Discernment in Action: How a Modern University Rewrote its Mission Statement by Going Back to its Ignatian Roots

By Christopher Brooks, Erin Brigham, Monica Doblado, and Evelyn Rodriguez: In fall 2020, we were invited by University of San Francisco president Fr. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., to rewrite the University’s mission statement.

At first, it seemed like a strange time to consider such a task — we were fully remote, with our country in the midst of a pandemic, a racial reckoning, and ongoing threats to our democratic process, situated amid the backdrop of a climate crisis that had left the sun blocked by wildfire smoke. We were struggling with the same financial and existential crises that struck so many universities, leaving morale and faculty-staff-administration relationships deeply damaged.

We found, however, that USF had often rewritten its mission statement in times of crisis, and realized that we could use this process as a way to bring the community together in a conversation about who we want to be as a whole. For the first time, the statement would be written not by a Jesuit senior administrator, but by a team of lay faculty and staff. We decided to lean into this idea and write a statement that reflected as many voices as possible and articulated a collectively shared mission. In doing so, we learned these lessons:

Know thyself

A mission statement is a way for a community to understand itself more fully, and articulate both who it is and who it dreams of being. For the writing team, this meant that we needed to hear these things from the community in a deep and fundamental way before we could begin.

We chose to use communal discernment as a way to hear our community’s voices. We wanted to create as many spaces as possible for participants to share and reflect on what USF’s mission meant to them, where they felt seen, and where they felt unnoticed. Because of the pandemic, all sessions were conducted remotely; while this created a separation among the participants, the dynamics of Zoom meetings, with one speaker and fewer interruptions and side conversations, turned out to be a nice fit for communal discernment.

We began by inviting anyone in the USF community, including faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community partners, to participate in communal reflection around the current mission statement. These sessions were led by members of the Mission Council, and intended to help us understand both what needed to be changed in the current statement and, just as importantly, what needed to stay.

Armed with this information, the writing team then developed an initial draft for a new mission statement. We shared this draft with the entire USF community, and invited everyone back for a second round of collective discernment, this time focused on the new statement. These conversations with the community allowed us to focus and refine our language, address ambiguities, and make sure that all voices were heard and reflected as the writing team used this feedback to create the final version of the mission statement, which was then approved by the president and board of trustees.

Listen deeply

Inclusion and participation are core values at USF. However, the inequities perpetuated by hierarchical systems such as higher education can create barriers to the full actualization of these values.

We wanted to interrupt business as usual at our discernment sessions so each person would fully participate and feel heard. Collective discernment provided a highly structured process of listening that involved each person sharing in turn while others listened without comment or response.

When we laid the ground rules at the beginning of the session, facilitators acknowledged that the process could feel awkward. Some people would want to talk when others were speaking. Others would feel uncomfortable being the center of attention during their time to share. What we discovered, however, is that this structured process decentered dominant voices, slowing down the conversation to make room for silence and reflection, and allowed everyone to feel heard. After the initial round of sharing and a pause, we invited participants to name something they heard that struck them as significant. Recurring themes would often emerge, signaling something to which we needed to pay closer attention.

Start with gratitude

We invited participants to share areas of consolation and desolation. We unpacked these terms at the beginning of each session, describing consolation as an experience of gratitude, integration, closeness, belonging, balance, or freedom. Desolation, we suggested, might show up as anxiety, tension, isolation, imbalance, or fear.

We observed two things worth noting. First, many people wanted to go immediately to places of desolation and second, there was a temptation to remain in the headspace without naming movements of the heart. This is an understandable phenomenon in an academic setting, where many of us are well-trained critical thinkers, comfortable with critique and intellectual debate. Ignatian discernment helped to short-circuit this tendency; it does not ask us to leave our critical brains at the door, but rather it engages us as whole persons through our minds, bodies, and affective dimensions.

Gently reminding participants to start with concrete memories that evoked gratitude helped participants engage the full range of their experiences, not as objective critics, but whole persons. Beginning with gratitude and consolation also allowed us to frame the conversation around hopes and values; desolation then pointed to those areas where we fall short in living up to our values, as opposed to the daily annoyances and frustrations we might be tempted to focus on.

Center voices from the margins

The newest iteration of USF’s mission statement is the first in our institution’s history to make explicit that we are composed of multiple campuses, and the first among the AJCU’s member institutions to acknowledge that our campuses reside on native lands.

Both these declarations are features of the revised statement that have resonated widely and deeply with community members, and are the outcome of our writing team practicing the Jesuits’ apostolic preference to “walk with the excluded.”

