On the Importance of Mission (or, "A Gay Jew in Jesuit Clothing")

Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland
Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland

A few months ago, I reached out to a colleague in China in advance of my accompanying a group of students to the Far East on an environmental research trip. We were in the process of setting up various site visits, and the program with which my colleague worked looked like a great addition to our itinerary.

He replied that, although the program leaders were not always able to accommodate drop-in visits, they would be much more amendable to our stopping by given, "your strong Jesuit background."

"Your" as in Ken Schneck's. Ken Schneck as in me. My strong Jesuit background.

Immediately flashing back to the beaming faces of my parents at my Bar Mitzvah and the beaming face of my patron drag queen (Tammy Faye WhyNot!) when I came out of the closet, I was reasonably convinced my colleague was citing someone else's solid Jesuit pedigree. Certainly not the gay Jew writing these words.

Using my keenly honed student affairs powers of gathering information without admitting my own ignorance, I wrote back, "My what?"

To which he replied, "Your Jesuit background -- that you received your PhD from a Jesuit institution."

A quick glance at that framed diploma currently located on the floor in the corner of my office, confirmed that I did indeed attend a Jesuit university. That glance also reminded me that I know next to nothing about Jesuits. I have a pretty good sense that they are a learned bunch that like books and also that women can't fully take on the Jesuit mantle. More important than my own lack of knowledge was that the university did not require that I know more about my Jesuit brethren despite the fact that this was a core piece of the university's mission.

This got me to thinking about importance of mission, that guiding philosophy that distinguishes each college and university from one another. Mission can bring together a campus population, serve as a source of pride for the institution and increase both admissions and retention. But if a mission falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Not without the following:

Everyone needs to know your mission. No matter what class I teach, there is some way to bring in the movie Lean on Me. Whether it is "Creating Change in Education," "Talking Race in Education" or "Films from the New Jersey Oeuvre," Lean on Me has much to teach us. In the film, Principal Joe Clark, played by Morgan Freeman, races against the clock to reform a failing high school to prevent a state takeover. One of his methods is to mandate that every student be able to sing the school song on cue, whether that cue is given in the cafeteria or the bathroom. This is mission dissemination at its finest.

It is not enough to have a mission. As it turns out, people actually need to know it. If it's important that new students, faculty and staff know your mission (which, by the by, it is), you'd best incorporate explanation of your mission into their respective admissions process and orientation to the college.

For a fun activity, go around and ask people in your office to recite the mission of your college. Then ask students. Then ask some parents and alums. If you get divergent answers, you know you have some work to do.

Actions need to stem from your mission. Your mission should be more than a set of words in the "about" section of your website. It should be an anchor that people not only know, but can point to when they see activities and dialogue on campus. For just a week, be that guy who asks, "How does this student activity relate to our mission?" or "How does this food service vendor relate to our mission?" It may earn you some pointed looks, but you also might find that some discordance between the comedian, the waffle-fries and your mission.

You can change your mission. Honestly you can. Everyone knows your mission. There are actions stemming from it. But, holy cow does that mission feel wrong. With an ever-changing population in an ever-changing education system in an ever-changing world, there are pieces of your mission that may actually need to phase out while newer elements need to be incorporated. It is not a process to be taken lightly, as, again, this could strike at the core identity of your college. But you might not want to cling desperately to an outdated mission if it means looking irrelevant to what is actually taking place both on campus and in the wider world. Tread carefully with as much group process as possible and your mission can be updated.

Every college or university wants their mission to be a snowflake, a thing of beauty that is distinct from every other mission out there. And with a little work, it can be. Take it from this proud Jesuit...