Transformation can’t be measured in money: A reflection for Marquette’s upper administration

It’s no secret that higher education is in quite a financial pinch. Since March 2020, colleges and universities have been strategizing ways to mitigate the financial impact of COVID-19, and our university and my alma mater, Marquette, isn’t immune.

Marquette has already taken temporary measures to lessen the impact, and long-term strategies include closing—or “sunsetting,” to use upper administration’s term—programs, majors, and minors. Quantitative measures suggest these areas are under-enrolled, lose money, or don’t bring in money. I’m simplifying, of course, but the decisions come down to money because our university needs money to survive. I won’t deny that and neither will our Jesuit community. Yet, like the Jesuits, I struggle to see our university be treated like a manufacturing service instead of an institution of higher education rooted in Ignatian spirituality and values. 

This struggle was made more apparent this weekend when I received my copy of Marquette Magazine, which is sent to alums and always opens with a letter from our president, Dr. Michael Lovell. I was surprised to see Dr. Lovell end this issue’s letter with an invitation: “Can we all slow down just a little?” This came as a surprise to me as a faculty member, not so much as an alum, given what I’ve been seeing in coffee chats, virtual town halls, and updates from upper administration.

Dr. Lovell’s letter in the latest issue of Marquette Magazine

But, I answered his invitation and paused, reflected. I considered the long-term impact of my Jesuit education, an education I chose to pursue even though it wasn’t in my best financial interest as a college student.

Back then, it made financial sense for me to go to UWM and study psychology. But something in me pulled toward Marquette, and I sought the advice of my grandpa Angeli, the son of Italian immigrants, a graduate of Marquette University High School, and one of two people who used my full name out of affection instead of disciplinary intent. “Elizabeth,” he told me, “you can lose everything in your life—your family, your friends, your job—you will never lose your education.” At that moment I knew Marquette would be worth financial debt. I wasn’t going to risk being in any other kind of debt.

Dr. Lovell, I’ve done what you asked of your alums, to slow down and reflect. I ask you now to please slow down and read on — because the conversations and decisions I’m witnessing as a faculty member run counter to what I value as an alum. Slowing down showed me that the proposed cuts threaten to remove places where students can encounter Ignatian indifference, a formative and challenging process we are all called to.

Majors are not the only source of long-lasting impact

I expected my psychology classes to impact me in the short-term and long-term—it was my major after all, and if it didn’t, well, something was wrong. A senior research lab with Dr. Oswald, service learning in health psychology with Dr. Kaugars, and all of Dr. Norden’s classes were what I hoped my major would be: immersive, interactive blends of theory, research, and practice.

Here’s what surprised me: I never expected my core classes, Honors seminars, and interdisciplinary minor in Italian studies to impact me 15+ years after I graduated. In many ways, these classes had longer lasting effects on my role in the world because they asked me to do things I never thought possible. I said “yes” to these invitations because these courses weren’t in my major; there was less pressure to get things right, to progress to the next class.

In short, there was more freedom in those spaces, and they were spaces where I encountered the power of Ignatian indifference.

A language requirement led me to an interdisciplinary minor in Italian studies, which led to the transformative experience of studying abroad in Italy for a semester. It was hard to imagine that I could actually do something like that because, up until then, I never lived outside my parents’ house, I commuted to Marquette, and I struggled with homesickness. Living and studying with no one I knew in Italy felt impossible and inevitable; but I knew I had to do it to grow. My Italian professors all had left Italy to teach in Milwaukee, and I wondered what it was like to have the strength to do that. Turns out, I had that courage, too. It wasn’t the best financial decision because I needed student loans to make it happen, and I’ve never regretted it.

A first-year honors seminar in theatre arts asked me to write a one-act play that would be performed live by theatre students. Creativity wasn’t something I saw in myself until that one-credit seminar showed me how it’s possible to put an experience to the page, showcase vulnerability, and watch people bring your words to life.

