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Rev. Michael J. Graham, S.J.

From January 3-5, more than 90 Jesuits who serve as trustees of Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, Canada and Belize met in New Orleans for a first-of-its-kind meeting. Convened by Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU), in partnership with the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States (JCCU), this meeting explored what it means for Jesuits to serve as trustees at our institutions in the present moment and what opportunities might come before us.

The meeting could not have been more timely. A recent study of Catholic religious congregations and the schools they have long sponsored in the United States paints a sobering picture of how those congregations will relate with their schools going forward. The Society of Jesus is not immune from the declining demographics of those congregations, and our colleges and universities are subject to the same pressures with which theirs must contend. Yet, the main question before the New Orleans group had an optimistic undertone: how might we strengthen the contribution of Jesuit trustees to our Jesuit schools so as to ensure their vibrancy as Jesuit apostolates going forward? The Mission Priority Examen (MPE)—now in its second cycle—has emerged as a best practice for mission effectiveness (and was so cited by the study referenced above). But what more might we do? And how might trustees who are Jesuits strengthen their own contributions to this end?

Several panels stimulated energetic discussion. Presidents Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. (University of San Francisco), Mark Reed (Loyola University Chicago) and Tania Tetlow (Fordham University) each began by recounting their own paths toward their presidencies—a good reminder of the importance of board attention to succession planning and talent development. They gave the participants advice on how best to contribute as board members at committee and full board meetings and in between. Likewise, they helped the Jesuits to have a better understanding of what their lay trustee colleagues hope for from them.

Three of the JCCU provincial superiors—Rev. Sean Carroll, S.J. (Jesuits West), Rev. Tom Greene, S.J. (Central and Southern), and Rev. Joseph O’Keefe, S.J. (USA East)—also shared their perspectives with the group. Their strong endorsement of our schools and their work came through loud and clear. They highlighted their hopes that the AJCU schools would deepen their appropriation of the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) and stressed the importance of the work that Jesuits do on these boards while exploring ways of strengthening mechanisms of board appointments.

A long afternoon’s conversation was especially fruitful. Discussions on five questions began at individual tables:

  1. How does your board prepare its trustees to be stewards of its Jesuit, Catholic mission?
  2. How visible are the UAPs to your board and school?
  3. How have you contributed effectively to your board?
  4. How might you become a more effective board member (and what role might AJCU play in your development)?
  5. What changes might make your board more effective and impactful?

Following a break, a plenary conversation took up these same questions, generating a great deal of material for follow-up and exploration. While constructive comments abounded—these are Jesuits, after all!—what was especially noteworthy was how much they valued their board service, the high regard they had for their fellow board members, and their gratitude that the specifically Jesuit, Catholic mission of the schools is taken so seriously by board members, presidents and administrators alike. Other themes included how we might identify and prepare younger Jesuits for board service, ways to strengthen the collaboration of Jesuit trustees at particular schools with one another and with their presidents, and opportunities to enhance the role of AJCU.

A survey of participants is in the works to sketch out next steps. But we may very well look back on this conference one day as the beginning of what we will come to regard in the future as additional “best practices” in Jesuit higher education.

By Rev. Michael J. Graham, S.J., Senior Advisor for Formation Programs, AJCU