AJCU Conference Focuses on Challenge to Integrate Jesuit Mission into Graduate Programs

By Kevin Gibson, Ph.D., Dean of the Graduate School, Marquette University
Chair, AJCU Conference of Graduate Deans

Marquette University


Marquette University

When the AJCU graduate administrators met at Marquette University in spring 2015, many of the discussions focused on the challenges in integrating identity, mission and effectiveness into graduate programs at Jesuit universities.

While undergraduate programs are often cohesive, with a set of core requirements and a cohort of students, post-baccalaureate programming is almost as varied as the institutions themselves. Individuals may be engaged in certificate, master’s or doctoral programs, may attend classes on campus as full or part-time students, and may pursue programs that are professional or academic. It is not unusual for programs to require clinical placements and internships. The modes of delivery vary from the traditional lecture to hybrid and completely on-line. Some students live in dedicated residence halls, but more often they live in the local community. The sheer diversity of these programs requires that administration is handled both centrally by the university and delegated to individual colleges and departments. 

Nevertheless, despite their varied nature, graduate programs consistently add value to Jesuit institutions. Students are involved in research by themselves or in collaboration with faculty, and the opportunity to work with graduate students is welcomed by many faculty. As teaching assistants and role models for undergraduates, graduate students become part of the fabric of an institution. In effect, graduate students are the individuals who transform a College into a University.  

Just as with undergraduates, education in the Jesuit tradition suggests that there is something special and different about the kind of education a graduate receives. That is, students should have a graduate experience that is more than skill development or further acquisition of knowledge. There is a shared understanding across all institutions that education is both purposive and transformative. Thus the faculty and staff recognize that the student is on a life journey, and it is necessary to facilitate their growth as agents of change for a better world. Knowledge is not an isolated endeavor; it is geared to the greater good.  

Ideally, graduate work should be both a personal and academic challenge, an endeavor that stretches graduate students to be more than they were, creating a contextual link between the existence of knowledge and its pursuit. But a Jesuit graduate education should also demonstrate other hallmarks: it should provide students with the opportunity to reflect on their experience in an intentional way, and provide the tools to determine how their work benefits the world. Similar to our undergraduates, graduate students come from many different faith traditions, or none, and we need to make dedicated efforts to reach out and include them so that the invitation to find God in all things remains central in everything we do.

During the AJCU Graduate Deans' meeting this spring, Stephanie Russell, Ed.D., Vice President of Mission and Ministry at Marquette, reminded the administrators in attendance that graduate students should encounter experiences that guide them throughout their lives, for it is in developing our human selves that we are drawn to the space where we may meet God. Jesuits believe that education is a spiritual project. Further, the source of our identity is found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola; faculty need to know themselves and be models in the Ignatian tradition in their lives as well as in their teaching. Russell suggested that fundamentally, Jesuit education needs to be intellectually rigorous, regularly reflective, socially contextualized and committed to the service of the common good. Graduate students are at an age where they have experienced more of the joys and downsides of life – what Ignatius would refer to as consolations and desolations – and these are invaluable elements to creating a multifaceted teaching and learning environment.

The challenge for graduate administrators and faculty at our Jesuit institutions is to create a learning environment where professional and academic graduate students can articulate not only what their learning and research is, but how it contributes to bettering the community. They need to be challenged to show how knowledge is not a static body but a process of building on a legacy and projecting into the future. Jesuit graduate studies should involve both the mind and the heart: the heart animates the intellect with perceptive questioning, and in Russell’s words, “a smug intellect is unmasked by kindness.”

Finally, it is always important to leave a meeting with action steps: the unifying thread among Jesuit institutions is the centrality of mission, which provides a unique identity. It also means that AJCU members will often find common cause and similar interests. In an increasingly global society, perhaps there are greater links that could be forged between undergraduate-only institutions and Jesuit graduate programs. Other efficiencies could come from exchanges between institutions with special areas of expertise promoted by Jesuit universities. Perhaps the key insight, though, is that a 470-year old tradition of building communities allied to social justice through critical thinking remains as alive and needed today as it was at its inception.