The St. Mary’s University campus community talks a lot about educating leaders for the common good — a noble yet, on first glance, abstract notion. What does it look like when faculty and staff apply their expertise to solving some of humanity’s biggest problems?

In these stories, you’ll hear from professors in Education, Information Systems and Law, who each use the holistic St. Mary’s style of education to offer solutions to some of our greatest challenges.

Big Solve: Housing as a Human Right
By Genevieve Hébert Fajardo, J.D., Clinical Professor of Law

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, on any given day in the Bexar County court system, you could find a long line of unrepresented tenants and homeowners about to lose their homes. The outcome was almost certain. Tenants would be evicted.  Homeowners would be foreclosed. 

During the pandemic, foreclosures were barred, the eviction courts were closed and vulnerable people had a brief reprieve from eviction. Now that we are slowly emerging from the crisis, the economic wheels are beginning to churn again. That means foreclosures will be filed and tenants will be evicted. Without major financial assistance, many individuals and families are now even more vulnerable than before. 

Law professors often declare that law school teaches you to “think like a lawyer.” Yes, law graduates should understand the law, advocate for clients and work competently on individual cases. But thinking like a lawyer means questioning, criticizing, evaluating and reflecting upon the wider legal system. 

Our traditional civil legal system works relatively quickly to remove people who have fallen behind on payments, and each case is handled on a one-by-one basis.  This individualized system reinforces an isolationist and reality-blind approach to one of our most pressing social problems: housing loss. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink housing policy, putting the focus on income vulnerability, not individual fault. 

We should modernize law and housing regulation at local, state and federal levels. We should adjust and restructure the property tax and appraisal system that is becoming unaffordable for seniors on a fixed income.  

We should study the history of predatory lending and discriminatory redlining (refusing loans to entire neighborhoods on the assumption that minority communities are a credit risk), and understand how they impact housing sustainability in the long term. Most of all, we should provide meaningful financial assistance to people who cannot afford to pay their rent or mortgage. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recognizes affordable housing as a human right, stating “communities and the government have an obligation to ensure the housing needs of all are met, especially poor and vulnerable people and their families.” 

As a Catholic and Marianist law school, St. Mary’s Law teaches students to impact the common good by advocating for clients within our individualized legal system of private property rights — whether those clients are tenants, homeowners, banks or landlords. 

But it also means we teach students to recognize the limitations of the civil legal system and study bigger questions about income distribution, local and national government policy, and fundamental rights. 

Big Solve: Bridging Economic Divides
By Seongbae Lim, Ph.D., Professor of Information Systems

Economic divide — it’s the common threat to a global society. For example, mango farmers in Haiti earn 2% of revenues for their labor. That’s only two cents for every dollar of mangoes sold. This significant inequity — economic divide — is something which, with practical restructuring, can be diminished for the greater good. 

The productivity of labor has been increased dramatically through innovation. But the benefits have not always been fairly distributed — a situation made even more starkly apparent by the economic effects of COVID-19’s rapid global spread. 

Innovation has also played a limited role in solving social problems. For example, while organizations have been improving the productivity of manufacturing by substituting robots for human laborers, they have ignored the negative impact of robot adoption, such as the collapse of the middle class due to job loss. 

We can cultivate a smart future in which people are happy, organizations thrive and the environment flourishes. 

To accomplish this, I suggest a strategy called living innovation, in which we can make a synergic combination of advanced technologies and existing resources to develop a creative solution for solving social issues. 

For example, in the mango farmers’ world, a high level of supply chain transparency provided by blockchain technology would help the farmers earn what they deserve.  

An example of a company implementing living innovation strategy well is Warby Parker, an online retailer of prescription glasses. For each pair of glasses sold, the company donates another pair of glasses to people in need.  The company also claims to be 100% carbon neutral. 

When everyone earns a fairer share of the mango, our world is better suited to achieve the common good. 

Big Solve: Educating Beyond the Test
By Angeli Willson, Ph.D., Chair and Associate Professor of Education

This year, a former student, now a middle school teacher, approached me about a pupil who had confided in him about having thoughts of self-harm. This was not the first time I heard the issue of mental stress in teenagers. 

A Pew Research Center survey revealed that 70% of teens see anxiety and depression as the top problem among their peers. Another study showed that the number of college students who sought help from campus counseling centers increased by an average of 30% to 40%, even though enrollment grew by only 5% during the time frame studied. 

Some students develop testing anxiety because of the high-stakes, state-mandated standardized tests. They feel compelled to “fit in” due to the popularity and pervasiveness of social media, which follows them outside the classroom. This may be aggravated further by the pressures of society’s response to the COVID-19 virus. 

With the unprecedented phenomena of schools closing and parents assuming responsibility for teaching their kids, what society must do for the common good has broadened. Based on my experience as a school teacher and administrator, we should look beyond over-emphasizing testing to advocate for the development of the whole person — cognitively, socially and emotionally — in our K-12 public schools.   

Texas needs to create and fund a curriculum that focuses on developing socio-emotional intelligence, in addition to its existent academic standards. This program should start with awareness — self and social. It should include teaching students to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, gaining confidence from their abilities and demonstrating resiliency in the face of failure. This program should have mental health supports, such as counselors, psychologists and social workers trained in implementing a program through which students can develop empathy for others, and build and maintain healthy relationships. 

Now, more than ever, school districts need to actively involve parents in the education of their children by having programs to empower families and help all students. At the elementary school where I was a principal, we had monthly family reading nights and family math nights, in addition to a parent-teacher association. After much student and parent interest, we also added a robotics night. 

Research also needs to be done on online learning’s effectiveness. We must determine its barriers to success, effects on children’s academic and socio-emotional well-being, and how to help students readjust post-pandemic. 

If public schools take care of their students early on, then they prepare them — mentally and spiritually — for success and the rigors of adult life. 

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