The Role of Vision in Fostering Catholic Identity

Excerpted from a chapter of Catholic Identity in Context: Vision and Formation for the Common Good, San Francisco, CA: University of San Francisco Press. Co-authored with Michael Lovette-Colyer, Assistant Vice President of University Ministry at the University of San Diego.

The Role of Vision in Fostering Catholic Identity: Visioning the Future of the University of San Diego


In January of 2017, Commonweal published an exchange on mission and hiring between John Garvey, President of Catholic University of America, and Mark W. Roche, former Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.[1]  Titled “What Makes a University Catholic?” the discussion provided a number of astute insights into the purpose, promise, and challenge involved in fulfilling the directive of Ex corde ecclesiae that a preponderance of faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities identify as Catholic. 

The importance of hiring for mission – among the faculty as well as in other sectors of the university – is unequivocally one of the key points that has emerged from the conversation about the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities over the past sixty years.  While Garvey and Roche provide a current assessment of such hiring efforts, their dialogue neglects to address the shifting contours of the higher education landscape, nor does it attend to the developments in Catholic identity contributed by Pope Francis, especially through Evangelii gaudium and Laudato sí’.  After briefly reviewing the emerging landscape of higher education as well as highlighting some of the most significant contributions of Pope Francis, we will describe a recent strategic planning process at the University of San Diego, offer several insights from that process that pertain to Catholic identity, and conclude by suggesting that mission and vision are particularly potent ways of fostering Catholic identity in our contemporary context.

Evolving Landscape of Higher Education

Best-selling author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggests “we are living through one of the greatest inflection points in history,” perhaps surpassed in significance only by the invention of the printing press.[2]  Enabled by heretofore unparalleled advances in technology, we have entered a period of massive disruption.  Friedman argues cogently that overlapping technological, environmental, and economic changes have produced destabilizing accelerations which demand adaptation at a scale and pace never before encountered.  “The world is not just rapidly changing, it is being dramatically reshaped.”[3]  No industry or institution is immune.  It is, therefore, imperative for Catholic colleges and universities to acknowledge the disruptions in which they are surrounded and to craft strategies for maintaining their Catholic identity that are synchronous with and speak to their changing environments.

The disruptions described by Freidman have profound implications for higher education.  William F. Massy, former Vice President and Vice Provost of Stanford University, argues that colleges and universities have no choice but to “reform themselves to meet the economic, competitive, technological, and political challenges of the twenty-first century.”[4]  Jon McGee, Vice President for Planning and Public Affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University extends Massy’s argument by drawing attention to changing demographics, economics, and cultural expectations.  These three interrelated and reinforcing shifts have produced a “liminal moment” for colleges and universities in the United States, a moment provoked by the “agonizingly slow and lengthy recovery” to the Great Recession combined with profound demographic changes in the traditional-age college population.  The result: a fundamentally reshaped way that people “think about the value of a college education.”[5]  While the competitiveness of higher education has long been ascending, college is now perceived by many prospective students and their families as a commodity.  In this novel, congested, homogenizing marketplace, the importance of a distinctive mission and vision is greater than ever. 

In addition to responding to the disruptions elucidated by Friedman, Massy, and McGee, the ongoing conversation regarding Catholic identity of colleges and universities ought to be responsive to the vision of Pope Francis.  Like those authors, Francis has highlighted the immensity of the changes unfolding in our contemporary world.  In a 2015 address to an Italian Church conference Francis indicated that “we are not living an era of change, but a change of era.”[6]  In this emerging context, he called for a “free church… open to the challenges of the present, never in defense for fear of losing something.”  This critical issue – the Church’s role in today’s world – is one that Francis has addressed at length in his two most significant writings to date, Evangelii gaudium and Laudato si’.  

At the beginning of Evangelii gaudium, Francis expresses his hope for a Church capable of changing to speak compellingly to changed circumstances, stating his purpose for writing as to “encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”[7]  Later in the text, he describes the joy of the Gospel as providing “the drive to go forth and give, to go out from ourselves, to keep pressing forward in our sowing of the good seed…”[8]  In addition to the importance of joyful evangelization, the apostolic exhortation provides the basis for other key themes that have come to characterize Francis’ papacy: mercy, the primacy of the poor, the imperative to go to the peripheries, and the church as field hospital.  While these ideas have long been a part of the Catholic tradition, Francis’ prioritization of them deserves to be considered carefully, especially regarding how these emphases shape a contemporary understanding of Catholic identity.  

Addressed to “all people of goodwill,”[9] Laudato si’, appeals for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” and argues that “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”[10]  Like Evangelii gaudium, Laudato si’ offers novel content to consider in reflecting on the meaning of Catholic identity for colleges and universities.  Both documents can be characterized by a sense of urgency and inclusion, by the imperative to “go forth,”[11] to encounter and engage others in innovative manners, adapting the Church’s “customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures” so that they are most effectively “channeled for the evangelization of today’s world.”[12]  These insights and emphases have rightly begun to alter the way Catholic identity is understood, offering new directions for understanding the Church’s mission in the modern world.  Just as the Church continues to reflect on and refine its mission, so too ought Catholic colleges and universities. 

