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Letters to Loyola

Letters to Loyola is a weekly email series on a variety of topics or questions for the Loyola community to consider together. Faculty, staff, and students are automatically subscribed; others may sign up here.

President Cole has often spoken of “radical hospitality” as a way to characterize our Loyola community. Hospitality helps ground our Jesuit, Catholic mission and identity. It draws inspiration from the hospitality that Abraham showed angelic visitors (Genesis 18:1-15) and that Martha and Mary showed Jesus (Luke 10: 38-42).

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As we begin the spring semester being careful due to inclement weather, I hope you are starting the year refreshed, invigorated and excited about the year ahead. I look forward to seeing you reconnect with your classmates, friends, faculty and mentors as we dive into another busy semester.

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As we immerse ourselves in the warmth of the Christmas season, I wish you and your families a time of joy, celebration and reflection. This time holds particular significance within our Catholic and Jesuit tradition, inviting us to reflect on the values that define our educational journey.

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We’ve almost crossed the finish line. Just six days of classes left this fall before final exams and a well-earned winter break.

I’ve been so impressed by your hard work and diligence this fall, and I encourage you to keep up that momentum and finish 2023 in a strong position. I have no doubt you will rise to the occasion just as you have done all semester. 

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November has been a busy month here on our campus. We’ve celebrated together at Colechella, marked a milestone in our university’s history at Inauguration, and you’ve kept your heads down, devoting time to your classes as we enter the final weeks of the semester. Amidst our busy schedules, we also want to take time to celebrate the diversity of our student body and to recognize Native American Heritage Month.

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Last week was the perfect showcase of everything that makes Loyola University New Orleans special. I am so grateful for each and every one of you who had a hand in it. This was a moment for our institution to shine, and you made the most of it.
 

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Standing on the threshold of my inauguration, I’m deeply humbled and honored to serve this vibrant and compassionate community. Loyola Week marks a momentous occasion in our journey. I want to take this opportunity to reflect on some essential values that define our institution and underscore our commitment to positive change. 

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This year’s Loyola Week theme, cura personalis, has implications beyond ourselves and beyond Loyola.

For St. Ignatius, the reality of Jesus is inescapable and transformative. Ignatius is converted when in the Jesus of scripture he encounters the living Lord who became incarnate, died, rose again, and now reigns in glory.

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Today, we host our annual faculty/staff vs. student basketball game in The Den at 6 p.m. It’s a fun event that brings together our community in celebration of our Ignatian commitment to cura personalis or, in this instance, the goodness of the body and teamwork. 

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The theme for this Loyola Week is the Ignatian concept of cura personalis, Latin for “care for the whole person.” On the surface, this seems easy. However, when you consider my experience of incarceration for 35 years on a life sentence without the possibility of release for the remainder of your life, everything is more complicated.

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It’s no secret that New Orleanians know how to celebrate year round, but I’ve been amazed to see how the Crescent City takes Halloween to another level.

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I write to you today with a heavy heart. We, as a campus community, are witnessing the events in Israel and Gaza and mourning the death and destruction. Many of us are understandably worried and hurt. The members of our community with family in the impacted war zones report that they all are currently safe. Let’s continue to pray for safety and peace for them.  

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We're a few weeks into the school year, a time when the novelty has worn off, and we dig into the real work in our pursuit of knowledge. There's no way around it; this time can be tough. While it's tempting to lose focus, I was recently reminded of the wisdom in the words of Daniel Berrigan's poem, "My Help, My Hope," which I read at convocation. 
 

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The Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., wrote about Jesuit education that “if the measure and purpose of our universities is in what our students become, then the faculty are the heart of our universities.” The faculty are who help shape the “whole person” of each student, guiding them as they move on to make their impact on the world.
 

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As we settle into the groove of a new school year, I am filled with excitement and optimism for the journey ahead. The first few weeks are a time of renewed energy and new possibilities, a time to set goals and step outside our comfort zones.

