|The Jesuit University:
Are We Jesuit or Are We University?
In mulling over ideas for our presentation for today, both Larry Raful and I found that we had many experiences that exposed a conflict with the perceived mission of the University. Although it is impossible to determine a seamless definition of our mission and our Jesuit identity, we do know one thing: we are all human, and flawed, and sometimes we will fail our mission.
My perspective of the Catholic nature of the “Catholic” University stems, in part, from my own history. My upbringing was so Catholic as to be a caricature. I was one of ten children. There was Catholic elementary and high school for us all. The rosary was said often. Each December we had an Advent calendar and the Advent wreath and candles. I gave up candy every Lent. I distinctly recall the middle-of-the night awakenings to go with my father to the far side of town to our old parish, St. Catherine’s, for perpetual adoration, for which my father would sign up for those hours that no one else wanted. There were the pagan babies we adopted and named for deceased loved ones. Of course there was church on every Sunday and holy day of obligation, where I often had a tissue bobby-pinned to my head because I forgot my mantilla. I remember us hauling the big statue of Mary down to the entranceway of our house every May, and surrounding it with ant-infested peonies, and crowing the Virgin Mary with one of my mother’s gaudier bracelets. My mother was a writer for the Criterion, the local Catholic newspaper (writing, of course about the only subject acceptable, that being the wonders of raising a large family). And did I mention dysfunctional?
I was told in so many ways and for so many years that my choices in life were that I could become a teacher, or a nurse, until, of course I married. Now this was not just the Catholic school teachers who told me this, but also all the television shows I was so addicted to, and the example my mother set for me. Another alternative was that I could enter the convent. It was apparently okay that I didn’t understand math. I remember the day and the lesson we were on, when I came to understand that math was optional for girls. It was the multiplication of fractions that confused me so, when I asked for help I was told it was okay that I didn’t understand math. But what I heard that day was that, as a girl, I did not matter, I was not worth this teacher’s effort. I remember in fifth grade writing a paper on “what I want to be when I grow up.” I wrote that I would be the first nun on the moon. I remembered the pictures I saw in school of the missionary nuns in exotic places, in darkest Africa and deepest China. I felt this was the only way to become an astronaut, as the Catholic Church would surely have a presence on the moon.
My exuberance was beaten out of me. And my faith was extinguished by the Catholic Church’s lack of relevance. By age 16, I was a high school drop out and a general pain in the rear. I had become a studied misanthrope. Mostly I was just mad at the world, with a big wad of it directed at the Catholic Church. I had become a chronic liar and spent most of my waking hours participating in suspect recreational activities
But somewhere along the line a seed was planted in me. Maybe it was the Holy Spirit, and perhaps it was the seed of discontent. Nonetheless, it was only after many years that the seed was able to grow and I was able to return to the faith of my youth. Last night at the opening ceremony one of the speakers talked about how far some of us had come to be here. Boy was that an understatement about me, even though I live only a few blocks from the University. That distance I have traveled to get here has been made possible because I have come to believe my role as a Christian is to participate and to move in the direction I see as meeting our Christian ideals. But to say that I am cynical of the Catholic Church is an understatement. But I cannot be heard from the outside, so I returned, and I remain within.
So, in my work here at Creighton I have an unhealthy, and overdeveloped sense for unchristian behavior. So please, as I speak, remember, I am a cynic and malcontent, looking to get even.
In preparing for today I had several conversations by phone and e-mail with colleagues at other Catholic and Jesuit colleges and universities to discuss conflict between the university and the mission. Some people expressed persistent problems and others expressed few. But even the few that saw little or no actual problem, there was a feeling that it could strike at any time.
