Meet the women leaders who are transforming Jesuit higher education

Photos, cards and news clippings lie beneath a pane of glass on the surface of a conference table in an office in Syracuse, N.Y. Science textbooks and a Pope Francis picture book sit alongside a microscope, an old laboratory scale and a basketball on book shelves along the wall. And on a nearby windowsill are 28 hats, one for each of the Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States.

The office belongs to Linda LeMura, the president of Le Moyne College and the first laywoman to serve as president of a Jesuit college or university. She seems at home here, warmly confident and welcoming, but it was not a role she originally imagined for herself. “I thought that in my lifetime I would see a female lay president of a Jesuit college,” she said in a recent interview with America. “Honestly, it did not occur to me that it would be Le Moyne, and I can assure you I never, ever thought about being president of Le Moyne.”

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It is only relatively recently in the history of Jesuit education that lay presidents of colleges and universities became a reality. In 2001, John J. DeGioia became president of Georgetown University, the first lay person appointed to the role. His was a historic appointment, but it left some alumni concerned. “There was a certain amount of horror among old-time alumni at Georgetown, because [they wondered] ‘How could the school succeed without a Jesuit as president?’” said Michael Sheeran, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. “That was disproved very quickly.”

Today, 16 of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the A.J.C.U. are led by lay presidents, three of whom are women. Since Dr. LeMura’s installation in 2014, Jo Ann Rooney was appointed president of Loyola University Chicago in 2016, and Tania Tetlow was appointed president of Loyola University New Orleans in 2018. Now, Dr. LeMura said, “It makes my heart sing that there’s three of us.”

“Each one has that job, because she is simply the best that there is for that position.”

Although these women make up a relatively small percentage of the university presidents, they already are making an impact at their own schools and beyond. Their perspectives as lay women professionals in leadership has brought needed skills to their institutions and created opportunities to clarify their institutions’ Jesuit mission and identity.

The Need for a New Leadership Style

Colleges and universities today face increasingly challenging circumstances, as they try to prepare students for a changing job market while maintaining a free exchange of ideas. They must be diverse and inclusive and—perhaps most challenging of all—keep a college affordable and accessible while providing the best education possible. Many small, private colleges have closed or consolidated, including several Catholic colleges. Wheeling Jesuit University announced in April that it will end its Jesuit affiliation after this academic year. It will remain open but with major cuts.

Responding to such challenges requires collaboration. Dr. LeMura is quick to say that solving these problems is a group effort, and she puts great trust in her staff. “My job is different from the first year I became president,” Dr. LeMura said. “In order to do what I have to do in the modern presidency, I can’t control all those things nor would you want me to.”

In 2016, Dr. LeMura appointed Karin Botto as the assistant vice president for Human Resources and Organization Development. Ms. Botto said this desire to share power and decision making is important for all leaders formed in an Ignatian model, not just college presidents. No leader will have all the answers, she said, but the best leaders in the future will be those who can “tap the potential of all the other people in the room” and discern together.

“I don’t know that that’s masculine or feminine, but I do think it touches on some probably more traditionally feminine qualities, like deep listening, emotional intelligence, connecting with others,” Ms. Botto said. Anyone can demonstrate these qualities, she said, but they are only beginning to be recognized and appreciated in leadership.

"I think we’re on the brink of really creating a lived experience of the theology of the laity."

And Ms. Botto should know. She is a founder of the Ignatian Leadership Program, which trains educators, administrators and other leaders of Jesuit organizations to incorporate Ignatian spirituality into their work. Its foundational principles include using the examen (a way of praying that invites one to find God working in one’s daily life) to know oneself and discern, striving for the magis (the idea of doing more for Christ and neighbor) and working humbly within a wider community.

Having worked with Dr. LeMura for about three years, Ms. Botto said she has observed the warmth, connectedness, energy, positivity and passion that permeates Dr. LeMura’s leadership. And she says there is a particular mode of Dr. LeMura’s style, one she turns on in difficult situations, becoming “almost like a basketball coach” to really encourage staff, students and parents. This way of proceeding makes sense given Dr. LeMura’s years playing basketball for Niagara University, where she studied biology and education. Now, teamwork is required to navigate a rapidly changing academy.

