Remarks by Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J.

Remarks by Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J.

Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and LaFarge Convocation

Thank you, Dr. Snyder. This afternoon, we gather to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose challenge to the culture of his day brought into clear focus the injustice of systemic racism. Through the power of nonviolent resistance, he marshaled the energies of ordinary people and helped them discover at the core of their suffering the Source of their dignity. Eyes on the ultimate goal - freedom from the tyranny of oppression - they set aside the temptation to violence.

Succumbing to violence, you see, would allow the oppressors to continue seeing a stereotype and thinking in the same old ways. Only the strength of nonviolence would keep the focus on the behavior and underlying assumptions of those doing the real violence. And so, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked his people to take a profound risk, to endure public suffering at the hands of their oppressors so as to convert them.

Conversion of mind, body, and spirit lies at the heart of what I plan to speak about this afternoon. In what ways do our assumptions about the world blind us to realities that exist beyond our own habits of thinking, relating, and making decisions? What in our peripheral vision needs to move front and center if we are to see, know, and understand those around us? What do we need to do to ensure that those around us are not just people like ourselves?

I plan to explore these questions with you today, first by looking through the lens of Jesuit history; second, by examining the positive impact that racial and economic diversity has on learning; and third, by reflecting on how these benefits resonate with the deepest values of the Jesuit educational tradition.

As you know, the Society of Jesus was founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius of Loyola, who never imagined that, down the centuries, the order would become renown for its superb methods of education. Rather, the Society Ignatius envisioned was a missionary one dedicated to bringing the gospel of Christ to new lands, any time and anywhere it was asked to do so.

Thus, in the Society's founding years, Jesuits like St. Francis Xavier traveled in small groups to far-off lands, enduring the hardships of the journey and the challenges inherent in engaging with new cultures in India, the East Indies, and Japan. In the religious imagery of the time, their mission was to save souls. At first, they did so by baptizing people in large numbers, whether or not the individuals receiving the sacrament would then have anyone to serve their spiritual needs or educate them in the Christian way of life.

This concern gradually abated, however, because in living amidst people vastly different from themselves, adapting to their everyday practices, and learning their language, the Jesuits began to learn a new truth. They came to understand that the God they sought to bring to these people was already there and at work among them. This dawning awareness, conveyed in letter after letter to Ignatius from missions around the known world, led the Jesuits to reexamine their own assumptions and modify their approach to mission.

Thus by 1583, when Matteo Ricci and his small band of Jesuit brothers finally reached China, they set about learning the language, adapting to the dress of the educated classes, and cultivating relationships that would make spiritual ministry a possibility. A great mathematician, Matteo Ricci had brought with him instruments never before seen by the Chinese, including maps of the known world, calendars, and clocks. What gave him access to the hearts and souls of the people, however, was the reverence and respect conveyed by his having entered their world on their terms, in language, dress, and style of living. He and his fellow Jesuits were thus able to speak heart-to-heart about their belief in Christ while seeing, heart-to-heart, the presence of God in "the other." Ricci died on Chinese soil 27 years later, a man revered throughout the country.

In the centuries since, Jesuits have traveled the globe seeking to find and serve the God in others, and today serve in 112 countries on six continents. Needless to say, our structure and history provide a model for operating in a pluralistic, interconnected world, and lend credibility to incorporating this ability into the very structures of our colleges and universities.

Deep within the Jesuit tradition lies a determination to make education not just a next-step commodity for the privileged, but a powerful tool for transforming society as well. When Ignatius agreed to educate the sons of the nobility of his day, he did so in the mornings - provided these noblemen also paid for the poor to receive the same schooling in the afternoon. Granted, there was no mixing of economic classes - and, at the time, no women either - but clearly, access to education would be an innovative hallmark of Jesuit education.

This was not about charity; it had to do with justice. It had to do with recognizing the God-given dignity of each person; acknowledging that each had God-given gifts and talents that could bless our world; and deciding to assume moral agency in helping those gifts to bear fruit, through education. It involved becoming able to step out of one's own perspective to appreciate - and incorporate into one's reality - that of another. Centuries later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would call us to the same ideal through the collective witness of people who had been excluded from the social and economic benefits enjoyed by the majority.