As the director of the Legal Clinic at Creighton I have the distinct pleasure of having a job that is mission itself. Every day I have the opportunity to reach out into our communities and help those in need. More importantly, I have the opportunity to expose students to the beauty of helping others. At the Legal Clinic at Creighton, we represent all manner of low-income clients. Many of our clients are members of minority communities, many of our clients are disabled, either physically or mentally, or both. Our goal in the clinic is not just to let our students gain experience as lawyers on this rather captive community of clients, although learning fundamental lawyering skills is critical. We strive to teach fundamental values such as the duty to zealously advocate for a position, not our own. We hope to teach our students to value the client and work to overcome the cultural barriers that exist between our students and the clients that may otherwise interfere with our representation. One value that we hope students learn is the promotion of justice, and their obligation as lawyers to seek justice, even where the cause is unpopular.
As Father Callahan wrote in his article “Coming to Terms with the Mission: The Catholic University in America,” he points out that “the Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.” This sounds good and right. But in practice don’t we bend to public opinion? After all, public opinion influences reputation and ultimately influences our donors, prospective students, faculty and administrators. Each of our schools have public relations staff for the very purpose of influencing public opinion favorably. Can we be true to the ideal of promoting justice where the cause is unpopular if our very existence may depend on favorable public opinion?
In 1993, when the Legal Clinic opened its doors, on of our first clients was a young Hispanic man whose girlfriend of nine years gave up his two youngest children for adoption and refused to tell him where they were. My students at the time were shocked at his loss and the injustice that occurs when someone in this position is expected to navigate the legal system alone because he had no money. The loss of one’s children is something none of us hope to experience. My students were motivated to bring forth this issue to me and ask that we represent this man. The Clinic was band new. I had just become licensed in Nebraska. I didn’t know the courts or the judges here. I didn’t know the law. I was hoping to start with small, uncontroverted cases, and to very slowly work our way to more complex cases. But I was touched by my students’ sense of walking the walk. I knew that this kind of case had the potential for negative publicity, but I found that I was in a poor position to argue against accepting this case. The case went on for years with no publicity. But when the case finally reached the Nebraska Supreme Court, someone decided that this was a case that should be decided in the court of public opinion. There were numerous articles, editorials and letters to the editor published. The television media had a field day. Many of the articles focused on my client and his less positive attributes. But some editorials and letters to the editor focused on the fact that the Creighton Legal Clinic was representing this man. One news program called “you paid for it” did a segment on the clinic and the fact that it had at one time received federal funding. Taxpayers should be outraged that their tax dollars went to representing such bums as my client. I received threatening phone calls. Apparently some people find it threatening to have this poor Hispanic man empowered with a couple of law students. My biggest contribution to minimizing the public relations nightmare was to refuse to speak to the press and instructing my client and his family to do likewise.
At the next board meeting of the directors of the university someone
on the board asked for a copy of the criteria for accepting cases for the
Legal Clinic. When I was asked for a copy for a board member, I knew
what was up. I felt a little threatened. Someone was not happy
about our representation of this client. Our public relations people
were not happy. Finally, Fr. Morrison, our president, received a
letter from the prospective adoptive parents, deriding the university and
the legal clinic for assisting this man. I was accused of having
a hidden agenda. Fr. Morrison wrote back to these people a letter
that expressed to me the ideals of the Jesuit University. He acknowledged
the pain that all of the parties felt in this case. He cited the
need to advocate for the poor, even in unpopular causes. He promised
to pray for all those involved, especially the children, and the judge
deciding the case, as well as for a fair and just outcome.
Although I have no doubt that the public relations people hope I never take a case like this again, and hope that I can keep away from the unpopular causes, I have never once been told by anyone in the university that I should desist from representing any person or position. Now that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy. I have heard about the grumbling of some of my colleagues and even from some students. Tornadoes have a tendency to pick up a lot of trash. In fact, some students in the Clinic had asked not to be assigned that case because they knew all about it from the press and didn’t want to represent such a person. Of course, this meant I had to assign this case to them After only meeting their client once, their feelings had turned 180 degrees. They had to acknowledge that they were so wrong to judge this person, and that his cause was a worthy one.
This case, which lasted some 5 years, is the case for which I receive
the most feedback from students long-since graduated. This case had
a lasting impact on many of these students. One former student, then
working in Grand Island drove to Lincoln while she was eight months pregnant
to hear oral arguments on this case before the Supreme Court, and on the
hope that she could see her old client and tell him not to give up.
