"An Accidental Formation": A Conversation with Dr. Stephanie Russell, Vice President of Mission Integration at AJCU

By Michael Wieczorek, Executive Assistant to the President, AJCU

Michael Wieczorek and Dr. Stephanie Russell (Photo by AJCU)

Michael Wieczorek and Dr. Stephanie Russell (Photo by AJCU)

Dr. Stephanie Russell has had a remarkable career in mission-focused work. Her work in ministry began in the 1980s at Red Cloud Indian School (Pine Ridge, South Dakota), located in one of the poorest counties in the United States. Dr. Russell went on to spend eleven years working as Provincial Assistant for Lay Formation and Social Ministry with the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, followed by fifteen years as Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Marquette University before coming to AJCU in 2016. She describes the process that prepared her for this new role as an “accidental formation” in Ignatian spirituality and pedagogy.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

You have had an impressive career in mission and ministry. What draws you to mission-oriented work in higher education?

More than anywhere in the Church, Jesuit higher education holds a unique spot in American public life and in the higher education space. My skill set is that I can be a connector among the many disparate groups at a university or among universities. We get so isolated in our own areas of expertise, but my role is to enter people’s worlds as CFOs, as educators, as administrators and say, ‘What does it mean that you perform this role at a Jesuit school? How does or should that impact your work?’ The goal is mission integration and service to the common good.

Mission integration can be an imprecise goal. How do you measure success? What does it look like when a school or organization has strong mission integration?

It’s one thing to be a values-based organization, but mission integration implies a deeper set of responsibilities that carries through at all levels. One sign of success is if we can ask the leaders of a school to talk, in their own words, about the mission in relation to their work for 5-10 minutes. Can they do that thoughtfully and creatively? You also look at the impact that the institution is having, overall. Is anyone less impoverished because of our work? Are we succeeding in making education more accessible? Are we standing for and with people who have been ignored or sidelined by our society? If the answer to those questions is ‘yes,’ that is a strong start.

What challenges does the current political climate pose for our Jesuit institutions?

The difficult question is, ‘How do we walk the line of being prophetic, without being partisan?’ We need to create spaces of dialogue and deep listening because we are in a privileged place as universities. It is increasingly difficult to find places where true dialogue, debate, and discernment can take place in our country. Universities that take their public citizenship seriously can contribute a lot toward creating opportunities for all three. But it is also true that our Jesuit identity calls us to stand with those whose voices are often unheard or dismissed. We need to be places where the experiences of people who are poor or marginalized are heard and honored. Putting pressing social, cultural, and political issues in dialogue with Catholic social and intellectual life is project worth pursuing, even when it is hard or uncomfortable.

Jesuits have always had a foot in the world and a foot in the Church, a foot with the poor and one with the wealthy. We live there, in that tension. That is our history. Our vocation as educators includes the work of finding God in all things. We cannot say we will find God in everything or everyone except 'X.' Some people become angry when we show up in places that do not look particularly “holy,” but that is our mission.

You were a co-creator of the Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP). How did the program come about?

I was talking with [former AJCU president] Rev. Gregory Lucey, S.J., and he felt that we needed to do more formation with senior leadership. We wanted to create a mission certification that was recognized among the Jesuit schools. So, it grew out of a need, and it really helped give mission extra credibility on our campuses. It was not just the Jesuit leaders [who] were pushing for those conversations, but also the lay leaders.

Describe your role as Vice President of Mission Integration for AJCU. 

There are three areas. I work with our professional conferences to help them consider the intersections of their work and their mission priorities, and I help to connect the work of the conferences to each other. The second focus is to be a resource to our schools, as a facilitator on mission topics, or to help them find colleagues within the network who can be of assistance to them. Third, I work with [AJCU president] Rev. Michael Sheeran, S.J. on “other duties as assigned.” At the moment, that includes assisting with the higher education Mission Priorities Examen process, and aggregating some hiring resources that the schools can use, if they wish.

Tell me more about the Examen process.

It is a process through which schools reaffirm their Jesuit, Catholic identity. The most common misconception is that it is an accreditation process. It’s really something closer to spiritual direction, in that the school takes a look at its mission commitments alongside colleagues who want to be of help and support in the process. We are seeing schools build the outcomes from those discussions into their strategic plans, and the feedback among staff at the schools has also been very positive.

What advice do you have for higher education professionals looking to increase their involvement in mission-oriented work?

I get calls all the time from people looking to get more involved in the mission of their school. I think it’s important, first, to understand how universities work, and especially to take a deep dive into the work of teaching and research. Even those who are not faculty members can learn from others in the institution. Then the question is, how does being at a Jesuit school matter for this work? You really get a grasp of the mission when you make the Spiritual Exercises in some form, and learn more deeply about the interplay of the Exercises and how we educate students. Finally, we are all tempted to live in the insulated world of our own work. If it’s really “mission,” then we need to enter the worlds and languages and cultures of other people. Even when St. Ignatius Loyola was consumed with being an administrator of a global project, he never stopped spending some of each week with the poor. We need to have the experience of having our hearts broken over the injustices that exist in the world, in order to be effective in our mission. In the end, it’s about the well-being of people and our relationships with them, rather than sterile or faceless issues.