Like St. Ignatius, Dr. King believed firmly in the potential of education to transform lives. In fact, he stressed over and over again the need for each person to achieve excellence in his or her field, so that as doors opened, qualified people would be ready to walk through them. What Dr. King wanted to ensure was that those qualified people would include African-Americans and other racial minorities whose preparation for and access to higher education was limited by unjust social structures not of their own making.

I would now like to move to my second point - the positive impact of racial and economic diversity on the learning experience of all students.

In the early 1970s, a group of Ivy League and other selective schools made a commitment to increase campus diversity. According to testimony given before the Supreme Court by former Princeton President William G. Bowen, these schools were united in the belief ... (and I quote) ... "that a student body containing many different backgrounds, talents, and experiences would be a richer environment in which all students could better develop into productive, contributing members of our society."

He and former Harvard president, Derek Bok, then set out to examine the effects of diversity on the experience of learning, as well as on students' subsequent careers. Their findings, summarized in the book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, are based on a study they did of more than 60,000 students - 3,500 of whom were African-American - enrolled in more than two dozen highly selective colleges and universities.

Of those 60,000 students, one cohort entered college in the fall of 1976, the other in the fall of 1989. This 13-year gap not only gave the study longitudinal validity, but allowed for the creation of a substantive database by the schools, in partnership with the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Among the study's findings was the fact that learning through diversity really does take place, not only via more lively classroom exchanges, but also in more casual settings such as residence halls, club and service activities, and student government. In addition:

With that in mind, I would ask you to consider the unexpected response of a group of Fairfield University alumni, who were surveyed by a department in the Fairfield University's Advancement Division. The goal had been to ascertain what about Jesuit education our graduates appreciated most. Overwhelmingly, alumni cited as positives the ways in which the core curriculum - which many endured rather than engaged with - had shaped their ability for critical and analytical thinking, almost in spite of themselves. Thankfully, they also had positive things to say about individual Jesuits who had touched their lives, and the overall Jesuit tradition of training for competence, character, and compassion. What they consistently faulted, however, was the lack of racial diversity on campus.

Many of these alumni represented classes that graduated in the 1970s and 1980s, when AHANA students comprised just three percent of the total undergraduate population. After graduation, the survey respondents had entered a world that was beginning to undergo significant social change, and they felt less prepared than they wished in multicultural competency.

During a capital campaign held between 1988 and 1993, Fairfield University engaged in a concerted fundraising effort to rectify this troubling situation, and was able to add a dozen more scholarships as well as personnel and services dedicated to AHANA student success. As a result, racial diversity grew to 12 percent by late 1990 and stands at about 10 percent today.

Moving to my final point, I believe that we can - and must - do better. There is no doubt that the world of the 21 st century will continue on a trajectory of increased diversity. It is thought that in 25 years, the AHANA population in the United States will exceed 40 percent. Addressing racial diversity in higher education - and more specifically at Fairfield University - will also build bridges across the economic divide that keeps the racially and economically marginalized from participating in the benefits this society has long offered to those born into opportunity.

In his book, Where Do We Go from Here?, Dr. King noted that ... (and I quote) "A considerable part of the Negro's effort of the past decade has been devoted ... to attaining a sense of dignity. To sit at a lunch counter or occupy the front seat of a bus had no effect on our material standard of living, but in reworking a caste stigma, it revolutionized our psychology and elevated the spiritual content of our being. Instinctively we struck out for dignity first, because personal degradation as an inferior human being was even more keenly felt that material privation. But dignity is also corroded by poverty, no matter how poetically we invest the humble with simple graces and charm." Thus, he concluded, "Education is more than ever the passport to decent economic positions."

How do we go about creating more passports? While it's not just about numbers, numbers do help move an institution toward a critical mass - within the faculty, administration, and student body. Only then can the point of diversity happen - interaction, understanding, enlightenment, and conversion. Only then can Fairfield University respond to a new societal need - the need for people who can work effectively and collaboratively in the increasingly multicultural environment of our nation and its workforce. But again, it's not just about numbers.