At the beginning of this process, we revisited USF’s Campus Climate Survey, conducted four years ago. This allowed us to identify affinity groups to invite to discernment sessions and also allowed us to take note of communities the survey identified as particularly in need of spaces to amplify their voices and concerns. It also reinforced the need for a process centered deeply on listening to fellow community members and creating room for honoring each other’s voices through quiet reflection, and drew our attention to what was said by those with less dominant voices.

This preferential option for the quieter among us is what allowed us to identify USF’s desire to precisely name the diverse groups included and welcomed into our ever-expanding community, in spite of some wishing to keep the new statement as brief as possible. It is also how we were able to recognize the need to create a statement that unambiguously notes that we are no longer geographically contained in one city, that our campuses inhabit native lands, and that we strive for humility as we seek to help create a more humane and just world.

“Trusting that listening carefully to those who feel most vulnerable, or even estranged, allowed us to craft a more inclusive mission statement that better reflects how all members of our community understand USF and its charge to be a force for change.”

— Christopher Brooks, Erin Brigham, Monica Doblado, and Evelyn Rodriguez

Remember your role

If the mission statement was truly to reflect the institution’s shared ideals, values and identity, it needed to be written with a collective perspective.

This was a challenge as a writing team — we needed to be able to hear what was being said, listen beyond the words to the hopes and fears, then find ways to condense and articulate that, while not falling in love with our own words along the way.

We had to balance the importance of our role in expressing and articulating the mission with the responsibility of representing and speaking for the entire community, which requires a great deal of humility and the willingness to share in the creative act. This meant that we also needed to discern, to reflect carefully on what was being said and why, and to honor that by sincerely attempting to capture the desires and sentiments that were expressed.

Communicate with transparency and persistence

Because everyone digests information differently, it was crucial to communicate our revision process in a variety of ways, including emails, meetings, and personal invitations. This also meant meeting our community members where they were, and being prepared for the full spectrum of people’s reactions.

Some participants were skeptical and hesitant to voice their thoughts around the mission statement, while others felt very comfortable sharing what was on their hearts and minds. We leaned on repetitive and consistent messaging that it was okay to acknowledge feelings of consolation and desolation at the same time. Using the Ignatian discernment framework helped to alleviate the skepticism and fears some of our community members may have been experiencing.

In order to encourage the community to engage in the process, we also recorded video messages to help explain our intentions and personalize the invitation to participate in the revision process. The goal of our outreach strategy was for everyone at USF to be so well-informed about the process that they would complain about how much they heard about it.

Carpe diem

We knew that there would never be a “perfect” time for this process. Rather, we decided to use the process to address the challenges of the present time.

Although our university was remote for the 2020–21 academic year, the revision process became a way to bring the community together around a shared conversation and foster healing. The discernment sessions provided connection and conversation with colleagues from across the university in a time of isolation, darkness and despair.

The result

This intentional, collaborative, transparent process has led us to a single coherent mission statement that, we believe, captures who we are, who we strive to be, and our shared purpose as a community, calling out to our past and describing our future.

It could only come from our shared voices, speaking together those values and ideals that we all seek to embody and make real.

University of San Francisco (USF) alumnus Jason Trimiew (above), shares his perspective during a USF Alumni Weekend panel discussion exploring the successes and challenges of black alumni in the tech sector. Photo courtesy of the University of San Francisco.

The new mission statement

Since 1855, the University of San Francisco has dedicated itself to offering a daring and dynamic liberal arts education in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition. As a community, we empower and hold accountable our students, faculty, librarians, staff, administrators, alumni, and community partners to be persons for and with others, to care for our common home, including the native lands on which our campuses reside, and to promote the common good by critically, thoughtfully, and innovatively addressing inequities to create a more humane and just world.

We seek to live USF’s Mission by nurturing a diverse, ever-expanding community where persons of all races and ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, genders, generations, abilities, nationalities, occupations, and socioeconomic backgrounds are honored and accompanied. We are committed to educating hearts and minds to cultivate the full, integral development of each person and all persons; pursuing learning as a lifelong humanizing and liberating social activity; and advancing excellence as the standard for teaching, scholarship, creative expression, and service. Inspired by a faith that does justice, we strive to humbly and responsibly engage with, and contribute to, the cultural, intellectual, economic and spiritual gifts and talents of the San Francisco Bay Area and the global communities to which we belong.

Christopher Brooks is a professor of Computer Science at the University of San Francisco and a member of the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education. Erin Brigham is executive director of the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition at USF. Monica Doblado is program manager in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at USF. Evelyn Rodriguez is an associate professor of Sociology at USF.

The featured cover photo (above) is courtesy of the University of San Francisco.

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Distinctly unique to Jesuit education is the emphasis on teaching “the whole person” — mind, body, and spirit.

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