Pierless Bridges

The Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition

Volume 2: 2021 Contemporary Experience with Tradition

Historical Threads in the Mission Statements of the University of San Francisco

By Alan Ziajka

The mission statements of the University of San Francisco form a tapestry, whose threads stretch back to the sixteenth century when Ignatius of Loyola sent his followers throughout the world to establish educational institutions and to promote Jesuit ideals. In 1789, Jesuit education came to the new republic of the United States with the founding of Georgetown College. By 1855, the threads of Jesuit education were woven into the fabric of San Francisco with the establishment of St. Ignatius Academy, the City of San Francisco’s first institution of higher education, and the antecedent of USF.

Ignatius of Loyola, the first Superior General of the Society of Jesus, did not initially see the development of educational institutions as the order’s primary mission when he and his colleagues founded the order in 1540. Within a decade, however, the Jesuits started to establish schools throughout Europe. Ignatius connected the educational philosophy of the Jesuits to the humanistic values of the Renaissance, and underscored the moral power of education for the common good of society. In 1551, Ignatius wrote, “If we see to the education of youth in letters and morality, then great help for the republic will follow, for good priests, good senators, and good citizens of every class come from these efforts.” Ignatius also believed that there should be “no distinction between rich and poor students,” and that admission to Jesuit schools should be based only on ability. This revolutionary ideal soon spread to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. By 1750, the Jesuits had established more than 700 educational institutions across the globe—the largest integrated network of schools the world has ever seen.

In 1855, Jesuit educational values took root in San Francisco with the establishment of St. Ignatius Academy, renamed St. Ignatius College in 1859. Although St. Ignatius College did not initially have a formal written mission statement, the Jesuits who founded the institution were imbued with a philosophy of education stretching back to Ignatius of Loyola. The first college catalog, published in 1869, outlined the institution’s educational purpose: “The design of the Institution is to give a thorough Classical, Mathematical, and Philosophical Education” and “the most perfect training of the mind.” Moreover, “the greatest attention is bestowed on the religious and moral training of the students.” From 1870 to 1940, the institution published several more statements of purpose in its college catalogs. In 1919, for example, the school stated its aim as “procuring the development of both mind and heart,” while recognizing “moral training as an essential element of education.” In 1930, St. Ignatius College published another catalog calling for a “systematic effort to develop character…the building up of an enlightened conscience for the right fulfillment of civil, social and religious duties.”

The world during the 1930s is critical to understanding USF’s Credo, the university’s first formal mission statement. In 1938, Raymond Feely, S.J., a faculty member at the University of San Francisco, who became its first academic vice president in 1951, traveled throughout Europe, where he witnessed the rise of totalitarian regimes. In 1940, while war was raging in Europe and Asia, Fr. Feely published the USF Credo, which appeared in the USF catalog for the next 39 years. In the Credo, Fr. Feely outlined what he viewed as basic beliefs in American Democracy and Jesuit education in contrast to the totalitarian political and economic systems that were sweeping across the world. Among its key statements, the USF Credo posited, “liberty is a sacred thing,” and USF “is vigorously opposed to all forms of ‘racism’—persecution or intolerance because of race.”

USF’s mission statements were influenced by major changes in the Catholic Church during the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), held from 1962 to 1965, called for greater participation by the laity in the Church’s missionary vocation, authorized significant changes in the texts, forms, and language used in the celebration of Mass, including using the vernacular in the Mass instead of Latin. Vatican II made declarations on religious freedom and called for ecumenical efforts with non-Christian religions. In the summer of 1967, in the wake of Vatican II, 25 leaders from several Catholic institutions gathered for a major conference at Notre Dame University’s Land O’ Lakes. The words and concepts in the resulting document were significantly influential in Catholic higher education in the United States, and were reflected in the next three mission statements of the University of San Francisco. The Land O’ Lakes statement envisioned a Catholic university that prized academic freedom and institutional autonomy, met the highest standards of scholarship, fostered interdisciplinary integration, grappled with ultimate questions of the meaning and purpose of life, offered a vibrant liturgical life in Christian community, provided opportunities for service, and embraced the harmony of faith and reason.

