Passing the Torch: Maintaining Faith-Based University Traditions during Transition of Leadership

By Ferrari, Joseph R.; Bottom Todd L. et al. | Education, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Passing the Torch: Maintaining Faith-Based University Traditions during Transition of Leadership


Ferrari, Joseph R., Bottom Todd L., Gutierrez, Robert E., Education


Faith-based universities, particularly Roman Catholic institutions, face a unique yet very common dilemma. These institutions are on the verge of a fundamental shift in leadership from religious to predominately lay leadership. Those administrators currently in leadership roles, both religious and secular, face the challenge of ensuring that the university's organizational values remain intact during and after the university's transition to an all lay leadership. While details related to campus operations are unique to higher education, there are issues that may be found throughout the lives of many organizations. Many non-profits and community organizations do not outlive their founder(s) for this very reason; organizations that survive either find a mechanism for sustaining organizational values or transform as power shifts from group to group (Hanson, 2006).

While change may be beneficial for adapting to new times it is important that founding ideals remain intact to serve as the bedrock of the organization. It is unclear exactly how lay leaders maintain the values of their faith institution. Some within the lay Catholic community expressed concern over transitions to lay leadership by various religious traditions or orders. Steinfels (2007), for example, reported that lay and clergy principals of Catholic schools claimed equal amounts of commitment to the religious mission of their institutions. However, lay principals felt significantly less equipped than clergy to maintain the Catholic identity and mission of their school (see also Dosen, 2009).

Mission Statements

The goal of a university mission statement is to clearly define its identity, goals, and culture so that it operates efficiently and easily present to the outside world (Ehrlich, 2000). A well articulated mission statement is a powerful resource in designing effective strategic planning. Bourne et al. (2000) found that colleges whose institutional missions were clearly understood and embraced by employees generally had more effective strategic planning. Mission statements help leaders articulate the unique characteristics of the institution and envision future growth within that mission (Bingham et al., 2001; Amis et al., 2002).

Mission statements define an organization and guide both daily operations and long term aspirations (Emery, 1996; Wright, 2002). The mission statement of a university must accomplish many goals for multiple audiences in what is typically a very concise proclamation (Carver, 2000). These multiple audiences include students (including present students, potential students, and alumni), parents, employees, and the perception of the larger community outside the university. The mission statement enables everyone to work towards common goals and most importantly in this context by providing an overarching vision toward which each member may strive (Berg et al, 2003; Ferrari & Cowman, 2004).

The State of DePaul University

Specific to the current study, DePaul University's mission is based on providing education and service to first generation college students emphasizing civic engagement, diversity, and public service (Dosen, 2009). As one of three universities in the US traditionally led by priest-members of the Congregation of the Mission (commonly called Vincentians), DePaul University is located in the metropolitan Chicago area. The number of Vincentian priests across the US is dwindling, with the mean age of existing Vincentians now in the 60s (DePaul Newsline, 2009). As its religious leaders age, DePaul University must take steps now to ensure that its mission and values are sustained in its growing lay leadership.

The university's mission is based on three central values; Vincentian Identity, Catholic Pluralism, and urban civic engagement. Sullivan (1997) defined these values as follows: Urban, delivering quality education to locations in and around the metropolitan area of Chicago, IL; Catholic, directing services to the poor and economically disenfranchised through such programs as actively engaging students, faculty and staff in volunteer and community service directed at impoverished communities; and, Vincentian, respecting human dignity, diversity, and "personalism. …

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