In 2016, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities put in motion the Mission Priority Examen (MPE) as a self-study and peer review process for reaffirming the Jesuit, Catholic mission of Jesuit colleges and universities.
How is it helping to strengthen the mission of Jesuit higher education schools? Does it provide a structure for serious reflection on our mission? How has the MPE represented an opportunity for trustees?
Learn more about the MPE, its values, its developments over the last nine years and how it has represented a space to strengthen the mission dimension of our institutions in North America. Read full article by Stephanie Russel, Vice President for Mission Integration at AJCU.
Nine years ago, the Society of Jesus in the United States, through collaboration with AJCU, launched the Mission Priority Examen (MPE). Encouraged by then-Jesuit Superior General Rev. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., the MPE pilot was envisioned to have a dual purpose. First, it was to help the Society connect regularly with its higher education "apostolates" (i.e., ministries). The thoroughgoing process would build strong relationships between the Jesuit Provinces and the colleges and universities they sponsor; inform the decisions of Jesuit leaders regarding ongoing sponsorship; and enable the Jesuit Superior General to confirm in a public way the institution's Catholic and Jesuit identity.
Second, the MPE was seen as a mechanism for Jesuit institutions to reflect deeply on their Jesuit and Catholic identity, setting explicit mission priorities for the future and building a stronger network among institutions. By listening to constituencies across campus, writing a self-study, and reflecting on the school's mission priorities alongside peer visitors, each school would put building blocks in place to strengthen the mission of Jesuit higher education.
AII of this was to take place not as an accreditation, but as a Ignatian Examen: a practice drawn from the heart of St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. Like an individual Examen, the MPE is designed to be prayerful, reflective, dialogic, and seeking the common good in the company of valued colleagues and Jesuit companions. A good Examen, whether individual or institutional, presupposes a level of spiritual freedom that allows us to be responsive to the call of God, insofar as we can discern it.
The Pilot Phase
The pilot spanned five years: overall, feedback on the exper1ence was positive. Faculty and staff appreciated the time to talk across departments and divisions, and to think broadly about the direction of their schools. The very process of undertaking an MPE served to strengthen the understanding of and commitment to being Jesuit and Catholic universities. For sorne colleagues, the MPE constituted an introduction to Jesuit higher education nationally and to the role of the Jesuits and Jesuit community 1n their school. Even veterans, however, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to refresh their college or university mission commitments.
Unsurprisingly, the pilot phase also shed light on areas for improvement. Among them was the need to better include those trustees who felt peripheral to the MPE. A new emphasis was placed on soliciting board input on the school's mission strengths and weaknesses; tracking progress on the MPE at board and committee meetings; approv1ng the self-study for submission to the Society of Jesus and AJCU; assuring that the school's mission priorities are integrated into academic and operational decision-making; and communicating the institution's m1ss1on priorities to externa! audiences. Recommendations from the current Jesuit Superior General, Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., focused on increasing student and Jesuit community involvement and better connecting the MPE to the Society's newly discerned Universal Apostolic Preferences (i.e., common directions for all Jesuit ministries over the next decade).
In response, a Joint Commission of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States was tasked with monitoring the progress of the MPE and exploring other collaborations between Provinces and colleges and universities. As a result of their work, the central document for the MPE process was revised and expanded. Now titled Characteristics of Jesuit Higher Education: A Guide for Mission Reflection, this booklet was approved by the Provincials and Presidents as the greed-upon reference point for conducting the MPE. The Characteristics document examines Jesuit colleges and universities through seven lenses:
- Leadership and Public Commitment to the Mission;
- The Academic Life
- The Pursuit of Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation;
- Promoting a Ignatian Campus Culture;
- Service to the Church
- Relationship to the Society of Jesus; and
- lnstitutional integrity.
The Current Round
The MPE is now a permanent, if evolving, process for the Society; we are currently in Year 3 of a seven-year rotation. St. John's College in Belize participates as a member institution and our associate member in Canada, Campion College at the University of Regina, is undertaking a modified MPE, as well. Jesuit universities in other parts of the world are free to use MPE resources for setting their own mission priorities in ways that are culturally relevant.
