By PJ Williams
Aug. 24, 2023 – In the summer of 2022, Fr. Joseph Marina, SJ, President of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, and Dr. Michelle Maldonado, Provost of the University, attended a conference that the International Association of Jesuit Universities held at Boston College.
One presentation focused on the ecological initiatives that Jesuit schools were taking to care for creation, including working toward becoming a Laudato Si’ University. After that session, Dr. Maldonado and Fr. Marina both came to the same realization: the University of Scranton was primed to become the next Laudato Si’ University.
Named after Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, a Laudato Si’ University commits to a seven-year process of meeting seven goals. These goals are: Respond to the Cry of the Earth, Respond to the Cry of the Poor, Foster Ecological Economics, Adopt a Sustainable Lifestyle, Offer Ecological Education, Develop Ecological Spirituality, and Support Local Communities.
While becoming a Laudato Si’ University is not exclusive to Jesuit or even Catholic institutions, a number of Jesuit colleges and universities in the USA East Province have committed to this journey. Canisius University in Buffalo, Fairfield University in Connecticut, Fordham University in New York City, Le Moyne College in Syracuse, Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, and St. Peter’s University in Jersey City are all in the process of becoming Laudato Si’ universities.
When Fr. Marina and Dr. Maldonado returned to Scranton, they started work on becoming a Laudato Si’ University by sharing what they learned with the president’s cabinet. “As it happened, three other cabinet members had also placed environmental justice and sustainability as one of their priorities for the year,” said Dr. Madonado.
With the cabinet members on board, the Laudato Si’ Committee was created with Dr. Madonado and Dr. Dan Cosacchi, Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Scranton, as co-chairs. The Laudato Si’ Committee has seven subcommittees, one for each of the seven goals. The people who comprise the subcommittees are a mixture of faculty, staff, administrators, and students. “If we’re talking about ecological spirituality, we’ll have one of our campus ministers on the subcommittee, somebody whose job fits in nicely with the subcommittee itself and in a way has already been working toward that goal,” said Dr. Cosacchi.
Beyond the seven goals that an institution needs to meet in seven years, there is no one path to becoming a Laudato Si’ University. No two institutions are the same and often vary in terms of size, demographics, location, endowment, etc. “We looked at what other Jesuit sister schools had done in the past in their efforts, and it was clear that many of them conducted town halls to get the community involved,” explained Dr. Cosacchi.
Scranton held two well-attended town halls where the whole school community was given an opportunity to voice what they would like to see Scranton do in this process. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “It’s not just the students who are behind this; it’s the community at large, including the faculty and staff,” said Fr. Marina. “Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton has applauded our efforts as well.”
So what are some of the changes that Scranton is looking to make? On an academic level, the administration is investigating how Laudato Si’ can be brought into the classrooms at Scranton. “We have an environmental studies concentration that we’ve had for many years; this year the faculty chose to rename it to environmental studies and sustainability,” said Dr. Maldonado. “And something we’ll be looking at in the next academic year is ‘Can we grow that to a minor? Can we grow that to a major?’”
Scranton is also looking into the ways that waste and resources are used on campus. “One of the things we’re proposing is to have more water fountains that can be used to refill water bottles, and we’re also going to propose that we should give every student a refillable water bottle in their first year,” said Dr. Maldonado. Though disposable plastic water bottles may not seem like such a waste, they can add up quickly. Even though they can be recycled, that process can still be wasteful and is much less efficient than using a reusable bottle. “Reduce is the highest priority; we want to focus not just on the recycling but the reducing and the reusing,” continued Dr. Maldonado.
While seven years is not that much time for universities, it is a lot of time for the students at Scranton. Those students helping with the initial planning of Scranton becoming a Laudato Si’ University will be alumni in their late 20s when their alma mater has finished this seven-year journey.
Rising senior Karla Schaffer, the incoming Student Government President at The University of Scranton, hopes that during her final year she can contribute to larger environmental improvements at the university. “Although these kinds of changes can’t happen overnight, I think that changes that happen behind the scenes are the most important ones,” said Schaffer. “Specifically, looking at where our money is invested and the types of organizations that are funding us.”
Karla is also a member of the Cry of the Poor working group. The city of Scranton was originally a coal mining town. While it has been decades since coal was actively mined, the environmental effects still linger, especially for poor and marginalized people in the area. “I believe that by addressing the issues facing marginalized communities, we’ll also be addressing issues that are most pressing to our planet,” she said.
While current students at Scranton are still at the very beginning of this process, future students will take advantage of work being done at Scranton. And, for some, it will be an incentive to come to Scranton. “Something mentioned at one of our town halls was that being a Laudato Si’ University will be a great attraction to prospective students, because all the survey material says that people 18–25 are really onboard with care for our common home,” said Dr. Cosacchi. “So we’re hoping this is going to be a real selling point, in addition to all the other amazing things the university does.”
Beyond being an incentive for future students, Dr. Cosacchi believes that this distinction has an even greater significance that ties into the school’s very identity. “Sometimes people will cynically say, ‘Is such and such a university really Catholic?’ and part of my job as the VP for Mission and Ministry is to show that we are Catholic,” he explained. “Pope Francis has written so eloquently about the care for our common home with Laudato Si’, and by us living out that Care for Creations, we are not only more in line with the Pope’s vision for the Church, but also strengthening our identity as a Catholic institution.”