I just returned from a meeting of the Provosts of the Jesuit colleges and universities across the US. It is a wonderful event each year, giving those of us who serve in these unusual roles a chance to compare notes, to share our joys and sorrows inherent in any such position, and to renew our aspirations for our institutions. At the meeting, we deliberately take time to share questions with each other and provide advice when we’re confident of it.
The institutions around the table display many differences. Some are singularly focused on undergraduate education; others have graduate programs in diverse fields. Some are quite small; some are quite large. Some serve predominantly first-generation populations and adult learners in a region; others attract students nationally and internationally. Despite these vast differences, I come away each year with a renewed sense of the commonalities among the institutions.
One of the differences between this set of institutions and others in higher education is their focused devotion to the formation of the next generation devoted to service to the common good. Most all take this seriously, with programs designed to expose students to the real lives of those less fortunate than others. Sometimes this takes place within nearby neighborhoods; sometimes in other countries far from the campus.
A common challenge that we all face is to continuously adapt these efforts to the changing cohorts of students coming to our institutions and to the changes in higher education occurring throughout the country. All of us face issues of keeping tuition as low as possible while still permitting innovation. All of us face increasing numbers of students who have lived their lives in relatively homogeneous neighborhoods, schools, and larger communities. All of us face increasing numbers of students with relatively few “real-life” experiences in the working world.
These cross-cutting pressures have created more intentional integration of the mission of nurturing women and men for others into the academic curriculum. Some institutions have built degree programs that allow deep learning into the field of social justice (similar to Georgetown’s Justice and Peace Studies Program). Others have built elaborate immersive experiences exposing students to communities previously unknown to them.
Increasingly common are attempts to integrate such experiences into the academic curriculum more fully. These seek to use the value of mentored experiences combining students with faculty. They construct an intersection of research activities with such outreach efforts. In short, these are efforts to break down an artificial barrier between the curricular and co-curricular.
It became obvious in our meeting that the value of these efforts is magnified by integrating into them the Jesuit mission of the institution. That mission answers the question of the “why” of these research, education, and service efforts. Those values also answer the question of why it is so important to integrate the three efforts seamlessly into the experience of the students. At a moment when all higher education institutions are seeking global impact, the secret sauce of Jesuit institutions is that they know why they want to have global impact, with answers animated by a 500-year tradition.