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For weeks now, people from across the university have been working to plan our annual Mass of the Holy Spirit, a joyful celebration and cherished university tradition. I hope you will mark your calendars and make plans to attend.
 

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Whether you are new to Loyola or returning for your fourth year, many of you are new to me, and I can’t wait to get to know you all. I recorded this brief message to welcome you all to the new year. Please don’t hesitate to say hi when you see me on campus, and I’m always interested in hearing from you - anything from restaurant recommendations to your hopes for Loyola. Drop me a line at presidentcole@bj-rxhy.com anytime.

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Following yesterday’s Supreme Court rulings on Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, I want to assure you that Loyola remains committed to creating and fostering a diverse student body. Our Jesuit, Catholic mission calls us to create an inclusive community that welcomes all students. We have and will always prioritize and value the contributions that individuals from all manner of diverse backgrounds bring to our learning environment. By getting to know people who are not like them, our students learn and grow in ways that help to create a more inclusive, civil and just society.

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On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, declaring enslaved people legally free in Confederate states. In areas where the Union had defeated the Confederates, the law went into effect immediately. For the parts of the country that were still controlled by the Confederates, however, news traveled slowly. In the western part of Texas the news didn't arrive until Union troops arrived on June 19, 1865.

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It is with a great sense of joy and gratitude that I write this letter to you on my first day as your President. Walking into Marquette Hall this morning, I was filled with pride and hope for all our futures as we think and work together for the betterment of our students and our community.

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On Wednesday of this week, I had the opportunity to meet with student leaders who organized a protest on campus in support of Professor Scott Heath. I was greatly inspired by their viewpoints, passion for Loyola, and commitment to diversity.

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April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a nationally-recognized campaign to raise public awareness about sexual violence and educate communities on how to prevent it and support those affected by it.

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I’ve been sharing this news whenever I encounter students who are graduating, but I’m thrilled to announce to the entire Loyola community that the keynote speaker for the 2023 Undergraduate and Graduate Commencement ceremony will be New Orleans’s own Jon Batiste. The ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 13 at the UNO Lakefront Arena. And the Honorable Judge Carl Barbier, J.D. ’70 will address the College of Law Class of 2023 at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 12 at the UNO Lakefront Arena.

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I love the Easter Vigil, the Mass that started after sundown yesterday. It was long (and, for me, the longer the better). It was highly symbolic–involving dark and light, fire and water, bells and incense, bread and wine.

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My friend and mentor, Bishop Fernand Cheri III, OFM, is being laid to rest today.

He was ordained a Bishop in New Orleans in 2015. At the time of his death, he was one of only seven Black Catholic bishops active in the U.S. I have fond memories of his ordination. As so often happened when he spoke, he eventually had the whole church up singing and dancing.

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March 31st of every year is recognized as Trans Day of Visibility (TDOV), an annual day of awareness and celebration around the world acknowledging trans and gender diverse rights, experiences, and stories. Today, and every day, Loyola University honors the victories and contributions of transgender and non-binary folx while being extremely mindful of the work that is still needed to protect trans lives.
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The new moon marks the beginning of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar today and, with it, the beginning of Ramadan. Why am I so excited when that means refraining from food and drink for almost 14 hours, from dawn until sunset?

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Schools are fundamentally institutions of hope—but not necessarily perennial optimism. At Loyola, it seems to me that our hope comes not only from a grounding in a Catholic worldview, but also from the following:

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This Women’s History Month, I invite us all to celebrate the generations of women who helped build and strengthen our university into what it is today and those women who are leading us into the future.

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I greet you with joy this Ash Wednesday! I know what you are thinking, Joy? During Lent? It is true that Lent is often associated with a 40-day period of fasting and penance leading to Easter, but it is so much more than that. The name “Lent” is from the Old English word “Lencten,” meaning spring. Lent is a springtime for the spirit, a season of renewal. 

