The Jesuit Way Forward

By Jo Ann Rooney, J.D., L.L.M., Ed.D., President of Loyola University Chicago

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney headlined the April 25 gathering of the Jesuit Alumni and Friends Network of Chicago (photo courtesy of Christian Anderson for Loyola University Chicago)

To better speak about the future of Jesuit colleges and universities, it helps to step back and revisit a bit our historical foundation. When we discuss and debate contemporary challenges and opportunities, it is necessary to pause and remember what gave rise to this marvelous mission, which has touched most everyone in this room, and, in many ways, continues to shape our world.

The origin of Jesuit education was, as the Jesuit historian Rev. John W. O’Malley, S.J. says, “…a crucial event in the history of schooling within the Catholic church and in Western civilization.”

Yet, this had not been the Jesuits’ original plan.

The Society was not formed with the idea of creating schools and great centers of learning around the world. In the first years of the Society, St. Ignatius of Loyola resisted the idea of founding and managing schools; he reasoned that to do so would tie their ministry to one geography. A fixed address would impair the heart of the Society’s role as God’s mobile emissaries.

Ignatius knew from his own education at the University of Paris that inquiry and reasoned dialogue were not incompatible with faith. Rather, inquiry and dialogue enlarged and deepened faith. He began to see that aspects of God could be found in all people and places. That spirit of inquiry is supported by the inherent conviction that traces of the divine can be found in things as different as plants, languages and cultures as much as in a chapel. This spiritual experience of being in the world — able to marvel at creation, whether in science, art or philosophy — drove the Jesuits toward an educational mission that was not at all confined by geography but rather, would come to encompass Europe, Asia, Africa and eventually, the New World.

Rev. Stephen Schloesser, S.J., chairman of the History Department at Loyola University Chicago, identifies the primary marker of Jesuit ministries with one simple term: “adaptability.” As often as not, the initial plans of the Jesuits did not work out and they had to adjust according to unanticipated circumstances. We sometimes joke that Ignatius should be the patron saint of “Plan B,” and the image of a Shark Ion Robot vacuum that we see in commercials today can serve as metaphor for the Jesuit way of working. It hits a wall and, instead of being stopped, it turns slightly one way or another to keep working. Eventually it returns to its base station to recharge and begin again. It is the ability to adjust — even the expectation that there are always obstacles and that adaptation is normal — which drives the evolution of Jesuit ministries, including education.

It is no surprise that the innovative Arrupe College recently sprang forth at a Jesuit university like Loyola.

How did Arrupe College come to be? What was the theoretical wall that we bumped into which led to such innovative adaptation? We discovered in our outreach to low-income, minority students — who were often the first in their families to attend college — that they faced daunting obstacles to successfully complete a college degree. Beyond finances, there are an array of educational and social support needs.

Let me share a bit of data to provide some perspective. The national completion rate in community college programs, the path through which these students often come to a four-year college or get their Associate’s degree, is historically very low. Two-year graduation rates are approximately five percent; those figures rise to 28 percent if a student stays three years to complete an Associate’s degree. Illinois is slightly better, with a two-year graduation rate of 17 percent. What could we do?

We went back to our basic mission and founded a two-year, Associate’s degree college on campus. All Arrupe students receive institutionally funded aid and/or merit scholarships, which means that students graduate with little to no debt. Arrupe is designed to educate students in a closely supportive community. Faculty and staff focus their attention on the needs of the whole person.

“Embracing this idea of caring for the whole student means that we have an intrusive style of advising,” Rev. Steve Katsouros, S.J., the founding dean of the college, has repeatedly told us. We pay close attention to not just their progress but also their lives. We accompany them step-by-step and side-by-side, through their post-secondary experience.

The results have been impressive since we started enrolling students in 2015 (the first class graduated last spring). Fifty-two percent of the first cohort graduated within two years and that number went up to 63 percent with the addition of a third year. Arrupe graduates are already enrolled in four-year programs at Loyola, Georgetown, Marquette, Dominican, the University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin among others. Others applied their new Associate’s degrees to good jobs with very promising career paths.

We also face the challenge of changing student demographics. Within the next five years, more than 50 percent of our new students will be older, with different life experiences. At Jesuit colleges and universities, we are well aware of the trend lines and well prepared to meet the needs. The Ignatian Way is an intentional system for lifelong study and education. St. Ignatius was an adult learner: He returned to school later in life to improve his prospects, but also to explore his own being, broaden his understanding of the world, and deepen his connection to God. He started as a 38-year-old in a classroom of teenagers. He persisted to university because he understood what deep study and discussion could do for individual growth. Today we reach out effectively to these kinds of students. Our continuing and professional studies programs are among the highest-ranked in the nation and we can apply what we have learned there to these new and returning students.

In forming their schools, Ignatius and the Jesuits were responding to the needs of the times, to the needs of their local communities, and to the needs of people. In an age of expanding knowledge, global commerce and social mobility, they developed a unified approach to inquiry and would use that method to educate others. They invented and operationalized a system of learning that blended and balanced research and study, contemplation and conversation, with engagement in the world.

Ignatius would come to recognize that rooting the mission to place was not all bad, but another way to bring good into the larger world. The schools became part of the social fabric of the cities in which they were located, and part of the lives of students and families. They educated students from different economic classes and embraced the full range of the sciences and humanities in their curriculum. They taught poetry, oratory and drama to elicit and foster noble ideals. Critics of Jesuit education complained that their students knew Cicero better than they knew Scripture. But the Jesuits were convinced of education’s potential to foster pietas, that is, good character — the “whole person” necessary for a good society.

