The Spiritual Mission of the University

Two weeks ago, graduating BYU students and their families listened to a commencement address delivered by Professor Robert George of Princeton.

Loyola Logo

The Jesuit motto: For the greater glory of God.

In his address, Prof. George talks about the unique role that religious universities play in the world of academia; he also warned against giving up on that mission in slavish imitation of the best of secular institutions.

He’s absolutely right on the first point: religious universities have an essential role to play in the world of education and the world of scholarship. But he’s absolutely wrong in his diagnosis of following secular norms, and I want to push back against his view (which has, unfortunately, been adopted absent any nuance he may have painted with by others). 

For the record: I have no affiliation with BYU, other than an undergrad degree from the school (and, of course, lots of fond memories). At the same time, I teach at Loyola University Chicago, one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, and one of 14 Jesuit law schools. We are a self-consciously Jesuit school, and embrace our mission and mandate.

But here’s the thing: the way we are religious may differ from the way BYU is religious, or the way Pepperdine is religious, or the way Bob Jones University is religious. And that, I believe, is essential in discussions both of mission and of secularization. Where Prof. George decries employing the state-of-the-art in secular education, he assumes that there is only a single model for religious institutions, and that the model is the one he embraces.

The model he embraces? It’s definitely a good one, and a defensible one. He argues that

[f]aith must play a key role in the intellectual life of the college or university. Faith must inform the curriculum and help to shape the questions we explore in our courses and scholarly research.

But that goal, and that messaging, doesn’t fit into my areas of interest. Truth is not the goal of the tax law, nor does it provide any policy guidance in figuring out what the law should be. Rather, I need to teach my students how to understand the tax law, how to apply it, and how to do both in an ethical and just manner.

So what am I trying to say? Mostly this: pursuit of truth is a worthy goal of a religious institution. But that’s not all there is to religion, and that cannot be the only marker of institutional religiousity. I’d like to propose a different model, one that struck me last week as I read about Father Garanzini’s plan for our soon-to-be-former business school building.

ArrupeCollegeLogoIn the fall, the building will be converted into Arrupe College, essentially a private community college for underprivileged Chicagoans. For a number of systemic and personal reasons, community colleges have a tremendously poor graduation rate (about 20% in the first three years). And yet college has become a near-prerequisite for achieving anything like a middle-class lifestyle.

Arrupe College hopes to change that for a couple hundred students at a time. It will provide a free two-year education to students, who will participate in a work-study program (modeled on the Cristo Rey Network, which does the same for high school students). And it will employ a number of counselors to help students get past the problems that could otherwise cause them to drop out.

Although I don’t know any details about Arrupe College beyond what’s in the news,[fn1] I suspect that its education will be almost purely secular, notwithstanding the fact that it is associated with a Jesuit university. But that doesn’t mean it’s secularizing our mission. Quite the contrary, in fact: it’s actively and tangibly pursuing the Jesuit social justice mission, helping people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to an education that can help lift them to get that education.

Rather than talking religion, that is, Arrupe College (and, by extension, Loyola University Chicago) is living and modeling its religion.

I don’t throw this out to say that BYU should do the same thing. I do throw it out, though, to challenge the idea that there is a single model for a religious university, and any university that doesn’t follow that model is secularizing, to the detriment of its religious mission.

I believe in the mission of my employer, even though I’m Mormon, not Catholic. I want my students to absorb the Loyola’s values. And I want them to have a world-class education. And, frankly, they do and they do. And providing them with a world-class education doesn’t by any means diminish or walk away from the school’s religious mission or background.[fn2]

[fn1] (and if you’re as interested in this as I am, I recommend this interview with Father Garanzini, who really is an amazing president—losing him is our loss, though it’s a gain for students at Jesuit schools worldwide)

[fn2] In fact, at least two of my co-bloggers also teach at non-Mormon religious universities. I suspect their institutions approach their religious obligations differently than Loyola does, and I suspect that their institutions also approach their religious obligations differently than BYU. And, frankly, I think that’s a wonderful thing.


  1. Really, really excellent Sam. One of my colleagues was on the Higher Learning Commission team that approved Arrupe College at Loyola, and he came back so fired up about what you were doing that we are trying to do something on a smaller scale here. My institution, like yours, is Catholic institution with a very strong educational mission, and providing access to higher education to those who would not otherwise have it is, for us, the most important way that we can live our mission and our religion. Its not the only way to be religious, as you say, but it’s got to be up there with not serving caffeinated beverages in the dining hall.

  2. Jason K. says:

    As a product of another Jesuit school, I applaud these comments.

  3. Mike, that’s great! It’s an amazingly good idea (and, in addition to Loyola’s religious mission, we’re right next to a lot of important public transportation lines, making it easy for a lot of students to get here), and I’m thrilled to hear it will be replicated at other Catholic schools!

