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Originally published Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Protestant president helps cultivate university's Jesuit roots

The shortfall of priests in leadership roles at universities has created a challenge for a generation of laypeople who have to figure out how to carry on the Jesuit tradition.

Los Angeles Times


LOS ANGELES — David Burcham stood before the altar in Sacred Heart Chapel at Loyola Marymount University. The midday sun beamed through the stained-glass windows and a crucifix loomed over his shoulder as the university president offered a stirring defense of the school's Roman Catholic legacy.

The Jesuit mission, he said, "with its strong tradition of truth-seeking, is more relevant and important than ever because our world is in danger of drowning in disinformation."

He went on: "Jesuit and Marymount traditions of intellectual analysis, moral reflection and civic action are an antidote to superficiality. We train young people to think deeply about the critical issues as they cultivate wisdom, accountability and fair-mindedness."

Those who came before Burcham had been men of the cloth: Jesuits who would often say Mass from the place where he now stood.

But Burcham stood before the packed chapel in a suit and tie.

He's not a priest. He's not even Roman Catholic. Yet it has fallen to him to redefine the meaning of a Jesuit education as the university enters its second century.

Burcham, 60, may be the only Protestant in charge at one of the nation's 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, but he's not alone as the first layman, or nonclergy member. Since Georgetown University, arguably the most prestigious Jesuit school, named a layman as president in 2001, a number of schools have followed suit. Gonzaga University in Spokane and Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., are among them.

The pool of priests able to fill these leadership roles has declined drastically over the years. Two-thirds of Jesuits in the United States are now 60 or older, and the total number — about 2,500 — is a fraction of what it was decades ago. Not enough young men are joining the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus, to close the gap.

The shortfall has created a challenge for a generation of laypeople who have to figure out how to carry on the Jesuit tradition — with its pillars of faith, truth and social justice — at a time, Jesuits say, when budget constraints have made higher education more like big business, edging out religious study.

These schools have been forced to ask themselves: "How do we rethink, or redirect, our mission in changed times?" said the Rev. Greg Lucey, president of the Association of Jesuit College and Universities and a veteran administrator at Jesuit schools.

Difficult to define

For many, a Jesuit education is difficult to define. It's known for its rigor and inherent curiosity, embracing seeming contradictions: people of God and people of science, believer and skeptic. Students are encouraged to live their faith through public service.

"We're not afraid of meeting the world," said the Rev. Kevin Burke, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. "Ours is a philosophy of seeing God in the world."

Burcham and others at Loyola Marymount repeatedly describe an "education of the whole person."

When the Rev. Robert B. Lawton, the previous Loyola Marymount president, resigned in 2010 for health reasons, the search committee looked to Burcham, the provost, who stepped in as interim president.

He had been a leading figure at the university. Burcham graduated from Loyola's law school and, after several years as a practicing attorney, he returned as a professor and was dean of the law school for eight years.

Burcham developed a reputation as a charismatic leader and solid administrator, with a knack for fundraising. But he resisted applying for the permanent job.

Although the university had grown far from its roots as a small, religious school, Catholicism remained its core. .

A focus on Jesuit roots

Burcham is the son of a Presbyterian minister and married with two grown children. As a devout Protestant, he worried that he would be a divisive figure, and that questions of faith would impede him from being the president he'd like to be — a teacher in chief, at ease with students and faculty alike.

But Kathleen H. Aikenhead, chairwoman of the school's board of trustees who headed the selection committee, said the qualities that made Burcham reluctant to pursue the job were exactly the ones they had sought: depth and an understanding of the importance of protecting the Jesuit tradition.

He was appointed unanimously by the board of trustees, from a field of candidates that included multiple Jesuit candidates.

In the year since, there's been a palpable change on campus: Students, faculty, campus ministers, even alumni say that Loyola Marymount feels "more Jesuit."

Burcham acknowledges he has fostered a conscious effort to strengthen the school's Jesuit roots, as he feels pressure to prove to the university community — but, more than anything, to himself — that he's a capable steward.

It has become a priority for Burcham to find ways to hold down costs and make the university more accessible to less-fortunate students (tuition, fees, housing and expenses add up to more than $55,000 a year) while emphasizing a well-rounded education that places a premium on public service.

All undergraduates are required to take two theology courses, and LMU students put in about 175,000 community volunteer hours each year.

Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, officials said, a curriculum change will mandate classes focused on the service of faith and the promotion of justice — two key tenets of Jesuit theology.

Yet Burcham still has to operate within the realities of higher education today. In the same address in which he defended Jesuit theology, he boasted of a capital campaign that surpassed its $380-million goal ahead of schedule and the high rankings U.S. News and World Report gave to several university programs.

He deploys those modern-day metrics, he said, to advance Loyola Marymount's ambitious philosophy.

A fifth of the students receive federal Pell grants, and many come from families that earn less in a year than the school's tuition and fees. LMU also is among the most ethnically diverse regional universities in the nation.

The Jesuits, he said, are "always about standing in solidarity with the poor and underrepresented, and I think that is reflected in the student body."

Back to teaching, too

By the end of his first year, Burcham was becoming more sure of his ability to carry on the mission.

His increased confidence has allowed him to return to his roots. He got his start as a middle-school teacher and assistant principal in Long Beach, and still sees himself as a teacher first.

Last semester, he taught a one-unit course on the Supreme Court — his "hour of sanity" each week, as he calls it. He also carves time in his schedule each week to make his way around the Westchester campus.

On a recent Monday, he bounded through the campus like a politician on the campaign trail.

He made small talk with students, and his face brightened every time someone mentioned prepping for law school. (He told more than one to stop by his office for advice.)

"I think people are becoming more relaxed, or more comfortable," Burcham said of having someone other than a Jesuit priest lead the school. "Or maybe it's me. I'm becoming more relaxed and more comfortable with it. ... I'm liberated in some extent: I know what I need to do, and I know what to do to get where we need to go."