|The Jesuit University:
Are We Jesuit or Are We University?
I guess I believe in miracles. Fifty-five years ago today, my mother was lying in a hospital bed in Volary, Czechoslovakia, fighting for her life. She had barely survived the Ravensbruch and Frieburg concentration camps, and my mom, jailed and tortured simply because of her faith, was one of about 100 people of the 1200 who started on the infamous Helmsbrecht death march. And now her son has been asked to stand here today to discuss with you that same faith. I am very proud to be here with you to represent the faith of my mother.
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. I know people say that all the time, but I am very honored to speak to this wonderful group. My colleague Kate Mahern, who as usual was brilliant, talked about the Jesuit University and the external mission, while I am going to focus on the University and the internal mission. At the outset, I want to thank my good friends Joan Lanahan and Father Jack Zuercher of the Society of Jesus, for their inspiration and urging to seek greater insight.
I am not exactly sure why Maureen Waldron asked me to speak, but I have an idea that it is because she once heard me tell a story during a lunchtime discussion about Mission. The story went something like this:
A few years ago, while I was dean at Creighton Law School, we had a very energetic and compassionate student body president. During his term, he organized a number of service type events, including a monthly dinner at the local homeless shelter, located a few blocks from the Law School. The students would set a menu of spaghetti or stew or some other meal that serves many, and they would collect the food from volunteer faculty and students. They would organize groups to prepare the , to serve the meal, and to clean the kitchen afterwards.
One day, I went over to see what was happening there. I was very proud of the kids, and I wanted to encourage them and thank them. They seemed to throw themselves into the spirit of the work, and the students had good camaraderie and fun. The next day, I happened to see two of the students standing in line ahead of me at our Law School cafeteria. Now during that year, the cashier at the Law School cafeteria was a pretty sad little lady. She wasn't very smart and did not have much dexterity on the cash register. She would get rattled easily, and sometimes the line would bog down when she had trouble. That was the case on this day, and the two fellows ahead of me in line spoke to her in a very rough manner, showing their annoyance and treating her disrespectfully. They stormed off with their food, before I had a chance to speak to them about their behavior. At that point, it occurred to me that they had not really made the connection between the service the night before and their behavior that day. No, let me rephrase that - neither their parents, their teachers, or I had pointed out to them the connection between their service the night before and their behavior on that day.
These past two years we have had much better luck in our cafeteria. The young woman there, named Antoinette, is a vibrant, enthusiastic, born-again Christian who is happy and joyful and punctuates her sentences with "Praise the Lord" and "God bless you." And on her left shirt pocket is a tag with her name on it. Well, this spring I had 140 students in my two classes, and in anticipation of this talk I polled them about the name of the cashier at the cafeteria, the person who every day gives them food and greets them and treats them like human beings, or better, like kinfolk. Less than 40% knew Antoinette's name.
So I guess this is why Maureen Waldron asked me to speak. But to be fair, I should have warned her that to ask me to speak about this story and relate it to the University Mission is a problem for me, because I am a bit of a heretic on this subject. I tend to be an anti-missionist.
I think mission statements in Jesuit universities are problematic and narcotic. Mission statements came from the corporate world, and I understand why they work for General Motors and Ford. The objectives are easy to state and the results are easy to assess. You need to make good, safe, cars in a cost efficient manner, and you need to make a profit. Mission statements in Jesuit schools are so much harder to write because we manufacture such a different type of product in our factories. Our mission statements tend to be fairly broad, non-specific, and that makes them easier to fulfill. When it comes time to assess our success in meeting our mission, a broad, non-specific mission statement makes it easy to assess because so many results meet the broad objectives. And this end product - easy to fulfill and easy to assess - makes us feel comfortable and successful and maybe a little complacent.
I looked at the mission statements of the schools represented here, and I've found the same kinds of common, broad-based objectives in our missions: students challenged to reflect on values, teachers conducting research for society, welcoming diverse backgrounds, searching for the truth, encouraging development, dedicated to service to others, a quest for understanding. This is not exactly like Ford: make cars, sell them at a profit.
