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GU vice president appreciates opportunity to live her values

Ellen Maccarone sits in Gonzaga University Chapel. Photo by Zack Berlot

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

As acting vice president for mission integration at Gonzaga University, Ellen Maccarone's role entails much more than campus ministry for students and faculty.

She shifted into this role after 17 years of teaching philosophy at Gonzaga—10 years full-time and seven and a half part-time, plus working as faculty advisor in the office of GU President Thayne McCulloh.

Eighteen months ago, he appointed her acting vice president for mission integration. In that work, she has confirmed her commitment to working in a Catholic university because it allows her to live the values she believes in.

"My path to teaching in a Catholic University was a bit of a stretch," she explained. "I grew up Catholic in a small Massachusetts town about 10 miles north of Boston. We went to Sunday Mass, attended religious education and received the sacraments, but I never went to Catholic school or worked for a Catholic organization."

Her academic work was at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in ethics. For her master's in philosophy, she went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins and then completed doctoral studies, also in philosophy, at the University of Florida in Gainesville. All are non-sectarian universities.

After a short time of teaching at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota she came to Gonzaga University.

Ellen stepped into the role of acting vice president for mission integration at the request of the president when her predecessor resigned after being at home during the pandemic and realizing she wanted to spend more time with her family than the position allowed.

"They are doing a search for the position this academic year. I love this work and I am good at it, so I am applying," Ellen said.

Ellen's years of teaching at Gonzaga and the spiritual experiences she has had there have given her a passion for Gonzaga's mission.

During her third year of teaching there, she began following the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life, a method of praying developed by the Jesuit Founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. This practice profoundly affected her outlook in all aspects of life.

The Spiritual Exercises lead the person following them to become more aware of their relationship with the Divine and with each other, she said.

For Ellen, it changed her outlook on life and in practical ways changed how she approached teaching philosophy and ethics. 

Growing up she tended to think more in terms of Christ in his divinity, which made it hard to think about a personal relationship. Afterwards it became more of a relationship with the human Jesus of the Gospel. Previously she had a rich syllabus, and she approached it in what she called an "old school" way—formal and impersonal.

Afterwards, even though the syllabus might have been rich, she found herself more sensitive to students, more charitable in terms of giving them the benefit of the doubt, honoring each person's unique humanity and affirming the dignity of the human person.

For one ethics class, Theories of Solidarity, she used an anthology of Catholic social justice teachings but presented the material in the framework of some of the contemporary leaders of the international Jesuit Order, particularly the Father General Pedro Arrupe who talked about the importance of being "men and women for and with others."

For the final class project, students chose a local nonprofit that claimed to be working for social justice and then analyzed its work in light of what they had learned in the ethics class.

"There were some surprises. Some students found that their nonprofit organizations had other motives than working for social justice—no matter what they said—while others strongly lived out socially just principles. If nothing else this taught the students ethical principles to use to evaluate whether a particular nonprofit does what it claims."

Because of following the Spiritual Exercises, Ellen became more transparent with the students, sharing with them reasons for her assignments and expressing her concern for their welfare. 

She would counsel students, "Take the one percent penalty for being late rather than plagiarizing in your paper. It will make your end results more successful. I do care what you think. I ask the questions I do because I am interested in your answers."

In her new role, Ellen misses teaching, but it gives her other opportunities to use her skills and do work she loves.

At Gonzaga, the vice president for mission integration works in three areas to provide strategic leadership for the president: university ministry, mission engagement and the Office of Tribal Relations.

"University ministry is about the traditional work of campus ministry, providing spiritual opportunities," she explained.

Mission engagement links with a strategic leadership group, assuring mission-centered hiring, bringing new hires on board and overseeing the formation of members of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Regents. The goal is for all to be imbued with the Gonzaga mission, which includes fostering "a mature commitment to the dignity of the human person, social justice, diversity, intercultural competence, global engagement, solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, and care for the planet," Ellen said.

Mission integration also is responsible for the Office of Tribal Relations, which works with the university's tribal partners and with its Native students.

In this office, Ellen wants to make sure that faculty and staff fulfill "the promise we make to our students about the kind of education they will receive."

One task Ellen looks forward to in the coming year is shepherding the university's self-study leading up to the periodic formal peer evaluation, which is similar to an accreditation process but aims to reaffirm Jesuit sponsorship of Gonzaga as a Jesuit apostolic work.

Besides the ongoing tasks of her department, Ellen looks to the future in the three areas of university life related to the Office of Mission Integration.

"I first want to make sure Gonzaga is living our mission as robustly as possible. I am particularly interested in assuring that mid-career and senior faculty who are thinking about their legacy are well placed within the mission of Gonzaga."

Secondly, she is also interested in exploring the spiritual needs of students, particularly those whose survey responses indicate that they don't see themselves as religious, but self-identify as spiritual with no spiritual practice.

Ellen believes Gonzaga must meet them where they are, deepening their resilience and strengthening their mental health.

In the third area of tribal relations, she desires to assure greater collaboration with tribal partners and provide greater financial aid for Native students who wish to attend Gonzaga.

"What is important to me is that the work I have done helps the university to fulfill its mission," she summarized. "I find this work life-giving. I am so grateful to be at Gonzaga where I can do better work for a better purpose and can work in line with my values of faith, social justice and the pursuit of truth."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December 2023