By James P. McCartin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology, Fordham University
How do we affirm our foundational mission while responding to fast changing needs and expectations in the world of higher education? Leaders at Jesuit colleges and universities often raise this question when considering how to educate and form students.
But it is critical that we ask the same question in thinking about how we cultivate faculty and staff. If we want our institutions to be both grounded in mission and responsive to new circumstances, we must support faculty and staff—people who, unlike our students, often remain on our campuses for decades—so that, over the long haul, they are equipped to be both substantively engaged with mission and agile in their response to change.
For the past several years, I have led the yearlong New Faculty Seminar on Mission in which new faculty at Fordham University learn about our Jesuit and Catholic mission and explore ways in which they can engage this in their work as researchers, teachers and mentors. At first, I feared that my new colleagues—talented people from a full range of academic disciplines, most with no experience of Jesuit or Catholic higher education—would look upon our meetings as an obligation they’d resent, and upon me as someone trying to force sectarian values into their research and teaching. But I soon realized that, while not everyone approached the seminar enthusiastically, the majority experienced our meetings as bright spots in their first year at Fordham.
Two things have particularly contributed to making these seminars worthwhile for participants. First, I have recognized that there is an acute hunger for community among my colleagues, and any opportunity to cultivate meaningful connections across departments and schools, particularly in the context of conversations around shared interests, helps to build and sustain a vital sense of community. Such a community, I have found, provides an invaluable context in which colleagues can comfortably raise questions and offer perspectives about mission—including critical questions and perspectives—and, in doing so, can help to make mission a more significant variable in their work. I have learned that a strong sense of community can make all the difference.
Second, if these seminars have had a positive impact, it is also significantly because, in our discussions, we persistently approach mission as something that is both invitational and aspirational. It is invitational in that it highlights opportunities through which individuals can freely choose to engage with mission in ways they sense might expand and enhance their work.
Some are particularly excited about the possibility that their research and teaching might benefit from a focus on issues of justice. For example, faculty and staff at Fordham have been highlighting our mission in critical conversations about enhancing diversity, and how we might more effectively serve first-generation college students.
Others find special resonance in cura personalis and see in this principle the promise of deepening the quality of their mentoring. Still others are intrigued by the latitude they have to engage in conversations about spiritual values, conversations they would not have broached at secular institutions where they did their graduate work. Far from being sectarian and restrictive, mission, when understood as invitational, can be experienced as liberating and qualitatively transformative in a person’s work.
Mission is aspirational in that it inevitably suggests that our work is incomplete: thinking and talking about mission ultimately encourages us to measure ourselves against our espoused values and, hopefully, prompts us to be honest about our successes and failures. It can thus highlight ways in which we might be better, both as individuals and as institutions. It can also help us identify new horizons and new boundaries and determine how we might effectively respond to new needs and changed circumstances.
Ultimately, it is the aspirational quality of mission that may be most crucial as we think about preparing faculty and staff to respond creatively to challenges in the future. Higher education will almost surely continue to change at a rapid pace in the years and decades ahead. But my experience of working with new colleagues suggests that, if our faculty and staff are well-informed and if they possess the tools to engage substantively with mission, this aspirational quality will be invaluable in helping ensure that Jesuit higher education maintains its distinctive values even as it responds clearly and effectively to new challenges.
James P. McCartin, Ph.D., is an associate professor of theology and former director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. He is a recent graduate of the Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP).