"We had the experience and missed the meaning.'' This line from T. S. Eliot's ''Four Quartets'' always impelled me to reflection, lest I, too, miss the meaning. As I leave the presidency of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland after a 21-year tenure, I am taking time to contemplate the totality of my experience. I find that I've become, in Robert Frost's words, ''only more sure of all I thought was true.'' I have distilled these principles:
* An institution whose mission is clear and which can communicate that mission vigorously will stand strong against prevailing winds. In a culture where bigger is better, small can be powerful. Notre Dame's mission to provide a liberal arts education, primarily for women, in the context of the Catholic tradition, is well defined.
People know what to expect from Notre Dame, and they value what this institution offers. The 1896 catalog, published when Notre Dame was chartered as a four-year college, offered the student ''every advantage for the acquisition of a refined and solid education.'' Although the curriculum was different, the fundamental principles were the same. Over the years, the specific expression of the mission statement changed, but the mission itself remained clear-cut and strong.
* Women's colleges offer an exceptional opportunity for women to develop their gifts and talents -- their womanly strengths -- in an atmosphere of challenge and support. The specific values of women's colleges have been well documented in study after study: they open up all leadership opportunities to women; they give women an understanding of what it's like to be a first-class citizen in the academic world.
In Flannery O'Connor's short story, ''Everything That Rises Must Converge,'' the protagonist, a Southern woman who finds strength in the glory of her past, says to her embittered son, ''If you know who you are, you can go anywhere.'' I believe that. Women discover the depth of their being in the gender-freedom of a woman's college.
* A holistic education -- education of mind, enlightenment of heart and nourishment of spirit -- is a valued commodity in our largely secular society. Notre Dame's Catholic educational tradition fosters this integral approach. I think it was Aristotle who spoke of ''an intelligence that desires and a desire that reasons'' as essential components of humankind. Pascal illuminated the same idea in a different way: ''The heart has reasons that the reason knows not of.'' This reasoning of the heart, this blending of reason and will, this looking inward and outward with a single vision helps persons to embrace their own integrity as the dominant principle of their lives.
* A broad education in the liberal arts prepares one to make a life; within that context, one learns to make a living. ''Making a life'' means doing what you love for the benefit of others. We all have special gifts and talents to offer to our world, and the best way to discover one's gifts is to discover what makes us happy.
Once, when I was visiting Katherine Anne Porter at her apartment in College Park, I picked a book out of the bookcase in her library. It was a translation of ''The Confessions of St. Augustine.'' On the flyleaf, Miss Porter had written this sentence from the book: ''it doth make a difference whence cometh a man's joy.''
A liberal education helps each person explore all the facets of intellectual joy and to discover one's own personal roots of joy. Once that is known, no path is too steep to lead one to that joy, and no rewards can surpass that of realizing that joy day after day. Without a doubt, ''it doth make a difference.''
In summary, my experience at Notre Dame has taught me the importance of the three Cs: conviction, congruence and connections. When an institution acts continually out of conviction, all those who are touched by it are strengthened in their personal convictions.
When an institution exhibits congruence, every program, every event, every outreach adds a dimension to the whole, which becomes greater than the sum of its parts. When an institution forges strong connections with its faith tradition, with its faculty, students, alumnae and supporters, and with the civic community in which it is situated, it will be deeply and widely influential.
Katheleen Feeley, S.S.N.D., is retiring as head of Notre Dame College.