A SLU Professor of Theological Studies on Jesuit Identity

In February of 2019, Pope Francis approved four mission priorities that will guide the work and life of the Society of Jesus for the coming decade. Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., the superior general of the Society of Jesus, announced these four universal apostolic preferences in a letter to Jesuits worldwide. Appended to the document was a letter from Pope Francis (in Spanish) to Fr. Sosa embracing and supporting the Jesuit mission priorities with these powerful words: “the four preferences chosen are in harmony with the actual Apostolic priorities of the Church” (my own translation).

In other words, the Jesuit mission—in agreement with and under the Apostolic guidance of the Church—is defined by the following four priorities:

  1. To show the way to God through discernment and the Spiritual Exercises
  2. To walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice
  3. To accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future
  4. To collaborate in the care of our Common Home (respect for Creation)

Saint Louis University (SLU), as one of 27 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, is committed to the mission of the Jesuit order by supporting several key initiatives within Jesuit higher education that include “fostering Jesuit, Catholic identity and mission” and “educating for a faith that does justice,” as evidenced by the opening line of the university mission statement: “The Mission of Saint Louis University is the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity.” With the publication of this letter, Fr. Sosa instructed all 15,536 Jesuits worldwide, every single Jesuit community, province, and conference of provincials, as well as their colleagues in mission, to discern how they are to implement these four mission priorities in their respective work. SLU is one such colleague in mission. Unfortunately, a pattern of recent administrative decisions threatens SLU’s commitment to the Jesuit mission and potentially undermines much of what distinguishes Saint Louis University as a Jesuit institution of higher learning.

As a faculty member with fifteen years of service, my daily, in-the-trenches experience at SLU reflects a climate and culture of constant crisis and pervasive financial insecurity. In the past three years the College of Arts and Sciences (by far the largest revenue generator at SLU, with annual expenses of $50 million yielding nearly double that amount in revenue) has faced a series of programming and staffing cuts, including the equivalent of 120 full-time lines (faculty and staff) in 2017 and further cuts to adjunct and non-tenure track faculty lines in 2019. This despite the fact that SLU set a new record for fundraising in 2018 and is on-track to repeat this feat in 2019 (with an expected total of over $200 million for both years) while sitting on the third largest endowment ($1.23 billion) among all 27 Jesuit colleges and universities. Given the persistent message from the Board of Trustees and the university administration that SLU is in a state of fiscal crisis—having had to cut nearly $20 million from next year’s operating budget—there is an overwhelming cognitive dissonance between SLU’s financial resources and how those resources are being allocated to advance both the university mission and academic affairs.

I am not a financial expert, nor an economist, so I cannot adequately evaluate how SLU’s finances are being managed (I leave that to others on the faculty who have the necessary expertise). However, I am an educator and a theologian. Consequently, I can speak to how SLU’s financial priorities either support or undermine the university’s commitment to the Jesuit mission and its vision of a classical liberal arts education that prioritizes the formation of the whole person (cura personalis).

Much has been made of the fiscal crisis at Wheeling Jesuit University that precipitated the Jesuit order severing ties with the institution in April of 2019 and its Board of Trustees recently renaming the institution Wheeling University. Despite the vast differences between SLU, a R2 university with a Medical School, Law School, and Business School, and Wheeling Jesuit, which historically had been a small liberal arts college and now has five masters programs and one doctoral program (in physical therapy), the gradual breakdown of Wheeling Jesuit University’s commitment to the Jesuit mission can serve as a cautionary parable for the current crisis at SLU. Granted, Wheeling Jesuit faced a much different set of fiscal challenges than SLU, with its $13 million endowment and $30 million annual operating budget (as compared to SLU’s $1.23 billion endowment and an estimated $850 million budget), but what the two institutions share is an administrative push toward STEM at the expense of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. By eliminating several majors, including theology, philosophy, history, and literature, Wheeling Jesuit made it virtually impossible to teach a core liberal arts curriculum, which contributed to the Jesuit order’s decision to sever the relationship, since “without sufficient lay Ignatian leadership and programming to support the Jesuit identity of the University, the Jesuit affiliation of the University will not be able to continue.” SLU’s shift toward becoming a STEM school comes with a hefty price tag: a $78.8 million commitment to improve and expand STEM facilities at SLU during the very same year we are facing further cuts to existing programs and tenure lines. At Wheeling Jesuit University this emphasis on STEM proved both short sighted and catastrophic. Can the same mistakes be avoided at SLU?

Cura personalis, the Jesuit charism that emphasizes care of the whole person—heart, mind, body, and soul—in educating students challenges modern conceptions of education as pragmatic and employment-focused by demanding that institutions of higher learning commit themselves to a vision of education as personal formation. In other words, rather than capitulate to the latest marketing trends driving much of higher education today—for example, a year after SLU terminated 120 full-time positions it purchased 2,300 Amazon Echo Dots for its student dormitories—a Jesuit institution of higher learning is called to prioritize the intellectual, spiritual, and moral formation of its students above all else. In the words of the university mission statement, Saint Louis University ought to draw upon “its Catholic, Jesuit identity…to promote activities that apply its intellectual and ethical heritage to work for the good of society as a whole,” using its varied resources to create in its students “a sense of community that facilitates their development as men and women for others,” by wisely allocating “its resources to maintain efficiency and effectiveness in attaining its mission and goals.”

