Collaboration at the Heart of Mission: A Laywoman's View of Jesuit Higher Education

By Barbara Busse

In the spirit of advancing conversation, this article revisits "Just Listen: The Situation of Women in Jesuit Higher Education” (Conversations 29, Spring 2006). Acknowledging progress, greater opportunities for women in Jesuit higher education remain. Most familiar with local issues, I discuss Loyola Marymount University, not because progress and unrealized opportunities are limited to one university.

Decree 14 of the 34th General Congregation described discrimination against women as a "universal reality," oppression "embedded within the economic, social, political, religious, and even linguistic structures of our societies" (GC 34, Decree 14, 1995). The article "Just Listen..." made two specific recommendations: "Assure that women are equitably represented in significant conversations at Jesuit universities"; and "Create a learning environment that directly addresses the situation of women as a central educational objective of Jesuit higher education.” Were these recommendations more fully realized, both women and men would be better positioned to contribute to the vitality of American Jesuit higher education, advancing the common good far beyond our campuses.

We begin in gratitude. Jesuit higher education contributes significantly to post-Vatican II transformation: disseminating a rich body of writing about Church transition; sponsoring professional conferences and public gatherings; experimenting with new structures and developing innovative programming for Jesuit-lay collaboration. Recognizing the vocational call awaiting realization in each person, Jesuits share their charism with laypersons through adapted Spiritual Exercises, immersion and service work. Jesuit education is more accessible than ever for previously underrepresented groups, especially women. Finally, we are heartened by our insightful Jesuit pope who exemplifies inclusivity modeling Gospel truths. Progress invites more to the table, prepares them to reflect prayerfully and discern thoughtfully, and sends them into the world to serve in solidarity with others.  Progress throughout Jesuit higher education is a grace to celebrate.

At LMU, specific evidence of progress is plentiful as growing numbers of laypersons benefit from Spiritual Exercises, experience immersion, and engage in service. Laywomen and women religious administer vibrant centers, advancing Ignatian culture (Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and the Arts; Center for Service in Action; CSJ Center for Reconciliation and Justice). RSHM and CSJ sisters share responsibility with a Jesuit leading the Center for Ignatian Spirituality. Women students, now a majority, disproportionately achieve top academic honors. Women and men collaborate in student government. A laywoman and a Jesuit together lead hiring for mission and diversity efforts, yielding a diverse generation of new faculty and staff. The Office of Mission and Ministry fosters Jesuit-lay collaboration through the Ignatian Colleagues Program, Mission Day activities, Companions in Mission, and Western Conversations. The newly-launched Academy for Catholic Thought and Imagination is led by a faculty layman. Campus Ministry models collaboration in faith sharing and service. Christian Life Communities flourish among students and alumni. Kathy Hannon Aikenhead, a generous and dedicated laywoman, leads LMU's Board of Trustees. Laymen David Burcham and now Timothy Law Snyder serve as LMU presidents. The Ignatian family is alive and well at LMU, yet with abundant unrealized potential.

Pope Francis explained recently:

"The common good is 'the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment'. In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound,. . . the principle of the common good becomes a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters."

Jesuit higher education provides distinctive opportunities to advance the common good Pope Francis described, promoting individual fulfillment and increasing our capacity to serve others, bringing all a step closer to the kingdom of God on earth. While not the only priority, supporting the fulfillment of women is a worthy focus for more work.

How can we achieve equitable representation of women in important decision-making roles and processes? Equitable representation requires two interdependent changes, the first foundational for the second: First, dismantle oppressive structures and eliminate discriminatory behaviors, thus removing barriers that impede women's full development; Second, prepare women to discover and use their distinctive talents and life experiences for the common good.

Women deserve a world free of disproportionate poverty, limited access to education and employment opportunities, physical violence against women's bodies and assaults on their sense of self worth which cause cumulative damage to their spirits. If women and girls are disproportionately subjected to discrimination, their full development is inevitably threatened or tragically denied. Double standards endemic in our culture have proven resistant to change. In Jesuit universities, we still prefer men in top academic leadership roles. LMU'S new core curriculum has an array of requirements, but none specifically exploring women's oppression. Harassment still plagues women on our campuses despite well-meaning prevention campaigns. Women remain overworked and undervalued. Women continue to be denied equitable employment, including professional and civic service opportunities. With little flexibility on tenure clocks and limited family-friendly policies, many academic women experience barriers to their fulfillment unfamiliar to men.

We can do better, with important work for all outlined in GC 35, Decree 6 (2008). “Laity who collaborate in Jesuit apostolates can expect from us (Jesuits) a specific formation in Jesuit values, help in discernment of apostolic priorities and objectives, and practical strategies for their realization." On the part of laity, "collaboration at the heart of mission" (Decree 6), with lay women working alongside Jesuits and others, involves taking "an active, conscientious, responsible part" (GC 34, Decree 13, 1995). There is much to gain: deepening understanding of individual vocation helps laypersons discover distinctive talents and discern ways to use particular talents in service of shared mission. We can more assertively explore potential partnerships beyond our campuses. AJCU might play an even larger role, sharing resources and implementing specific programs to train leaders for Jesuit schools.  As we all experience greater involvement and cooperation in mission, we need to continually assess progress and adapt to new realities to assure that Ignatian values infuse our work.

In preparation for changed relationships, we must explore deep-seated attitudes about ourselves and people different from us, eradicating patterns of thinking that impede authentic partnership. How do pride, exclusivity, social discomfort, complacency or lack of imagination limit fuller collaboration?  Sometimes, Jesuit exceptionalism is mirrored by women's exceptionalism, both fueling the flawed assumption that we alone are best suited for particular work. Changing deep-seated perspectives, we might discover even more ways to employ the distinctive talents and experiences of women and other underrepresented individuals in Jesuit works.

In our needy world, marginalizing women religious, lay women and other laypeople is not merely an individual tragedy, but the loss of collective capacity to serve others. If we authentically value the emerging role of women and laypersons, we foster personal and work relationships reflecting God's love for all. Then our collective capacity to serve the world expands exponentially. Those privileged by Jesuit education can assume substantial responsibility for contributing to the well-being of others, "paying it forward" by passing on Ignatian values and sharing the goods of life with all as a return of God's love for us.  In this way, we complete a sacred circuit, animated by faith, hope, and love.  We come fully alive for God's glory.


Barbara J. Busse recently retired from Loyola Marymount University after 40 productive years of faculty and administrative service. Most recently, following a decade as Dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts, Barbara was named Assistant to the President, working in the Office of Mission and Ministry.