Mission and Identity

Historical Development

Mission and Identity

Faith and Scholarship

Curriculum Issues

Knowledge and Service

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Mission Statements

What makes a university Christian? A clear declaration in the mission statement of the institution is an important first step, as for example:

St. Olaf, a four-year college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, provides an education committed to the liberal arts, rooted in the Christian Gospel, and incorporating a global perspective. In the conviction that life is more than a livelihood, it focuses on what is ultimately worthwhile and fosters the development of the whole person in mind, body, and spirit.[1]

Marquette University is a Catholic, Jesuit university dedicated to serving God by serving our students and contributing to the advancement of knowledge. Our mission, therefore, is the search for truth, the discovery and sharing of knowledge, the fostering of personal and professional excellence, the promotion of a life of faith, and the development of leadership expressed in service to others. All this we pursue for the greater glory of God and the common benefit of the human community.[2]

However, a declaration is not sufficient, and as Ladislav Orsy points out, Christian identity is more of a continuing challenge: "A college will not become Christian by issuing a statement to that effect, but by steadily working on letting Christianity penetrate all its operations. It follows that a college is never fully Christian; it is always in the process of becoming."[3] Here are a few pointed questions that can provide some measure of the progress toward this challenge: "Is religion a passive presence in the life of the university or is it in the forefront as a dynamic driving force? Is it relegated to the private life of the students and others, not regarded as a potent force for a better community and for the development of fuller lives for its adherents?"[4]

For the mission statement to be effective, it must be taken seriously by the whole institution. One practical way to encourage this is to ask each department how it plans to contribute to the university mission. [5] This is done as a matter of course in businesses, and it can provide a fair and defining challenge for academic departments.

Faculty Identity

Although administrators may define the mission, it is the faculty that gives the university its identity.  It is not advantageous or practical, and in many cases not even legal, to expect every faculty member to be of the religious denomination of the university, although all must be willing to accept and respect its mission statement. However, there must be at least a core of faculty members who are well versed with the principles of the university religious denomination. Father Terence Murphy who was president of the University of St Thomas during its period of significant growth, has shared some of his experiences in faculty building in a Catholic context:

To hire at least one person in each department who is knowledgeable in the Catholic intellectual tradition as well as his/her academic discipline and who can help colleagues to understand that tradition, is a worthy and perhaps attainable goal... It is not too much to expect a university to have a solid core of faculty well-trained in Catholic thought. These can have enormous impact on the student body and make the religious dimension of a university a living reality.[6]

Discussing the mission statement with a prospective faculty member during an interview is a healthy and practical way to discern suitability without being discriminating.[7] A discussion of curriculums and required courses can also be helpful in bringing out potential ideological conflicts.[8] It is not a question of querying the beliefs of the candidate, but of finding out if he or she would feel comfortable in the setting of a school with specific values.

In addition to the hiring discernment process, universities should also sponsor programs that attempt to explain the teachings of the university religious denomination and its relation to the different fields of study. Some teachers often volunteer to conduct research on the religious value dimensions of their discipline. The university can help by facilitating summer workshops and sabbaticals for this purpose.[9] This should not be exclusively in the religion of the university. St. Thomas proudly points to its Jay Phillips Center of Jewish-Christian Learning, which brings together Jewish and Christian scholars to discuss religious topics.[10] 

Interdisciplinary Courses and Institutes

A common problem in education today is that disciplines do not relate to each other, working in isolation when there could be beneficial insights from interdisciplinary discussions: "intellectual and moral aspects of human knowledge become detached and separate. Technique can become central, rather than the human person, for whom technique is presumably a service. Social scientists can close their eyes to human values; physical scientists can be unconcerned with the use of the power they create."[11]  Where in a secular or state university faculty members may feel uncomfortable bringing up religious dimensions, in a Christian university this is encouraged, and this dimension can provide an integrating influence. For example, a professor in the English department might teach a course on the Catholic novel, analyzing religious themes. Another ripe area of interaction is relating psychology and theology or philosophy, as in courses such as Psychology and the Moral life and Wholeness and Holiness.[12] Other interdisciplinary course examples are Certainty and Uncertainty in Science and Religion, Faith and Human Solidarity, and Christian Perspectives on Law.

Some schools address this departmental isolation concern through centers and institutes dedicated to facilitating interdisciplinary interaction and to exploring the faith dimension in these contexts.

Communities of Conviction

While emphasizing that all the employees of a Christian university may not be of the same faith, they must at least be able to form a community of values. In an influential article, Craig Dykstra of the Lilly Endowment defines what he calls "communities of conviction":

By "communities of conviction," I mean peoples who are intersubjectively related to one another across time and space by a body of convictions, language patterns, and practices that they hold in common. Such communities must last over time- long enough to have and to be historical dramas. As one becomes a member of such a community, that drama is adopted as one's own... Current members of the community recognize that they have parts to play in the continuing drama and so form their lives as to continue its development.[13]

A Christian university can be such a community, but it takes time for the stable members, administrators and faculty, to grow together, and there is the additional challenge that the target of the institution, the students, are only part of it for a few short years. Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame reflects on the ideal characteristics of a Christian university as a community:

What makes a great university in the ancient and modern tradition that we have been discussing? First and foremost, it must be a community of scholars, young and old, teaching and learning together, and together committed to the service of mankind in our times. It might be hoped that in a university worthy of the name the young learn from the old and vice versa, that the faculty grows wiser as it confronts the questioning, idealism, and generosity of each new generation of students, and that the students draw wisdom and perspective from their elders in the academic community. Any university should be a place where all the relevant questions are asked and where answers are elaborated in an atmosphere of freedom and responsible inquiry, where the young learn the great power of ideas and ideals, where the values of justice and charity, truth and beauty, are both taught and exemplified by the faculty, and where both faculty and students together are seized by a deep compassion for the anguishes of mankind in our day and committed to proffer a helping hand, wherever possible, in every aspect of man's material, intellectual, and cultural development.[14]

[1] St. Olaf College Mission Statement

[2] Marquette University Mission Statement

[3] Ladislas Orsy, "The Role of a Christian College in a Pluralistic Society in Catholic Mind, March 1977, 50.

[4] Terence J. Murphy, A Catholic University, Vision and Opportunities (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 3.

[5] Michael M. Clarke, "Teaching Hopkins Without Embarrassment" in America, May 21, 2001, 7.

[6] Terence J. Murphy, A Catholic University, 22-24.

[7] James Heft, S.M., "Theology in a Catholic University" in Origins, September 28, 1995, 246.

[8] Ibid., 246-247.

[9] Terence J. Murphy, A Catholic University, 22.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., The Hesburgh Papers (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1979), 43-44.

[12] Terence J. Murphy, A Catholic University, 24-25.

[13] Craig Dykstra, "Communities of Conviction and the Liberal Arts" in Bulletin, The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, September, 1990, 62.

[14] Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., The Hesburgh Papers, 42-43.