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On Measuring Mission — and Finding ‘God in Our Midst’

 

An effort in assessment helps campuses and their outside audiences better understand and appreciate the greater good achieved by Catholic higher education

By Thomas M. Evans

 

Like most university presidents, my agenda in late 2019 focused on “priority” matters such as long-range strategic planning, fund raising, and programmatic growth. Little did I know what lie just ahead — a global pandemic and with it, a cliff point of crisis and change that would reshape higher education for generations.

Having lived and led through 10 extraordinary months, we leaders in higher education are practiced now at rethinking every aspect of operations, from the physical plant to tuition and aid. I can think of no better time to add one more consideration: the health and relevance of mission and our ability to measure its importance to our core work of educating men and women to become concerned and enlightened citizens.

Tom Evans

University of the Incarnate Word President Tom Evans

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities recognizes that all of its member colleges and universities sit at this inflection point and have taken two extraordinary steps to help:

  1. ACCU has revised its Catholic Identity & Mission Assessment (CIMA) tool to encourage easier completion and participation among first-year students.
  2. ACCU is offering to administer the first of the four potential CIMA surveys free of charge.

 

As I have said to many of you in the past, we would all be better for the knowledge that Catholic Identity & Mission Assessment could provide — both for our particular campuses and in helping prospects, donors, and policymakers appreciate the greater good achieved by our communities. Remember, each college gets to view the aggregate data, and its own results, but never data sets from peer or aspiration schools, a rule meant to curb any enthusiasm we might have for frivolous “better” or “worse” comparisons.

My former colleague Chris Fuller, vice president and chief sponsorship and mission integration officer at Saint Joseph's College in Maine, was part of the team that drafted the original survey tool and is administering it to this year’s class of Saint Joseph's freshmen.

“We wanted to create something that would provide solid aggregate data on how Catholic colleges and universities across the board were delivering on the shared promise and student experience,” Fuller says, “as well as give institutions a chance to customize the tool and track their own results over time.”

Some of you may think that this time of remote learning and high distraction may not lend itself to gauging how well first-year students have embraced Catholic Social Teaching, or an understanding of mission and the accompanying institutional charism and personality. My view is that by measuring mission, we can begin to learn whether we are creating the value that we aim to create. At the University of the Incarnate Word, a core brand principle is doing hard things well — and the pandemic is putting every aspect of that principle to the test.

 

My view is that by measuring mission, we can begin to learn whether we are creating the value that we aim to create.

 

Writing in the San Antonio Express-News two months into the pandemic, after our understanding as a campus community began to catch up to the realities of COVID-19, I said this:

As the nation responds to this global pandemic, we at the University of the Incarnate Word know that our choices — and those of our partners — will shape our collective well-being for generations. As the world searches for a coordinated, systematic, and dignified response to a vast human need, UIW can say that we are made for this time.

 

The claim “we are made for this time“ did not come from any sudden insight or misplaced bravado about our situation. Our university, like so many, remained in triage mode — meeting extraordinary student needs and adapting to changes in teaching methods, content, and assessment in real time (on a good day) or in three to five days, as each wave of new information and uncertainty would crest.

 

Founded in Faith, Built for Service

My assertion (“we are made for this time”) did not try to deny our ground reality. The thought grew from a far more abiding source — our inescapable origin story. UIW, you see, traces its start to an 1866 cholera epidemic that prompted C.M. Dubuis, bishop of Galveston, to issue a call for help. The world responded — and three courageous young women traveled from France to form the congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and meet the region’s health, societal, and educational needs. Compassionate street medicine and pastoral care evolved into the creation of Santa Rosa Infirmary, the first Catholic hospital in the San Antonio area and the Incarnate Word School, now the (international, 10,000-plus student) University of the Incarnate Word.

University of the Incarnate WordBy revisiting UIW’s origin story and the larger mission that it supports, I rediscovered the bedrock of faith and equilibrium that underlies our more than 150 years of service to education and public health. I saw more clearly the need to hold a productive tension between daily operational vigilance and a more forward-looking strategic view.

At its core, the UIW mission speaks not to arrival (salvation) but to the courage required to arrive each day on the brink of uncertainty — and to find the faith required to rest there, eyes and hearts open to each potential need and opportunity. 

“It helps to have one person designated in a mission integration role such as mine,” Fuller says. “We all have taken Catholic identity somewhat for granted — we could always point to the founding congregation of Sisters or Brothers as living embodiment of mission. As those examples become less common, the CIMA tool helps inform an ongoing conversation about what Catholic identity and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition means for students and families.”

At UIW, embrace of mission informs a range of tangible action steps. In the pandemic, we have learned how best to bear witness to the grief of students who have lost family members to the virus. We have been more attuned to longstanding issues of health discrepancies and food insecurity, leading to new partnerships with health providers and the San Antonio Food Bank. We’ve seen our School of Osteopathic Medicine and School of Nursing students spend residencies and clinical rounds on the front lines.

It’s too soon to issue a grade for how we have responded during this extraordinary year, but we know that the CIMA tool — along with a willingness to remain humble and attentive — will make us smarter going forward.

At the University of the Incarnate Word, we are led by Sr. Walter Maher, CCVI, vice president for mission and ministry. She reminds the campus community that mission should never stray from our core purpose of education. “I would say that one of the gifts that has come from this shared pandemic experience is a return to a core understanding,” Sr. Walter says. “In John’s gospel, Jesus says: ‘I am Lord and teacher.’ Jesus reminds us to pay attention not just to his words, but to his actions. ‘If I, your Lord and teacher, wash your feet, then you need to do likewise.’ Through this shared challenge, I have found the UIW community to be more engaged and better able to reflect on the mystery of service and education, and the mystery of God in our midst.”

 

Thomas M. Evans is president of the University of the Incarnate Word.