By Rev. Michael J. Sheeran, S.J., President, AJCU
In Catholic higher education, the role of “mission officer” is relatively new and broad in scope. For decades, the key leadership positions within Catholic colleges and universities were overwhelmingly held by priests or women religious, and it was generally assumed that through such leadership, an institution was successfully maintaining its Catholic identity.
Over the past 30 years, however, the declining number of priests and women religious (combined with policy changes across the nation’s colleges and universities) has compelled institutions to search for both lay leaders as presidents and individuals with strong backgrounds in ministry to not only maintain, but to strengthen, their Catholic heritage, mission and identity.
Jesuits occupy the role of Vice President for Mission and Identity (or similar title) at just over half of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities. Of the remaining schools, the position is split evenly between lay men and women, who bring extensive credentials and experience to their work. Their capabilities are strengthened by decades spent working at our institutions and participating in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola or numerous formation programs offered by AJCU, Jesuit Provinces and other Jesuit organizations.
As more of our institutions hire lay leaders as presidents, the Jesuits who serve as heads of mission and identity often serve as spokespeople and take on more public roles in their local communities. This is a wonderful development to witness as it increases the visibility of these Jesuits, and strengthens the relationships between lay and religious administrators. Such relationships are vital for a healthy administration and cabinet, and will only grow in importance and necessity in the years to come.
Here at AJCU, we recognize the importance of formation for strong leaders in Jesuit education, and are proud to sponsor the Jesuit Leadership Seminar and the Ignatian Colleagues Program, both administered by lay leaders with strong commitments to Jesuit education. And in an effort to better assist our conferences (30 and counting!), we hired Dr. Stephanie Russell last summer to serve as our first vice president for mission integration; you will read more about her background in this issue of Connections. Dr. Russell is also available to support the mission efforts at all of our schools including formation and planning work for boards of trustees.
The strength of our institutions and indeed, our AJCU network, never ceases to amaze me. We are fortunate to have such fine leaders in our company, and we thank them for their hard work and commitment to Jesuit education.