Many other experiences outside my major showed me who I was and what I was capable of:

  • Memorizing and reciting Chaucer in Middle English for Dr. Sorby’s Honors English midterm (something I’m still amazed I actually did—thanks, Angela!).
  • Learning from Paul Shinkle that logic was math that made sense to me. His class laid the foundation for my career in rhetoric.
  • Making gnocchi with Professoressa Kaftan, organizing a mass for St. Joseph’s feast day with Professoressa Montante, and meeting with Professore Fichera for Wednesday night meetings of Italian Club. Because Italian classes were limited and we were hungry for more conversation practice, our faculty took from their own schedules to make that happen.
  • Singing an aria from Handel’s Messiah with Fr. Zeps, my Western Civ professor, as he played the violin in the Jesuit residence. In class, we discovered we both loved music and to perform, and because neither of us were a part of a music group at that time, we created our own opportunity to make music.
  • Working at the Office of Student Educational Services and the Eagle’s Nest unearthed a passion for teaching that I didn’t know I had until then. Karen Desotelle and Dawn Barrett saw something in me I didn’t even see in myself when they hired me to tutor Italian, psychology, and sociology, and in many ways, my teaching career began at OSES.

One course stands out as the place where the impact and power of a richly diverse, take-things-outside-your-major-and-minor Jesuit education. It was my fourth-year Honors seminar, which taught me to check my assumptions and projections at the door.

“Was Judas a hero?” and more plot twists

Brilliantly titled “Jesus Christ Movie Star” and taught by Dr. Sullivan in theology, this class required us to read all four Gospels, watch about a dozen popular films about Jesus (from Life of Brian to The Robe), and ponder the question, “Is Judas a hero or villain?” Up until then, I never imagined Judas as anything but a villain, and I felt like a heretic even considering it. Dr. Sullivan led us into the unknown as we dove into the Gospels, lined their stories up with blockbuster plot lines, and teased out why and how Judas was a prophet of sorts. Now, I find myself frequently drawing on those skills to ask myself, “How else might I understand where someone is coming from? How else can I approach this situation?”

“Jesus Christ Movie Star” also led me to Mary Magdalene, a Biblical figure who had intrigued me since grade school. Dr. Sullivan’s seminar gave me an opportunity to explore who she was in our final paper. Like most people, I was taught she was a prostitute whom Jesus saved. This always felt wrong and unfair to me, and I didn’t know why. Dr. Sullivan gave me the go ahead to learn more. Ultimately, I used this final paper for my writing sample for graduate school admissions, and my interest in Mary Magdalene returned two years later at UWM in Alice Gillam’s Feminist Rhetorical Theory class.

The final paper for Alice’s class led me to the basement of Memorial Library where, as an MU alum, I found the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. This text fundamentally changed the way I understood Jesus, the Catholic Church, and religion.

Flash forward 10 years, as an MU faculty member working with my spiritual director at the Faber Center. I was one month into the Spiritual Exercises, a nine-month process where a directee better understands where God calls them. Turns out God wasn’t the only one calling to me—it was Mary Magdalene. That year, I felt a pull to consider training to become a spiritual director, a call that led to a rich ministry where I have the privilege of holding people’s sacred stories.

My major courses were foundational to my education. But they wouldn’t have been the same without the complements of theology, philosophy, English, history, theatre arts, and Italian because they were the indifference.

Transformation can’t be measured in dollar signs

Outside of my major, I was truly free to explore perspectives, worlds, ideas, and texts that seemed unimaginable—until the professors made them real. Precisely because these experiences weren’t tied to my major, they were spaces where I was free, unbiased, undetermined, and truly open to whatever came. They are what Ignatius might call indifference: “In no way does [indifference] mean unconcerned or unimportant. It implies interior freedom” (Ganss as quoted in Martin, The Jesuit Guide to Everything, p. 307).

Majors bring with them expectations, assumptions, and requirements, and we need those in higher education. We also need spaces where students can practice indifference, and those opportunities happen in the Core, in minors and small seminars, and throughout other pockets of the curriculum that don’t have large streams of revenue attached to them.

If we “sunset” experiences where students encounter indifference, we take away a world of possibilities, and, frankly, we remove a key part of Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit practice. Indifference shows us where we are truly being led and where we might lead others.

Marquette: Be the Indifference

Our slogan for at least the past ten years has been “Be the Difference.” I wonder what would happen if we valued what it means to “be the indifference” and nurtured these spaces across our curriculum instead of cutting them. We very likely would return to being a Marquette where students can “arrive as they are, depart transformed.”

Dr. Lovell, Board of Trustees, and upper administration, that might be the risk the world needs Marquette to take right now.

Questions to ponder

  • What education will our students have if we remove opportunities for them to experience indifference?
  • What education will our students have if we prioritize finance and quantitative metrics?
  • What education will our students have it we prioritize indifference?
  • What opportunities lay before us to create new models of decision making, perhaps ones that are grounded in an Ignatian model of revenue generation and financial forecasting?

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