Leading for Mission: A Conversation with University of Detroit Mercy’s Board of Trustees
Deanna I. Howes, Director of Communications, AJCU

Of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, one institution is uniquely rooted in both Jesuit and Mercy traditions. In 1990, the University of Detroit merged with Mercy College of Detroit to become the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM). Since then, members of the university’s administration have taken considerable measures to ensure that the institution maintains its commitment to the respective teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola and Sr. Catherine McAuley.

In 2010, the university conducted a search for new leadership: for the first time in the university's [and its founding institutions'] history, the new president would be neither a Jesuit nor a vowed religious (UDM’s first president was also the first, and so far only, female president of an AJCU institution, Sr. Maureen Fay, O.P.). During this time of transition from religious to lay leadership, the university's board of trustees considered how they could make their religious commitment even stronger under the leadership of a new president, Dr. Antoine M. Garibaldi, and a new board of trustees chair, Mr. John D. Lewis.

A graduate of UDM's MBA program, Lewis is a product of Jesuit higher education. Yet it was not until he joined the UDM Board of Trustees in 2005 that he began to better understand the history and mission of the Society of Jesus. Of the thirty members of UDM’s board of trustees, roughly ten are members of the Society of Jesus or Sisters of Mercy, as each order must comprise 20% of the board according to bylaws. 

The remaining twenty members are laypeople who came to the board with varying familiarity of Jesuit and Mercy teachings, some of whom were not Catholic. Lewis recognized these differing backgrounds and soon after being appointed chair of the board in 2010, he began to work closely with Rev. John Staudenmaier, S.J. (Assistant to the President for Mission and Identity at UDM) to develop a broad curriculum for trustees to learn about the Society of Jesus and the Sisters of Mercy.

As part of their orientation to the board, new trustees hear a talk from Fr. Staudenmaier and a representative of the Sisters of Mercy on the history of the Jesuits and Mercy Sisters and their impact on U.S. higher education. These immersion talks are “non-negotiable”: the board does not have a separate committee on mission and identity and requires that all trustees understand the mission of the university and apply it to their governance of investments, finance, academic affairs, etc.

Fr. Staudenmaier explained, “Shortly after John became chair, he asked me if I thought that the mission and identity committee of the board made sense. We’d had it for some years as a standing committee, I was on it, so he asked if I would do some searching around. So, I did a survey of the Jesuit universities asking that question, and out of the 28, I got about 24 responses; about 17 said they had such a committee. However, three places said they thought hard about it and thought it was a bad idea because if you have a committee whose job it is to tend to the mission of the university (as opposed to finance, academic affairs, etc.), you could say, ‘What are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to tell everybody what to do? Everything fits the mission!’ It also gets the whole rest of the board off the hook because they say that they don’t have to think about that stuff! They do what they know how to do (e.g. budget, investment); they understand that stuff. So we got to thinking that it would probably be better not to have a standing committee of people who would be the only ones supposed to think about mission and identity.”

Beyond being able to apply the teachings of the Jesuits and Mercy Sisters to their governance of the university, Lewis and Fr. Staudenmaier also hoped that the curriculum would inspire trustees in their lives outside of UDM. Lewis said, “That’s the key form of payment, if you will, to our trustees: if you get out of this experience and are grounded, you will begin in your every-day life to shape decisions, to form thoughts on how to approach challenges, to reinforce positive behavior, to hold yourself accountable in such a way that you’re utilizing this foundation: that will be such a great benefit to everybody you touch, and yourself.”

In addition to the immersion talks, the curriculum (which Lewis and Fr. Staudenmaier will soon be assessing) includes participation with fellow UDM employees in the university’s half-day Mission Retreat. To date, over 1,000 employees have made the retreat and its core presentations are available on UDM’s YouTube channel. Other more aspirational programs include the in-depth, AJCU-sponsored Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP). To date, three trustees have participated in the UDM half-day retreat and three more have expressed great interest in participation. While the immersion talks touch upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and the role of the university in the Apostolate of the Society of Jesus, ICP incorporates a service trip and requires an 18-month commitment from participants. To date, one trustee from the boards of all 28 Jesuit institutions has completed ICP.

Although a small portion of UDM's trustees have completed retreats or immersion programs, Lewis and Fr. Staudenmaier sense a great interest among their board to participate themselves. Lewis said, "One attorney [on our board] made the [half-day retreat]. He gave a 10-minute eloquent statement about this at our next board meeting. He said that he’s a triple Titan [three-time UDM graduate] who made this retreat and came to understand that he didn’t know anything about the Jesuit and Mercy traditions before! He playfully scolded his peers and said they must make it! We have two executives and one judge who say they’re ready to go."

In the years to come, Lewis and Fr. Staudenmaier hope to see their curriculum grow and inspire future trustees to experience and live out Jesuit and Mercy teachings. Fr. Staudenmaier said, "John [Lewis] has said that to be a trustee at this institution, your time has changed you and your behavior: how you think about equity, morality, accountability, etc. Your worldview has changed so that you can say one of the great moments of your life was to be a trustee at UDM."

Connections provides readers with news and information about the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. Each month, Connections covers a topic affecting Jesuit higher education, along with news from AJCU, including federal relations and AJCU conferences.