September 17, 2020


DePaul Kicks Off Unique Academic Year Rooted in its Mission

While nearly every aspect of our lives was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, one area strongly remains the same DePaul – the university’s commitment to its Catholic, Vincentian and urban mission. To kick off the unique 2020-2021 academic year, DePaul Download sits down with DePaul University’s President Dr. A. Gabriel Esteban. He explains how the community’s commitment to the university’s mission is stronger than ever, even during these unprecedented times, shares remote-learning success stories and challenges the community to apply the mission to their personal lives.



​LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, Vice President of University Marketing and Communications.

Nearly every aspect of our lives has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, from the ways we learn and work, to how we socialize and connect with one another. One area that remains the same is DePaul's commitment to its Catholic, Vincentian and urban mission. To kick off the unique 2020-2021 academic year, DePaul Download sits down with DePaul University's President, Dr. Gabriel Esteban. He will share his thoughts on how the community's commitment to the university's mission is stronger than ever, even during these unprecedented times.

Thank you, Dr. Esteban, for joining me today. And welcome back for another academic year.

DR. ESTEBAN: Thank you, Linda. Glad to be here.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I want to start by asking you how did DePaul keep its mission in mind when making its decisions about how to handle fall quarter?

DR. ESTEBAN: It started with the planning principles which were developed early on, even as we were shutting down initially. I'd like to point out four things on the different planning principles which we had. The first was we decided that we were going to promote the health and safety of the university community and also the communities where we study, work and live, which basically boils down to Take Care of DePaul, Together.

The second thing we did was another planning principle was that we wanted to ensure our diverse community of learners that they had access to our nationally ranked programs and also the support services that would enable them to strive in this COVID environment.

The third thing we thought of was we wanted to support and maximize student, academic and personal success, so making sure that we had that in place was also important. And probably one of the things which people don't think about at the moment was we wanted to find ways to strengthen our university, not just now, but for the future by making decisions that allow us to live our mission, not just today, tomorrow but 30, even 125 years from today.

LINDA BLAKLEY: One major part of DePaul's mission is respecting the dignity of each person. How have you seen the community respect others during this challenging time, especially while a pandemic, urban violence and a national struggle against systemic racism are weighing on people?

DR. ESTEBAN: I'll give you three examples. The first one, in our message to the faculty, Provost Salma Ghanem indicated that Academic Affairs and the Faculty Council were working on options to bring some relief to our students, all students during the final exam period for the spring quarter classes. In her email, she noted that nothing can elevate the pain so many of us have been dealing with in the past few days due to the recent horrific events added to the stress and anguish resulting from COVID-19. However, I hope that the following Faculty Council resolution passed on the evening of June 3rd will provide some relief to our students as they approach their final exams. Working with Academic Affairs, faculty leadership, we were able to provide options to our students in recognition of all the things they had been going through over the past few months now. Layered on top of COVID was the murder of George Floyd. This allowed them to have flexibility in the grading options working in conjunction with their faculty member.

A second example of how I've seen it play out was how we approached reopening and bringing additional employees to campus for the fall. As early as June 2020, we set out a survey to engage our faculty and staff so that their perspectives could inform our planning efforts. Within a week, close to 2,500 faculty and staff responded to the survey. This represents about 57 percent of all full-time, part-time faculty and staff. They were from both Lincoln Park and the Loop campuses. They shared with us their concerns about the prospect of returning to campus in the fall. They also shared feedback on the potential safety protocols they would like the university to consider, to prevent the transmission of the virus on campus. The information provided by the survey results helped us to determine what could be done to make faculty and staff who need to return to on-campus activities just feel more comfortable, so we implemented just about all the recommendations which came out of that.

The third thing we did was in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing social unrest because of it. We listened to understand the impact of racism and renewed our commitment to fight racism as it exists on our campus. We're well aware that racism and racial discrimination persists, and it continues to result in violations of human rights, suffering, disadvantage, violence.

We as an institution wanted to commit to combat racism by all available and appropriate means. What does that mean? We set out a letter of solidarity on our commitments to end racism on campus. I will just give you a list of some of the things we committed to.

First and foremost, we committed to working with our students, staff and faculty to address structural racism within our university. We expect to have a bigger discussion on campus this fall into the winter and into the spring to look at things we have in place which may perpetuate structural racism at the campus.

We also created a scholarship program and the goal is we want to remember all Black lives who have been taken by acts of violence. We named it the Emmett Till Scholarship. It's going to be awarded to students with majors and minors in applied diplomacy and African and Black diaspora studies. We already have individuals commit to funding these scholarships.

We have encouraged colleges and divisions to host anti-racist conversations and commit to joining these conversations.

We also asked them to enhance colleges who were initially in the regular building to understand and provide empathy for peoples impacted by racism. This is already ongoing as we speak. A number of colleges and schools have already taken first steps towards doing this.

We are providing anti-racism training for our community. We are collaborating with local organizations to support their way of creating an equitable environment.

One of the things that made clear with COVID was the health inequities present in our society. The recent announcement of our partnership with Sinai Health System is a step in helping address those inequities.

We expect to enhance and strengthen our existing diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. We have a number of them in place. We're looking at ways we can enhance and expand. We're going to audit our own processes and procedures, or practices of exclusion and structural racism. This applies to everything.

I had a meeting just recently and it had to do with some policy reviews we are looking at. I said let's make sure we have this lens in which we look at it. Does this procedure or policy that propagates indirectly or unknowingly exclusion? That's something we are going to be very interested in looking at.

