal Newman society? Heavens, you take me way back. I was the head of the Newman Society in 1963 at my Medical School! I cantored for 22 years at my local parish and I don’t pray as often as I should, but I consider myself devoted to Mary.

        But your mention of the Society exposes your personal form of Catholicism. In my opinion, a terribly narrow, strict and unyielding type. Yes, you are entitled to believe and act as you wish. But PLEASE do not dare imply yours is the true Catholicism.

        Here is a quote from scholarly articles (written by Catholics) you will not likely enjoy:

        “The Society has become a driving force in critiquing Catholic college and universities and opposing the selection of speakers it considers unacceptable. For example, the society has protested and organized opposition to commencement-related speakers, including Kathleen Sebelius at Georgetown University; Victoria Kennedy, widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy, at Anna Maria College; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu at Gonzaga University. All hold views not in strict conformity with Catholic doctrine”.

        Here’s another:

        Newman Society “a small group of fundamentalist ideologues,” according to Morris-Young. And the Association of Jesuit Universities and Colleges says the society makes “distorted claims against Catholic colleges” and often maligns them in the process.

  • Concerned Mountie

    Dr. Bruno,

    Have you asked President Newman about the following of his comments? They were made to alumni, employees, and faculty.

    “There are too many [perhaps an expletive?] crucifixes in here.”

    “Catholicism doesn’t sell.”

    “Liberal arts doesn’t sell.”

    “Twenty-five percent of the students here are lazy and dumb and I’d like to get rid of them.”

    These came from news articles published in the last week. Has he been questioned about these comments by the Board? Have you sought out the people who claim he said these things, either to discredit them or to get the context? Have you spoken to any of the faculty who have now unanimously asked him to resign, in spite of the reinstatement, and why they feel they can’t continue to work with the president? This crude language seems to reveal a pattern of disdain for some things that are pretty important to the school (Catholicism, the students).

  • Maria Martino

    Internet writers or whatever the heck they call them ??blogers – this girl has been exposed!!!!

  • James T

    Fantastic! Thank you!

  • Pat

    Wow! a beautiful defense of the Mount and of liberal arts education. I think The Mount should hire you to be a recruiter. Or, maybe, you could become a speech writer.