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White-Gravenor Hall at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., the oldest of the 28 Jesuit universities in the United States (iStock/aimintang)White-Gravenor Hall at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., the oldest of the 28 Jesuit universities in the United States (iStock/aimintang)

When asked about the immense challenges facing higher education today, Linda LeMura, the president of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, offered a response of encouragement to all of our Jesuit universities: “This mission has lasted 500 years. Jesuit education has seen plagues, recessions, wars. I know we will get through this.”

Addressing the Covid-19 pandemic and our necessary national reckoning with race require long-term vision and holistic thinking, and leaders at our Jesuit institutions are fortunate to have at their hands a time-tested spiritual and educational tradition grounded in principled decision-making for the greater good.

“Jesuit education has seen plagues, recessions, wars. I know we will get through this.”

But there is no script, no set of “best practices” for leading any institution through a pandemic or a national movement against racism. Ignatian leadership cannot be taught through professional development or executive coaching but emerges out of an ongoing process of formation. Formation is a lifelong process that develops more than a set of skills and best practices; in “Ignatian speak,” it develops a particular “way of proceeding,” a way of approaching the world with thoughtfulness, care, courage and love.

This mission formation is not a luxury. It should be clear now more than ever in our Jesuit universities that Ignatian formation for mission bears fruit not just in “normal” times, but in times of crisis especially. Formational programs for mission—like the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities’ Jesuit Leadership Seminar and Ignatian Colleagues Program—develop university leaders with the kind of understanding sorely needed today by introducing and steeping participants in the following Ignatian principles.

Ignatian formation for mission bears fruit not just in “normal” times, but in times of crisis especially.

Discernment and spiritual freedom. Authentic discernment, or making the best choice among competing good options, requires a deep level of interior freedom. An Ignatian leader is able to sift through the many fears and attachments of the time to prioritize what is really important: the people that our institutions educate, serve and employ. St. Ignatius identified key basic attitudes and qualities for thoughtful discernment: openness, generosity, courage, a habit of reflection, having priorities straight and not confusing means with ends. Are these qualities not precisely the ones needed in leaders today, whether in education, business or politics?

Pursuing the magis. The Ignatian term magis is often confused with “more”: We should do more, we should do better, we should choose the option that boosts our public image or our enrollment numbers or our bottom line. As Barton Geger, S.J., notes, a closer translation is “the more universal good,” tied closely to the phrase ad majorem dei gloriam (“for the greater glory of God”). Our institutions need leaders at all levels committed to making decisions for a good greater than any individual part.

Cura personalis. There is now deep grieving at our schools from lost graduation ceremonies, lost research time and even lost family members. There is deep anger about the lives being lost to racial violence and police brutality. As Jesuit institutions, we have the blessing of approaching grieving and healing from the perspective of faith. Through an understanding of cura personalis (“personal and loving care for the whole person”), Ignatian leaders pursue care beyond academic and physical health needs. An Ignatian leader acts out of the recognition that students, faculty and staff are not just tuition payers or employees but are individuals with vocations, joys and sufferings.

Beyond colleagueship to companionship. Formation programs like the Jesuit Leadership Seminar and Ignatian Colleagues Program are held in groups for a reason. Formation is not an isolated, personal process but a communal one that helps individuals see faculty, staff and students as companions and co-missioners. Unity, trust and the willingness to make sacrifices for others are paramount in times of crisis. The ability to seek out the guidance, advice and cooperation of peers at other Jesuit institutions is an immense benefit at a time when institutions of higher education are focused on individual survival.

In many ways, temporarily closing our Jesuit educational institutions and publicly condemning systemic racism were the easy decisions. It is the immense decisions to come—about how to re-open, to cut costs in an economic crisis, to protect the vulnerable in our communities, to diversify our university communities and empower marginalized voices—that will require leaders steeped in “our way of proceeding,” ready to approach and address any issue or crisis from an Ignatian leadership lens. Especially in these times, formation helps leaders look to the heart of our mission: loving and serving God and one another. Guided by our tradition and common mission, our Jesuit schools can emerge from this pandemic and national unrest not just having survived but having contributed to the greater good of our institutional communities, our nation and our world.

“God’s love calls us to move beyond fear. We ask God for the courage to abandon ourselves unreservedly, so that we might be molded by God’s grace, even as we cannot see where that path may lead us.” These words of St. Ignatius Loyola offer us great consolation and encouragement today, but they are no easy prescription. They require the interior freedom, humility and courage that come from Ignatian formation. As American higher education prepares for an uncertain future, it is our hope that strong examples of mission-driven leadership will make clearer than ever that mission formation is a necessity, not a luxury.

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