Thinking Beyond the Jesuits

The number of Jesuits in the United States was cut by more than half between 1982 and 2010. Broadening the frame of who can be hired as president of a Jesuit school opens the door to more talent, more lay people with expertise in areas inside and outside education. David McCallum, S.J., is the vice president for Mission Integration and Development at Le Moyne. He said he has seen a shift in the way mission is expressed and experienced as more laypeople are hired for top leadership positions. He was first a student at Le Moyne (class of 1990) and returned in 2009 as an assistant to the president and a professor. In 2009, Le Moyne was led by a lay president, Fred P. Pestello.

“I was really lucky to have phenomenal Jesuit professors,” Father McCallum said of his days as a student at Le Moyne. “But the funny thing was, except for a course I took on the Society of Jesus, we never talked about Ignatius. There wasn’t a lot of attention to Ignatian spirituality per se…. There’s something that is harder to name or to express.”

He said that has shifted under lay presidents, and now people are more often called to look inward and think about their own place in the mission of the school. “Dr. LeMura...I would say, and the Jesuit community here agrees, is probably the most Jesuit leader we’ve had,” Father McCallum said. “When we find the right colleagues in mission, who are not afraid to to make this an explicit part of their leadership and are really inspired and mission-driven in the way that we operate, they actually have more influence in inspiring other colleagues to do the same.”

“Were they ready for a layperson first of all? And were they ready for a female layperson?”

A Process of Discernment

Today about 30 percent of college presidents in the United States are women. By comparison, the U.S. House of Representatives is 23.4 percent women, and less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a female chief executive officer. Although the increase in lay and female presidents of Jesuit colleges and universities correlates with a decline in the number of Jesuits, the hiring of lay women to lead these institutions is not a back-up plan. “Each one has that job because she is simply the best that there is for that position,” said Father Sheeran.

Jo Ann Rooney, president of Loyola University Chicago, said that when she learned that the job was open, her interest was piqued by the breadth of programs and the school’s commitment to its Jesuit, Catholic identity. She wanted the job, but given that the university had only had Jesuit presidents, she wondered: “Were they ready for a layperson, first of all? And were they ready for a female layperson?” But, she says, her concerns were quickly allayed. “I talked to a number of Jesuits that I had known for many years,” Dr. Rooney said. “I was met with great encouragement that, yes, the time was right.”

“One of the geniuses of the Jesuits has been to develop a deeper talent pool,” said Janet Sisler, vice president for Mission Integration at Loyola University Chicago. “And a talent pool that has been formed and informed by the Jesuit way of proceeding.” Ms. Sisler has played a key role in that formation and is in the process of directing their Mission Priority Examen.

At the request of the superior general of the Society of Jesus, Arturo Sosa, S.J., all of the schools in the A.J.C.U. are undergoing this examen process. The goal is for each school to set a few concrete ways in which it will live out the Jesuit mission more fully. Ms. Sisler has organized over 80 focus groups involving 900 people associated with Loyola University Chicago, including members of the board of trustees, staff, faculty, students, alumni and volunteers to guide the school’s mission in an act of communal discernment.

“What, specifically, makes a college or university Jesuit and/or Ignatian?”

The Mission Priority Examen and Dr. Rooney’s presidency have both been occasions to strengthen and clarify what it means to be a Catholic, Jesuit university. Dr. Rooney has made articulating the school’s unique mission a priority. “I think we’re on the brink of really creating a lived experience of the theology of the laity, and I think Dr. Rooney has taken that as a very serious part of her charge—that she should be not only a model of a Jesuit way of proceeding but also a model of leadership for the church to address some of the inherent downsides of clericalism,” Ms. Sisler said. “She always starts everything with thanking people. St. Ignatius’ prayer of generosity, it flows right through her veins.”

And it is not just her Ignatian formation that makes Dr. Rooney well suited for her job. She previously served as president of Spalding University in Louisville, Ky. for eight years and helped the school turn a financial corner. “At Spalding we really did look at: Who are our students? And how can we meet them where they are?” Dr. Rooney said.

This led to more evening and weekend classes, accelerated adult learning programs that combined online and classroom sessions, year-round course offerings and block session scheduling, in which students took one to two courses at a time in five to six week blocks—allowing students to break from school, work seasonal jobs and return to school without losing momentum or missing a full semester. She is now looking for ways to innovate at Loyola Chicago.

