Lawton’s LMU Vision: City, Church, University

In the early 1900s, the Jesuits discussed quite seriously how they could expand their presence into Southern California. They already were firmly established in the Bay Area with a university they founded in the city of Santa Clara in 1851 and another, established just four years later, in California’s most important urban center of the time, San Francisco. When I think about it, that both institutions had passed the half-century mark before LMU’s first iteration was even established is remarkable.

But by the turn of the century, Los Angeles had entered its period of explosive growth. The city’s population in 1890 was some 50,000; in 1900, about 100,000; by 1910, 300,000. After 1910, the city’s expansion seems even more remarkable to us today by shifting the measuring standard: By 1915, there were 55,000 cars here; in 1920, 80 percent of the world’s films were being made here. It’s no wonder that the Jesuits saw a future in Southern California that needed not so much to be seized as served. Los Angeles was happening, and I mean that literally.

A week ago, on Jan. 24, 2019, LMU welcomed back to campus Robert B. Lawton, S.J., the university’s 14th president and a priest and teacher who walked in footsteps laid down a century before. He was given an honorary doctorate of humane letters in recognition of his legacy at LMU.

Lawton seemed always to have a clear vision of L.A. during the decade of his presidency. I've often thought that particularly intriguing because not only was he not born here, he entered the world in Cumberland, Maryland, whose population at the time, in 1947, was nearing 40,000 — L.A. was 10,000 humans bigger a century before. I came to LMU in 2006, just after the university had announced its “Right Place. Right Time.” fundraising campaign, the most ambitious in its history. Lawton’s ability to articulate this university’s purpose in this city and in this era was the keystone of that successful effort.

During the degree ceremony, some road-markers were pointed out to illustrate Lawton’s impact on this place. When Lawton arrived, there was no University Hall, no Leavey 4, 5 and 6, and no Del Rey North and South. Turning the lens around, during Lawton’s tenure LMU gained the School of Film and Television, the Bioethics Center, a doctoral program (LMU’s first) in the School of Education, the Center for Ignatian Spirituality, the Huffington Ecumenical Institute, the LMU Children’s Center, nearly 100 tenured and tenure-track professors, and a range of centers, institutes and programs at the Loyola Law School. More could be included, but crowning Lawton’s presidency, surely, is the William H. Hannon Library, a spectacular building overlooking Los Angeles. As Lawton’s tenure neared an end, Lawton Plaza was dedicated in his honor.

The relationship between city and church, Lawton pointed out — "at times explosive, sometimes distanced, occasionally warm, rarely easy” — is charged.

Reflecting on Lawton’s résumé during the ceremony, President Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., said that Lawton’s “bold ambitions and visionary leadership revolutionized our institution.”

In his remarks, Lawton reflected briefly on the changes that altered the LMU landscape under his leadership. Calling himself a dreamer, he suggested his goals when he arrived at LMU were aspirations. To others he deferred the credit for making them concrete. “I have not been making them a reality. You have.”

Then Lawton turned toward the subject that, in my opinion, defined his presidency: the city, the church and the university. The relationships that join them, in fact, had been the subject of his inaugural address in 1999, and he incorporated a portion of the speech in his comments.

Los Angeles, like Renaissance Florence, Lawton suggested, “fashions the images that shape the world and define our times. Modern Los Angeles is, to be sure, the school for studying life.” The church, he said, should learn to listen to God’s speaking in the city’s words and ways.

Yet, he went on, not all of the city’s lessons are good ones.

“In a city that flaunts wealth, the church reaches out to the poor. In a city that caresses the present the church speaks of eternity. In a city that worships youth, the church invites us to ponder death and the Lord of life and death.”

The relationship between city and church, Lawton pointed out — "at times explosive, sometimes distanced, occasionally warm, rarely easy” — is charged. And amid a struggle to shape lives are universities. “As they struggle to increase knowledge, cherish wisdom, educate the young, [universities] bring to bear both the experience of the city and the traditions of the church. …

“Loyola Marymount University is not here simply to play, to bask in its growing reputation, to enjoy without responsibility the academic advantages of the place. The university is committed to educating young people to be contemplatives in action, reflective practitioners, practical dreamers. We want to stretch their imaginations, helping them to look at themselves and the world in new ways, encouraging them to think beyond their likely careers and the society’s status quo, to dream large about the possibilities for their own lives and for the world around them. … Put another way, we want to harness the richness of both the city and the church to help our students, in all their uniqueness and diversity, to become fully alive.”

Lawton’s words were drawn from a modern lexicon, to be sure. But I thought the purpose expressed in them could’ve been as easily described more than a century ago by a small group of Jesuits charged with the founding of a new university whose future could only be imagined and in a city the future of which was simultaneously being both imagined and built.

Perhaps capsulizing the grand vision presented at the degree ceremony was the announcement of a new scholarship: the Robert B. Lawton, S.J. Endowed Scholarship, established to support underrepresented students regardless of their religious identification who demonstrate financial need and come to LMU from local high schools. Such a scholarship strikes me as a measure that could’ve been part of a prospectus developed by the Jesuits just over 100 years ago as they sketched out their next California university: offer a religious education in the Jesuit tradition, meet their students as and where those students are, and serve the local community.