The Mission Leadership Challenge for Trustees

By John J. Hurley and Lee C. Wortham

When it comes to mission and identity, Jesuit colleges and universities ask a lot of their lay trustees. We ask them to promote our Catholic and Jesuit mission. So preparing trustees to execute this duty is a significant challenge, precisely because there are so many dimensions to it.

Trustees must understand what it means to be a Catholic university, as articulated in the apostolic constitution of St. John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and inspired by the Gospels, the Catholic Church’s preferential option for the poor, and Catholic social teaching. The search for truth at the intersection of faith and reason must find its way into the university’s strategic plan, curriculum, outreach activities, and student life. Trustees should understand how the university demonstrates a respect for church teaching and how conflicts between church teaching and academic freedom are reconciled.

Trustees must also understand that for a Jesuit university Ignatian pedagogy is at the heart of the academic enterprise. They need to see how we develop in our students a deep sense of solidarity with and compassion for the marginalized in the world. The publication in 2012 by the presidents of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) and U.S. provincials of Some Characteristics of Jesuit Colleges and Universities: A Self-Evaluation Instrument has helped our schools define what it means to be uniquely Jesuit. And our trustees’ understanding of our Jesuit identity is deepened when they have a personal experience with the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, which are the animating force behind every Jesuit work.

The terms Catholic and Jesuit must be understood within the American higher education context and the shift that began in 1967 with the Land O’Lakes document, “The Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University,” which attempted to articulate how Catholic universities could have true autonomy and academic freedom from lay or clerical control but still be a community of scholars and learners in which “Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.”

Trustees should be familiar with the realms of civil law and canon law as they impact the operation of the university, the ownership of its assets, and its governance. There is the added dimension in the Jesuit universities of the president’s dual role as president of the university corporation under state law and his role as director of the work in the Jesuit governance structure.

And last, but certainly not least, when trustees are asked to exercise their most important duty – the duty to hire and evaluate the president of the university – they need to evaluate how a candidate will fulfill the responsibilities for mission and identity, in addition to being an academic leader, financial manager, strategic planner, and effective fund raiser.

That is a long list of mission demands. How should our universities put their trustees in a position to discharge this significant fiduciary duty?

Mission and identity is one of the areas where the 28 AJCU schools can and do cooperate. There is a wealth of material on the AJCU website, which universities are encouraged to borrow and adapt. There are also online resources on university websites, such as Creighton University’s online 19th Annotation Retreat, that can be used as part of a mission formation experience for trustees. No school needs to reinvent the wheel; it’s a question of determining what will work best with a particular board.

Recent discussions within the board of trustees at Canisius College on this topic provided additional insights as to what our trustees need. Our trustees unanimously agreed that the college’s Catholic and Jesuit identity was an essential part of who we are, that the college must remain Catholic and Jesuit, and that they bear significant responsibility for ensuring that that happens. When viewed from the perspective of corporate governance (for example, the board exercising its responsibility to oversee policies and programs in certain areas), most of our trustees felt prepared to insure that the college has programs, policies, and practices in place that would enhance the college’s mission and identity. But when it came to understanding some of the more complex issues, some trustees expressed a desire for a deeper understanding of the history and traditions of the Jesuits, the essential characteristics of a Jesuit university, and Ignatian spirituality. Trustees who were graduates of the college spoke eloquently of the difference that their Catholic and Jesuit education has made in their personal and professional lives. It was clear that they know what it means.

As we approach formation for mission for our boards, we need to keep in mind that discussions of mission and identity can often be opaque to the newcomer. We can be tempted to assign trustees to read dense essays on complex topics, written in the specialized language that is not part of a lay trustee’s ordinary lexicon. Still, trustees need to appreciate that formation for mission and identity is not always possible through bullet points, power point slides, and executive summaries. They must invest time and effort to engage the issues, the concepts, and the language to develop a deeper understanding. The Spiritual Exercises cannot simply be read; they must be experienced in prayer and reflection .

Whether we approach trustee formation through readings, videos, or live presentations, trustees need to be given the opportunity to engage the material on their own terms. They should be encouraged to trust their own experience and discuss the issues with a vocabulary that is comfortable for them.

When it comes to experiences with Ignatian spirituality, we need to approach trustees in much the same way as we approach our students. There needs to be an invitation into the experience as opposed to a requirement that all trustees participate in a particular program. Offering a range of experiences – from the Examen to the 19th Annotation Retreat – will allow universities to meet individual trustees where they are.

Who bears responsibility for this effort? As with most initiatives, it needs to start at the top. Presidents and board chairs must make it a personal priority and then work with vice presidents or directors of mission and identity and the board to make formation for mission a real priority year in and year out.

Without a significant personal commitment to mission and identity, our universities risk being swept along in a tide of increasing secularization in which our Catholic and Jesuit mission will be diminished. Trustees are on the front line of that defense. We need to provide them with the tools to fight that battle.

John J. Hurley has been president of Canisius College since 2010. Lee C. Wortham is in his second year as chair of the Canisius College board of trustees. Both are graduates of the college.

The cover photo is featured courtesy of Canisius College.