Jesuit Education in a Time of Crisis

March 16, 2020

Dear Faculty and Staff,

On Friday I wrote to you, as well as to students, in my capacity as president indicating the official decision of the university in regard to the extension of remote instruction through Spring Quarter and several of the impacts of that decision. While dozens if not more provided advice and it was approved by our Board, the responsibility for the decision rests with me as president. Today I am writing to you, our faculty and staff, because of another responsibility I have as the president of a Jesuit university. This responsibility derives not from the fact that personally I am a Jesuit but from the responsibility of any president of a university that is Jesuit. I want to articulate and suggest some ways in which we can approach the coming period of time in a different manner from other universities because of our Jesuit way of education. I write to both faculty and staff because you play necessary and complementary roles in making our Jesuit education possible.

I was impressed recently to read that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the key person informing the nation of the significance of the coronavirus pandemic, says that his Jesuit education in high school (Regis in New York City) and college (Holy Cross) taught him “intellectual rigor and the value of public service.” Jesuit education is different and it does make a difference. Let me express some of the ways I believe the Jesuit education of Seattle University can make a difference in how we go about teaching, communicating and working in the coming period of time in the unprecedented circumstances we face.

First of all can we help our students understand, and ourselves reaffirm, that the “why” for what we are doing is essentially for the sake of the common good. We are adopting the measures we are taking not only for the well-being of our students and ourselves, but doing our part—a significant one—to decrease the contagion of the disease for the sake of all people and especially for the more vulnerable and the poor. This “why” of promoting the common good is the most important value of our Jesuit commitment to justice rooted in faith and needs to be communicated at this time. If we can deepen this understanding now, we can adopt it as a value applicable to so many other dimensions of life. Another way of saying this is by way of the Jesuit motto of educating “men and women for and with others” or advancing “a well-educated solidarity.” I ask faculty in the preparation of their courses to consider how they might communicate this “why.”

The paradigm that underlies Jesuit education emphasizes “context, experience, reflection, action and evaluation.” At this time it may be especially important to seek to explore the context in which students are learning and to help them to understand this more fully. If they can see how their courses and the disciplines they are studying apply to and make a difference in regard to the pandemic we are experiencing, they will learn more deeply and will retain and apply that learning more widely and competently. I cannot think of any course which does not bear some relevance to our current context. Explicating that could make a difference in the Jesuit quality of the learning of our students at this time. Hopefully their reflection on the experience of their learning in this context will lead them to action or decision, first of all about what they need to learn more fully and also about how what they learn guides them in the actions and decisions of their lives in service of others.

A distinguishing characteristic of Jesuit education is the primacy of imagination and creativity in how we educate. In Jesuit education the intellect should be guided, expanded and enhanced by imagination. We are not just about knowing, but about affective knowing. In my terminology, the aim of Jesuit education is “to know lovingly and love knowingly.” I would ask faculty to consider how they can be creative in designing and implementing their virtual courses so that the imaginations of the students are engaged and the learning deeper. A virtual course of a Jesuit university should be recognizably different from courses of other systems of education in this regard. I am confident that our faculty will see how to do this, knowing their subject and bringing their own gifts, beliefs, creativity and experience as educators.

In this communally anxious time as we go virtual in our education it is important to recall and retain the dimension that is at the heart of Jesuit education: Cura personalis—“personal care for the student.” We know that many of our students live in ordinary times with anxiety; how are they in regard to anxiety at this time? Can we find out and can we offer a reassuring, experienced voice of care for them personally? This Jesuit dimension of education could make all the difference for students in how we go about relating with them. Many of us as faculty and staff also live with anxiety in the ordinary challenges of our work and personal lives. How can we have this same personal care for one another in this time of heightened common anxiety as we also implement social distancing? Can we find the ways to be closer to one another, not more distant, in our personal care for one another as colleagues in Jesuit education? It is important for us to acknowledge one another, to show appreciation for how hard and how well we are all working in the midst of this challenge and to assist those who need special help at this time.

We live in a time of crisis. One aspect of a crisis is that it can make us more alert and attentive, more learning. I am sure our students years from now–if we approach this challenge in a Jesuit educational way—will look back and say that this was the time when they learned more fully and better than at any other time of their Seattle University education and that they will retain what they learned and will remember and be grateful for how we engaged with them. I also believe that how we as faculty and staff live the coming months has the possibility of changing and enhancing on an ongoing basis our education, our university, our community as colleagues and ourselves.

Thanks for reading my reflections and suggestions as president of our university as Jesuit in its character at all times but in these times especially. I would welcome your reflections and suggestions. As I pray for our students and for all of us who share a common responsibility for how our university lives its mission, please also find your way to take to prayer or to heart what we are about and who we are.

With gratitude,

Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J.