The Role of Ignatian Leadership in Shared Governance

By Ronald Dufresne

When I was elected president of the faculty senate at Saint Joseph’s University two years ago, I immediately found myself in the “in action” part of “contemplatives in action.” I had previously written about Ignatian leadership (Journal of Jesuit Business Education, 2015) and regularly teach about applying Ignatian spirituality to leadership practice in my leadership classes. Taking on the role of faculty senate president would allow me to practice in a formal shared governance position that which I had spent years contemplating.

I took on the faculty leadership role with the belief that living our Jesuit mission and identity extends far beyond how we educate our students. Our Jesuit mission and identity also should be reflected in how our universities are administered and led, and in how faculty engage in the process of shared governance. Throughout my time as president of the faculty senate, I have tried to keep in mind what I see as critical Ignatian leadership practices of discernment in service of action, indifference, and presuming good intent in others.

A common refrain in our governance-related conversations is that we need to be more nimble to respond to a rapidly-changing higher education landscape – likely a frequent refrain in all other colleges and universities. What Ignatian discernment tells us is sometimes the best way to speed up is to slow down. Listening with intent to understand both consolations and desolations allows us to see more readily the complexity of issues, the roadblocks that may emerge, and the stakeholders who ought to be included. Ultimately, discernment affords a more complete understanding of the issues and leads to more readily implemented action plans.

At Saint Joseph’s University, we recently announced the opening of the School of Health Studies and Education, which represents a change to organizational structure that fits with our strategic plan. In the process of determining the effects of this change on governance structures, our Faculty Policies and Procedures Committee, led by Dr. Clint Springer, engaged in a disciplined discernment of consolations and desolations regarding various governance approaches. While it took a few meetings to work through, the result was much more “nimble” than a rushed, haphazard attempt to come up with a quick solution to a complex set of principles and interests.

Having a clear mission and purpose affords us the opportunity to exercise Ignatian indifference. Of course, to be indifferent – as applied to the work of shared governance – does not mean to be uncaring or apathetic. Instead, it means being so committed to the purpose, that is, the “why?” that we are willing to be open regarding the “how.” Personally, I find this difficult to apply to those areas about which I am passionate. I have spent my professional life, both serving in the U.S. Army and in higher education, devoted to leadership development. Yet while I have strong opinions informed by theory and practice, I know I don’t have all the answers, so I need to be willing to let go of my approach should a better approach serve the purpose.

The faculty of Saint Joseph’s have been engaged this academic year in conversations about how we can, in our role as stewards of the curriculum, continue to advance our mission of being a community that is a welcoming and inclusive space for all students. We are blessed with many passionate and committed colleagues, and the Ignatian ideal of indifference has afforded us a path where we can contemplate scores of ideas and approaches, all while being willing to let go of “my” idea in service of the cause of collaboratively developing a better idea on how to advance the mission. Similarly, we begin every faculty senate meeting with a moment of silent reflection to center ourselves on our purpose, to advance the mission; doing so tends to help remind us of the indifference we need to hold our opinions lightly and determine how best to serve our students and colleagues.

School of Health Studies and Education , St. Joseph’s University.

School of Health Studies and Education, St. Joseph’s University.

Another aspect of living the mission in shared governance is to presume good intentions on the part of others. The Ignatian ideal of finding God in all things means there is goodness everywhere, not only in the ideas of colleagues with whom we agree, but also in the colleague’s idea that, on first blush, might not make sense to us. Collegial conversations require us to listen to each other, and we can do so only if we think the other has a perspective worthy of my attention. When senior administrators set the objective of announcing the new School of Health Studies and Education by the summer of 2018, we knew we faced considerable work to meet the deadline. Viewing each other with the presumption of good intent helped us see this timeline as a helpful deadline for focusing our efforts.

These Ignatian leadership practices – discernment, indifference, and presuming good intent in others – support shared governance work and help us pursue our purpose. Please don’t think we at Saint Joseph’s have it all figured out, though, because we don’t. When stakes are high, when resources are constrained, and when perspectives are far apart, it can be difficult to keep these practices front-of-mind. However, when we do attend to these practices, our shared governance process is made more effective, and we breathe deeper life into the Jesuit mission of our university.

Ronald Dufresne, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management and director of the Leadership, Ethics, & Organizational Sustainability Program at Saint Joseph’s University.