Late August marks the return to school for many academics. In my experience, the beginning of the academic year proceeds according to one of two scenarios. Scenario A is dominated by logistical concerns. Academics are preoccupied with course scheduling, syllabus planning, and an endless to-do list in preparation for the start of classes. There is little time for any sort of reflection on the mission of the university. In contrast, Scenario B is marked by a schedule filled to the brim with seminars and trainings. Reflection on mission takes the form of sterile meetings, resulting in participants being equipped to regurgitate jargon yet effecting little change in the university. Both scenarios reflect the tendency of a university to operate on administrative auto-pilot, placing the goals of having a successful and smooth year above all else.
These experiences highlight the modern state of higher education. Ignacio Ellacuría, a Jesuit philosopher and theologian who was martyred at the University of Central America, offers us a different path. He notably put forth a vision of the Catholic university in his commencement address at Santa Clara University on June 12, 1982. Entitled “The Task of the Christian University,” Ellacuría articulates a mission of the university that challenges the modern Catholic university, even 36 years later.
Knowing Historical Reality
Ellacuría calls attention to two roles of the university: to foster knowledge and to respond to the social reality of the university. The first role is well known, for the formation of intellect is the primary goal of practically all educational institutions. Ellacuría therefore devotes most of his address to exploring how the university is a social reality. Because the university is inevitably an influential social institution, Ellacuría is insistent that it must “transform and enlighten the society in which it lives.” In order to transform society, the university must first know the historical reality of its context. For Ellacuría, “historical reality” captures the lived experience of community, with special attention to the suffering of the poor majority. To this end, he calls attention to the unique context of every university. The University of Detroit Mercy will necessarily have a different mission than Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, for example. The historical reality of each university is radically different, as the urban reality of Detroit differs from the rural environment of the outskirts of Terra Haute, Indiana.
Implicit in Ellacuría’s call to respond to the historical reality of the university is the need to be a part of the historical reality of the location. The city is not just a setting for a university, but an intimate aspect of the university’s identity and mission. Too often, modern universities are gated communities— both literally and figuratively— shutting out the community from the campus. Students may venture into the community to engage in service, yet this is often conducted from a paternalistic posture of “us” serving “them.” Ellacuría offers the example of the University of Central America as intimately connected to the nation, stating, “Our history has been that of our nation.” He cites examples of persecution, recalling the ten bombings, military invasions, threatened suspension of financial aid by the government, and the repeated exiling of students and faculty during El Salvador’s period of military oppression and civil war. He does not glorify suffering, but rather, sees it as a natural consequence of challenging structures of injustice. He states, “If the university had not suffered, we would not have performed our duty. In a world where injustice reigns, a university that fights for justice must necessarily be persecuted.”
Ellacuría prophetically calls the Catholic university to suffer and be persecuted, yet universities today devote nearly endless resources to protecting themselves. Large endowments are seen by administrators as protecting the university’s reputation, stability, and legacy. To be sure, I have benefitted from many of these business practices through scholarships and resources that come with attending and working at universities with large endowments. Yet Ellacuría’s vision for the university challenges us to reconsider the role of the university in society, especially a Catholic university. Rankings and reputations take a back seat to engaging and transforming society. For example, a number of Catholic universities have agreed to divest from the fossil fuel industry as a result of social pressure. Ellacuría does not see protection as a goal to be striven for, but rather an indictment that the university is not engaging with the suffering world. This vision of suffering challenges American universities to act less like businesses protecting assets and more like leaven in society, transforming injustice and embodying the preferential option for the poor.
Preferential Option for the Poor
Put simply, Ellacuría challenges contemporary American Catholic universities to take seriously their historical reality through embodying the preferential option for the poor, thus entering into the suffering of the community and risking persecution. How are we to understand what embodying the preferential option for the poor looks like in the modern university? Ellacuría explores this topic at length, explaining:
This does not mean that only the poor study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence— excellence needed in order to solve complex social problems. It does mean that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those who have no science; to provide skills for the unskilled; to be a voice for those who have no voice; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to promote and legitimate their rights.
Living the preferential option for the poor does not mean exclusively enrolling poor students, but it does mean recruiting, admitting, and more importantly, supporting low socio-economic status students and underrepresented communities. It means welcoming those on the margins of society and creating a university environment where they are fully supported and can thrive. Programs such as a scholarship provided by the Jesuit Community at Santa Clara University that supports undocumented students is an excellent example of a university entering the historical reality of its context and embodying the preferential option of the poor.
Ellacuría’s vision of the university stands as a prophetic call to the modern university. Despite great advancements in the articulation of mission, Catholic universities should be challenged by Ellacuría’s understanding of a persecuted university to move beyond neatly packaged mission offices and instead engage in the preferential option for the poor and transform their historical reality through solidarity. Most importantly, Ellacuría challenges us to move beyond buzzwords and jargon to take up the struggle of the community. This is not an easy task, and when taken seriously, may intimidate us into inaction. Looking to the reality of many universities, how are we to engage and transform systems of racial injustice and police brutality? How might a university respond to this election cycle that is punctuated by hate and discrimination? Ellacuría posits several questions, sounding as if he were speaking to today’s context:
What does a university do, immersed in this reality? Transform it? Yes. Do everything possible so that liberty is victorious over oppression, justice over injustice, love over hate? Yes. Without this overall commitment, we would not be a university, and even less so would we be a Catholic university.
Responding prophetically will certainly involve persecution, and accordingly, also lead to living out the Gospel.
Annie Selak is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Boston College, focusing on ecclesiology. She studies power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, examining leadership structures and dialogue. Prior to studying at Boston College, Annie served as a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Catholic Church, working with young women at Catholic high schools and universities.