2021 AJCU Justice in Jesuit Higher Education Begins, Confronts Ongoing and Urgent Challenges Too Long Deferred

This week kicked off the 2021 AJCU Justice in Jesuit Higher Education Conference, a virtual gathering hosted by Georgetown and taking place throughout the month of June that will focus on racial justice, immigration justice, environmental justice, faith and justice, and women’s leadership and justice in light of the Jesuits’ four Universal Apostolic Preferences. Mission in Motion recently reflected on how this conference fits into the larger context of the history of social justice education in Jesuit colleges and universities. The opening sessions of the first week affirmed this longstanding tradition and also invited participants to update the resources of Catholic and Jesuit education to meet the pressing challenges of today. Two of the conference’s opening session presenters captured the spirit of this challenge with their open-ended questions:

Robert Kelly of Loyola University Maryland helped kick off the 2021 AJCU Justice in Jesuit Higher Education Conference with a passionate charge to practice democracy and resist ideology.
  • Robert Kelly, Ph.D., Vice President and Special Assistant to the President of Loyola University Maryland, asked: “This time calls us to look at ourselves and our institutions and our students to see ways in which we’ve evolved, and need to evolve moving forward. What does that evolution look like?”
  • Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus, asked: “The pandemic has struck us all, it has knocked us all down. Which of our plans will change? How can we better accompany the young as they build a future of hope?”

So many first week images stand out from the presentations and the live Zoom questions and responses, but one particular image surfaced for me most prominently. “Deferred maintenance” is a concept that Robert Kelly used to compare the situation of addressing pressing, no-longer-avoidable physical infrastructure needs on an aging campus with addressing persisting issues of injustice, particularly around racial equity and inclusion, that cannot be delayed any longer.

The task for all involved in Jesuit higher education is to confront the reality of racism and other pressing issues of social injustice present on campuses by engaging, according to Margaret Freije, Ph.D., Provost and Dean of College of the Holy Cross, both contemplatively and critically in this work. Taking meaningful action in response to these challenges from out of a stance of deep discernment is a hallmark of Jesuit spirituality and education. A more hope-filled future, one that is demanded by students, staff, and faculty who do not always feel welcome on Jesuit campuses including LGBTQ+, first generation students, and people of color, demands a perspective that brings together the contemplative and the critical.

Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J, Superior General of the Jesuits, used the metaphor of building a new city that inspires hope and welcomes all those marginalized throughout the world.

Another image that resonated this week was cura propria, or personal care and wellness, an addition to the familiar Jesuit lexicon of cura personalis and cura apostolica. Debra Mooney, Ph.D., Vice President for Mission and Identity at Xavier University, introduced this newly minted Ignatian virtue in the context of the ongoing psychological pandemic. Citing the alarmingly high rates of mental health struggles on campuses, Mooney offered that Jesuit educators and students of Jesuit schools need to take care of ourselves – body, mind, and spirit – if we are to address the questions of injustice that haunt us today. Mooney then pointed to the resources of Ignatian spirituality, particularly the Examen as a healthy habit of identifying gratitude, as a way to maintain personal care and wellness in times that will continually challenge our personal and collective resolve.

Fr. Tom Smolich, S.J., International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, offered an extended reflection on the speech of prior Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Nicolas about the challenges posed by two –isms: aggressive secularism and fundamentalism. Jesuit schools need to discern how to make service of faith an integral component of their commitment to justice. This means taking seriously the critical questions of faith that are presented by the Catholic, Jesuit intellectual tradition. Doing so and encouraging campus communities to embrace Jesuit mission requires discernment, said Smolich, or “decision-making about the mission where the perspectives of each person and the values of the institution are brought together to find the way forward, guided by the Spirit.”

There was so much more to explore in this week’s events. Gratefully, this year’s conference materials will be preserved as digital resources, including recorded poster presentations from across the Jesuit network of schools. You can still sign up for two more weeks of events by visiting the registration page.