St. John’s launches ad campaign to counter image woes

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After a season of bad news about sexual abuse by some monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., the monastery’s university has launched a series of ads intended to offer a positive view of the school.

** Originally published on Oct 22, 2002 **

St. John’s launches ad campaign to counter image woes
Warren Wolfe
Star Tribune – Published Oct 22, 2002

After a season of bad news about sexual abuse by some monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., the monastery’s university has launched a series of ads intended to offer a positive view of the school.

“This is a great institution, with great people, and we want to make sure that people know about that,” said Jon McGee, vice president for institutional planning, research and communication at St. John’s and its sister school, the College of St. Benedict.

The ads feature well-known alumni — novelist Jon Hassler, economist and former legislator John Brandl and SuperValu executive John Hooley. The quarter-page ads appear only in the Star Tribune, which late last month published a package of articles about the sexual abuse.

“With many good private colleges in this region, we’re in a competitive market and it’s important to improve our visibility,” McGee said.

“But there’s no question,” he said, “that another reason for the ad is because of the sexual-abuse issue.”

Abbot John Klassen announced last spring in letters to students and alumni that 13 of about 196 monks, including a former abbot, were living under restrictions because of sexual abuse of young people or minors decades ago. That led to a spate of news stories about the abbey, most recently describing changes in the abbey’s sexual-abuse policy as part settling a series of lawsuits.

‘Great, wonderful men’

“Everybody talks about it. Everybody is troubled by the past problems of sexual abuse,” Brandl said Monday. “But that’s not representative. I’ve known scores of [St. John’s] monks and been mentored by dozens. They are truly great and wonderful men.”

In the preface to a recent book about state fiscal responsibility, he said, “I wrote something about, after my family, I owe most to the Benedictines. I was a poor kid from St. Cloud, and those men taught me so much. They set me on my path.”

Brandl, who is now a professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, graduated from St. John’s in 1959 and returned in the mid-’60s to teach economics for two years.

“I never had any inkling of any kind of atmosphere of sexual seduction or abuse. Not any,” he said. “It must be just awful for [the monks] now, to have the world think ill of them.”

When asked if he could be featured in an ad, “I didn’t have to think it through,” Brandl said. “I can never repay my debt to them. Of course I’ll help.”

Hassler’s approval also was quick.

“St. John’s has always been important to me, ever since I went there as a student 45 years ago,” he said. “I got to know it differently when I went back 25 years ago as a teacher.

Hassler appeared in the first ad, which ran for three days last week. Under the heading, “Good People, Great Education,” Hassler said: “In my recent book, Good People, I concluded that Saint John’s was one of three geographical locations that ‘have become sacred for me because of the good people that I have known there.’ That still holds true today.”

He said he is convinced that public concern about past incidents of sexual abuse is fading — “I hope rather quickly. Those things were terrible, but they did not represent the St. John’s I know.”

The ads with Brandl and Hooley will appear in coming weeks, said St. John’s spokesman Michael Hemmesch. The ads were produced by St. John’s. Hemmesch declined to provide texts of the Brandl and Hooley ads.

‘We’re doing very well’

“Given the problems of the past year, I think we’re doing very well,” McGee said. “We have full enrollment, recruiting has been good, and we’ve had very successful fundraising.” The school has 1,862 undergraduate students and 142 graduate students, he said.

“We are getting tremendous support from our alumni, families and friends,” said Rob Culligan, vice president for institutional advancement. “People are really sticking with us.”

In the year ending June 30, St. John’s University received a record $1.8 million in unrestricted gifts that support undergraduate students and faculty, and a total of $10.6 million in total gifts, he said. For the first quarter of this year, total giving exceeded $4 million.

“I had a wonderful experience at St. John’s, both as a student in the Class of ’74 and as a regent the past three years,” said Hooley, executive vice president at SuperValu.

“I don’t want to talk about the abuse stuff,” he said. “I’d much rather talk about people like Father Martin Schirber, who was one of my great economics professors and an unofficial adviser for President Kennedy.

“Students have a great experience at St. John’s, and it’s because of a wonderful, rich environment, a beautiful setting, exceptional teachers.”

St. John’s generally does not advertise in newspapers, “but this series — it’s really not a campaign — is really part of a larger effort to give us greater visibility,” McGee said.

The school decided to advertise in the Star Tribune “because it’s the largest-circulation newspaper in the region, so we can get our message out — and of course, because some of the less favorable news ended up there,” McGee said.

“Our basic message is that St. John’s is a great place, a wonderful academic institution, and a place where students can live and learn in a nurturing environment — and in safety.”

St. John’s launches ad campaign to counter image woes
Warren Wolfe
Star Tribune – Published Oct 22, 2002

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Topics: John Brandl, John Hooley, John Klassen, Jon Hassler, Jon McGee, Martin Schirber, Michael Hemmesch

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