Laypersons will collaborate to lead Fairfield’s mission and identity initiatives

Laypersons will collaborate to lead Fairfield’s mission and identity initiatives

In a time of fewer Jesuits, how will universities like Fairfield maintain a strong Jesuit mission and identity?

It’s a question that alumni often ask University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., and this fall he addressed the issue by appointing Dr. Nancy Dallavalle, associate professor of religious studies, and Dr. Thomas Pellegrino ’90, vice president of student affairs, to lead Fairfield’s mission and identity efforts going forward. The two will work alongside the Fairfield Jesuit community.

In her role as University Facilitator for Mission and Identity, Dr. Dallavalle will work to shape dialogue about mission on campus and among the Board of Trustees. As University Coordinator for Mission and Identity, Dr. Pellegrino will identify mission-related goals and work to build structures for their completion.

This collaborative model “can best integrate the perspectives of faculty, student affairs professionals, and the various components of Campus Ministry,” said Fr. von Arx.

Prior to this new arrangement, Rev. James Bowler, S.J., served as facilitator from 2000 to 2011, followed briefly by Rev. Gerald Blaszczak, S.J.

“You have to continually feed mission and identity. That is the main task,” Fr. Bowlersaid of the role. While he was the facilitator, many new initiatives sprang to life, including the foundation of the Center for Catholic Studies, the Center for Faith and Public Life, and the Ignatian Residential College for undergraduates which he now heads.

In the hectic, fast-paced world of a university campus, it is easy to lose sight of the “big picture,” Fr. Bowler said. It is the “whole person” after all, that needs to be nurtured, and that means the “big” questions about the purpose of life, and the obligation to promote justice, have to be integral to everything the University does.

There is a very practical reason for Fairfield to rethink how to approach leading the mission now.

“The numbers of Jesuits are in decline, and the number of Jesuits stationed here is not likely to be any higher than it is now,” said Dr. Dallavalle. Lay people simply must take on the responsibilities previously played by “men in collars.”

Seeing those “men is collars” on campus meant something to students over the generations. Dr. Dallavalle said. “That collar has mattered, representing vowed religious calling. How will we possibly replace what was invested in those symbols?” That will be a significant challenge.

Dr. Pellegrino noted too that Jesuit mission and identity are vital selling points of a Fairfield education.

“Mission and identity — as we say in today’s marketplace parlance — is the value proposition of a Jesuit education,” said Dr. Pellegrino. “Jesuit education responds to the demands of employers who want students with broad-based liberal arts backgrounds and can think logically, listen actively, communicate well, and solve problems.”

Dr. Pellegrino pointed to Fairfield’s emphasis on “experiential learning,” a hallmark of Jesuit education.

“Every school does experiential learning, but at Fairfield we enhance the experience with mentoring and discernment,” he said. “This is not simply about ‘building better employees;’ we want to form students so that they are asking the questions ‘for whom?’ and ‘for what?’ This means that with a Fairfield degree comes a responsibility to serve the common good.”

His job will be to find ways to quantify, and better explain how students formed in such a transformative environment are of such value to their employers and communities.

“In 2013 and beyond, we need to find new ways of articulating — indeed, proving — the benefits of our mission,” he said.

Dr. Dallavalle continued: “There is a strong push for higher education to be simply a tool of the current economic system” she said. “But that push is short-term, and it’s the kind of thinking that the great tradition of Jesuit education has always known it needed to resist.

“At Fairfield, we know that this tradition will ground our students for the long haul. I always say that the point of a Fairfield education is not simply to be hired; it’s to be the kind of person who is promoted. That’s where that strong liberal arts core and the formative process we have here really comes forward as decisive.

Dr. Pellegrino also wants to work to defuse the expectation that a Jesuit and Catholic university is only for Catholics, or Christians. “When we say that we are a Catholic and Jesuit institution, we’re not saying that we’re an institution only for Catholics and Jesuits. We’re saying that we’re an institution that looks at the world with critical skills and compassionate eyes — and produces students who bring critical skills and compassionate eyes to the world.”

Dr. Pellegrino has posed this question to his lay colleagues: “If we going to be a college or university tomorrow from the ground up — and we had the resources necessary to make it be a pretty good school — would we make it a Jesuit and Catholic institution?

“I say the answer is ‘yes,’” he said, “and I find that my responsibility now is to be able to explain why my answer is yes. That  is our charge going forward.”

Dr. Dallavalle takes comfort in knowing that she and Dr. Pellegrino — friends and colleagues of long standing — are not working in a vacuum.

“We have a deep well to draw from,” she said. “We’re all already deeply here,” she said of the faculty and staff steeped in Ignatian values,” she said. The lay leadership can never play the role that the Jesuit priesthood has played in Fairfield’s history, she went on, “but we still have to be the public representatives of this institution. How that is going to happen is still being worked out. The mission is still being written.”