2010 International Jesuit Higher Education conference

Report on the conference, "Shaping the Future:  Networking Jesuit Higher Education for a Globalizing World"

Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, April 21-25, 2010

Report written by Gail Presbey, Philosophy Dept., University of Detroit Mercy

The goal of this conference could not be more important. Since there are so many Jesuit colleges and universities around the globe, and since the Jesuit order is committed to social justice, why not work together to transform our world and make it a more just place? We could do so if only we could meet each other, exchange ideas, let each other know about the ways in which each of us could contribute, and find out from others their projects, dreams and needs. IJHE launched this project by helping us to meet face to face, with plans to continue and broaden this meeting virtually through a website dedicated to helping people make connections with each other.

The extent of the reach of current Jesuit institutions is considerable. The Jesuit order has over 18,000 men, and they work in tandem with laypeople. Here is the description on the newly launched website, jesuitcommons.org:

"Jesuits and their lay colleagues are blessed with an extraordinary education and social service network spanning more than 100 countries. More than a thousand schools and universities count millions of students, graduates, or faculty; and countless others work and pray in Jesuit refugee agencies, justice institutes, parishes, development NGOs, and retreat houses. Imagine the power that would be unleashed if this millions-strong network could jointly innovate projects, launch global advocacy or prayer campaigns, share teaching materials, or mount research efforts."

Of those schools mentioned above, over 200 are universities and four year colleges. All but 30 managed to send a delegation to this conference. I was happy to meet many Jesuits and faculty from Jesuit colleges in India, Africa, Mexico, the Philippines and elsewhere, as well as from the other U.S.  based universities. Our challenge as university employees, whether faculty or administrators, was how we could work with each other and other Jesuit organizations to bring about lasting change in our world. As the Secretary General of the Jesuits, Adolfo Nicolas explains, we each need to find out how we can become useful servants – not just "professionals" who respond to economic reward and prestige, but rather, to challenge ourselves to "solve the problems and meet the needs of real people, especially the poorest." This dedication to the poor is something we must renew each day, because, he admits, the world in which we live does not help us to maintain this dedication to the poor.  Solving problems does not mean focusing on short term fixes, but rather dedication to justice, for if we love people we should defend their rights.

Chris Lowney, a keynote speaker, explained that the Jesuits have over 300 service, advocacy, or justice networks. I have visited some of these during my various world travels and have always been impressed by the courageous work they are doing. For example, in Ahmedabad, India, I visited the St. Xavier's Social Service Society, where I first learned of research that the Jesuits had courageously done in exposing the role of the provincial government in the genocide against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. They are still in the news now, decrying the arrests of environmental activists who were upholding the rights of indigenous people. In New Delhi I was the guest of the Indian Social Institute run by the Jesuits which trains advocates in human rights and socio-economic development, and publishes an important Human Rights News Bulletin. I also found there the Jesuit Social Apostolate of Jesuits in Social Action (JESA) organized by Fr. Xavier Jeyaraj S.J.,dedicated, among many other projects, to educate young women who serve as maids, so that they can better their life prospects. Headquartered in Nairobi, the Jesuit Refugee Service helps Africans from many countries restart their lives and families, while the Jesuit-run Hekima College Institute of Peace and International Relations offers Master's degrees to students who will increase their skills at peacemaking. I was also impressed during other travels by the Jesuits in Lviv, Ukraine, especially Fr. David Nazar, S.J., who explained how the Jesuits help individuals who have been rescued from trafficking situations reintegrate themselves into Ukrainian society. Of course the Jesuits at University of Central America in El Salvador have become famous for enduring loss of life for their public stands of solidarity with the poor and their past criticisms of their country's militarization.  In all places I have visited, Jesuits have been involved both on the grand scale and the small scale in making our world a more just and peaceful place.