Importance of Mission

All accredited colleges or universities in the United States have a written mission statement that articulates the general purpose, core values, and guiding principles of the institution.  Numerous scholars have documented the importance of clearly articulated mission statements to long-term institutional success.  Geiger, for example, chronicled the history of several institutions in the United States that have endured for more than two centuries and discovered that the relative success of a college or university is associated with a few key factors – including a clear understanding of mission which emanates from the historical and societal traditions of its founders.[13]  Likewise, Keller identified the linkage of mission to institutional decision making as critical to the long-term health and vitality of the college or university.[14] Hendrickson, Lane, Harris & Dorman[15] as well as Maurrasse[16] have also identified alignment with mission as a prerequisite of any successful institution of higher learning.  For the purposes of this article, a mission statement is defined as a broad, overarching educational philosophy that identifies the institution’s purpose and core values.  In many ways, mission statements are timeless, expressions capable of guiding an institution over many years.

In Catholic higher education, the mission of an institution typically includes specific elements that flow directly from a founding order or charism.  As powerful as the alignment between a founding order or charism and an institution’s mission can be, too often there is a lack of sustained dialogue about the application of that mission to contemporary Catholic thought and practice.  Regrettably, this discussion too often erupts only as a result of controversy or crisis.  An alternative way of fostering an ongoing dialogue and promoting alignment between mission and decision making is by periodically leading a comprehensive and inclusive dialogue about the institution’s future.  While an assessment of mission is required of any college or university seeking to affirm its accreditation status, we believe that those processes are typically focused on a reaffirmation of past thinking rather than a deeper dialogue about the current and future meaning of institution’s Catholic identity.

In his recent book, Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture, Mark W. Roche (one of the interlocutors featured in the previously mentioned Commonweal article) contends that in our new context, every university which seeks to flourish “needs to embrace a distinctive vision and instantiate or embody that vision in specific practices.”[17]  According to Roche, a compelling, collaboratively articulated vision can be “a vehicle both for solidifying tradition and inaugurating change.”[18]  Unlike a mission statement, which identifies the institution’s purpose and foundational values, a vision statement should be a call to action, bringing everyone in the institution to the work of creating a new future.  In other words, a vision statement is about looking forward, inspiring people within the organization to imagine anew the contribution of its core values as well as how best to perpetuate those values in years to come.  Such a vision is what the University of San Diego sought to create at the start of its strategic planning process in 2015.

University of San Diego

The University of San Diego (USD) traces its roots to 1949.  In that post-war period, Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill, Superior of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Bishop Charles Francis Buddy, the first Bishop of the newly formed Diocese of San Diego, collaborated to found the San Diego College for Women, the San Diego College for Men, and the School of Law.  In 1972 the foundation for USD’s current structure was laid with the merger of those previously parallel institutions.  While in many respects analogous to other Catholic universities on the West Coast, USD’s history has led to a unique governance structure.  Rather than being administered by or directly affiliated with a religious order or a diocesan Bishop, USD is governed by a lay board of trustees.

After assuming its current form, the University has grown to enroll approximately 8,400 students (5,600 undergraduates) in the College of Arts and Sciences along with Schools of Law, Business, Nursing, Leadership and Education, Peace, and Engineering.  Today, USD is the youngest private university included in the U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top 100 national universities.  Since its inception, the University of San Diego has had a commitment to educating students to a social awareness which impels to action.  This long commitment to community engagement has led to it being recognized today by the Carnegie Foundation as a “Community Engagement Institution,” and its dedication to social innovation and entrepreneurship resulted in its designation as one of only forty Ashoka Changemaker campuses in the world.

Strategic Planning in a Contemporary Context

USD has successfully engaged in strategic planning for many years.  In 2004, the University engaged in a year-long planning process led by senior administrators that produced a revised mission statement.  That mission statement reads: “The University of San Diego is a Roman Catholic institution committed to advancing academic excellence, expanding liberal and professional knowledge, creating a diverse and inclusive community, and preparing leaders who are dedicated to ethical conduct and compassionate service.”  Also at that time, the board of trustees approved a vision statement and a set of strategic directions intended to guide the institution’s development across the subsequent decade.  The University’s priority at that moment was to increase its global presence and enhance its national reputation.  Thus, the newly formed vision statement called upon the University to become “a nationally preeminent Catholic university known for educating students who are globally competent, ethical leaders.”  In many ways, the University achieved that vision.  By 2015, USD was recognized as having one of the strongest study abroad programs in the nation and the percentage of international students had doubled from ten years previous.  The University also grew its national reputation by climbing the U.S. News and World Report rankings of national universities to land in the top 100 for the first time in its history.