The views expressed by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983, were harbingers of many of the concepts later expressed in USF’s mission statements. In July 1973, Fr. Arrupe gave an address to the alumni of Jesuit schools in Europe, during which he called for education for justice, a theme later embraced by USF’s mission statements, and stated that “our prime educational objective must be to form men-and-women-for others.”

USF’s 1980 Mission and Goals Statement; the 1996 Statement of Mission; and the 2001 Vision, Mission, and Values Statement, reflect the following historical threads:

Thread One: The Jesuit Tradition

All of USF’s mission statements embrace the Jesuit tradition, a conceptual thread that is committed to students’ realization of the fullness of their humanity — of developing into intelligent, sensitive, ethical, spiritual, and responsible members of society. The Jesuit tradition values solidarity in the human community and calls for each member to assume a personal responsibility for the community and each of its members. USF engages believers and nonbelievers alike in the pursuit of truth. Every person possesses an inviolable dignity. In the Jesuit tradition, faith and reason are complementary. God is found in all things.

Thread Two: Academic Excellence

From the beginning, the University of San Francisco’s mission statements have voiced a commitment to excellence as the standard for teaching, scholarship, creative expression, and service. USF evidences this commitment to academic excellence in discovering, communicating, applying knowledge, and thinking critically in an environment of complete academic freedom. USF encourages students to develop the knowledge needed to succeed as professionals and as persons, along with the values to be men and women for others. Although academic excellence is important, education should also develop the mind, body, heart, and conscience in order to fulfill social and community responsibilities, and to promote justice for all people.

Thread Three: Respect for Diversity

Beginning with the 1940 Credo, USF’s mission statements have rejected discrimination based on race. Later statements have added ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, and physical disability, to the categories to be free from discrimination. The university prepares students for the complexities of a diverse and interdependent world through curricular and co-curricular offerings, capitalizing on and respecting the differences within the university, the city, the nation, and the world. The University affirmatively recruits outstanding students, faculty, and staff from diverse backgrounds and includes them as equal members of the USF community.

Thread Four: San Francisco Location

Beginning with the Mission and Goals Statement of 1980, the City of San Francisco has been woven into the institution’s mission statements. USF contributes to and benefits from the energy, resources, diversity, and opportunities of a great city on the edge of the Pacific Rim. In its most recent mission statements, community engagement in San Francisco involves providing services to the community, but also entails learning from the community and its members. This urban perspective translates into a global perspective that educates leaders who will fashion a more humane and just world.

Thread Five: A Global Perspective

USF educates students to be responsible global citizens, a view first expressed in the Mission and Goals Statement of 1980. Later statements underscore how USF students live in an increasingly interdependent world that offers innumerable opportunities for doing good, including protecting and sustaining the natural environment, an ideal alluded to in the Vision, Mission, and Values Statement of 2001. Accordingly, USF students should apply their knowledge, skills, and compassion to a world shared by all and held in trust for future generations.

Recent years have witnessed a host of national and international issues, including economic and social injustice, racial strife, a global pandemic, environmental degradation and rapid climate change, political discord, violence, and war. The next USF mission statement should speak to these global issues and advance a blueprint for change. Its words should reflect a legacy of resilience, educational excellence, and social justice in San Francisco that has prevailed for 166 years and Jesuit values that have endured throughout the world for 481 years—a promise to use reason and faith, mind and heart, to seek a better world now and in the future.

ALAN ZIAJKA is the Historian Emeritus of the University of San Francisco, where he held several administrative positions during a 36-year career. Ziajka is the author of five books and numerous articles on history, education, and human development. His most recent books are Legacy and Promise—150 Years of Jesuit Education at the University of San Francisco; The University of San Francisco School of Law Century—100 Years of Educating for Justice; Lighting the City, Changing the World—A History of the Sciences at the University of San Francisco; and University of San Francisco, co-authored with USF professor Robert Elias.


The sources for this article are found in Alan Ziajka’s paper, “The Mission Statements of the University of San Francisco: An Historical Analysis,” available in the University of San Francisco Gleeson Library Scholarship Repository. All of USF’s prior mission statements are included in this paper’s appendices.