And what surprises me, I think, is how we as Jesuit schools tiptoe around what seems to me to be the major reason we exist - that is, the nature of how we might serve God. Some mission statements from the Heartland group uses very amorphous terms: reflecting on our relationship with God, seeking God's greater glory, deepening our understanding of God. Beautiful words, but hardly exact. And I was surprised that some of Heartland schools do not even mention God's name in their mission statements.
I am reluctant to discuss theology and faith with this august group, and I am not sure it is my place to venture down this path. But as they say, I've got the dice, so I ought to roll. I am Jewish, I try to be an observant and educated Jew. Even though I am not a Catholic or a Christian, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we in Jesuit higher education are too careful when it comes to God Talk. It seems to me that so many people are embarrassed to talk about God, perhaps because we are so concerned about diversity and not offending, that we try to make nice to everyone and we end up with simply being bland. Yep, I AM offended when someone tries to push their religion down my throat, but I am inspired and excited when I meet people who derive great strength and comfort from their own personal faith.
We are a Jesuit university, but are we Jesuit, or are we a university? It's that great abyss and we stand perched with one leg on each side. One foot is on the secular university side, one foot on the parochial school side. Amazingly, we look a little like both, but we're not exactly like either one. You know, when I worked at the University of Southern California, they knew exactly what they stood for: football, the Greek system, and the accumulation of wealth, status and power. And sometimes I wonder what it's like across town at Grace Bible College, or at a New York Orthodox Jewish yeshiva - surely they, too, know exactly what they stand for. But here we are, straddling the lines, trying to play a huge game of TWISTER in the world of higher education. You know, before athletic events at USC, the Trojan and the horse would come on the field; and before athletic events at Grace College, they pray. At Creighton, we don't do either - we are somewhat lost in the netherworld.
The problem, of course, is that we are caught between our Ignation roots and the pragmatism of recruiting students, hiring faculty, and attracting donors. Don't even get me started on US NEWS surveys and ratings. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile the two. But somewhere in there we have to make a conscious effort to define what we expect of ourselves and our students in our relationship with God, and it's real tough to do that. And when I look back on my eleven years as dean of the law school, that's my ultimate legacy, the failure of my term. To be sure, there were some nice successes, with a new law library and a new clinic with an endowment to ensure its survival. But when all was said and done, I was not able to convince the faculty that the mission was all that important. We have a terrific faculty of bright men and women, good teachers, a few outstanding scholars, fine colleagues, decent human beings and good people. But for the most part, they really don't care much about Heartland 3, not to mention Heartland's 1 and 2. And what that means is that over those eleven years we graduated lots of law students who didn't see much leadership from the faculty in the areas that many of us in this room see as the preeminent reason for our existence.
To be sure, others were accountable in part for this failure. For instance, the University system of promotion, tenure, and salary increases hardly takes into account mission-based work. Our rank and tenure guidelines give you 15 points for a terminal degree, 25-35 points for teaching, 25-35 points for scholarship, up to 10 points for years of service. That totals a possibility of 95 points. Promotion to tenure takes 60 points, to full professor takes 80 points. Theoretically, you can earn all of that with no points for service. The broad classification of service counts for another 0-15 points. "Zero?" - how can you work at a Jesuit school with ZERO points for service? And let me read you verbatim the description of what counts for service points; "professional, University, College or School, Departmental, community, church or volunteer activity which is not directly related to teaching, research, or clinical activity. We proclaim Mission important - but can you tell it by what we promulgate as our regulations?
Our most recent young faculty member was the finest candidate for promotion to tenure that I have seen in my 25 years in college administration. He is a truly gifted scholar in tax law, and he is becoming a terrific classroom teacher. He is popular with students and his colleagues like him a great deal. He publishes serious work but has a great sense of humor to go along with it. But what's best about him is his holiness, his sense of faith that he shares with students - faith, I said, not his religion. I see students in his office all the time talking to him, and I know that he is already a valuable addition to our community. But no one in our University asked me to write a letter on his behalf about his faith or his dedication to mission or his willingness to open his office door and talk to students. They wanted to know how many pages he published, in what journals, and whether he was a competent classroom instructor.