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Which season is more grace-filled—Mardi Gras or Lent? The answer, of course, is that both can be spiritually enriching. But if forced to choose, I’d acknowledge that, at its worst, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is marked by destructive excess (think of its carbon footprint!) and vestiges of segregation. Yet, I’d argue that, at its best, it more closely resembles heaven. 

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As we celebrate Black History Month, I’m reminded of the words of civil rights activist Rosa Parks who said, “to bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try.”   

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Every ten years, the university embarks on a long-term project, setting an area of focus that will help to guide learning outcomes and student success. The topic we choose becomes our guiding star, helping to determine how we work as we lead the university into the future.

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This spring, we’re all excited for community, service, and traditions. It’s a blessing to start the New Year with a Homecoming Celebration. The Student Government Association Homecoming Committee, under the brilliant leadership of Sydney Randall, has planned a week filled with opportunities to connect.

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Sixty years ago, on a hot summer day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. Spurred on by New Orleans gospel artist Mahalia Jackson, he dropped his planned speech midstream. He chose to speak from the heart. What burst forth were the words, “I have a dream.”

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This morning Pope Francis presided over the funeral of his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

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Thanksgiving Blessings! I pray that our holiday will bring much joy to you and your family as you feast, celebrate, relax, and take stock of the blessings in your life.

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As Loyola Week draws to a close, today we take time to honor those who serve our country in the armed forces. As we celebrate Veterans Day, I encourage us all to find a way to thank those who have served and continue to serve our country.

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Last Friday, I was having lunch with a few faculty members and our conversation turned to things that academics love to talk about–teaching, research, our students, and of course the challenges they face as they continue to navigate the post-pandemic world. What struck me about these conversations was that in spite of the challenges our faculty face, the sense of purpose they find in being at Loyola and teaching our students makes it a different experience than being at another institution. The passion with which they talked about our students and the promise of a Loyola education reminded me that being an educator is not what we do, it is who we are. This sense of purpose is of course not unique to Loyola, but I believe that it takes a new meaning at Loyola.

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I recently heard a remarkable story from Mr. Jordan Jones, S.J., philosophy professor here at Loyola. In 1940, Jesuit priest Fr. Vładisław Lohn returned to his community house in Krakow, Poland to find that the Gestapo had arrested all of his Jesuit brothers and taken them to Auschwitz. So Fr. Lohn did something remarkable: he broke into Auschwitz. He didn’t break out; he broke in because he wanted to be with his brothers. When the Commandant of the prison camp discovered him, he was so impressed by his courage that he simply kicked him out.

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Imagine this: Down 2, no time left on the clock, at the line shooting three free throws for a chance to win the National Championship. Athletes dream about being in situations like this and often act it out when given the chance. Anyone who watches sports might wonder how athletes can maintain their composure in times of heightened pressure. For me, I learned the value of meditation and reflection to keep me centered in athletics.

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This week’s theme is “Seek Joy!” As we consider our Jesuit identity and how it molds our community, I hope you can reflect on where you find your joy. We each possess talents and gifts that contribute to our own joy and those around us, but what is your definition of joy?

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November 6-12 is Loyola Week, a university-wide celebration of Loyola’s Jesuit and Ignatian heritage. The theme this year is "Seek Joy!" an important goal in the life of faith. Events will be Ignatian, enlightening, inspiring, and fun. This week also offers the opportunity to reflect and consider how we can “Live Loyola” wherever we are. You will receive a “Letter to Loyola” each day, reflecting on an aspect of our Jesuit values. And every day, you will get a chance to enjoy special campus activities that remind us of the importance of finding joy in expected and unexpected places.

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It’s time again to cast our ballots for federal and state officeholders tasked with strengthening our communities. Election Day is a week away, and I hope everyone has made plans to vote in person or via mail-in or absentee ballot, or that you took advantage of our free shuttles for Early Voting last week.

