By Salvador D. Aceves
In our current reality, institutions of higher learning form communities that have dreams and ambitious plans, which allow them to act as a strong force for good within their social-political and economic reality. We have come to expect most institutions to memorialize their aspirations through a concise mission statement. This statement helps give the institution focus by communicating what it considers to be most important.
How is it, then, that the finances of an institution can support its mission? From a financial viewpoint, many institutions develop a budget or a multi-year financial plan, which serves as the blueprint to guide strategic and operational leaders to move the institution towards its chosen path. I have observed many finance units embrace budgeting processes and techniques that align fiscal resources with a defined set of targets reflective of a prioritized list of institutional objectives. While these financial processes can bring clarity and discipline to the many members of the institution who engage in daily activities that interact with both internal and external stakeholders, this approach relies on the implementation phase of the financial plan as the place where the mission and values converge. This time-tested methodology has helped institutions to be mission aligned. We have also seen a tension develop when mission and budget are at two ends of the spectrum, with mission supporting all that is good and the budget becoming a limiting factor.
Perhaps a more interesting path might be to reflect on how our imagination can help capture the essence and authenticity of the mission in the budget. Can we reimagine traditional approaches to the budget creation process and help relieve the perceived tension between mission and budget? Can we embrace cura apostolica (care for the institution) and cura personalis (care for the individual) as a way to frame our conversation? Who at the institution is best able to lead this important work?
Let me begin by suggesting that faculty and staff, in conversation with the campus community, are best positioned to develop a financial plan that ensures mission alignment. However, for faculty and staff to engage in meaningful participation, they must embrace a commitment to think beyond their respective roles and have the courage to confront privilege with humility to ensure that the financial plan stewards resources to privilege the dignity of the human experience.
Crafting a budget should be an iterative process. It is also a process that is strengthened by inviting God into the conversation. One of God’s greatest gifts is the freedom to choose. Therefore, collective choices bring fidelity to the development process. This process recognizes that the university’s financial plan is not a means to an end but, rather, one more articulation of the institution’s mission. The financial plan memorializes that which we believe is true and that which defines us. In this setting, God’s grace can guide the institution’s stewarding of student, donor, and other funding in ways that ensure the prudent use of resources to advance the mission and align the financial plan with its values. A campus community open to God’s will and free from prejudgment must share in a belief that the choices made are for the glory of God.
At my own institution, the university budget committee engages in the process of discernment in designing a missioned-aligned financial plan. The committee is evolving and transforming itself into an entity whereby faculty and staff can let their imaginations flourish. It serves as a place where faculty and staff can respond to Ignatius’ call to consider how God sees us, which is a different perspective from the heretofore more traditional view. It is a place where we connect hearts and minds, as well as break down barriers and cultivate trust.
Guided by Ignatian principles, the budget creation process gives us the opportunity for both grace and consolation in crafting a budget that reaffirms our Jesuit Catholic identity. However, as stated earlier, the budget is not a means to an end but, rather, one more articulation of our mission. Speaking more broadly, institutions have the opportunity to engage in a process that leads to the development of a financial plan that supports a commitment to educate students with the knowledge and skills needed to be men and women in service of others. Jesuit institutions can provide an education that is rooted in the humanities and in a faith that does justice. Perhaps, our best efforts will lead us to create a budget that is ultimately an instrument of love.