With this background in my own travels, I felt very fortunate to be chosen as our university's representative to this conference, where I had the opportunity to learn about centers and projects beyond what I already knew. For example, I met Hyacinthe Loua, S.J.,  from the Center for Research and Action for Peace in Cote d'Ivoire. He is researching indigenous values of conflict resolution. Their Center promotes human rights and social development. I heard a presentation by Peter Balleis who coordinates the Jesuit Refugee Service on the international level. He explained that JRS was founded in 1980, and now serves people in 51 countries, bringing direct services to half a million refugees. Balleis challenged those in attendance at the conference if they could think of any ways in which they could contribute to a project to bring higher education to students at Kakuma camp in Kenya and Dzaleka Camp in Malawi. I met (and climbed the Sun pyramid at Teotihuacan with) Rev. Xavier Alpasa, S.J. from the Philippines, who created Rags2Riches, a business that employs 300 poor urban women who turn scraps of cloth into stylish designer bags.  Alpasa, who is President of Loyola College of Culion, described his School of Business' Diploma course in Social Entrepreneurship, a business program that puts profits in the context of what is good for people and the environment. Such an emphasis on environment was welcome and necessary, considering Nancy Tuchman of Loyola University Chicago's presentation which both summed up the dire situation of environment on our planet as well as the promising projects in different Jesuit universities intended to protect environmental resources.

A major highlight of the gathering was the Address by Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Nicolas, called "Depth, Universality and Learned Ministry:  Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today." Download the full address (PDF).  Fr. Nicolas explained that every university's purpose is to promote love and truth. The love that must be inside the university is the affirmative recognition of the Other. In this "intellectual apostolate" as it is called (and he reminded us that Fr. Laynez—one of Ignatius' first companions—had to convince St. Ignatius to prioritize university education as a mission of the Jesuits), we must ask ourselves, who benefits from the knowledge produced at these learned centers? Is it the poor? He emphasized the need to provide scholarships so that students of diverse economic backgrounds could receive an education. He envisioned Jesuits universities partaking in a single global social project to transform communities. This project would involve changing public policy by occupying the public arena and advocating for those who are suffering. Turning to self-critique, he noted that given the major world challenges, he feared that the Jesuit leadership was lacking a sense of urgency in tackling these larger problems. He hoped the gathering would rectify this problem. He challenged each person to study, pray, discern, and risk. He insisted that we must find creative solutions to our globe's troubles.

I was particularly struck by Fr. Nicolas' emphasis on the importance of learning about other cultures. He explained that it can begin with learning the classic texts of other cultures beyond those of Greece and Rome, including China, Japan, and India, and that of indigenous peoples and Latin Americans. He and others at the conference advocated, when possible, that students experience immersion in a different culture and a different economic context.  While he agrees that a "dictatorship of relativism" is not good, he found through his own experience of living in Japan that many things are relative. He now emphasizes that the Jesuits should not force all people into a stifling uniformity but instead appreciate differences; he credits that Dalit Jesuits in India with bringing him to such insights.

Chris Lowney claimed that St. Ignatius himself started "networking," when he required Jesuits going abroad to write letters about what they were doing. These letters were then copied and sent to all the other Jesuit locations. Lowney and others are trying to do something similar using 21st century technology, creating a "digital commons." At the new website, www.jesuitcommons.org, people can find each other in order to collaborate with each other. Lowney quotes the 35th Jesuit General Congress which noted that in our global world, forces have both facilitated and broken relationships among people. The hope is that through this website, our Jesuit-connected global community can reach out to each other. I encourage each of you to go to the user-friendly website and sign up. You can register, and then join a network based on your interests and skills, and learn how to join a project, or how to propose your own project for others to join. At this point the website is still in its infancy and seems to have a few kinks (so I hope it doesn't function as a broken relationship rather than facilitation). Of course the website is only a tool and shouldn't be a total replacement for the one-to-one contact we can make with each other through our existing personal networks. Since I know that many of you already work on joint projects with colleagues from other Jesuit universities, perhaps you'd like to post your projects on the Jesuit commons website in order to have those projects more widely known, and to grow with new input from others.  Also, I would like to encourage you to consider whether any of your students might like to take advantage of an opportunity to spend a semester abroad at Casa de la Solidaridad, at the University of Central America in El Salvador. Two of our UDM students have done this already and found it to be life-changing. Dean Brackley S.J., who spoke here a couple of years ago helps to guide students in reflection on their experiences in new economic and cultural contexts through the lens of justice. Please contact me if you are interested in pursuing this or any other international learning opportunities for our students.

Gail Presbey
UDM Professor of Philosophy
313-993-1124

Download the full address by Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus, "Networking Jesuit Higher Education: Shaping
the Future for a Humane, Just, Sustainable Globe," delivered in Mexico City, April 23, 2010 at the 2010 International Jesuit Higher Education Conference (PDF).