Today we call this necessary skill “civil discourse,” and it remains at the heart of Jesuit pedagogy.

This mission has shaped lives and changed the world for nearly 500 years. Jesuit education is a momentous legacy, and one that is contemporaneous, alive and vital today. So, coming back to the opening question: How do we maintain that legacy and sustain this vital mission in the 21st century? How do we respond to contemporary challenges to culture, higher education and the Jesuit mission? How do we ensure the highest academic quality and effectiveness in a dynamic, rapidly changing and technology-driven world where instantaneous response and results often feel like the cultural norm?

Like the vacuum cleaner, we return to our base, our core principles, to recharge. We go back to the fundamental ideals, strategies and dynamics that shaped and strengthened our distinctive mission. We remember, in gratitude, the grace that put us here in the first place. When we hit a wall, we find a way to adapt, adjust direction and keep moving.

As did Ignatius, we respond to the needs around us. We anticipate what is around the corner. At a time when the value proposition of higher education is questioned and commodified, we remain focused on providing an education that prepares students for careers, lifelong learning and adaptation. We are steadfast in a commitment to educate the whole person. We think through, together, Plans A, B and C, if necessary, to connect with new generations, to improve and deepen the way we educate, and to transmit and foster new knowledge and ways of thinking — and new ways of serving. Innovation, too, is at the heart of the Jesuit Way.

At a time when science is being challenged and, once again, in some quarters, pitted against faith, Jesuits and Jesuit-educated scientists, scholars, clinicians and researchers continue to engage in inquiry, discovery and healing. Teachers, social workers, attorneys, and business people across the country have been educated in a pedagogy intended to bring together, as closely as possible, objective and ethical truth. Justice, too, is at the heart of our Jesuit mission.

To continue to serve in this powerful way, we must assure our universities remain affordable and accessible to students from all backgrounds. This is a challenge we have handled from the beginning, when Ignatius spoke of the importance of charity and fundraising for his schools. Ignatius told the Jesuits at Perugia in 1552 that the Jesuit schools were for “everybody, poor and rich.”

Jesuit institutions reach out to and enroll large proportions of first-generation students. Our embrace of immigrants and other under-served groups mean that our colleges and universities are powerful catalysts for social and economic mobility. We work hard to keep tuition costs low under pressure from rising operational costs. We strive to be good stewards of resources. The generosity of many who understand the transformative power of a Jesuit education can make the difference between progress and stasis. We energetically seek external support for scholarships and educational innovation. We stay vigilant about the debt levels our students carry.

We continue to work in partnership with communities to apply our resources and expertise to urgent social issues — poverty, racism, economic inequality, K-12 education, health disparities, environmental sustainability and access to healthcare. At Loyola, we collaborate with more than 400 community partners — schools, agencies, nonprofits and corporations — to serve others across the Chicagoland area. Over nearly 150 years, Loyola has become part of the fabric of the city, educating its young people and helping to drive commerce, culture, innovation and social change.

In fractured times, and in a divided society, the Jesuit approach continues its deep and quiet leadership in modeling civil discourse. As we have since the 16th century, we inculcate in students at all levels of study the skills of critical thinking, analytical reasoning and effective communication. We continue to enlarge our outreach and inclusiveness so that our campuses are living examples of our vibrant mission. We continue to send forth graduates to work with the marginalized and push at the frontiers of emerging fields of thought. We are producing future leaders and challenging them to go forth and do good in a multitude of ways. They are united by a common commitment to serve others.

As fewer members of the Society of Jesus populate our faculties and campuses, it is more important than ever that we immerse ourselves deeply in our traditions, methodologies, practices and our active role in the world. Jesuit colleges and universities have become more acutely focused on finding ways to effectively work together, making every Jesuit institution better and stronger. We advocate for DACA students and other immigrants seeking education. We protect and advocate for programs that provide educational opportunity to first-generation students, people of color and low-income students. Jesuit institutions work together energetically to make the economic and social case for college attendance that leads to transformational change, and advocate for programs that make college and professional education possible for all talented students.

As we have done for almost five centuries, we respond to our moment in history by responding to people — individuals, families, employers and communities. In discerning a path forward in an era rich in data and metrics, we have more tools than ever for deepening our outreach. As educators, managers and administrators, we aspire to balance the vision, process and pragmatism of Ignatius. If we do this, we will continue to meet students where they are and educate them for what the world of tomorrow needs them to be.

Ignatius’ schools flourished because they were needed in a time exploding with new knowledge, religious conflict, global commerce, and social and economic mobility. In our age, where these themes remain prominent and the human tumult is experienced through a vast, fragmented array of communications and cultures, there is a hunger for community and constancy. There is a need for a time-tested approach to learning and inquiry that encourages authentic connection, resilience, and a depth of thought and imagination. That sums up the Jesuit Way forward. The future of Jesuit colleges and universities is bright because our mission is so necessary.

We know that God is there ahead of us. If we work guided by the imperatives we set for ourselves early on, we will strengthen our mission and responses to the challenges of today.

I do not want to minimize the array of challenges we will face from multiple fronts. Yet we persevere and our mission remains strong. In a couple of weeks, I will shake thousands of hands at commencement and join with our graduates, their families and supporters, and our faculty and staff. It is the time of year when we see this work come alive so vividly and vibrantly.

Yes, we will and must continue to lead and innovate, reflect and refine, take action and go where we need to go to serve people and society and the greater good. We will work on Plan B and C and D if necessary. That often turns out to be God’s plan after all.

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney delivered these remarks during the spring gathering of the Jesuit Alumni and Friends Network of Chicago on April 25. They are re-published here with permission from Loyola University Chicago (original source: