Students Hold Us Accountable to the Promotion of Justice

By Mary Kate Holman

As an alumna of two Jesuit schools (Georgetown University B.A. and Boston College M.T.S.) and a current Ph.D. student and instructor at a third (Fordham University), I have been immersed in the spirit and vocabulary of Jesuit education for over a decade. Both consciously and unconsciously, I have been formed by this mission, and I now continue to form my own students in it.

While Jesuit universities grapple with challenges of mission and identity in the 21st century, my experience suggests that there is one part of the mission that thrives: the unabashed commitment our students demonstrate towards social justice. In his famous 1989 address on Jesuit higher education at Georgetown, Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, quoting the Jesuits’ document “Our Mission Today” from General Congregation 32 (1974- 75), identified “the service of faith through the promotion of justice” as a priority of Jesuit education. This central tenet of our universities’ mission is alive and well in the lives of our students.

Georgetown University

Georgetown University

As a theologian, I am likely privy to more mission-oriented conversations with students than my colleagues in other disciplines. Big questions about faith, justice, and values are standard fare for discussions in theology classes. The vast majority of my students, who are not theology majors and have to take my course as a core requirement, still care very deeply about social justice issues. Even – sometimes especially – those who don’t identify with Catholicism articulate commitments to “the promotion of justice.” This generation of students is concerned about ecological sustainability, gender equality, and racial justice; these commitments serve as a helpful launching pad for deeper questions about faith and Jesuit identity.

Students’ deep passion for justice is a university’s greatest asset in holding us accountable to this component of Jesuit mission. When students perceive those entrusted with the mission – that is, the administration – to be compromising or undermining the university’s commitment to justice, they are outspoken in their insistence that our community do better.

While many examples abound, the rights and compensation of adjunct and graduate student instructors have become a fascinating flashpoint for this conversation at my three alma maters. Met with varying levels of responsiveness from the respective administrations, union organizers and their supporters at each school have made explicit recourse to Jesuit identity as justification for their advocacy. Spurred by their care for justice and the common good, Fordham undergraduates staged an unapproved protest on behalf of their instructors in the spring of 2017. The Heights, Boston College’s independent student newspaper, endorsed the graduate student union and featured its organizers as their collective “Person of the Year” for 2016-17. Georgetown’s graduate students have succeeded in persuading the administration to recognize their vote for unionization.

Whether or not students explicitly articulate the link between Jesuit identity and a commitment to justice, it is clear that they have internalized this core value and expect their schools to practice what they preach. As we consider the health of the mission of Jesuit universities, we can be confident that our students will continue to uphold this pillar of Jesuit identity.

Mary Kate Holman is a doctoral candidate and senior teaching fellow in the theology department at Fordham University. Her research focuses on ecclesiology, 20th-century church history, and feminist theology. She holds a B.A. in English from Georgetown University and an M.T.S. from Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.

The cover photo is featured courtesy of Fordham University.