We're going to collaborate with the Inside Out Exchange Program faculty to enhance educational opportunities to the incarcerated, which we know is disproportionately African American.

And finally, we're going to prioritize justice and systemic change through a Vincentian lens as we review, potentially revise our mission statement this current academic year. We will do all of this with our Vincentian values to guide us, and we ask that people respect God-given dignity of every person.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It's encouraging to hear that even though we are apart, we're doing so much together to address these concerns. In this unique environment, what is DePaul doing to create an inclusive and engaging experience for students, especially those who are living and learning remotely? Do you have any examples of mission-driven opportunities that have already been offered to our students?

DR. ESTEBAN: Vincentian Service Day, which is an annual tradition, started in 1998-1999 school year as part of our centennial celebration. We had a virtual Vincentian Service Day. Obviously, the first time it happened.

We invited the DePaul community to participate remotely following the guidelines of social distancing. We had about 800 registered students, faculty, staff and alumni who partook in the celebration. We offered three different types of service opportunities.

One is correspondence, one is donation and the other is skill sharing. I'd have to say I really enjoyed the correspondence over at the Home for the Elderly run by the Little Sisters of Poor because we knew some of them, and we thought as we were writing the letters, we could picture some of them in our minds. That was really, really neat. We had as close to as many as we typically would have if we were in person.

LINDA BLAKLEY: We're several years into our strategic plan grounded in mission. At the same time, as you mentioned earlier, DePaul is starting a review of its mission statement. What's the goal of this review?

DR. ESTEBAN: Father Memo describes the timing of all of this very well. I'll start with him and then I'll paraphrase and introduce some of my own thoughts. He starts by saying that a new and possible vision of DePaul University's mission statement is happening at the unprecedented time that combines many different aspects related to the Vincentian mission. He points out the pandemic.

Through the pandemic, what's happened is that we realize that our social fabric is broken. Our healthcare system, those who have been impacted the most by the COVID pandemic are the least among us. It's those who have been traditionally marginalized. It's individuals of color. And we see that playing out throughout the world. It's in the developing countries. The ones who could least afford to get ill, they're the ones who are getting ill.

Our labor system, as Father Memo points out, has been exposed in terms of the fragility of the lives of our workers, the lack of rights, protection or even insurance.

What's sad is that political systems throughout the world, they've been exposed. It seems that political expediency, individual good, personal gain, they instead of what the common good is. I think that's sad, in a way, because the U.S., this country has always been known as trying to serve the common good, as with a lot of countries around the world.

With the recent killing of George Floyd and the global unrest that followed, we realize that there is a large segment of society who is tired of racism, exclusion and discrimination. In the wake of all of this is a cry for systemic change and transformation. As Vincentians, we want to be part of this call to action. As Father Memo points out, this movement.

Our mission should never really be separated from the world outside our campus. We should be part. That's one of the things we're proud about. We're part of the fabric of Chicago. We can't say, yeah, our mission is campus focused. We have to be part of the bigger society. That's what we hope to be able to do. We hope to carry out our mission by providing access to higher education, enabling our graduates to build what Dr. Martin Luther King referred to as a beloved community where all are respected and protected for who they are.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What would you say to community members who are looking for ways to personally live the mission during the pandemic?

DR. ESTEBAN: I think the easiest and most straightforward thing you can do, for example, with the pandemic is just wear a mask and social distancing.

Follow all the guidelines. We live in a community. None of us live on islands by themselves. We interact with individuals. You might go to a supermarket. You might decide you want to walk your dog, jog, and so on. Wear your mask. Be conscious about doing it. It's not about protecting yourself. It's protecting others in case you're asymptomatic. That's why you have all these guidelines.

That's a very simple way of living out our mission, about taking care of our community, not just the DePaul community, but the communities where we live. I know we're remote right now, but that doesn't mean that I can party because I live in this part of the country where COVID rates, our positivity rates are less than 1 percent. No, you want to keep it less than 1 percent. You want to get that to zero. You want to take care of the people around you. That's one thing.

Think of an act of kindness you can do. Even if it's just once a week.

What's an act of kindness?

Writing a letter. Reaching out to someone. Reaching out to a neighbor who may need help doing something.

One of the neat things where I live, the apartments where I live, is someone early on sent a note to everyone in the apartment saying if you need someone to go to the supermarket for you, let me know and I'll pick up items for you. Very simple.

At St. Vincent DePaul Church, they're looking, for example, for someone to pick up groceries from the supermarket on Sunday. That's one way you can live out their mission. There are a lot of different ways. Some of those, we have done already. We look forward to finding new ways to live out our missions.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I'd like to close with giving you an opportunity to assign some homework. If you could give the DePaul community one mission-based assignment for the fall quarter, what would that be?

DR. ESTEBAN: Linda, I would ask the DePaul community to commit to doing one act of charity or kindness a week for the entire quarter, ten weeks.

If you think of the number of students we have at 22,000, and if you think of the number of faculty and staff we have, which is just over 4,000, and if half of them commit one act of kindness a week or charity, that means you have about 13,000 acts of kindness or charity committed every single week. I think that would make a difference in the lives of countless numbers of other individuals.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Dr. Esteban, for speaking with me today. While this academic year will be unique and ever evolving, it's reassuring to know that the DePaul community can depend on DePaul's Vincentian values and mission to serve as a strong foundational beacon. I will get working on the mission-based homework you assigned for the quarter.

I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to this episode of DePaul Download presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.​