In 2015, newly installed university president James T. Harris, inaugurated a process to draft a new strategic plan that would build on the prior one and guide the University through the year 2024, the 75th anniversary of its founding.  As part of this process, the University decided to retain its current mission statement and focus on the creation of an updated vision statement that would inspire ongoing dialogue across the University about its purpose and role in contemporary society.

Since the University is relatively young and does not identify with the particular charism of a single founding order, USD’s self-understanding and core values are rooted in contemporary Catholic thought more broadly.  Our identity is shaped by important post-Vatican II documents including the Land O’Lakes Statement,[19] The Catholic university in the modern world,[20] Ex corde ecclesiae,[21] and, now, Laudato si’: On care for our common home.[22]  As we began our new strategic planning process we found special resonance and direction for our vision for 2024 in the words of Ex corde:  “… the objective of a Catholic university, precisely as Catholic, is to assure in an institutional manner, a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture...”[23]

At the outset of the planning process, alumni, faculty, staff, student leaders and other key constituents were interviewed to help inform the design of the process.  The president engaged intensely in this process, meeting one-on-one with over a hundred key university leaders.  What we discovered was that a non-trivial number of people were questioning the University’s long-term commitment to community engagement, the environment, access, and inclusion.  Real concern existed that the pursuit of rankings and a greater global profile may have diminished the University’s ambition to solve global problems locally as well as to live boldly its mission as a Catholic university.

When we inquired as to the best way to recommit to the institution’s founding aspirations while promoting a thick sense of Catholic identity, we were pleasantly surprised by the number of people who referenced Laudato si’.  Many members of our campus community, especially faculty and students, believed USD had the unique opportunity to become the living embodiment of that encyclical.  Our Catholic identity and commitment to vulnerable populations provided the impetus for us to draw upon in addressing humanity’s urgent challenges.  In this way, Laudato si’ became one of the principal points of reference for conversations regarding the future of the institution and the directions we should pursue to achieve our vision.

To develop a compelling and inspiring vision statement and set of university directions or “pathways” to accomplish that vision required the University to adopt and incorporate the best practices in strategic planning.  Rather than a top-down planning process with only a select number of senior leaders involved, we strived to be inclusive and transparent.  We also decided to be deliberate, shaping the process to take up to two years with the goal that as many constituents as possible could contribute and that there would be sufficient time to reflect on what was surfacing.

As the process unfolded, the words of Pope Francis continued to inspire our work – especially his prompting that we now “consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions.”[24]  It became increasingly evident that if we were truly to embrace Francis’ call to action, we needed to ensure we respected the various dimensions of our University as well as our local community.  To that end, our planning process was highly inclusive; we created opportunities for people to provide feedback online, attend open forums with key university leaders, review periodic updates on a specially created planning website, and utilized existing shared governance structures as fully as possible.  Importantly, we also held a day-long visioning conference on campus that brought together local community leaders, board members, alumni, faculty, staff and student leaders as equal partners in the conversation about our future.

In addition to the inspiration provided by Pope Francis, the university community rallied around the idea that we should identify ourselves as both an engaged and contemporary Catholic university.  We also felt that we had a responsibility to not only live out our values but actually to set the standard for other universities.  This bold proclamation inspired the strategic planning steering committee to develop six interconnected pathways that would require a coordinated effort across the entire University to achieve.

Identifying a Vision Statement and Six Interconnected Pathways

The strategic planning process yielded a new vision statement (replacing the one previously articulated in 2011) as well as six interconnected “strategic pathways” designed to realize that vision.  The interconnectedness of the six pathways reflects the insistence of Laudato si’ that today’s most urgent issues are complex, interconnected, and require integrated solutions. 

In developing USD’s new vision statement, the University sought to not only have an elegant statement about our future direction, but also a statement that was perennial and would therefore challenge us to continue to reflect on and discuss what it means to be Catholic university in our contemporary world.  To that end, the board of trustees approved the following vision: “The University of San Diego will set the standard for an engaged, contemporary Catholic university where innovative changemakers confront humanity’s urgent challenges.”

The six strategic directions or “pathways,” as well as a brief description of each, follows:

Access and Inclusion – Expand access and demonstrate inclusive excellence to benefit the learning and success of all students and to advance educational equity, and become a first-choice university for underrepresented students.

Anchor Institution – Engage our local communities in deep, democratic, and meaningful partnerships, with a shared vision and collaborative effort.  These anchor partnerships are primarily local but can extend beyond the borders of our campus and nation. 

Care for our Common Home – Demonstrate care for all creation by embodying the urgent call of Laudato si’ through teaching, scholarship, campus culture, and community partnerships.