I learned recently of a program offered at Fairfield University in the late 1960s, made possible by a federal government grant. It provided full tuition and room and board to 15 African-American students a year, for four years. Of the 60 students involved, however, 70 percent did not graduate. Why? Because no one had anticipated the need for support services to help them adjust to a vastly different environment - academic, physical, social, and spiritual.

Imagine for a moment what our large, beautiful, well-manicured campus actually felt like to students born and raised in an impoverished urban setting. Can we dismiss with a shrug the discomfort they surely felt? Can we imagine now the exercise in courage that was taking place beneath the radar screen of our awareness?

Were there ways we could have been more welcoming, more caring, more like the Samaritan who chose to reach out, to become an intentional neighbor to a fellow traveler at the side of road? Are there ways, today, that we could be more welcoming, more caring, more intentional about who we see, how we interact, and how we respond?

Listen to the words of Dr. King, delivered in Memphis on the night before he died. Referring to the trick question asked of Jesus about who one's neighbor really is, Dr. King said ... (and I quote) ...

Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho ... He talked about a certain man who had fallen among thieves, ... and that a Levite and a priest had passed by on the other side (of the road). Finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. ... Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, because he had the capacity to project the 'I' into the 'thou' and be concerned about his brother. ... He did not ask the question, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? He reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'

I want to make clear that, 40 years later, I am not talking about Fairfield University as an institution helping others pull themselves up by their bootstraps into new economic means. I am speaking of dignity, about the Thou in another that leads me out of myself and, in so doing, makes me whole in mind and spirit, a person of integrity.

With renewed awareness of the blessings and benefits of diversity - racial and socioeconomic - I believe we must come to an institutional resolve to increase diversity on this campus. Making the commitment to do so will require greater creativity on our parts, because the willingness to weigh the impact on diversity across all of our decision-making will make "business as usual" obsolete. We must look at hard economic questions, and be able to ask ourselves what institutional sacrifices - yes, sacrifices - we need to make to bring greater economic and racial diversity to our campus.

For example:

In no way do I ask these questions as a criticism, nor do I mean to single out any one area. Taken individually, these may seem like small things. Through collective reflection on these and other questions, however, we begin opening ourselves as a community to one level of the conversion needed to turn the ideals of which we speak into realities of which we can be proud. This may also mean examining structural practices to ensure reallocation of what we save ... into what we proclaim. Our fiscal track record has already set us on this path, and the University's financial soundness is certainly a strength to count on.

Through the initiative of our academic vice president, Dr. Orin Grossman, a campus committee on diversity is currently exploring issues related to student and faculty diversity, and the unusual lack thereof on this campus. They are looking at a set of complex causes that include, among others: 1) increased competition for AHANA students and faculty as other institutions seek to meet the same challenges we are; 2) the high cost of living in Fairfield County and its impact on faculty and administrative hiring; 3) reduced availability of federal tuition grants to economically disadvantaged students, thus increasing the proportion of loans in financial aid packages and creating significant debt that individuals then carry into their first job, marriage, and beyond.

To help address the latter, Fairfield has, for years, been increasing the percentage of operating funds it allocates to financial aid and, as I mentioned earlier, has engaged in fundraising that has added scholarships and more than doubled the endowment. Thus, we cannot rightly refer to the commitment to diversity I am calling for, as something new. But as we move forward in formulating our strategic plan, I have asked that we refocus and redouble our attention in this area.

In the book I referred to earlier, Dr. King noted that the line of progress is never straight, and that new obstacles appear throughout the journey, much like having to drive around a mountain when approaching a city. "The final victory," he said, "is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory. ... It underestimates the value of confrontation and dissolves the confidence born of a partial victory, by which new efforts are powered."

It is my hope is that as a community, we at Fairfield University will renew our efforts to empower others through the benefits of Jesuit education - with a vigor that matches Dr. King's valor, and a sense of purpose worthy of the principles for which he gave his life.

Posted On: 01-27-2005 10:01 AM

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