Xavier men and women become people of learning and reflection, integrity and achievement, in solidarity for and with others.
A vision statement provides an organization inspiration and direction, aiming it towards something it may never wholly achieve, to advance its organizational purpose nonetheless in the very effort to achieve it. Here, I would like to reflect on the above Vision Statement for Xavier University, to describe what this direction is and why it is an appropriate and important direction for Xavier at this time in its history.
Let me take the subject of the statement first – “Xavier men and women” – and begin by talking about what that subject is not.
Surveying a number of university vision statements, I noted that the subject of the statement often enough was the university as such; and, further, that vision statements often ambitioned enhanced external recognition: “The finest Catholic University in the United States,” said one;
“ a great Catholic University for the 21st Century,” said another; “the University needed by a region and world driven by new social, economic and technological realities,” said a third; “recognized internationally as an institution that imagines and influences the future,” as another put it; and, finally, “internationally recognized as an inquiry-driven, ethically engaged, and diverse community, whose members work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world through courageous leadership in teaching, research, scholarship, healthcare and social action.”
Our initial attempts toward a new Vision Statement for Xavier University were in this vein: setting ourselves the task of doing a variety of things and then being recognized for doing them. Quickly enough, however, we chose a different path deliberately. Instead of ambitioning a Vision that required external validation, we committed ourselves instead to doing something important and doing it extraordinarily well, confident that, the more successful we were, the more accolades would follow unsought. In other words, our focus would be the pursuit of what we believe we can be best at. And the Vision Statement says what this is.
That choice, however, opened up the question of what the appropriate subject should be. An initial suggestion, eventually modified, came from a seminal talk by the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J. In an address called The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education given at the University of Santa Clara in October 2000, Fr. Kolvenbach said:
“Today’s predominant ideology reduces the human world to a global jungle whose primordial law is the survival of the fittest. Students who subscribe to this view want to be equipped with well-honed professional and technical skills in order to compete in the market and secure one of the relatively scarce fulfilling and lucrative jobs available. This is the success which many students (and parents!) expect. All American universities, ours included, are under tremendous pressure to opt entirely for success in this sense. But what our students want – and deserve – includes but transcends this ‘worldly success’ based on marketable skills. The real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.”
Kolvenbach’s assertion that “the real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become” suggested that the subject of Xavier’s Vision Statement should be Xavier students. Subsequent drafts of the Vision Statement thus began: that Xavier University students would become people marked by various characteristics.
But a problem arose almost immediately. When university vision statements begin with the university as such as a subject, that subject is inclusive; everyone who belongs to the university can see themselves as part of the ambitioned vision. To decide that students are the subject, however, seems to omit everyone else, leaving them wondering how, or even if, they fit in. As we invited various constituencies to review the proposed Vision Statement – faculty and staff, the Board of Trustees, the President’s Advisory Council – they noted this repeatedly.
Further discussion led to an important insight: is not the surest way for our students to be fully alive intellectually, morally and spiritually; successful in work and in life; engaged with their communities; leading from wherever they find themselves; acting courageously in the world for good; and so on – isn’t the surest way for them to accomplish all this and more for the entire Xavier community to both model and support the outcomes we seek in our students? In other words, suppose all members of the Xavier University community collectively created an environment so pervasive and compelling that our students could not help but become the kinds of persons we most hope they become? And more: that becoming these kinds of people, they feel themselves profoundly linked to the institution itself in later years, for Xavier’s values and outlook are deeply congruent with their own and, indeed, had been profoundly instrumental in their becoming themselves? Thus, the subject of the Vision Statement became all those who make up the Xavier University community – students or faculty, staff or administrators, trustees or alumni, parents or friends. The Vision Statement embraces us all.