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One of our foundational values is cura personalis, or care and education of the whole person: mind, body and spirit. Caring for each other demands that we take a stand against all forms of gender-based violence, including sexual assault, domestic abuse, and gender hate crimes. More than 30 years ago, the city’s annual Take Back the Night vigil started here on this campus, as a way of providing a voice for the vulnerable and the voiceless.

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From now through October 5, Judaism observes its High Holy Days. I invite you this next week to join me in prayer for and with our Jewish sisters and brothers.

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Some of you reading this may know that I am a licensed psychologist by profession and worked in the field of college mental health for two decades before transitioning into a fully administrative role. I know firsthand how painfully difficult and utterly rewarding mental health work can be. Throughout my career, I walked with students at their lowest lows and their highest highs. My clients taught me a deeper understanding of taking perspective and led to increasing my daily practice of extending humility, gratitude, and kindness.

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Unfortunately today's Letter to Loyola included inaccurate information about an Hispanic Heritage Bilingual Mass. This year we will have a Mass celebrating the conclusion of Hispanic Heritage Month. It will be at noon on Wednesday, October 12, in Ignatius Chapel.

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Each year we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month by honoring and highlighting the diverse culture, heritage, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino/a/x/e communities throughout history.

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I am writing to share with you the passing of the Honorable Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, who died peacefully at home on Labor Day at 92 following an extraordinary life.

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For weeks now, people from across the university, especially Ken Weber in Student Life and Ministry, have been working to plan our annual Mass of the Holy Spirit, a joyful celebration and cherished university tradition. I hope you will mark your calendars and make plans to attend.

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Welcome to the first week of our new academic year! As we launch the year, there is much to celebrate and be grateful for in the Loyola community.

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As I reflect on the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola and the close of the Ignatian Year, my thoughts turn to Fr. Jerry Fagin, S.J., who taught for many years in the Loyola Institute for Ministry. “Courage” functioned as a verb for him. It stems from the Latin for “heart,” and with that one word, he encouraged people in difficult situations to act courageously, that is, with an inspired, strong, and generous heart.

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Today offers the gift of time to those fortunate enough to be on holiday. Taking time for rest and re-creation makes us imitators of God’s own rest on the seventh day of creation in the Book of Genesis. Today we might savor time and be on the lookout for those grace-filled moments with which this day surely abounds.

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of Pell Grants, a landmark program that has helped millions pay for college over the past five decades–approximately 7 million annually, including about 40% of students at Loyola.

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I hope this email finds you well as we celebrate Juneteenth, the official legal end to slavery in the United States. Today we reaffirm our support for the ongoing movement for racial justice and equality.

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As the semester draws to a close, I wanted to update you on some of the progress the Office of Equity and Inclusion has made to make our campus a more open and inclusive environment for everyone. Overall, we are ahead of schedule on the Strategic Plan for Inclusive Excellence, and by adding a Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs, we are continuing to make great strides towards our goals, including doubling campus programming around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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One of the distinct privileges we have living here in New Orleans is being surrounded on a near-constant basis by incredible music. Known as the birthplace of jazz and the home to more than 65 festivals, New Orleans has a way of literally bringing people to their feet.

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It’s always exciting in a university setting to celebrate a large research grant. In our case, it’s all the more exciting when that grant not only helps to support the student experience and faculty research, but also helps young people to more easily connect with their faiths and spirituality.

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As Christians continue the pilgrimage of Holy Week, contemplating the passion of Christ and the redemptive mysteries of the cross, the Jewish holiday of Passover begins on Friday and Muslims continue the observance of Ramadan.

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At Easter, we celebrate the triumph of life over death and the resurrection of our Lord. All around us, creation demonstrates the point. Spring pushes out from the winter cold and gray (albeit less dramatically in our semi-tropical climate).  And this year, we ourselves begin to emerge from two years of fear, sickness, and death across the globe. To hope again. To hug again.