The debate at SLU—and at every institution of higher learning—is over how to “wisely” allocate limited resources in order to carry out the university’s mission. For the better part of the last decade—since the financial crisis of 2008—a certain kind of thinking has pervaded higher education, namely, that given the high cost of a university education, the mark of a successful university is securing employment for its graduates. To that end, universities have redistributed resources in support of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) by arguing that in today’s technology-driven economy a STEM education is more “valuable” than a traditional liberal arts education grounded in philosophy, history, ethics, and—in the case of a religiously affiliated university like SLU—theology. Yet, it is mistaken to view STEM and the traditional liberal arts curriculum as competing and mutually exclusive pathways. The seven classical liberal arts of the medieval university included grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium) paired with geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music (the quadrivium) to become the foundation of the modern university in which the Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Sciences coexist harmoniously as part of a curriculum that includes the fine and performing arts, languages, literature, music, philosophy, religion, anthropology, geography, history, economics, law, linguistics, political science, psychology, sociology, ethnic studies, gender studies, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and earth sciences. Thus, despite the popular perception that STEM ought to supersede the liberal arts, top universities reject this false dichotomy and recognize that a strong liberal arts education is foundational for promoting advancement in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The recent crisis at Boeing proves instructional. It is becoming evident that inadequate technological training did not cause the technical glitches with their newest, most popular airplane, the 737 MAX. Rather, the two fatal crashes appeared to result from a failure of ethical leadership. The Boeing company website claims, “our stance on ethical business conduct is simple: do the right thing, every time, no exceptions” and cites President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg as saying, “A company’s fundamental values directly affect its ability to achieve and sustain high performance. Integrity, quality, safety, diversity, and trust are integral to our work at Boeing because there is no trade-off between what we do and how we do it.” Because commercial airlines, Boeing’s primary customer, did not want to invest in timely and expensive pilot re-training, Boeing sold the new jet as an easy transition from earlier 737 models requiring no new pilot training. As experts sort through the evidence from the two fatal 737 MAX crashes it is becoming clear that pilot training would have allowed the pilots to correct for the glitch in the new automated stabilizer system on the 737 MAX. This initial lack of judgment was compounded by the decision to outsource the 737 MAX software programming, software that had been plagued by basic programming mistakes, to an external $9/hour software developer whose coders lacked sufficient experience in the aerospace industry. Thus, by abandoning their own ethical principles in order to maximize profits during a period of heated competition with their chief rival, Airbus, Boeing compromised their professional integrity and put incalculable human lives at risk of death. While a classical liberal arts education is no guarantee of ethical behavior, an education that includes diverse approaches to analyzing and evaluating complex moral situations is always preferable to a narrow technical education.

Noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has been critical of the reductionist approach to STEM education: “I am unhappy about STEM. That is, I’m unhappy about how it’s presented as the principal portal for careers in science and technology…The right way to create a young scientist who’s going to be on fire by the time they’re in college is to let them pick something, some subject, that has really excited them…The humanities should not tolerate limits on themselves. There are so many exciting things to be done with the arts.” In other words, a hallmark of the liberal arts education, as embodied in an undergraduate core curriculum, is the intentional exposure to the varied and different ways of knowing and understanding the world. Invention and innovation arise from the creative interplay between disciplines, and universities make a mistake when they fast-track students into a major or pre-professional track before they ever set foot on campus or take a single class. Such tracking of students is driven by the mistaken assumption that only a STEM-centered education will lead to secure, well-paying, long-term employment.

A 2018 report found that 43% of college graduates were underemployed and had to take jobs for which no college education was required in order to make ends meet. These data have been used to justify the push for more STEM education, but as Forbes magazine points out, there are serious methodological issues with the study. Admittedly, STEM majors are least likely to be underemployed, with fields like engineering and computer sciences having the lowest rate of underemployment at 30 percent, and STEM majors are also likely to earn more immediately after graduation. But what the data bear out that many university administrators refuse to acknowledge is that the majors with the worst underemployment statistics include new majors created to appeal to popular trends, like Homeland Security and Law Enforcement (65%), as well as longstanding, well-funded programs that have been the hallmark of student recruitment: Business and related majors (47%) and Health Professions and related programs (49%). Interestingly, foreign language majors (43%), very often one of the first victims of STEM-related budget slashing, have the fifth best rate of underemployment behind Mathematics and Statistics (39%). These data neglect to show that the much-maligned Humanities actually perform very well over the course of an entire career due to a variety of factors: 40% of humanities students go on to graduate school, 9% earn professional degrees in business or law, and at the mid-career point, humanities majors have only a 3.5% unemployment rate compared to the national average of 6.7%. In other words, “Liberal arts majors may start off slower than others when it comes to the postgraduate career path, but they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time.”

Many faculty members at SLU have raised concerns that the Board of Trustees and university administrators have allowed short-term employment trends to drive long-term planning at the expense of longstanding, proven, and successful programs and majors. No one is questioning the need to adapt to changing times, and most faculty support expanding STEM facilities and programs—just not at the expense of the Humanities and Social Sciences. What many faculty question are the principles guiding the Provost’s Academic Portfolio Review Committee, which nowhere in its public communications has made reference to the university mission statement except for the vague assertion that the “process we develop will eventually be used as a regular ongoing assessment of all graduate and undergraduate programs to ensure they continue to add value to the university and its mission.” Many faculty fear that the only recognized criterion for adding value to the university and its mission is generating revenue, a clear disconnect with the principle of cura personalis guiding and informing the Jesuit vision of higher education that seeks to produce responsible citizens working “for the good of society as a whole” (SLU mission statement).

Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, Professor of Theological Studies, SLU

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