What Kind of University Does SLU Want To Be?

by Mark Chmiel

Reading about SLU’s receiving of Rex Sinquefield’s fifty million dollars reminded me of a letter Mev Puleo wrote to then SLU President Biondi 25 years ago …

 

A School/2

After the exhilarating World Youth Day experience, Mev jumped right into her doctoral program at the GTU in Religion and the Arts. Early on, she became acquainted with Maria Bower, a doctoral student in spirituality, with whom she increasingly spent time. She also continued her Haiti solidarity work with local activists Pierre LaBoussiere and Nancy Laleau. But even as she began her study, her experience earlier in the year in El Salvador was raising all kinds of questions to her about higher education.  She dashed off the following  letter to St. Louis University President Father Lawrence Biondi.  

6 September 1993
Lawrence Biondi, S.J.
St. Louis University
221 North Grand Boulevard
St. Louis, MO  63103

Dear Father Biondi,

Greetings from a SLU alumna living in California.  I hear good words about you from both my father, Peter Puleo, and from some SLU faculty with whom I keep in touch, such as Sr. Dolores Greeley.  Congratulations on your good work.

I am writing in response to the “Campaign for St. Louis University” materials.  You and those who worked on this produced a beautiful publication with an attractive layout — which I appreciate as a professional photographer.  A while back, when I was heading to El Salvador for a meeting, Fr. McGannon gave me some literature on both the SLU Campaign and for the UCA-El Salvador Campaign.  (I imagine you are familiar with that publication as well, put out by the AJCU in D.C.).  

As a graduate and great fan of SLU, and as a person who has been active in solidarity work with Central America for more than a decade (which I began during my student years at SLU), I was jarred by looking at the two campaign booklets side by side.  I am very impressed with the UCA’s attention to “Social Outreach,” their ongoing analysis of the “national reality,” their attention to institutional violence, defense of human rights, and to bringing together people from across the political spectrum to try to encourage a more just, humane society.  They are explicit in their aims to educate the privileged (the literate and college-bound) to lead and serve the needs of the majority of the country.  While the SLU booklet mentions community service and scholarship funds, these themes of immersion, analysis and engagement in the local social reality are absent.  

Clearly these positions have been shaped by the national reality of El Salvador: wealthy elites and impoverished masses, civil war, corruption, brutal disregard for human rights.  The philosophy of education developed by Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, and, since their deaths, by Jon Sobrino and Dean Brackley, was and is in response to that reality.  Specifically, they sought and seek to be a Christian university and to make the option-for-the-poor universitariamente (as a university).  Because of this vision, the six Jesuits and two women were killed in 1989, but their successors still struggle to keep the vision alive at the UCA and in post-war El Salvador.  In fact, there may never have been peace negotiations without the leadership, vision and moral courage of Ellacuría and others.  

Well, this brings me to the question:  What would it mean for St. Louis University, as an institution, to more fully embody the social dimension of the faith and make an option-for-the-poor universitariamente?  There have been good efforts throughout SLU’s history — community service, scholarships, shaping the public debates.  My own moral consciousness was shaped at SLU — through the example of professors and campus ministers — in a way that inspired me to devote my energies towards building a more compassionate and just world community.  And yet, I suspect this is not the case for most SLU students.  During my four years at SLU, it was a small group of a lot of the same faces who joined Pax Christi, SLUCAP (volunteering in the inner-city), Amnesty International, etc.  I wonder, institutionally and in our own local St. Louis community, what more is being done?  I believe we have so much to learn from the UCA experience!  One place to begin might be the writings of the Jesuit martyrs on the social role of a Christian university.  

Might it be possible for SLU to generate its own such vision — rooted in a context of St. Louis and the United States — a vision that analyzes the national and local reality, that seeks to understand the institutional violence in the U.S., that promotes social outreach and defends human dignity in the St. Louis community.  While our national reality is far from that in El Salvador, the levels of drug dealing, the conditions of prisons, the numbers of murders, unemployment, poor public education and other afflictions in urban St. Louis, especially on the Northside, are really tragic.  This is our national/local reality.  This is where we are called to be Christian as individuals and as a university.  

Dolores Greeley told me of several projects where St. Louis U is trying to be of service to the local community.  I am writing both to ask what is happening in this area, and to ask that the University (administrators, staff, faculty, students, alum) really listen to the example of the UCA and join in more dialogue with our local community to try to be a truly Christian university, a sign of God’s reign of justice, peace, dignity and compassion in the world.

By way of concrete suggestions:

  1. Perhaps select members of the SLU community could invite Dean Brackley and/or Jon Sobrino to help them shape a vision for a university in the U.S. to adopt a similar, though indigenous, vision.  
  2. Perhaps the University could establish regular dialogue with SLU alumni who are truly immersed in the life of St. Louisans who struggle with poverty, unemployment, homelessness and neighborhood violence.  (The Catholic Worker Karen House on Hogan Street comes to mind as it is staffed by several SLU alum.  I also think of urban churches — in particular St. Matthews and the neighborhood center they participate in, since it is a Jesuit parish!)  
  3. Perhaps the University could begin “listening sessions” with the actual disenfranchised who live within a certain radius of the University — again, the unemployed, young people, the homeless, struggling families who have to cope with neighborhood violence and drugs.  

I would love to take part in something like this or at least be kept abreast of such developments, and I could recommend other wonderful alumnae and faculty for this kind of project.  There must be other similar initiatives happening somewhere in this country.  Any such initiatives would have to include both women and men, religious leaders and African-Americans and community members from Midtown and from North St. Louis. Given the location of Parks College, more dialogue might begin with East St. Louisans.  

Again, I write this imagining that many efforts similar to this are already underway, but the very difference in the campaign booklets reminds me how far we at SLU (and overall, we in the U.S.) need to grow in our vision.  A bold project in this direction at SLU would not result in Jesuits and their friends being shot in the middle of the night.  Rather, a bolder vision and a more courageous response to the “signs of our times” would build up the St. Louis urban community and the University.  

Father Biondi, I thank you for your time in reading this letter and for your dedication to shaping the future of SLU.  I have studied some of the writings of the Salvadoran Jesuits and was very inspired by my visit there in January.  As a theology student and photojournalist, I have also been inspired by the academicians I have met in Brazil — Catholic theologians who teach 6 months in the university and spend 6 months in the Amazon building up Christian communities, or working with labor unions in urban areas.  So, I have been shaped by this vision of socially-engaged-academics and the socially-committed Christian university.  

These campaign booklets have been on my desk for 10 months now, and I am finally getting around to actually writing these thoughts to you.  Perhaps, oddly, my delay in writing reflects how crucial I believe these issues to be for the future of SLU and our community.  I wanted to wait a good while to see if I still felt as strongly as when I first saw them, and I do.  In fact, I just spent three days  working with and visiting with Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian theologian, and in hearing about the direction of theology and pastoral practice in Peru, it stirs me to want to do more to foster truly Christian social commitment in our U.S. practice and institutions as well.

If these thoughts provoke reflections or reactions in you, please contact me at the address on the first page.  I would be glad to hear from you.  In any case, I continue to wish you well in your ministry of administration at SLU.  

Peace be with you and may God continue to bless you!

Most sincerely,

Mev Puleo 

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