Jesuit Universities Respond to the Complexities of DACA

By Vana Zervanos, Associate Dean for the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University

Vana Zervanos (Saint Joseph’s University)

Throughout American history, higher-education institutions have confronted political and cultural issues by taking bold action to elevate the moral character of our nation and the quality of life of its citizens. In recent years, I have witnessed, with both admiration and bewilderment, how institutions have responded to such issues that have attracted the attention of the academy.

One leader might take the initiative to set the moral standard on a matter, while another might do the moral minimum or nothing at all. By realizing the potential of the mission, identity and values that they espouse, Jesuit colleges and universities have the opportunity to respond to the cultural exigencies of our time in a distinct way.

I currently serve as associate dean for the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Over the past few years, I have conducted research for a study as part of my doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. My study, On Mission and Political Purpose in Higher Education Institutions: How Two Jesuit Universities Responded to the Complexities of DACA, investigated the actions that Georgetown University and Loyola University Chicago took to respond to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and how their presidents used levers of leadership that moved the institutions productively forward.

In 2016, Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J. was elected as the Jesuit Superior General during the Thirty-Sixth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. Shortly after his election, Fr. Sosa delivered an address in which he noted that an abundant life includes “plunging into the broad range of skins and cultures that make up humanity.” Committed to the process of reconciliation, universities must also experience “the tensions of social and cultural complexity” of daily life. He also asserted that Jesuit universities have a responsibility to prepare students to be active citizens and to participate in political processes. Fr. Sosa made a striking emphasis on connecting one’s identity with a broader purpose of higher education through political engagement: “Being called upon to make a direct commitment in politics involves placing oneself at the service of reconciliation and justice.”

Institutional mission and a rich tradition and values, much like those espoused by the Jesuits, can help to frame an institutional commitment toward political responsibility. Through my study, I wanted to investigate how Jesuit institutions responded to DACA both in the public eye and behind the scenes, and how their leaders navigated such politically contentious terrain. Moreover, I was interested in uncovering how leaders’ actions helped to empower a community and activate possibilities that were previously unrealized.

Both Georgetown and Loyola Chicago were institutions that grappled with culturally complex issues to support their campus communities. They were determined to change policy, and they did all that they could within the confines of the law to support, protect and advocate for DACA students. Leaders at both institutions achieved the best results by balancing the everyday, tactical or instrumental approaches of leadership with those that were more symbolic.

A comprehensive breadth of services and resources demonstrated an institutional commitment to DACA, many of which were unprecedented for Jesuit institutions. Rhetorically, presidents spoke the language of welcoming undocumented students into their communities through speeches, position statements and town halls. Tactically, they made practical decisions that instrumentally fulfilled a larger vision to support, resource and enhance educational opportunities for DACA students. This vision was one that was clear to campus constituents — one that unleashed the talents and bold ideas of others, activated agency of students, elevated discourse and awareness about immigration rights, and exemplified a fidelity to mission.

While there was certainly a need that institutions addressed, leaders’ actions were not reactionary. In fact, the DACA narrative at both schools started with very few known DACA students. Fundamentally, what motivated leaders to act was the moral imperative to respond to a human rights issue. Viewed by participants as the “Jim Crow of our era,” undocumented student rights was not an issue that required debate or caused hesitation. Presidents confronted the issues they faced by exploring possibilities rather than suppressing them. While I had anticipated that the political controversy around DACA would have tempered leaders’ actions, presidents actively explored rather than avoided tensions.

One fascinating nuance that emerged from the study was the paradox of engaging in advocacy work for DACA students (and thereby putting a spotlight on them), while having the responsibility to protect them from harm. For both institutions, “putting a face to DACA” by using students and their stories put a burden and added responsibility on leaders. To add to the complexity, the students themselves wanted to engage openly and participate in the larger movement. There was a fine line between advocacy and political expediency, but both Georgetown and Loyola Chicago managed to find a balanced position. This dichotomy between protection and self-advocacy was a tension that leaders resolved by viewing DACA students not from a deficiency-based position, but rather an asset-based position, where students were empowered to determine their own destinies. These students directed their agency toward the very institutions that taught them to use it.

Responding to the political exigencies of the day must be valued as a way to elevate discourse, create alliances and build community — a way to offer comfort, renewal and hope. College and university presidents are in a position to be models of moral progress, purveyors of the values they profess and champions for all of their students. In the face of political adversity, leaders must take stock in, represent and live up to their institutional mission. The presidents of Georgetown and Loyola Chicago turned obstacle into opportunity. They created clarity in a politically contentious and confusing time and in doing so, they have provided an example of consummate leadership.


As the House Judiciary Committee prepares to mark up H.R. 6, the Dream and Promise Act of 2019, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) encourages all students, faculty, staff and alumni of the nation’s 28 Jesuit institutions to contact their members of Congress and ask for their support to protect DACA students, as well as those who benefit from TPS and DED. Click here to contact your member today.