As a dean, however, you can make some small inroads into making the Mission a vibrant part of your school. One of the things of which I am most proud will sound silly to you. Each year the Nebraska Supreme Court comes to sit in regular session at the Law School, and it is a great experience for our students to see the Court at work. After their session the justices join our faculty for lunch. When the Court came in my first year, I asked our chaplain, the infamous Father Z, to say grace before the meal, and he gave one his lovely blessings, making sure to insert a little side editorial for the justices about the importance of caring for the poor and defenseless. But after lunch, the Chief Justice, a Protestant from Lincoln, went out of his way to thank me for the prayer. And what was so startling to me was that not only did he like it, but also he expected it because of our Jesuit heritage. When the Court sat at the state law school each year, they didn't have a prayer at their lunch, but having a prayer at Creighton made THEM feel welcome and comfortable. Imagine that?
So let me return to my main thesis - that having a broad based, non-specific mission statement gives us the easy way out. The example I want to speak about is service. We make such a major investment of time, and people, and money, in promoting service to others. Each year we send in reports of all the service projects at our respective schools, which I assume in some way, proves that we are meeting the Mission. That clearly is a Jesuit value, one we hold dear. But the more we talk about all the kinds of service that might meet the Mission statement, the more diluted it becomes. The students who worked that night at the Law School's dinner project at the homeless shelter felt very good about what they did, and we all thought it fulfilled the mission. When I was at the Creighton Center in the Dominican Republic last fall, I spent time with students who also thought that the couple of hours each week that they donated to assisting the poor was a good thing to do, and we all thought it met the standards of the mission. But what happens is that we talk about mission and we talk sometimes about God, but we don't connect the two very well. I don't think we connect the two because it's hard to do. As Father Arupe said in his famous address in 1973, we are not just men and women for others, but we must be men and women for others because of a love for God and for our neighbors. We have to connect the two.
You know, this notion that service to others is important has its roots in pretty serious writing, beginning with the Torah, Leviticus Chapter XIX, verse 18, which we all call the Golden Rule. And what is the Golden Rule:
"Do unto others as they would do unto you."
But you know, what's interesting is that these are not exactly the right words - we forget about the last two words of verse 18:
"Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the LORD."
And by the way - the root of "thy neighbor"- "l'ray ah cha" is really - "NEIGHBOR" - in the Middle Ages, those who persecuted the Jews translated this as to mean "fellow Israelite" - to attempt to prove that Jewish morality had its limits only within our community. But that is not true. In many places in the Torah, the word "rea" is used and it's clear that the meaning is a neighbor of any religion, race or creed. As Rabbi Hertz, a famous Biblical commentator, wrote, "the word neighbor includes in its range every human being by virtue of his or her humanity."
Look at this marvelous sentence, clearly a first in civilization, unknown at the time to any other community in the ancient world. This is not a suggestion, this is not a whim, an idea, a good deed. If the sentence started "Ahavah" - "love" - you could translate it to mean that God thinks it's a nice idea if you could, you know, maybe love your neighbor. But "ahavah" is the root - the complete word is "v'ahavtah" - YOU SHALL LOVE - ain't no two ways about it, bucko - this is a command from the Lord. No pussy footing around here.
And the sentence does not merely conclude with "as yourself" - the last two words define why this is such an important commandment. It's not simply "Love thy neighbor as thyself" - it's more specific: Thou shall love they neighbor as thyself, I am the Lord, I am the one who is giving you this commandment. When you love your neighbor (i.e. when you participate in service to others), you are like Me.
The story is told about the great Jewish philosopher Hillel who lived fifty years before the birth of Jesus,. The Talmud relates this story:
On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Hillel and said to him, ‘I will convert to your religion on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Hillel said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’
Hillel is asked for THE MOST IMPORTANT teaching in the Torah - and he does not respond with "There is only one God" or "Make no false gods" or "observe the Sabbath day and make it holy" - he chooses an obscure verse in Leviticus to represent all that is holy about our life here on earth.
And of course Jesus teaches the same lesson. In Matthew, Chapter 22, verse 36, the Pharisees ask of Jesus:
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?