A Tool for Trustees
Every board member holds in trust the mission fiduciary, academic, religious, and social of our colleges and universities, and the MPE has become a go-to resource for governance that far exceeds its use as a measure of mission authenticity every seven years. Like a “mission dashboard” it has effectively established a set of guideposts and a common language for boards to address mission integration and exercise effective governance.
Strengthening Trustee Recruitment & Onboarding
When trustees are recruited to a board, they are typically provided with a packet of materials to familiarize them with the mission statement and work of the university. This, along with their in-person orientation, is essential for those new to the institution, but also for alumni whose reference point is that of a bygone era. Providing trustee candidates and new trustees with your self-study offers a comprehensive window into your school's mission priorities today and how you are acting upon them.
Strengthening the Mission Dimension of Board Committees
Board committees sometimes struggle to find logical links between their work and the overall mission of the institution, especially in a Catholic, Jesuit cadence. What exactly does our mission mean for the work of Academic and Student Affairs? Finance? Buildings and Grounds? The Characteristics document and your self-study can serve as launchpads for committees to draft their own goals, processes, and mission-specific questions that will support the mission priorities that the school and Society have endorsed. This also mitigates against the temptation among trustees to delegate all things "mission" to the Mission Committee of the board.
Helping Boards Grow as Discerning Bodies
Ideally, the MPE normalizes and fosters a "way of proceeding" for mission-driven, institutional decision making. Rather than being a mere checklist of expectations and responses, the best MPE processes dig deeply into core questions that can be explored and responded to over the next seven years. A successful MPE will also set the table for how the board does its regular business in the discerning tradition of the Society of Jesus. Done consistently and honestly, the Examen is an essential building block for discernment. Boards can use the MPE as a discussion-starter for how they think, pray, and deliberate together as a group of discerning leaders.
Designing Board Retreats
Most of us have experienced board retreats that are nothing more than offsite meetings with a few extraneous bells and whistles. The board does its usual business with an added keynote speaker or a video, but deep board engagement is elusive. The MPE is, by nature, an interactive process. Schools that have completed it spend the next seven years exploring how to implement it in lasting ways.
Using the Characteristics document and mission priorities as a starting point, boards can develop "Mission KPls (key performance indicators)," establish quantitative and qualitative assessment criteria, and benchmark the school's progress in living out its Jesuit, Catholic mission. Doing so engages trustees deeply in the work of mission governance, which can no longer be ceded only to the Jesuits on the board. lt can be a revelation to some trustees that they now carry the torch of their school's mission in ways they had perhaps not imagined. What better setting than a board retreat for discussing the new normal of mission co-responsibility?
Assessing the President
As any good guidebook for trustees will say, the most important work of the board is in hiring and overseeing the president. Supporting the president relies on the board's clear eyed view of presidential performance 1n team-building, academic administration, enrollment and financial management, fundraising, community and civic relations, crisis response, and a host of other areas.
But how are boards to assess the performance of the president as a mission leader, especially since the institution's mission intersects with so many other a reas? The complex times in which we find ourselves (e.g., a turnover of half of all AJCU presidents in the last three years) require boards to identify evidence of good mission leadership. The Characteristics document can help trustees look at performance from multiple perspectives without getting overwhelmed by the breadth of mission leadership.
The Spiritual Exercises of lgnatius is a text of contradictions: on one hand filled with rules for discernment and detailed advice for the retreatant, and yet tempered by adaptation and prioritizing whatever would bring a person closer to the heart of God. The Mission Priority Examen seeks to echo, in its own way, that spirit. Through it, we are invited to a process that can guide our schools' mission choices far into the future. We have only scratched the surface of what taking the MPE seriously and adapting it to new forms might mean for how we serve as boards, faculty, staff, and students. Our college and university communities will take their cues from the practices of boards, and thus trustees will lead the way.
* This article is republished in this newsletter with permission from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU)