The Jesuits in American higher education have lost the principle of assignment. In its place, the principle of attraction has been at work since the 1970s. Previously, the superior of a Jesuit province would, after appropriate consultation, assign one of his men to a given college or university faculty or administration in that province, and the receiving institution would welcome the man to its ranks. This was the principle of assignment.
Operative now is a two-way principle of attraction. The credentialed and qualified Jesuit follows his attraction to a given vacancy at a particular college or university; or the institution, for its part, works to attract a Jesuit to consider working there. The provincial then assigns the man to membership in the Jesuit community associated with the institution to which he has been attracted and is now missioned.
The provincial can no longer assign a man to teach a specific subject or hold a staff position at a specific Jesuit college or university. In the old days, the educational institution and the sponsoring religious community were one corporation. The president of the college or university was also the rector of the Jesuit community. And the governing board of the institution was composed primarily, if not exclusively, of Jesuits. In the 1940s and 1950s separate incorporation began to occur, and the community at a given institution was led by a religious superior who was appointed by the provincial and distinct from the president. Boards gradually opened up to having laypeople as members and as chairpersons; and the board, not the provincial, appointed the president. The Jesuits no longer “owned” the university; the board, no longer exclusively Jesuit, set policy, oversaw hiring decisions and for all practical purposes “owned” the institution.
“We gave it all away,” some Jesuits still lament. Others say, “We have finally arrived in the mainstream of U.S. higher education.”
As this transition has taken place, another change—a cultural shift, really—has occurred. It is typically described as a decline in vocations; some call it a vocation crisis. There are fewer Jesuits in the ranks these days, and the prospects for growth are not positive.
On the 28 Jesuit college and university campuses, meanwhile, offices of “mission and identity” have opened up to protect and preserve the Jesuit identity of the institutions. Campus ministry is prospering. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are touching the lives of lay faculty members, administrators and students in new and creative ways. Courses in Jesuit history and Ignatian spirituality enjoy a prominent place in the curriculum. Off-campus service opportunities abound for students. And many would say that the institutions are now more Jesuit than they have ever been.
In the year after Pope Francis’ election, the Society of Jesus saw a significant increase in men inquiring about the possibility of joining the order. Yet even if there were to be a dramatic rise in the number of young men choosing to join the Society of Jesus in the United States, the institutions still have to be concerned about the preservation of their Jesuit mission and identity. Not all the new recruits will want to pursue ministries in the academic world, although I hope that Jesuit provincials and formation directors will encourage movement in that direction.
In cases where a young layman of generosity and talent might be attracted by the example of Jesuits at work on Jesuit campuses, it seems reasonable to ask why he would want to become a Jesuit if the Jesuit order could not assign him to work in a Jesuit institution. Just as West Point and Annapolis might lose their appeal if, upon graduation, those who enroll there have no guarantee of assignment to an active Army or Navy unit, a potential candidate for admission to the Society of Jesus who wants to work in Jesuit higher education might have second thoughts if the Society were unable to assign him to work in a Jesuit school.
There may, however, be a way around this dilemma. Perhaps we can create on every Jesuit college and university campus a group of Jesuits—say four or five in number, with the rector of the local Jesuit community as their leader. These Jesuits could work as retreat directors, chaplains, moderators, non-tenure track teachers, coaches or counsellors and could work together as a band of brothers whose presence and professional services help to set the institution clearly apart from other schools. This could be a place to which Jesuits could easily be assigned and from which Jesuits might eventually cross over to join the institution’s own tenure-track faculty or professional staff. It is not so wild a dream when you quietly consider it.
Those in key positions throughout the institution, most of them not Jesuits—faculty, staff, administration and trustees—would have to want to see it happen. Budgetary provisions would have to be made so that the institution could pay these Jesuits for their services. Rectors of Jesuit communities would have to become effective team leaders. That, in fact, might be the best word to describe it: a team. The rector would become a broker between those with power to hire within the institution and Jesuits already on or to be recruited for the team and who are available for service. Space would have to be provided in university-owned student unions or campus centers, or “on corridor,” as we used to say referring to service as dormitory counselors. The team would have to be visible and easily identifiable as Jesuit. Again, not so wild a dream presuming that the Jesuits and their lay colleagues want to make it happen.
If this happens, the question of Jesuit identity would pretty much take care of itself, and the admissions offices of these schools would have something additional, if not unique, to pitch when they compete in the tightening race for new students.
This could prove to be a picture of the future of American Jesuit colleges and universities. It could also be a partial response to the challenge the order faces as it deals with diminishing Jesuit manpower in the United States.