Largest-Ever NetVUE Conference Helps Campuses Broaden the Scope of Vocational Exploration

Four plenary speakers seated in chairs on stage
The 2019 NetVUE Conference session “Vocation in Multi-Faith Environments: Lifestance, Diversity, Difference” featured (from left to right) Zeenat Rahman, Rachel S. Mikva, Anantanand Rambachan, and Katherine (Trina) Janiec Jones.

CIC hosted the fifth biennial conference of its Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) March 21−23, 2019, in Louisville, Kentucky. Under the theme “Broadening the Scope of Vocational Exploration,” the conference focused on the increasing importance of an expanded understanding of vocation and calling across all aspects of undergraduate education. Nearly 700 participants representing 196 colleges and universities took part, making this by far the largest NetVUE Conference yet. Campuses were represented by three- to five-person teams of presidents, chief academic officers, chief student affairs officers, faculty members, religious life staff, and directors of vocation initiatives, career centers, and student success programs.

Generously supported by Lilly Endowment Inc., the 2019 NetVUE Conference featured an array of distinguished presenters. The keynote address was offered by Rebecca S. Chopp, chancellor of the University of Denver (CO) and president emerita of Swarthmore College (PA) and Colgate University. She described how, in a world of accelerating change, higher education needs to help students develop lives of meaning, purpose, and commitment. A panel of religion scholars, including Katherine (Trina) Janiec Jones of Wofford College (SC), Rachel S. Mikva of Chicago Theological Seminary, and Anantanand Rambachan of St. Olaf College (MN), engaged in a conversation about how a broadened understanding of vocational exploration can address the religiously diverse context of undergraduate education today. The panel was moderated by Zeenat Rahman, director of the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute. Robert M. Franklin, Jr., James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor of Moral Leadership at Emory University and president emeritus of Morehouse College (GA), closed the conference with an inspiring address that offered a vision for moral leadership as a vocation, emphasizing the importance of campus leaders acting with courage, integrity, and imagination as they strive to serve the common good.

Concurrent sessions highlighted successful campus programs and offered insights into vocational exploration in theory and practice. The conference also provided participants ample opportunity to network with colleagues in similar roles at other institutions and provided a wide range of resources to sustain and broaden the work of vocational exploration—in the classroom, the advising process, career development, campus ministry, community engagement, and other campus venues.

The Future as Vocation

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” NetVUE Director David Cunningham welcomed a record-setting crowd of participants to the opening plenary of the 2019 NetVUE Conference with this quotation from poet Mary Oliver. Leading students in the exploration of vocation, Cunningham emphasized, requires asking them, as well as oneself, precisely this question. Plenary Chair Tracy Y. Espy, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Pfeiffer University (NC), added that exploring vocation becomes more pressing in times of accelerating change.

During her remarks on “The Future as Vocation,” keynote speaker Rebecca Chopp, chancellor of the University of Denver (CO), noted that the concept of vocation has a complicated and challenging history. Celebrating the radical revision of the concept of vocation that NetVUE institutions are developing, Chopp called for an expanded understanding of vocation that is, in the words of Cunningham, “capacious, dynamic, and elastic.”

Rebecca Chopp gesturing with her hands while she speaks
Keynote speaker Rebecca S. Chopp, chancellor of the University of Denver (CO), opened the 2019 NetVUE Conference with an address on “The Future as Vocation.”

This revised view of vocation must, Chopp suggested, be anchored by two understandings. The first is that vocation must be seen historically. Chopp cited theologian Paul Tillich to make the point that theology is the practice of reinterpreting ancient symbols for the current day. The second anchoring understanding is that the concept of vocation in the United States is unique; the American tradition of defining education as undertaken in community and for the public good means that vocation cannot be seen as solely individualistic.

Turning her attention to what she called the “mega- forces” shaping today’s world, Chopp identified technology, globalization, and the dissolution of community as transformational pressures. The changing nature of work is one way in which those forces can be seen. For example, Chopp cited studies that predict that 60 percent of all jobs that currently exist could be eliminated by 2030. More immediately, she noted that 47 percent of Millennials are already employed in the “gig economy.” How, Chopp asked, will higher education help students develop the abilities and qualities to create and lead in this emerging world in which work looks very different than it does today?

First, she argued, educators must engage students holistically, developing “heart” as intentionally as “brain” and “muscle.” Then educators must help students integrate this holistic sense of self into a sense of community that can provide the antidote to the loneliness and anxiety from which too many young people suffer, Chopp added. And finally, educators must redefine education itself as a “lifelong platform for learning and connection,” rather than as a discrete collegiate experience occupying a few youthful years.

Such a comprehensive community-based platform for learning and connection could develop in students the “ability to re-imagine who they are and who others are” and a greater capacity to reconcile self, society, and work, producing a capacious and flexible sense of vocation.

Themes established in this keynote address continued to resonate throughout the conference as participants responded to Chopp’s challenge to develop a new and forward-looking definition of vocation, to inform both their work with students and their personal sense of calling.