In the fall of 2016, Loyola University of Chicago began offering a weekend program for students earning law degrees. Dr. Rooney said she sees these programs as vital to meeting Loyola students where they are, and she hopes the university can build on them and offer more certificate programs and “bootcamp” style workshops for people who are already in the workforce. “For me, it’s about opening the doors to education and creating access,” Dr. Rooney said.

“How will Jesuit schools in the U.S. live their Jesuit and Catholic mission—as colleges and universities—in even more authentic ways, going forward?”

Managing a university also means considering the needs of faculty and staff. In April 2018, the school’s adjunct and nontenured faculty held a one-day walkout when the school and union representatives could not reach an agreement. The school reached an agreement later that month with faculty, who are represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 73. In April 2019, seven Loyola students were arrested protesting the university’s decision not to recognize the graduate student union.

Loyola Chicago officials say that they will not recognize the graduate student’s union because their primary status with the university is as students and unionizing would change relationships between students and professors. “Catholic Social Teaching requires that organizations, including colleges and universities, find methods to achieve their social ends and protect the common good,” Dr. Rooney said. “We work diligently to make sure aid packages for graduate student assistants are equitable and market competitive, and we have made a number of enhancements to aid packages in recent years.”

All for Mission

Several people I spoke with who work in mission said that no matter how strong the connection of a lay person may be to the Jesuits, when the leader of a Jesuit institution is not a Jesuit, there is a renewed need to define the mission, to articulate the school’s Jesuit identity. “There is no substitute for the transformative power of Jesuits in the classroom or in student life,” Tania Tetlow, president of Loyola University New Orleans said. “In terms of how we handle that, it’s got to be about formation.”

As an order, Jesuits have intentionally sought to provide formation for lay leaders, both men and women, through programs like the Ignatian Colleagues Program and the Magis Program. But Ms. Tetlow arrived at Loyola New Orleans having already had the sort of immersion in Jesuit and Ignatian life that can’t be taught. Although she never studied or worked at Loyola University New Orleans prior to her presidency, Ms. Tetlow has attended Mass at the university’s Ignatius chapel since she was 6 years old and sang in the choir there. Many in her family, including both her parents, studied and taught at Loyola. “My guess is that she has heard at least 10,422 Jesuit homilies,” said Joseph Tetlow, S.J., of his niece. Loyola New Orleans “was like home to her,” Father Tetlow said, and serving as president “was a spiritual call.”

In addition to being steeped in the mission, Ms. Tetlow is well qualified to deal with one of the most pressing concerns at universities today: sexual assault. Ms. Tetlow is a graduate of Harvard Law School and previously worked to improve the New Orleans Police Department Sex Crimes Unit. She also directed Tulane University’s Domestic Violence Law Clinic and has advised law clinics in other countries on domestic violence policy.

In November 2018 Betsy DeVos proposed changes to Title IX that would require cross-examinations for sexual assault accusations and prevent universities from handling cases of sexual misconduct that involved students but took place off-campus. Ms. Tetlow offered insight into some of the problems with these proposed changes, which the A.J.C.U. addressed in a letter in January. “The investigatory model, which much of the world uses in its criminal justice systems, is a better way to really find out what happened,” she said. “Adversarial models and cross-examination often test more about a witness’s emotional state and how they handle stress than they help to determine the truth.”

Ms. Tetlow has faced difficult choices in her first year as president. Loyola University New Orleans was put on a one-year probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges in December 2018. Loyola New Orleans is still accredited, but the school will need to maintain a balanced budget for the fiscal year to get off probation. The school’s budgeting issues stem from a particularly weak year of enrollment in 2013 followed by several years of deficit. The regional accrediting body wanted the budget balanced last year, which the school failed to do, but Ms. Tetlow said the school is on track to operate within a balanced budget for the current year. “We’ve already done the hard work to get off probation quickly,” she said.

Moving forward, she wants Loyola New Orleans to build on its roots: Jesuit social justice and New Orleans creativity. “We’re going to build on our strengths in the creative industries—like music and design—and try to harness the power of innovation and entrepreneurship that’s really driving New Orleans right now,” she said.