Even though she had graduated nearly two years before, this case still
had an impact on her.
I am sure that we all know that the university does not live in
a vacuum and must compete in this world and as such take on some of the
trappings of a business. But we must never abandon our special identity,
even as we move to welcome a diverse population of students representing
other religious beliefs. Our future depends on maintaining this unique
identity; otherwise, we will become just another university. But
there is much pressure to be like other schools. And it can be hard
in this day and age for a person in a university, or anyone for that matter
to be open about one’s faith. A judge, praying with a jury before
going to render judgment in a brutal murder case is not acceptable.
Prayer in public school is not acceptable. If not at a Jesuit university,
then where can we speak in our god voice? How do I express to my
students the profound impact that God has on my life in our unique Jesuit
setting? I feel as though I must be careful not offend other or lose
credibility because others will think I am flaky. I feel called to
act in accordance to the Catholic identity of the university. I feel
this calling in my work as an attorney, as a professor and as a member
of the Creighton Community. But I often make mistakes in deciding
the right thing to do, or in how to approach the University if I think
it is doing the wrong thing.
Now normally when I find my client in this kind of housing situation I would immediately call the City Planning Office to have an immediate inspection of the property. I was sure this place would be found unfit for human habitation and the property would have been placarded as such. But I felt that I shouldn’t turn in my own employer, and I was sure that I could find a way within the University to improve my clients’ housing situation. But sadly I was not able to make it happen. I even employed Dean Raful to call property manager to ask him to fix the problem. Nothing happened. I called the person on campus that was identified as being responsible for university property. There was a little movement, the drain was eventually cleaned, and the exposed electrical wires were removed. None of the other problems were fixed. The property manager denied knowing of any other problems and that any other problems were due to the tenants.
Looking back I ask myself where my duty lay in this case. I made the mistake of thinking my duty to my client was to turn the property in to the authorities but that my duty to Creighton was to work within the University. I wanted to be a good employee, I wanted to do things in a nice way. No one in the University said I had to follow this course of action. But most frustrating for me was my sense of powerlessness over what the University was doing (not just to my client). It isn’t as though I think there is some evil plan on the part of the University to be a slum landlord, and in fact I think most people in the University are blissfully ignorant of the fact. The fact that the University purchases property near the university for future expansion is just good business sense. Obtaining income on that property until such time as we need it in the future is also good business sense. Not every action of the University need be mission driven. But if we think we can separate out our catholic identity from the business decisions, we are wrong. If we are going to be landlords, let us provide housing that meets or exceeds the minimum dwelling standards. Let us give dignity and respect to out tenants.
Ultimately I am disappointed in myself for having worried more about my job and my employer, than zealously advocating for my client. I think that the Jesuit ideal would call for me to zealously represent the needs of this impoverished family. Creighton can take care of itself - this family could not.
I was saddened by the fact that someone was in control of this matter,
and I didn’t know how to reach that person or change his or her behavior.
I realized at some point that when it comes to academic questions of any
importance that I can speak to my dean or the vice-president for academic
affairs. If I have a fiscal problem, I know to call the budget office
or grant administration. If I have a student with academic or personal
problem, I know to call student services. But where do I call if
I see a problem with the University failing its mission in some way.
To every person I did speak to about the problem I felt like I was some
little splinter in their foot. Who is the responsible person
that a student, staff person, or faculty member can go to mission complaints?
Perhaps we need a mission ombudsman who will assume the duty of holding
everyone in the University accountable to the mission when an issue arises.
Our institutions can become bureaucracies, and we can become just another
gear. Like me, we can end up being more concerned about the institution
than about the mission of the institution. Just as I do not want
to sabotage the University, neither do I want decision of the University
to sabotage the mission. Each of us needs to each develop the ability
to confront ourselves as well as the University, to keep true to our Catholic
and Jesuit identity. Thank you.