After the subject comes the verb, of course: “become.” This single word is perhaps the most aspirational word in the entire Vision Statement. It has deep resonance with the Jesuit concept of Magis, which is derived from the Latin word maiorem, part of the motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, to the greater glory of God.Magis connotes, not simply the glory of God, but the greater glory of God, a glory that can only be aimed at or ambitioned, never achieved. So, too, is our own fullest development as human persons something that can only be striven for, and never fully achieved. Whatever we accomplish today towards the end for which we are made is the platform from which we may do still more tomorrow. “Become” orients us to a goal and in a direction, sets our feet upon a pilgrim path whose destination we can never completely attain, and yet the walking of it brings us the more surely to ourselves as God intends us to be. Just the way a vision statement intends for an organization.
This expanded horizon of time is most appropriate to our students, for Kolvenbach’s “who our students become” does not imagine a project completed on graduation day but rather over the arc of their entire lives. So too our intention is to invite staff, faculty and administrators to see themselves as also on journeys of constant transformation and to understand themselves, not just as facilitators of transformation in our students, but as “students” themselves who seek to remain always growing.
What is it that Xavier men and women are to become? “People of learning and reflection, integrity and achievement, in solidarity for and with others.” Two sets of intentionally coupled words – learning and reflection, integrity and achievement – begin to sketch the answer. First, learning and reflection.
Importantly, the first word the Vision Statement uses to describe what people associated with Xavier become concerns the fundamental enterprise of the University itself, namely learning. This priority emphasis reflects the University’s Academic Vision Statement, as the faculty revised it in the spring 2011. That statement describes three core values to which Xavier University is committed, the first of which is “academic excellence,” described this way: “A rigorous, analytical and reflective learning community led by an accomplished faculty engaged in creative scholarly activity.” Note that the statement does not understand learning as a body of content fixed and closed. Rather, it sees learning as the result of “academic excellence,” arising through the people who comprise the university and their activity together in all the activities proper to it. The Xavier University Mission Statement Task Force amplified this perspective well as it described the new University Mission Statement:
“First, we state our special approach to learning: we guide our students to educate themselves by challenging them both within and outside the classroom to excel in scholarship, wrestle with new ideas, address problems both great and small, think deeply about the world and all its complexity and communicate clearly the fruits of their studies. We recognize too that a genuinely effective education must be ‘integrated with co-curricular engagement.’ Athletic competition, theatrical and musical performance, participation in student government or professional organizations, opportunities for volunteer work, travel both foreign and domestic – these activities, to name a few, combined with their studies, present to students the chance for significant reflection on their lives and on whom they hope to become, preparing them especially for a life of learning, professional development, and involvement long after they depart Xavier.”
But not only learning; the word we have chosen to pair with learning is reflection, so that the two together describe as it were a kind of learned reflection or (alternatively) a reflective learning, which seem to be other ways to speak of that towards which both together point, namely wisdom.
Two independent lines of thought suggest the importance of coupling learning with reflection. The first grows out of recent experience at Xavier University. The first Discernment Group, chartered some years ago to imagine the future of mission and identity work among our faculty and staff, recommended the University adopt what they called the Five Gifts of the Ignatian Tradition: Mission, Reflection, Discernment, Solidarity and Kinship, and Service Rooted in Justice and Love. The Gift of Reflection (in the words of the Discernment Group) “calls us to pause and consider the world around us and our place within it.” Reflection, in other words, opens a door to the transcendent in the midst of our daily activities, and, as such, is essential for us all, for we are all too easily occupied (overwhelmed even) by day-to-day activities that consume us. Reflection is a disciplined pulling back that allows us to go deeper.
As well, the current Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolpho Nicolas, S.J. has spoken powerfully concerning the need we all have for reflection in our lives – and especially in the contemporary era. In a talk given in Mexico City in April 2010, called “Depth, Universality and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today,” Fr. Nicolas said:
“I will begin quite forthrightly with what I see as a negative effect of globalization, what I will call the globalization of superficiality….When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reaction so immediately and so unthinkingly… the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited… [resulting in] superficiality of thought, vision, dreams, relationships, convictions…. Our new technologies, together with the underlying values such as moral relativism and consumerism, are shaping the interior worlds of so many, especially the young people we are educating, limiting the fullness of their flourishing as human persons and limiting their responses to a world in need of healing intellectually, morally and spiritually.”
