By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
What began as a Marquette University campus wide focus on health inequities and disparities has turned out not only to have ramifications for the surrounding city of Milwaukee, but also the entire Catholic Church, which has once again found itself plagued by the clergy sexual abuse crisis this past year.
“We must first recognize that people have been harmed and the first thing we can do as an institution is to help people heal,” Lovell told The Tablet in an interview from his office that overlooks Milwaukee and is directly across from the Church of the Gesu – one of the Midwest’s most iconic Catholic monuments.
Lovell took over as president of the university in 2014, following a nationwide trend of many Jesuit institutions turning over the reins to lay individuals.
A 2017 campus forum on health inequities has proven to be a game changer for him, both personally and professionally.
At a panel discussion at the nursing school, which brought together law enforcement officials, medical professionals, and economic experts, “all found trauma and generational trauma as a root cause to the challenges facing the city.” Lovell recalled thinking, “what are we going to do about this?”
“You have to do something about this!,” his wife Amy told him afterwards – thus cementing a new focus for the Lovell family and the university as a whole as they embarked together on a new venture to harness the knowledge of some of the world’s leading trauma experts and apply it in practical ways in their own backyard.
Soon after the initial panel, Lovell invited participants from the forum to have a discussion on what they could do together to move forward – a meeting that spurred a series of meetings every six weeks, leading to a national conference the following autumn that brought together 1,500 national experts to discuss best practices in responding to trauma; the event included a video launch by Oprah Winfrey.
From that conference, Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM) was born, which now involves more than 800 individuals, 400 organizations, and eight action teams. Lovell describes it not so much as an organization, but a “movement” that is community-led and aims to respond to the trauma that is at the core of the city’s unemployment, mental illness, addiction, alcoholism, homelessness, and suicide crises.
SWIM brings together individuals from human services, healthcare, educational, and criminal justice sectors through a “collective impact model” with an aim to bring healing to the community as a whole.
Lovell said confronting racism in Milwaukee and the trauma caused by it has been critical to the work of SWIM.
“We’ve had to honestly recognize the things that have happened in the past, to talk about racist decisions that have been made, and find concrete ways to help people heal,” he said.
“Rebuilding trust is a foundational building block of what we do,” he added.
Similarly, he believes that experience offers lessons for the abuse crisis, where much of the abuse happened in the past and at the hands of many priests who are no longer in ministry. While he notes that there have been “very few incidents” of abuse in recent years and that the Church is “one of the safest institutions in the country,” those facts, he believes should not prevent the Church from “going back and looking at our history, recognize what happened, and not minimize it.”
“We have to recognize it, and admit it, to heal,” he insists. “Victims have had significant trauma.”
As a university president, Lovell told The Tablet that he believes that “the worst thing we can do is not to talk about it.”
While he said he believes that the crisis can shake the faith of everyone, “the Church itself isn’t broken, but the Church is made up of people and we’re all broken. When you have a broken people, it’s going to get messy and difficult.”
In some respects, it’s this strong conviction of the need to examine the past and consider how institutions or organizations can make a fresh start that’s proven to be a theme for Lovell’s time at Marquette.
Prior to taking over the university presidency, Lovell served as a chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Having already been in Milwaukee for some time, he said he was familiar with Marquette but he wanted to hear directly from the students, faculty, staff, and administrators to get a sense of what was guiding their work.
“I sort of had a sense that Marquette was a bit sleepy, but had big potential,” he recalled. After a number of listening sessions, he said he had “heard all of these great ideas about how we could transform ourselves but there was no mechanism for it.”
Lovell says that his job has been to discern how to build on the school’s 130-year-old tradition while at the same time to “be on the leading edge of Catholic Jesuit education.”
In order to begin to implement some of the many ideas he heard upon arrival, Lovell raised four million dollars for what he dubbed a “strategic innovation fund.”
The idea was that anyone involved in the institution at any level – faculty, students, or staff – could apply for a grant from the fund to implement their own new program or initiative.
The first year brought in 220 applications and over the last four years Lovell believes the idea has “totally changed the culture” on campus.
Among his favorite initiatives is that of two sophomores – one from the business school and the other from engineering – who began a campus-wide hub for students who want to start their own ventures, so far leading to 34 student-launched companies, more than half of which are “of a social nature aimed at helping to improve the lives of others.”
Another is that of a faculty member who applied for a grant to test growing a strain of rice he developed – first on the rooftop of one of the campus buildings and later on a nearby acre of land. The project has now turned into a cash crop benefiting the local community of Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia, which both helps them go back to their roots while creating a source of income for them.
“People are questioning the value of higher education,” said Lovell, “and we need much more hands-on real world experience.”
Lovell’s engineering background has led to both a major focus on campus-wide innovation and entrepreneurship, but also a focus on “multidisciplinary” collaboration.
“I want to think through how to how to expose students to people outside of their own disciplines and break up the silos,” he said.
That same philosophy has also shaped his approach to community engagement. The Jesuit tradition of being located in the heart of the city has led him to focus on ways for students to be citizens focused on improving the community they are living in.
“We cannot be arrogant to think we have a solution to someone else’s problems, but we can use our resources to help others lift themselves up,” said Lovell who has worked to establish both an office of community engagement and an office of corporate engagement in hopes that Marquette can become a place that is seen as being in the service of Milwaukee – or in the Jesuit tradition of being “men and women for others.”
For that reason, he’s pleased that on average, each student – Catholic or not – does over two hours of volunteer service hours per week.
He believes that the Jesuit approach to education allows students to “learn to get out of your comfort zone” and “make sure people feel comfortable sitting down together,” regardless of what they may believe.
Marquette’s undergraduate population is just under 8,500 students, with approximately 62 percent being Catholic, and Lovell is particularly convinced that the values of a Jesuit education are necessary now in a church and country that are “more divided than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
“Our country has gotten away from that,” but Lovell says Marquette under his watch will not follow suit.
In the same sense that Lovell is focused on interdisciplinary approaches to leadership, he brings that same philosophy to his faith.
As a lay leader of a Jesuit institution, he says that he’s come to value both the role of the laity and that of those committed to religious life.
“To make the Church stronger, we have to work together. On Sunday mornings, I’m not the one facing the congregation, nor should I be,” Lovell said. “In the same way, I want a lot of people in the room when we’re making decisions at Marquette from different backgrounds so they can ask different questions and offer different perspectives.”
“The same is needed in the Church,” he says.
Five years into his role as a leader of a Jesuit institution, Lovell says it has felt particularly providential that it has dovetailed almost simultaneously with that of a Jesuit pope leading the Catholic Church.
“Pope Francis has focused on meeting people where they are in life, and listening to their own experiences,” he says. “That’s what I want to do here at Marquette.”
To that point, Lovell is a regular attendee at student Masses, Eucharistic adoration, and more recently, student dance competitions and running groups on campus.
“I can’t fix problems if I don’t know about them,” he says. “And to get to know about them, I have to get to know the people.”