The Way Forward

Back in Dr. LeMura’s office, the groundbreaking president describes herself as someone who likes to “move fast” and “try new things,” qualities that sometimes bump up against the often slower pace of the academy and the church but are essential for meeting the demands of a college presidency.

Fundraising to keep up with the rising cost of higher education is always a challenge, but it is especially difficult at a “young” school like Le Moyne. Le Moyne was founded in 1946, so the school has had less time to grow its endowment. The college’s early classes of alumni are now reaching retirement, so Le Moyne is beginning to have alumni include the school in their estate planning. The demands on the president to travel for fundraising have also expanded, as alumni spread out across the country. “I try as best I can to spend time with students. That’s the one area that’s suffering the most. I have to do other things. I have to raise money now, especially because our college is coming of age,” Dr. LeMura said.

Dr. LeMura said she expects Jesuit schools, institutions of the church and the academy, to continue embracing women leaders and for that to make a difference: “It probably won’t be long before there’s four of us, and then there’s a critical mass where, when we’re sitting around the table, we can really have some conversations that integrate a whole new way of thinking and collaborating.”

John Mack
1 week 5 days ago

"I do think it touches on some probably more traditionally feminine qualities, like deep listening, emotional intelligence, connecting with others" .... These were the qualities of all the old Irish-American Pastors and priest I encountered in my long ago youth. Before the conservative rigid know-it-all cranks took over.

John Mack
1 week 5 days ago

It's time for women leaders at all-boys Jesuit high schools too. I speak as the graduate of one of them. Dean of Discipline might be a good start.

J Jones
1 week 5 days ago

Emma, thank you for this article. I am increasingly puzzled that the female writers America is publishing increasingly fit these categories: topics are motherhood and reproductive health politics and faith reflections. Increasingly these women mothers of lots of kids and homeschooling is common.

Rare are pieces by women on other topics and exceedingly rare are theological or spiritual writings by women who identify as one of the dozens and dozens and dozens of Roman Catholic sisters who are theologians, academics, professionals, directors of spirituality centers, spiritual directors, social justice activists, preachers, writers, artists, musicians, parish administrators on and on and on.

America is giving us women's voices when they are pro-life mothers. So THANK YOU for one of the very very very very rare articles about women that doesn't mention motherhood so often that whole thing glows Virgin Mary blue.

John Walton
1 week 5 days ago

You missed Fordham College at Rose Hill's engaging Dean, Maura Mast, Professor of Mathematics from the University of Massachusetts who joined the University as Dean of the Rose Hill College in 2015.

Ken Osis
1 week 4 days ago

Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit is a Catholic university founded by members of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, the Spiritans, and sustained through a partnership of laity and religious.

From this place has spread throughout the world such a movement of the Holy Spirit that it justifies having at least one Catholic University. What good are the others when they seem no different from all the other institutions who cosset and coddle young adults as if they were children and feed them low intensity, undemanding scholarship which is consistent with the spirit of the secular times and very politically correct?

Will any of these women foster the growth of the Catholic faith in the way that the place above has done?

At a minimum, no safe spaces and no transgender sharing of toilets or sporting arenas, no situational ethics or radical feminism, no Marxist Catholic Social Justice teaching, no intersectionality or racially segregated dorms and graduations and no riots against visiting speakers

JOHN GRONDELSKI
1 week 2 days ago

It's nice that there are female presidents, but I detect a real note of denial on the part of the Society. Jesuit schools aren't going to be Jesuit without Jesuits, no matter how much we yap about "cura personalis" and "magis" and any other Latinate we want to drum up to obscure the reality that the Society has hemorrhaged its presence in academe over those years and, instead of acknowledging the hemorrhage, insists on applying a bandaid and "all will be well." When I attended Fordham in 1981-85, the majority of the theology department, where I earned my graduate degrees, was Jesuit; today it is not. That phenomenon is found across AJCU theology departments, with few exceptions. Pace those who insist that the 32nd General Congregation was practically Vatican III, I note my dissent: that the Society went from superlative academic mission to running South Bronx soup kitchens was not progress but regress and hardly "justice' in a world that needs rigorous Catholic intellectuals.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
2 days 13 hours ago

Nice article. AMDG.

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