Fr. Nicolas recommends “depth of thought and imagination” as an antidote to this “globalization of superficiality,” the necessary precondition for which is reflection.
Just as learning and reflection combine to create something larger than themselves, namely wisdom, so too does the pairing of integrity and achievement ambition something larger. Too often, students are one person in the classroom, another with their families, another when they are out on Friday nights, yet another at a part-time job, and something yet again when they worship. To some degree, we are all prone to this fragmentation. Instead, we should aspire to lead coherent lives, where what we do proceeds always from a deeply grounded sense of self. In other words, integrity and achievement together invite us to reflect on the vocations to which we are called and out of which we ought to act – act in our families, act in our communities, act in our professional engagements.
Of integrity and achievement, let us take the second item first. What is it that we intend for our students? Not simply that they become nurses or accountants or teachers or social workers or anything else that their particular education will prepare them for. Rather, we want them to lead in their professions. And more than this, we want them to lead in their communities, to be people who are highly accomplished in their chosen fields and whose skills and experiences make them broadly valuable to the communities they will call home.
Our desire for the achievement of our students requires achievement from the rest of us, in at least two ways. First, we must shape structures that maximize our students’ opportunities to succeed. This is, in effect, simply a way of embodying the Jesuit tradition of cura personalis – the care of the person – to make sure that each and every one of our students is able to develop, as far as they possibly can, the talents and hopes and desires they bear with them when they arrive at our doorstep. This means first of all that we must redouble every effort to retain and graduate our students. But it also means that we must think creatively about how we can maximize their opportunity to get good jobs when they graduate or go on to strong graduate or professional schools. To be sure, the economy around us will always be beyond our control; from one year to another, our ability to help our students land appropriate jobs will vary. Yet, we must commit ourselves to acting so that, as schools are assessed in terms of their ability to graduate students who are successfully placed, Xavier University will be customarily at the top of that list. If our students are to be more so that they may do more – and better – we must do everything we can to see that they succeed. That is one way we must commit ourselves to the achievement of our students.
The second way, I would submit, is no less important: that we ourselves must model exemplary performance wherever we are inserted into the life of the University. Indeed, we must all cultivate a sense of urgency around achievement. Here, the work of the second Discernment Group is especially useful. Building on the work of the first Discernment Group, this group of University administrators created a tool designed to strengthen our culture of Ignatian values and traditions at Xavier. Specifically, what they call magis “invites us to work in a spirit of generous excellence. We:
- Respond generously to the needs of students, colleagues and neighbors.
- Encourage and model personal accountability and high performance.
- Align our work activities with the University’s goals, individually and communally.
- Are receptive to new ideas and innovative solutions.
- Seek opportunities to grow and improve, taking pride in the quality of our work and service.
- Use resources efficiently and strategically.”
But what kind of leaders do we expect our students or ourselves to become? Here, the modifier “integrity” is essential. Importantly, integrity is another one of the core values identified by the faculty in the Academic Vision Statement, and they define it as “a climate of academic freedom, professionalism, collegiality, and mutual respect throughout a diverse university community operating according to our principles of shared governance.” A university characterized by these attributes will model integrity effectively for all its students, and this is an important task. All of us are aware from the newspapers we read and the programs we watch, that the world has far too many people who achieve at extraordinary levels but in the wrong way, with often catastrophic results. To the contrary, I have been often heartened by hearing business leaders describe Xavier graduates as distinguished by the values – the integrity – they bring with them to their work. I cannot help but think that this integrity is rooted in the “Ignatian Tradition” of our educational enterprise as such – the final core value of the Academic Vision Statement: “education of the whole person intellectually, morally and spiritually through lives of solidarity and service, with sensitivity to issues of social and environmental justice.” Xavier’s core curriculum plays a crucial role here, especially in the interplay of philosophy, theology and other courses such that students become acquainted, so to speak, with ethics across their curricula. Likewise, that academic training is often enough combined (as the commentary on the Mission Statement notes) by co-curricular engagement, both on and off the campus. Good as we are at these things, we must strengthen our efforts to become even more the kind of place that develops graduates known for the integrity they keep. And develop along the way an even stronger reputation of that for ourselves and our institution as well.