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Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month began April 1 and here we are, in 2022, still trying to prevent the cruel fact that people of every age, ability, race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, socioeconomic background, and religion are vulnerable to experiencing the pain and trauma of the abuse of power that is sexual assault.

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A century ago this morning, Loyola launched the entire American Deep South into the era of instant communication. Our physics department built a radio transmitter and broadcast the first live voice communication from Marquette Hall, at 10:52 a.m. on March 31, 1922. On that momentous occasion, what did they choose to say? Loyola’s President, Fr. Edward Cummings, S.J., asked for donations to the Loyola building fund, followed by a piano performance by another Jesuit.

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Last Friday night, when Loyola’s women’s and men’s basketball teams were racing to big wins in the NAIA Championship Tournament, a reunion took place that many may understandably have missed. It was a moment that taught me something about the magis at Loyola.

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When people ask me who or what influenced me to pursue a leadership role in higher education, the who always comes before the what. While many people have been my mentors, supporters and sponsors over the years, my dad and mom gave me not only a love for learning but a necessary grit for me to compete in a world where women still are not taken seriously.

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For many of us, the shift from Fat Tuesday revelry to Ash Wednesday somberness can feel like an abrupt and unwelcome change of pace. But just as we enjoyed Carnival together, we now embark on this Lenten journey as a community of faith and find strength and joy from one another.

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One of the things that drew me to Loyola is the tremendous sense of community both here on campus and throughout the city of New Orleans, where the people take so much pride in their history, culture and traditions.

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Just before Christmas, WWL-TV and NPR shined a spotlight on a Loyola biology professor and his students helping to save a tiny fish from extinction. In the world of conservation, the tiniest organisms sometimes matter the most because so much else depends on them.

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I am very sad to tell you that I’ll be leaving at the end of this school year to go serve as the president of Fordham University in New York, as you’ll see in the message below. I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed being with you, watching you flourish, listening and learning from your passion. You are more amazing than you know.

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I have made the very difficult decision to step down as president of Loyola this summer to become the first lay president of Fordham University in New York.

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I am so happy to see many of you back on campus and cannot wait for you all to return on Monday. There is nothing like distance to remind us of the joy of being together in community. I want to just remind you of some of the amazing things you can do on campus.

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A few weeks ago, I went to a ceremony where the Governor of Louisiana signed a formal pardon of Homer Plessy, convicted in 1892 for riding in a “whites only” train car. Plessy boarded that train in the Bywater neighborhood to create a test case, a challenge to the segregation statutes spreading across the South. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and became one of the most infamous in our history. Instead of striking down segregation as a fundamental violation of the new Fourteenth Amendment, the Court upheld segregation under a contorted theory of “separate but equal.”

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I never fully contemplated the enormity of God’s love until I held my own newborn child in my arms and felt like I might explode with joy. That may be the closest I come to understanding how much we are loved by God.

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I would normally be writing to you about how Advent is a time for peaceful contemplation as we prepare for the coming of our Lord, but this year does not make that easy. After a remarkably functional several months, we end the semester as we began it – with yet another variant and yet another COVID spike. We tighten our public health discipline, again, all in the thick of exams and papers, studying and grading. Our residence hall staff, RAs and public health staff are exhausted.

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I want to give you exciting news on typically unexciting subjects. We are doing the hard work of tackling longstanding problems, problems that affect each of you, so I’m hoping you’ll read this update. In Jesuit terms, we call this cura apostolica, care of the institution that binds us all.

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Despite the anxiety of looming exams, or perhaps because of it, December is also the most joyful time of year on campus.

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I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving today.

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Congress is considering whether to greatly expand Pell grants. Making federal assistance possible for a wider group of families, and for amounts that keep up with the actual cost of college, would be an enormous help for the majority of our students. I hope you’ll pay close attention.

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The other night, I listened to a council of first-year students present their impressions of Loyola and witnessed a remarkable moment.

