Margaret-McGuinness-LMFrom the perspective of Dr. Margaret McGuinness, Vice President for Mission, La Salle University – Philadelphia

Full disclosure—I’ve been thinking about, reading about, and writing about women religious for almost 30 years. Men religious, including the Christian Brothers, did not land on my radar screen very much. I had completed a dissertation that looked at sisters and laywomen, spent twenty years on the faculty of Cabrini College, sponsored by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (also known as the Cabrini Sisters), written several articles and a book on various topics relating to women religious, and had just agreed to write a history of nuns in the United States, when a friend told me about a job opening at Philadelphia’s La Salle University. To make a long story short, La Salle was searching for a Chair of the Religion department. I decided to apply and—somewhat to my surprise—was hired. Five years later, I found myself accepting the position of Executive Director of the Office for Mission; I am now Vice President for Mission at the University.

When I arrived at La Salle, I did not know much about either the Christian Brothers or St.  John Baptist de La Salle. Along with other family members (all male), my father and grandfather graduated from La Salle Academy in Providence, and my son began his junior year at the University when I arrived (suffice it to say that despite his initial misgivings, Mom and the checkbook came in rather handy on more than one occasion). I did, however, know something about mission from my time working with and writing about women religious. Almost every organization has a mission statement, but mission is something that all religious communities take especially seriously; it is, after all, the very reason for their existence. So although I was prepared for people to talk about mission, I was surprised by the intensity of the conversation that continues to take place at La Salle University.

Some of the conversations—of course—bemoan the changes that have taken place at 20th and Olney since the “good old days.” Most faculty and staff no longer live reasonably close to campus; today, we are spread out over at least five Pennsylvania counties, across the river in New Jersey, and down Route 95 in Delaware. In general, people no longer enroll their children in the University’s Day Care Center; folks simply live too far away from campus. Despite these and other changes—some of which reflect the transitions currently taking place in the world of higher education—we are still La Salle, and we still care very much about mission.

Members of our community believe it is important that the University mission be consistent with that of the Christian Brothers, but we also understand that as an institution of higher education, we operate at least somewhat differently from secondary schools and child and youth services. We strongly support “service to the poor,” but often use the phrase, “heightened sensitivity to the marginalized.” Serving the poor is important, but we hope our students—who hail from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds—leave La Salle with the knowledge that they have to do more than serve. How will they participate in efforts to eradicate those systems and institutions that contribute to the many ways in which people are marginalized? What have they learned about the marginalized? And, how do they respond to the situations in which the oppressed find themselves?

Explorer Cafe - What Does It Mean to be Lasallian?

Explorer Cafe – What Does It Mean to be Lasallian?

Our mission also focuses on providing a combination of theoretical and practical knowledge that will assist our students in whatever career they might choose. One interpretation of this concept is that we graduate accountants, nurses, and teachers who have the skills to excel in their profession, as well as the knowledge that will help them to understand the political, economic, and philosophical complexities of the twenty-first century. But we also hope that this practical and theoretical knowledge will assist our students as they work to increase their “sensitivity to the marginalized.” If La Salle graduates only men and women who use their education to further their own wealth and stature, we have not done our jobs well.

Higher education is falling on tough times these days. Pundits wonder if it’s cost effective for students to even attend college. (According to the Pew Research Center, higher education is most certainly worth it. Median annual income for full time workers with a high school diploma is $28,000; college graduates earn $45,500.) Blogs and op-ed pieces debate the need for undergraduates to be exposed to the humanities and social sciences as a part of their core curriculum. Business leaders don’t care about the humanities—including theology and philosophy—we hear. They want students who are prepared to thrive in the workplace of the twenty-first century, but they are not sure what that exactly entails.

We listen to the critics, and we give serious consideration to what they say. No doubt about it, private Catholic higher education is expensive, and the issue of student debt has a place in any discussion of social justice. What makes us different—and I suspect my colleagues at other Lasallian universities agree—is our Lasallian mission. A mission to help our students demonstrate a sensitivity to the marginalized and to provide them with the theoretical and practical knowledge they will need for the world of the future, and do all this within the context of authentic community.

I believe that the various constituencies at La Salle University will continue to reflect upon our mission and how it impacts the education we provide. It’s these conversations that shape our teaching, help us make decisions related to both curricular and co-curricular issues, and remind us of the heritage of John Baptist de La Salle and the Christian Brothers. And in the end, it is through these conversations that I come to better understand the mission and to become more fully Lasallian.

(The following photos are from La Salle University’s Lasallian Day of Service, part of their 150th Anniversary in 2012. The University called on its current students and alumni around the country and the world to be of service in their communities, and Lasallians in true form responded to the call.)