And so, “Xavier men and women become people of learning and reflection, integrity and achievement.” The conclusion of the Vision Statement – “in solidarity for and with others” – effectively forms a modifier for the two paired sets of words that immediately precede it. What kind of learning and reflection, integrity and achievement (in other words) do we most value? Do we most hope to see embodied in our students? Are we most desirous of committing ourselves to? That which leads to “solidarity for and with others.”
Solidarity is a rich word in Roman Catholic social thought and with a long history. It became especially important during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. In a 1987 encyclical called On Social Concern, John Paul II defined solidarity as: “a firm and persevering determination to commit ourselves to the common good.” Further, he observed, “solidarity helps us see the ‘other’… as our ‘neighbor;’” we might even say that solidarity especially spurs us to see the “other” as our “neighbor” the more “other” that “other” may be! The American Bishops put the point provocatively in a 1997 letter, Called To Global Solidarity: “Cain’s question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Gen. 4:9) has global implications and is a special challenge for our time, touching not one brother but all our sisters and brothers. Are we responsible for the fate of the world’s poor? Do we have duties to suffering people in far-off places? Must we respond to the needs of suffering refugees in distant nations? Are we keepers of creation for future generations?” It is easy enough for us to narrow the geographic range to something closer to home, for the residents of our region are all of them sisters and brothers to us and our welfare is more intertwined with theirs than we can imagine. Therefore, we must put our learning and reflection, our integrity and achievement, to use in this world we call home, for the benefit of neighbors near and far.
And finally, “for and with others.” This phrase derives from a comment made in July 1973 by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Jesuit Superior General for many years after Vatican II, at the Tenth International Congress of Jesuit Alumni of Europe in Valencia, Spain. His remarks there quickly became a kind of slogan for Jesuit educational works: “Today, our prime educational objective must be to form men-for-others…men who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors.” When Father Arrupe spoke to these Jesuit alumni in 1973, the overwhelming majority of them were, of course, men. That has changed and is continuing to change. For this and other reasons, we now speak instead of men and women for others. But more: the phrase “for others” has been appropriately criticized for imagining a relationships that seems one-way: from the man or woman to the others. Better to imagine a bilateral relationship where the “men and women” (on the one hand) and the “others” (on the other) walk together, learning from one another, determining together that which is in their mutual interest and moving together toward that goal. Hence, not simply “for others” but “for and with others.”
And so, our Vision Statement: “Xavier men and women become people of learning and reflection, integrity and achievement, in solidarity with and for others.” Clearly this handful of words is thick with meaning, pointing us toward the great tradition of Roman Catholic social thought and statements of the past three Superiors General of the Society of Jesus on the one hand and to our own tradition here at Xavier University on the other, especially in more recent years. Further, this Vision Statement as well points the way to strategic differentiators that will help define and buttress Xavier’s brand identity: strong and intentional focus on the Xavier University community; a pledge to maximize the post-graduate success of our students; and students armed with powerful intellectual skills and deep personal integrity that will distinguish them across the arc of their careers, as well as habits honed by experience of engaging themselves in the communities around them. This distinctive brand identity will draw a particular kind of student to us who is attracted by this constellation of brand attributes; they will in turn strengthen the culture of the University defined by the brand. Finally, we will also be able to redefine our value proposition so that the Xavier “difference” is not only something felt and experienced over the course of a student’s university career, but beyond it as well – and so enable us to deepen our already strong connection to our alumni.
As I remarked at the beginning, vision statements are at their best when they set before us something that we cannot fully achieve but only aim ourselves at, inspiring us to transform ourselves and our organizations as we embody those visions more and more completely. And that reminds me, finally, of something once said by the great American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr – effectively, that nothing truly worth doing can ever be accomplished within our own lifetimes, and therefore we must be saved by hope. You and I are called to embody as best we can a vision we will never fully achieve so as to pave the way for the world that it is God’s alone to give.
-Michael J. Graham, S.J