The fact of the matter, my friends, is that service - what we call meeting the Mission by service, is not doing good deeds. We offer service to our students, we encourage it, we offer more and more opportunities for it, and yet we fail to make the important connection as to WHY they must engage in service. You may ask: Raful, do you think we really have to hit them over the head with this to make the point clear? And after 25 years in higher education, my answer is an unequivocal "YES." Many of our students participate in service because it makes them feel good, because their parents encourage it, maybe even because they believe they ought to help the downtrodden. But the truth of the matter is that we engage in service to others because God commands it to us. Simply put, it makes us holy, it is an act of holiness. And our reluctance to engage in God talk leads to the inevitable result of our reluctance to categorize service for what it is - the work of God on earth. The Torah reports that God has commanded it, yet Jews continue to believe that the word "mitzvah" means good deed, when in actuality is means "commandment." And Christians tell themselves that the Golden Rule is "Love thy neighbor as thyself" without remembering all of what Jesus said. There is no middle ground here - "Thou shall love thy neighbor" means that service must be connected to holiness, and it is incumbent, it is imperative upon us as educators to make that connection.
Okay - so that's my point - we need a simple, straightforward mission statement that says what we really need to do - no more fooling around with twenty-five cent words, as my grandfather used to say. Here's my suggestion for the new, slimmed down, Creighton Mission Statement:
Creighton is a Jesuit Catholic comprehensive university. Every person who works at Creighton must participate in the effort to teach all students to live their lives so that when they graduate, they can say to every person on earth: "I love you simply because you are a creation of God."
That's it. That's all we need. Takes care of all the mumbo jumbo and cuts right to what ultimately is the only real important value in this life, says the Torah, Hillel and Jesus of Nazareth. And how do we do it, you ask? Well, I'll tell you - I don't know. But in searching for an answer to that question, the best advice I could find is from a pretty good source, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, certainly the most important Jewish scholar, author and theologian of this century or maybe of any century. Here's what Heschel wrote in a telegram to President Kennedy just before Kennedy was about to convene an meeting of America's leading clergy to discuss the difficult and complex problems facing American's citizens of African heritage:
TO PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY, THE WHITE HOUSE, JUNE 16, 1963
Moral grandeur and spiritual audacity - what a phrase, huh? Think about it for a minute. Wouldn't it be something if we lived our lives with thoughts of moral grandeur? Wouldn't it be terrific if we could walk through the day filled with spiritual audacity? Why, we might be able to confront head on the ills that trouble our society, and with the inspiration of God, we might actually accomplish something!
Rabbi Heschel writes that "the cure of the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit; embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival." Rabbi Heschel urges all of us to "develop a sense of embarrassment. The root of any religious faith is a sense of embarrassment, of inadequacy. I would cultivate a sense of embarrassment. It would be a great calamity for humanity if the sense of embarrassment disappeared, if everybody was an all-rightnik, with an answer to every problem. We have no answer to ultimate problems. We really don't know. In this not knowing, in this sense of embarrassment, lies the key to opening the wells of creativity. Those who have no embarrassment remain sterile."
I suggest we start over and wipe the slate clean. Throw away our mission statements and write down on that clean piece of paper the things that we really, truly want to accomplish in life. Let's start with the small stuff - which is always a good place to start. I propose that we not send any kid across the street to the homeless shelter until he knows Anotinette's name and who she is, where she lives, and what kind of a person she is. Let's not send any kid to the DR until they understand why they are going and what their purpose is down there. And let's change our hiring and promotion and salary practices to reflect what it is that we really believe.
I believe in my heart that we must work harder at connecting service to holiness, to connecting what we do to why we do it, to connecting our lives to the paths of righteousness. To the presidents and vice presidents in the room, I know I only speak for myself, but I urge you to use more faith speech, more God talk. It's okay, and it doesn't embarrass me or offend me or distress me. Let's start budget meetings with a prayer. Let's start administrative team meetings with a prayer. Hell, let's start basketball games with a prayer. It's okay with me.
It may be corny to close with a song snippet, but it's just too good a song to ignore and the words are too perfect. In the concluding scene of the musical "Les Mis" - Fantine and Eponine appear as angels to the dying Jean Val Jean, and together they sing -
"Take my hand, and lead me to salvation;
That's the one true message that must be in our mission statements. "Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself, I am the Lord." And what happens if we live out this commandment? It's pretty clear to me: to love another person is to see the face of God. May you all continue to see the face of God each day as you fulfill the important work you do in Jesuit universities. Thank you, God bless you.