Engaged Scholarship – Encourage the integration of knowledge and research to address questions within and across disciplines and communities with local specificity and global implications

Liberal Arts for the 21st Century – Prepare students to lead purposeful lives with successful careers in the 21st century. 

Practice Changemaking – Infuse the entire university with a spirit and practice of changemaking, where innovation and entrepreneurship lead to positive change.

While some of these pathways are familiar and others less so, what is unique about them, we are convinced, is the manner in which they overlap and interlock while building upon both our history and prevailing strengths.  The integration of these six paths not only represents the way forward for this University, it is also definitive of our Catholic identity.


Ex corde ecclesiae will always retain a privileged place in the conversation about the Catholic identity of colleges and universities.  Likewise, the imperative of hiring faculty, administrators, and other employees who are Catholic and therefore capable of robustly embodying a Catholic approach to higher education will always remain a requisite.  However, to freeze-frame the conversation in 1990 and/or to reduce the question of Catholic identity to the number of Catholic faculty members is both myopic and hazardous.  Saint John Paul II could never have anticipated the disruptions we are now, almost three decades after Ex corde, forced to navigate.  In addition, Pope Francis’ writings challenge us to pivot from a primarily inward, ecclesial focus toward a new approach that highlights encounter and dialogue, one that is both inclusive and discerning.

In the shifting, increasingly competitive landscape of higher education, a distinctive mission and vision are more important than ever.  The immense economic, demographic, and cultural pressures confronting Catholic colleges and universities require that our institutions develop a deeper and sharper understanding of the value we offer as well as become more adroit in communicating that value to a crowded, homogenizing marketplace.  USD’s strategic plan not only yielded a distinctive, fresh, and inspirational vision for our university’s role in the contemporary world, the process of crafting it energized and engaged the university community in a concentrated consideration of who we are and what we offer.  Rather than addressing that ultimate issue in response to crisis or controversy, our strategic planning process allowed us to focus on our Catholic identity purposefully, deliberately, and inclusively. 

USD’s strategic plan is mission-centered and vision-driven.  In continuity with our history, the newly articulated vision seeks, in Roche’s phrasing, to “solidify tradition and inaugurate change.”  Moreover, it strives to be simultaneously Catholic and catholic; that is, our newly formed vision and strategic pathways emerge out of and courageously reflect our identity as a Roman Catholic institution while also confidently affirming, precisely because of that identity, our dedication to universality and inclusion.  Our mission, vision, and strategic pathways thus can become the key factor in our hiring processes – all those who are passionate about helping accomplish these ambitions are warmly welcomed to the work.

The University’s new vision statement enables us to be clear about who we are and the scale of our aspirations as well as invitational, engaging our campus, and all our stakeholders, in an ongoing dialogue about the contemporary relevance and meaning of our Catholic identity.  Instead of seeking an authoritative, tightly-bound answer to that question, our vision seeks to keep the issue ever before us, inviting each member of our extended university community to engage with and add their voice, perspective, and wisdom to this central concern. 


[1] John Garvey and Mark W. Roche, “What Makes a University Catholic?” Commonweal, January 27, 2017.

[2] Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016), 3.

[3] Friedman, Thank You for Being Late, 28.

[4] William F. Massy, Reengineering the University: How to be Mission Centered, Market Smart, and Margin Conscious (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 222.

[5] Jon McGee, Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 2.

[6] Joshua J. McElwee, “Catholicism Can and Must Change, Francis Forcefully Tells Italian Church Gathering,” National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2015.

[7] Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World. Evangelii Gaudium (2013), 1. Cited hereafter as EG.

[8] EG, 21.

[9] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home. Laudato Si’ (2015), 62. Cited hereafter as LS.

[10] LS, 14.

[11] EG, 5.

[12] EG, 27.

[13] Roger L. Geiger, “The Ten Generations of American Higher Education,” In American Higher Education in the Twenty First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges, ed. Philip G. Altbach, Patricia J. Gumport & Robert O. Berdahl. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press), 38-69.

[14] George Keller, Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

[15] Robert M. Hendrickson, Jason E. Lane, James T. Harris and Richard H. Dorman, Academic Leadership and Governance of Higher Education: A Guide for Trustees, Leaders and Aspiring Leaders of Two and Four-year Institutions. (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2013).

[16] David J. Maurrasse, Beyond the Campus: How Colleges and Universities Form Partnerships with Their Communities. (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[17] Mark W. Roche, Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture. (South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 2017), 4.

[18] Roche, p. 25.

[19] Neil G. McCluskey, S.J., Land O’ Lakes Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University. (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970).

[20] Second International Congress of Delegates of Catholic Universities, The Catholic University in the Modern World. (Rome: International Federation of Catholic Universities, 1972).

[21] Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990). Cited hereafter as ECE.

[22] LS.

[23] ECE, 13.

[24] LS., 137.