  4. So, Sam, I’m not sure I’d say George was “absolutely wrong” (as you call him) on his second point, his warning against slavishly following the norms of secular universities. Actually, that point sounds pretty much correct to me. I’d say instead that it’s necessary to find the proper balance between academic norms and institutional identity, which can sometimes be difficult as the balance changes from class to class or between disciplines. When I was teaching at BYUI, there would be times when I thought hewing more closely to the norms of a secular university would be better, and other times when I recognized that there were some unique opportunities that only come by teaching at a place like that, and those opportunities could easily be lost if the norms of a secular university took precedence. I agree with you, though, about the need for living and modeling the institution’s religious mission, and that there are multiple models (even multiple Mormon models) for how to go about doing that.

  5. Jonathan, I stand by my “absolutely wrong,” and not just because hyperbole is the lifeblood of blogging.

    I mean, you’re right that following the norms of secular universities (maybe I should have qualified further: in terms of research and instruction) isn’t amenable to all religious institutions, and I’m fine with that. But it works well with the missions of some such universities; such adoption of the methods and techniques of secular schools is not ipso facto a sign—or even a cause—of secularization.

  6. Slightly tangential, but I think it’s great that they’re opening a 2 year school. There’ve been too many colleges deciding to go after the money of being a 4 year university rather than serving the community by providing a more cost-effective institution (lookin at you Dixie and UVSC).

  7. This. EXACTLY.

  8. Nathaniel Hancock says:

    Sam, do you also believe Ralph Hancock — who makes very similar points to those expressed by Robby George — is “absolutely wrong”?

  9. Nathaniel, yes. He’s conflating trends he disagrees with and secularization. Though I haven’t been a student at BYU for a decade and a half, I’ve known people who studied and taught there in the intervening years, and, unless there’s some buried (but powerful) conspiracy in Provo, BYU is at no risk of losing its religious mission or identity.

    Certainly the way it understands and pursues its religious goals will change as the years pass by, just like they’ve changed throughout its history. But that change (which includes, inter alia, the evolution into a world-class research institution) don’t constitute secularization.

    The question of whether the changes are good or appropriate is, of course, a discussion worth having, and if BYU’s faculty is anything like faculty at my and other institutions I’m familiar with, is happening. But trying to influence these discussions by yelling “secular” doesn’t do any good.

  10. Emily U says:

    (Sam Brunson, I’m looking south and waving at you from Evanston.)

    I don’t think of Princeton as a religious university – I thought it was probably more or less like Northwestern. Here we have Methodist founders, a motto that quotes the New Testament, a non-denominational chapel on campus, but are otherwise totally secular. Faith does not inform the curriculum. I wonder does it really inform the curriculum at Princeton?

    Anyway, I agree with the multiple ways of being a religious institution, and I’m really pleased to hear about Arrupe. I spent one semester teaching about plants at Loyola University Chicago eight years ago. I had a future priest in my class. It was fun.

  11. Hi, Emily! I actually looked at Northwestern’s former religious affiliation (though only on Wikipedia) as I was thinking about this post. I also thought about my alma mater, Columbia, which used to be Anglican.

  12. Sam, great post! But I couldn’t leave a reply without some comment, could I? I think you are slightly hyperbolic in attack on “secular”, largely because it’s a poorly or loosely defined and certainly misused word, that in some hands has come to mean little more than “things we don’t like”. Also, if you do not believe there is truth or something very like it at the core of tax law, then I’d argue that you are shortchanging your students. (No need to defend yourself here. You’ve already done it with respect to ‘secular’, and the meaning of truth in tax law would take us very far afield.)

  13. Christian, I’ll totally respond. I think we may be using “truth” differently; there is not, though, some Platonic (or celestial) form of tax we’re pursuing, and I don’t want my students to think there is. Instead, I want them to know that there are advantages and disadvantages to, say, a territorial versus a worldwide tax system. I want them to know what each entails, and I want them to be able to bring to bear their own personal preferences and goals and determine which better accomplishes those goals. Because the worldwide system isn’t True in any sense, and neither is the territorial system. And if I tried to teach them that there is an objectively True version of tax, I do them a disservice (at least, to the extent they believed me).

    Again, I’m perfectly comfortable with the pursuit of truth (or Truth) as an academic goal, and I suspect that it happens in both secular (whatever that means) and religious (ditto) schools. But I don’t think that pursuit of truth is necessary—or, for that matter, sufficient—to meet a religious school’s religious obgligations.

  14. Sam, we could certainly agree that there’s not a Platonic form of tax. But how about an Empirically correct or true form? Within a set of constraints and preferences dealing with real people. And isn’t the difference itself worth mention, even if you don’t believe either one?

    In any event, your first paragraph tells me that we would probably mostly agree after plodding through some vocabulary. Which is as I believed all along (for what it’s worth, and so I apologize for the “shortchanging” which came across too harsh; I was tweaking you.)

    With respect to secular and religious schools, I’d argue that the pursuit of truth (lower case) is necessary for both, and that the pursuit of Truth is neither necessary nor sufficient for either.

  15. I’m not a tax professor…just a lowly tax accountant, but I don’t see how there would be an “empirically correct or true form” of tax either. I mean, in the same way a territorial vs worldwide regime isn’t a debate over a Platonic form, neither are they debates over empirical correctness.

    I mean, to the extent that some tax policies are aimed at certain goals, and we can measure whether they actually incentivize or disincentivize what the lawmakers were planning…that’s one thing. But that doesn’t say anything about what goals a tax system *should* have.

