Illustrations by David Clemons

Essential to Gonzaga’s DNA: Jesuit fortitude

We often talk about what Gonzaga University is doing. We speak rather less, however, about the why. Why did the town leaders of “Spokan Falls” write to the Jesuits and ask them to “build up a great university” and why did Father Cataldo agree? Why have we been able to keep this historically small, liberal arts-based institution going, despite facing significant adversity from time to time? And especially in this 125th anniversary year of honoring our tradition – why is this work so important today?

Invited by the Native Americans, the Jesuits arrived in this part of the world in the mid-1800s. Their mission was to bring the gospel to the Native American peoples. By the 1880s, the Jesuits were well known in the many hamlets created by miners, trappers and traders, and by people from the East who came looking for a better life. Looking back over 125 years and more, it is clear that the Jesuits manifested three distinctive characteristics:

First, they were men of deep faith, always attentive to the power of God moving through Creation and guided by their resolute belief in the message of Jesus Christ.

Editor’s note: This is a version of remarks given by President Thayne McCulloh on Sept. 17, 2012, the Historic First Day of classes.

Second, they were intellectuals – well-read, well-schooled and knowledgeable about many things, both beautiful and practical. They carried within themselves an essential thirst for learning, and always engaged in a search for truth. That desire led them to encounter others in an open manner, an experience that Jean-Pierre De Smet described, in his explanation of how the Jesuits entered into their ministry with the Coeur d’Alenes, as a “grafting” rather than an imposing.

And third, these Jesuits were tenacious – tough, courageous, insistent, persistent. They understood that things don’t get done simply because people wish them into existence.

The people of Spokan Falls understood that building up a successful city required an educated populace. In 1881 the town numbered only 350 white settlers. They needed people who could create law and establish order; architects and builders who could lay out subdivisions and design and construct homes and buildings; teachers who could instruct children how to read and write, how to do math and to understand something of their history. The people of Spokane needed doctors, and bankers, and soldiers and, as electricity finally made its way out to the West, the city needed linemen and electricians.

For their part, the Jesuits of the Rocky Mountain Mission understood the vital role that a Jesuit university could play in shaping not only the intellectual capabilities of the community, but its spiritual, moral, physical and psychological capabilities. Indeed, the results of this collaboration among the Jesuits and the people of Spokane is much in evidence today, for Gonzaga’s earliest graduates stepped forward and claimed the responsibility that accompanies the privilege of education.

The people of Spokan Falls were audacious enough to ask the Jesuits to build a university – a great university – and the Jesuits were courageous enough to do it. It is this gift – the gift of the spirit, of the mind, and of the heart – that we honor and celebrate in this 125th year.

President McCulloh continues: Over the past year, I have observed on a number of occasions the belief that we – our society, our nation – have moved through a major shift in how we view higher education. While there are many reasons for this change, it is indisputable that public support for traditional higher education is waning. National and local headlines alike question the value of a college education today.

“We must continue to meld the old and the new. Jesuit education has often been in the lead, even while rooting itself in old wisdom. This is a balancing act we will perform forever.” Blaine Garvin, professor and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

The primary function of the classic, traditional, college experience in our society has been (borrowing the word from Harvard business Professor Clay Christensen) disrupted. No longer is the classic college model the only path to the middle class; no longer is “education” the sole province of a specific type of institution. For-profit, online, and accelerated programs are flourishing, offering access and flexibility for students in ways that would not have been possible even 10 years ago. At Gonzaga, we have been paying attention to this
transformation and developing our own capacities in view of it.

As a Jesuit, Catholic university we have so much to celebrate and so much to be thankful for – and yet we cannot help but wonder what the next 10, 25, or 125 years will hold for us. If we peek into the crystal ball, without question the age of information technology will continue to transform the ways in which so many professions define themselves, from robotic manufacturing to genome-based health interventions. As the human lifespan increases, so too do the complexities of life – new defi nitions of work and retirement, new understandings of the nuclear and extended family, new discoveries in healthcare. As people around the globe move quickly to master the knowledge created in other nations, we can expect dramatic shifts in global power, with new emphases for international relations and the languages required to successfully negotiate with foreign countries.

At the same time, our nation is filled with people whose situations have led them to give up on the idea that one person can make a significant difference – in a life, in an organization, or in the government. I do not believe the problem is apathy. I believe that many people are simply overwhelmed with the enormity of the challenges we face, and while they do not believe that they can make a real
difference, they pray that someone has the answers.

Our nation today – and our rapidly shrinking globe – are desperately in need of bright, creative individuals whose education provides them the capacities to wrestle with complex challenges; to offer leadership when and where it is needed; and to adapt to always changing environments. To effectively prepare our students, we must carefully re-examine the education that we offer, and we must ensure that each educational program at Gonzaga meets the needs and challenges of our time.

Further, I believe in providing our students the opportunity to learn how to create healthy, accountable communities, through the models provided by our campus residential experiences and service learning; by creating an environment in which students grow in appreciation of the significant role that faith can and does play in an individual’s life; and by challenging them with external experiences that mesh with
their studies, so that they more deeply appreciate the practical application of the knowledge they acquire at Gonzaga.

Beyond this, we must remember the words of Pope Paul VI, speaking to the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus: “Wherever in the Church, even in the most difficult and exposed fields, in the crossroads of ideologies, in the social trenches, there has been or is confrontation between the burning exigencies of humanity and the perennial message of the Gospel, there have been and are the Jesuits.” The 470-year history of the Society is fi lled with the stories of those who reach beyond the needs of the moment, those who go forth and engage the culture with a generous and courageous heart; and those who are resolute in their belief that one person cannot only make
a difference – one person can make all the difference.

What a gift we are given in our 125th anniversary. To us falls the sacred work of preparing our students – regardless of program, major or level – to act as a creative force for the common good in a world so desperately in need of leadership. The three characteristics which made the Jesuits attractive to the Spokan Falls of 1881 – faith, intellect and courage – remain the distinguishing characteristics of Gonzaga today.

Over the next seven years we will chart a course to continue making Gonzaga one of America’s distinguished Jesuit and Catholic universities. This will involve continued and deliberate increases in the rigor and academic excellence of the University. The single most important hallmark in this journey will remain our full-hearted embrace of the fundamental mission of the Society of Jesus – to transform our students into capable, loving individuals with the will and the courage to lead, regardless of their chosen life or profession.


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