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One of the more dramatic moments I’ve witnessed has been the celebration of “Armistice Day” in central London. At exactly 11 a.m. on November 11th, everything stops, even traffic. With dramatic silence, Brits honor the exact moment when the treaty was signed ending the First World War.

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Every day around here, we struggle with difficult decisions – the agonizing kind that leaves you so exhausted with decision fatigue you can’t possibly decide what to eat for dinner that night. Most of us, without really knowing it, reach for aspects of the Jesuit principles of discernment, the practices that Pope Francis deems the most important contribution of his Jesuit order.

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There’s a rumor (one that George Lucas refuses to deny) that the Jedi knights in Star Wars are based on the Jesuits. The years of careful training to learn how to trust “the Force.” The ability to outwit your opponent through intellect and lives of purpose. Courage. Discipline.

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This is election season in many states around the country, and in New Orleans a week from Saturday. Voting gives me a thrill I can’t describe. I understand the cynical reasons why some folks don’t bother, but it makes me feel so good to have my say. My civics teacher in high school gave my class an assignment to volunteer on the campaign of our choice, and ever since that, I’ve been hooked. Knocking on doors – especially for those local races that matter so very much – waving signs at intersections – all of it represents a real commitment to democracy.

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Throughout history, human beings have created traditions to help them grapple with death, including annual events in the fall – the end of the harvest season and a time of preparation for impending winter. One of the most beautiful of those traditions originated in what is now Mexico, El Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

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October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, a brief respite from the reality that we generally pay so little attention to domestic violence. For ten years, I had the humbling experience of running a domestic violence legal clinic, representing women (and sometimes men) escaping brutal and cruel relationships. For my clients, leaving often required both risking their lives and extricating themselves from a legal and financial nightmare. Even if survivors were willing to escape with no more than the clothes on their backs, abusers could keep hostages – children often not protected by the family law system. I learned more about strength and courage from these clients than I can describe. (And got frequent help from Loyola experts like Dr. Rae Taylor.)

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Somehow tomorrow I turn 50. (Students, please pretend to be surprised that I’m so old.) I’ve been spending time contemplating life and how much of it I may have frittered away reading nonsense on my phone. But I’ve also been thinking about how lucky I am to have found a purpose and to be part of an extraordinary community.

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To state the overwhelmingly obvious, this has been a tough couple of months for all of us – actually, a tough couple of years. Each of us has handled the anxiety and uncertainty in different ways. Whether you are stoic to the point of denial, or feeling particularly fragile right now, I hope that you pay close attention to taking care of yourself.

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Loyola has one of the best college newspapers in the country, according to multiple rankings over the course of decades. Not only do The Maroon reporters consistently clean up in the awards for college journalism, they also win awards for local journalism against the professionals.

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We have never had a year when it was more important to come together in community and pray, and breathe, and sing. I invite you to join us at the Mass of the Holy Spirit on Tuesday, September 28, at 12:30 p.m. in Holy Name of Jesus Church. We have much to celebrate and mourn together.

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On Monday, most of us head into the classrooms again, another beginning to the semester. I cannot wait to see you all in person – to give you a (virtual, masked) hug and to find out how the hurricane affected you.

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This week the Jewish members of our community celebrated Rosh Hashanah and the start of the High Holy Days -- a time for all of us to look inward, to be honest with ourselves about the ways we can do better. I have been praying hard about what we can learn from the brutal experience of this year (because finding meaning in suffering is both very Jewish and very Catholic).

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I am bursting with pride at what we’ve achieved. As of this morning, 91% of our total population (students, faculty and staff) have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with most fully vaccinated. To break that down further, 90% of full-time employees, including 93% of full-time faculty, have had at least the first dose, as have an extraordinary 92% of students, including 96% of you living in the residence halls.

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I’ll be doing my best this year to write to you every week with my finest attempts at wisdom, or failing that, some thoughts and questions to make us think. 

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