    While I think that every tax practitioner is going to have thoughts about various “moral” questions about various tax regimes (like everyone will have political opinions, social views, economic views, etc.,), learning about tax really is about learning how to legally and ethically understand, comprehend, and apply the laws that exist, not the laws that you wish existed.

    Anyway, what Loyola is doing w/r/t Arrupe is very interesting.

  16. Thanks, Andrew. You’re absolutely correct.

  17. It’s late and I should let this go, but . . . I really think this tax law debate is a quibble over the word ‘truth”. Put it this way — tax law is not just ink on a page, rules to follow, forms to fill out. There are principles and patterns, structure, concepts. (As I suppose I’d find in many other fields as well.) Often there is no one right answer (cue up territorial vs worldwide) and that can be troubling to a particular version of “truth”. But equally or more often there are a whole lot of wrong answers. It’s like saying that there are arguments for territorial and arguments for worldwide, but (aside from local variations on the margins) there really isn’t a third way that makes sense. If you can say two but not three, the logic and pattern and principles that get you there are an important kind of truth.
    To yank this back to religion and go really wild with the idea, it seems to me that one might ask the question whether the “strait and narrow path” vs “all roads lead to heaven” discussion might yield to Robert Frost’s two roads. Is it possible that Truth is not one and not many, but two?

  18. There are “principles and patterns, structure, concepts.” But sometimes the “principle” is “we used to have this principle, but then people designed these transactions that fit that principle but which the government didn’t like, so they made new regulations to establish new principles.” (So yeah, looking through principles and history for motivations and reasoning can help here, but that’s kinda true with a lot of social science fields — but that doesn’t make them like hard science fields.)

    Or even, “We have this “principle,” but as a result of case law/regulation/lobbying/whatever, this principle ends up meaning or relating to [insert some other thing].”

    And yeah, we can set things up so that they conveniently set up principled dichotomies (rather than trichotomies or other things), but that doesn’t necessarily say as much as you think. Yeah, we can say, “There are a lot of wrong answers”…given an existing system. But the context matters.

    Like, when you talk about getting to heaven…I’d say for the analogy to work with tax, we’d have to point out that we aren’t even sure about heaven as a destination. So we can’t just talk about paths to get to heaven but also other potential destinations.

    …I feel like the extent that you want to make this about truth, you may find some way to get at something, but it doesn’t seem like you’re getting at the sort of truth that Robert George is talking about or advocating as a model for religiously affiliated schools.

  19. Christian, after a night’s reflection, I think I overstated my disagreement with you. I get what you’re talking about—it’s kind of inchoate but I, like most tax professionals I know, believe there is a correct (“correct”?) version of tax. It is a contextual correct: it’s not that an income tax was inherently better than a consumption tax, but that, once we were in the world of the income tax, there is a better way for it to be structured. Kind of a contextual truth, or something.

    So I probably overstated my disagreement—it’s more the terminology than anything substantive (that is, I don’t like the idea of Truth in tax, but I do think that there is a correct way to structure tax law within the context of the system we have).

  20. “it doesn’t seem like you’re getting at the sort of truth that Robert George is talking about or advocating as a model for religiously affiliated schools”

    Yes I am advocating the pursuit of truth (lower case truth) for religiously affiliated schools, and by truth I mean more and different than Platonic ideals and proven scientific hypotheses, but also the “truths” that I find in social science and philosophy and literature, and tax law. Those truths may be hard to define, may be multi-faceted, may involve local but not global maxima and second-best solutions, may be context-driven, may be elusive or only a glimmer on the horizon, but the pursuit of those truths is a worthy endeavor and yes I advocate that religiously affiliated schools be so engaged.

    As for Robert George, I don’t know what he’s really saying but if “don’t imitate secular institutions” is intended or interpreted as “don’t pursue (secular?) truths” then I disagree.
    This is a real thing. That is, I’ve heard arguments that religious institutions should be only about the pursuit of Truth, narrowly defined, as if they were a seminary or a Sunday School. And I disagree. I think religiously affiliated schools can and should do much more.

    For what it’s worth (not a lot because I don’t know very much), what I understand of the Jesuit vision of education and religiously affiliated schools I am very comfortable with and would promote. And there are strong threads of Mormon thought very much in accord, although there are counter-arguments within Mormondom as well.

  21. “Truth is not the goal of the tax law, nor does it provide any policy guidance in figuring out what the law should be.”

    This can’t possibly be true. Surely when you teach tax law you make claims about the world, namely what the effects of certain laws will be on revenue and behavior. These are claims that are either going to be true or false, and surely it would count as an intellectual failure to be indifferent to the question of which claims are true or false. Likewise, if you are making normative arguments you are making truth claims. To say that “Tax policy A is better than tax policy B” is to make a claim that will be true or false. Even if one makes the claim, “Normative claims about tax policy cannot be true or false” you are making a pretty ambitious truth claim, one that might or might not be right. Finally, given the distributive consequences that tax policy has on society, I have a hard time believing that religious values are somehow utterly orthogonal to the discussion.