Two photos: 1. Robert M. Franklin, Jr. speaks from podium; 2. three presenters speak while seated at a head table
(Left) Robert M. Franklin, Jr. of Emory University delivered a powerful address on “The Vocation of Moral Leadership.” (Right) The session “Virtue, Vice, Vocation: Scholarship on Ethics and Calling” featured panelists David Matzko McCarthy of Mount St. Mary’s University (MD); Douglas V. Henry of Baylor University (TX); and Elizabeth Newman of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.

Vocation in Multi-Faith Environments

A plenary session on “Vocation in Multi-Faith Environments: Lifestance, Diversity, Difference” focused on some of the themes explored in the newest volume from the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (2019). Three of the contributors to the volume—Trina Jones, associate professor of religion and associate provost for curriculum and co-curriculum at Wofford College (SC); Rachel Mikva, Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies and senior faculty fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary; and Anant Rambachan, professor of religion, philosophy, and Asian studies at St. Olaf College (MN)—discussed how religious pluralism has intersected with their careers as scholars and teachers. Zeenat Rahman, director of the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute, moderated the panel discussion.

Rahman set the stage with some reflections about the pernicious effects of hyper-individualism. In our work with students, she suggested, we need to consider not just “where do I come from?” and “where am I going?” but also “who am I going with?” She then asked the panelists to share an anecdote about their own experience of a calling. Both Jones, a scholar of Buddhism and Hinduism, and Mikva, a rabbi and scholar of Jewish studies, described how 9/11 and the need to help students gain perspectives afterward came to inform their self- understandings as teachers of religion.

Rahman then asked the panelists to discuss something they discovered through the process of writing a chapter for the book, noting that early in the process the scholars had decided that the assignment would not focus on “how my tradition talks about vocation.” Rambachan, a Hindu and scholar of Asian religions, described how he struggles to find resources from within his own tradition that speak to the idea of vocation, but that he found himself discovering new insights into Hinduism through the voices of his colleagues. “That was a great gift to me,” he shared.

Next, Rahman asked the panelists, “How does the vocation of the institution shift given a diversity of faith traditions?” Mikva offered an insight from Jacqueline Bussie of Concordia College (MN), another contributor to the book, who said: “There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for this. We can’t just ‘add people who are different and stir.’” The challenge is to invite people in “and give them ownership, not as guests,” she continued. Rambachan added: “It can’t just be about numbers and percentages. It’s about changing our structures, a willingness to give up entrenched power, and it involves a radical cultural change in our institutions.”

The final question posed for the panelists was about the ways in which one might cultivate these practices. Rahman asked each panelist to provide a concrete example of how the process of wrestling with religious pluralism has played out in his or her work. Rambachan relayed that this project required him to become critical of his own tradition, which has historically framed vocation in terms of the caste system; one simply “does the work that your family did.” He continued, “Since all of the thinking assumes this hierarchical tradition, I was forced to wonder, is there anything to retrieve? What can be extricated? I had to do the needed historical work and then assume a normative voice, moving from ‘this is what it has been’ to ‘this is what it should be.’”

Thinking in terms of hospitality for interfaith work, Mikva noted, “I think the word [hospitality] is sometimes problematic. Does it mean ‘this is my house and you are coming into it’? How do you give the opportunity for true ownership, especially to under-resourced and underrepresented voices within your community?” She concluded by observing that our vocations are in need of others. We are called to learn “from each other, with each other—specifically and deliberately with someone else, from another tradition.”

Jones shared that she has changed the writing assignments she gives students, asking them to reflect on what resonates with them and why it matters. In terms of how we present our curricula, she concluded, taking religious pluralism seriously requires us to “work out our own internal mess.” Otherwise, our efforts at inclusion can result in practices that merely exclude a different set of “others.” Diversity means respecting all kinds of difference—not just the ones that we like.

Two photos: 1. Two participants share ideas while seated with a third standing participant; 2. six presenters speak while seated at a head table
(Left) Morehouse College (GA) team members Terry F. Walker, Maurice Washington, and Lawrence Edward Carter discussed ways to strengthen vocational exploration on campus. (Right) “Vocation across the Curriculum: Lessons from the NetVUE Faculty Seminar” featured panelists Lindsey Bosko-Dunbar of Spring Hill College (AL), Geoffrey W. Bateman of Regis University (CO), Robin Shura of Kent State University at Stark, and Esteban Loustaunau of Assumption College (MA), as well as conveners Paul J. Wadell of St. Norbert College (WI) and Darby K. Ray of Bates College.

Moral Leaders Who Serve the Common Good

In the closing plenary address, Robert Franklin, James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor of Moral Leadership at Emory University and president emeritus of Morehouse College (GA), called on conference participants to exercise moral leadership for the benefit of their students and the common good of the nation. For Franklin, such leadership is especially necessary now. He said that the world is experiencing a moral decline that is contagious and, if unchecked, could destroy not only our nation, but also our souls. He warned that, in time, “we will become numb to offenses…[and] we will learn to make peace with evil.”

Moral leaders can stop this decline by serving the common good and, more importantly, inspiring others to join them. To turn the tide, Franklin called on the audience to exhibit three virtues of moral leadership and instill them in their students: integrity, courage, and imagination. Integrity requires “centering down” to clarify one’s moral compass, a metaphor that Franklin borrows from Howard Thurman, the late dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Quoting from Thurman’s 1980 commencement address at Spelman College (GA), Franklin encouraged self-reflection, as “there is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine.” Courage requires “stepping forward,” even at the risk of standing alone. To highlight the value of this virtue under fire, Franklin quoted from C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, presenting courage as “the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Finally, imagination requires “dreaming up,” cultivating the ability to view the everyday things in life in a new light.

Advancing the common good involves both service and sacrifice. Franklin extolled the value of service experiences for developing students’ moral heroism, citing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in a 1968 sermon that “all can be great because all can serve.” Through service for others, students can grapple with uncomfortable situations, learn to stand with others against injustice, and ultimately reach the ideal of “supererogation,” giving and doing far more than what’s required. For this last element, Franklin reminded his audience that virtue requires sacrifice. Drawing on W. E. B. DuBois’s commencement address at Howard University in 1930 in which he presented the ideals of a well-educated person for a well-lived life, Franklin reminded listeners that to achieve the common good, “someone must sacrifice something of his own happiness.” However, “with the death of your happiness may easily come increased happiness and satisfaction and fulfillment for other people—strangers, unborn babes, uncreated worlds.”

In exhibiting these qualities, moral leaders can significantly affect those around them, as Franklin showed through a thought- experiment he uses with his students: If you were designing a version of Mount Rushmore with the four moral leaders who are most meaningful to you, who would be depicted? He noted that students often chose figures from their own lives, demonstrating the influence that such leaders can have on those in their communities. In closing, Franklin showed the far-reaching potential of this leadership in an age of moral decline, presenting a quotation attributed to Rabbi Hillel: “The world is equally balanced between good and evil; our next act will tip the scale.”

Concurrent Session Highlights

With 32 concurrent sessions and eight workshops, those who participated in the 2019 NetVUE Conference had a wide range of options from which to choose. A major theme during the concurrent sessions was the importance of collaboration across campus departments to support students’ vocational exploration. In a session on “Vocation as a Dialogue between Self-Understanding and the Common Good,” the presenters from Saint Mary’s College (IN) and Rivier University (NH) both mentioned collaboration as a key factor for expanding the reach of their vocational programs. For Bradford T. Stull of Rivier University, the goal of the advising program is to interact with every incoming student, whether live or online. Collaboration with the athletic and residential life departments ensures that advisors can work with students throughout the campus, as they design special advising sessions for sports teams and host sessions in convenient locations such as dorms and the dining hall. Anita M. Houck described how the program at St. Mary’s College has created opportunities for students to discuss vocation with their classmates both in and outside the classroom. Not only do several classes on religion address vocation through the lens of Catholic social teaching, but students in these classes also are required to attend a yearly Academic Symposium and have short discussions with every presenter to discover how each project links back to what they have learned.

In “Collaboration across Campuses: Getting Everyone Involved,” presenters from the University of La Verne (CA) and Waynesburg University (PA) shared their strategies for successful campus-wide collaborations on vocation. Both institutions bring together a range of important stakeholders for vocational initiatives, including not only senior leadership, faculty members, and staff but also alumni and trustees. To foster cooperation among these disparate groups and encourage cross-campus buy-in, the vocation programs at these universities deliberately define the language of their work in terms that already resonate on campus and align with institutional mission. Marie E. Leichliter-Krause of Waynesburg University suggested the creation of intentional intersections between vocational activities and the curriculum to create clear pathways for students. Kathleen Weaver, former director of the La Verne Experience (now serving at Loyola Marymount University [CA]), highlighted another rich source for collaboration—that among NetVUE institutions. She explained that La Verne’s It’s Your Path initiative, a set of activities that support each student’s journey to a purposeful life and career, was modeled on programs—such as Elizabethtown College’s (PA) Passport to a Purposeful Life and DePaul University’s (IL) Explore Your Purpose programs—that were showcased at previous NetVUE national conferences.

Several sessions also sparked thought-provoking discussions about narratives of vocation and their limitations. For example, in a well-attended session on “Vocational Discernment: A Discourse of Privilege?” Christine Jeske of Wheaton College (IL) highlighted the implicit privilege that can be found in some of the language of vocation. An anthropologist by training, Jeske mined some of the materials used by NetVUE programs for narratives about meaning and work, exploring the unintended messages that are conveyed. For instance, one narrative suggested that problems such as being under-employed or working in an oppressive environment can be made right by adjusting one’s attitude. She encouraged participants to be attentive to structural realities as well as personal ones. “Be an anthropologist at your institution,” Jeske suggested to the packed room. Start by asking “What are we saying? What is being assumed?”

About NetVUE

With more than 250 institutional members, NetVUE serves as a national network of colleges and universities that seek to support their undergraduate students in the work of vocational exploration and discernment in all its aspects—theological, ethical, affective, and practical. This CIC initiative is supported by Lilly Endowment Inc. and member dues. For more information, visit the NetVUE program site.

Map of NetVUE members