Q&A with the President

Father Sundborg indulges--or is it tolerates?--his annual interview withThe Commons

FatherSteveQandA2013_Main
Story by: Mike Thee
Published: 2013-06-04

President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., gamely fielded a variety of questions on Seattle University, his leadership style, the books he's read in the past year, the first Jesuit pope and more--he even revealed his favorite "app," how he plans to celebrate his 70th birthday and the very bold way in which a particular faculty member addresses him in e-mails. You'll want to read all the way to the end!

The Commons:  Well, let's get right into it. How would you complete this sentence: The 2012-2013 academic year at Seattle University was ______________?

Father Sundborg:  The 2012-2013 academic year at Seattle University was a bridge to a new era. When I think particularly of the new Core curriculum, the Strategic Plan, the design of the new campaign, putting in place the new Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability and the Institute of Catholic Thought and Culture, the new CFO in Connie Kanter and the new Vice President for Communications in Scott McClellan, our investment in technology a much bigger way than we ever had before and the leadership of Rick Fehrenbacher in online education--the year truly has been a bridge to a new era.

The Commons:  What, for you, were the biggest highlights of the year?

Fr. Sundborg:  For me, they were opening of the Seattle University Park, the women winning the Western Athletic Conference in basketball, the Youth Initiative and its further roll-out and development, and then the appointments of Annette Clark as the dean of the law school and Deanna Sands as dean of the College of Education.

The Commons:  Looking ahead to next year, what in your mind will be the key focal points for the university?

Fr. Sundborg:  It's the launch of the comprehensive campaign of this decade, the launch of the new Core curriculum and the significant expansion of development of online and hybrid courses. And though I don't want to go out on a limb, I predict a couple championships in NCAA sports.

The Commons:  You heard it here first! This year, you entered your fourth five-year term as president. How has your leadership style changed since you first took the reins back in 1997?

Fr. Sundborg:  I have a much more natural leadership style now. I'm more relaxed in it. It sort of just comes easily to me. I find that increasingly people are asking me to either mentor them, which probably means I'm over the hill, or they are treating me as an elder. One thing I find funny is that I get these online solicitations on how they'll train you to have "gravitas." I mean, this is so ironic because I've got gravitas in spades in terms of how my leadership has evolved. I might have so much gravitas--heaviness--that it's unmovable. But I'm amazed by how much (leadership has) become a natural thing for me. I'm still accumulating a large library of unread books on leadership. I did read one book on leadership this year, How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen.

Father Steve's reading list

Wondering what books our voraciously reading leader has completed in the past year? Well, thanks to the Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons—particularly Lynn Deeken—Father Steve's reading list is now available on library's website. CLICK HERE for the full list of books (all 42 of them!) and for links to the books Fr. Steve has read in previous years. Most titles are in stock at the library and ready for check-out should you wish to read like the president.

CONTEST:  How many of the books on Fr. Steve’s list from the past year have you read? Let us know, and the person with highest total wins a Commons baseball cap.

The Commons:  How about in your earlier days as president--did you find that you leaned more on books about leadership then?

Fr. Sundborg:  I have been unscathed by leadership books. I think what happened there was that when I was named to be president, I wrote to (my predecessor) Fr. (William) Sullivan and asked him to send me what he thought was the best book on leadership at a university, and when I read that I decided I needed to avoid leadership books. I am proud that I have been able to do so for the most part. I realized I had to do it my way or not do it at all.

The Commons:  The first Jesuit pope--what was your initial reaction?

Fr. Sundborg:  I was doing live television when the name was revealed, commenting on the white smoke and the gathering of the crowd and the lights turning on and the curtains being drawn and the person coming forward and saying the name "Bergoglio," and then thinking to myself, "You've gotta be kidding!" I so could not believe that they had chosen a Jesuit--there was only one Jesuit in the conclave of 115--and I didn't make any comment about it until there was a commercial break and I was able to double-check that he was, in fact, a Jesuit.

The Commons:  Recognizing that it's still very early, what have you thought of Francis' papacy so far?

Fr. Sundborg:  I've been very impressed with his focus on the poor, his pastoral sense and the simplification of the office of the papacy. I think it's easier for Seattle University to now make itself known as a Jesuit university because it's more widely understood what "Jesuit" means, and it also removes the somewhat humorous comment of "I didn't realize Jesuits were Catholic." If you have a Jesuit pope, I think we are (Catholic).

The Commons:  This next one's based on a question submitted by one of our readers, Kelly Kunsch, law librarian. If someone were to come to you and say they wanted to make a huge gift to put your name on a building, any building, what building would you choose?

Fr. Sundborg:  (Long pause) I don't know…I don't know. I'm rather proud of the fact that there's nothing at Seattle University that's named for me. I'm quite glad about that.

The Commons:  In the past you've talked about how, from time to time, some odd requests are thrown your way, such as doing something about the strong odor coming from some fertilizer that had been spread outside the Fine Arts Building to removing a bird that had flown into the Casey Building. Has anything along these lines been asked of you recently?

Fr. Sundborg:  This year some of our students taught me to do "the hawk," and then around that time some of the Jesuits were saying let's buy these red clerical shirts (for "Red Friday" at SU). So then I find myself down at the Library Plaza with four other Jesuits in these red shirts doing the hawk and, of course, a photo was taken. That was a little over the edge for me. I just can't seem to bury that picture.

The Commons:  If you could choose another job here at Seattle University for a day or a week, what would that be?

Fr. Sundborg:  I often say I'd love to be a gardener on campus, but only on the sunny days. Or I'd like to be (head men's basketball coach) Cameron Dollar or (head women's basketball coach) Joan Bonvicini for just one day. No practice. Just win one game and that's it.

The Commons:  Besides learning to do "the hawk," have you had any other humorous interactions with SU's students recently?

Fr. Sundborg:  There's one I like that happens fairly frequently. Because I wear the priest's black suit all the time, everyone recognizes me in that. In fact, I kid them that I've got a black pair of pajamas with a white tab collar just so I know who I am during the night. But I'll be walking across campus on a weekend and there'll be a couple of students coming along and they'll say, "Oh, Father Steve, I didn't recognize you…You look normal!" I always get a hoot out of that. And then every once in a while a student will ask me, "What do you do around here?" And so I'll say, "I'm the president of the university." And then they'll respond, "Yeah, we know, but what do you do around here?"

The Commons:  Getting back to your "official uniform" for a moment--do you have a set of clerical shirts and pants for each day of the week, or how does that all work?

Fr. Sundborg:  No, no, I've got four shirts and four sets of pants and three jackets, and I mix and match them daily. Do I go with black and black, or do I go with black and black? And then which black shoes and which black socks? People don't realize how much money and time they could save if they dressed like this every day.

The Commons:  How many friends are you up to on Facebook?

Fr. Sundborg:  Zero.

The Commons:  Well then how do you keep track of how many friends you have?

Fr. Sundborg:  It's curious you asked this because today's reading in scripture is from Ecclesiastes. It says, "A true friend is like a treasure," and so my view is a few friends is enough.

The Commons:  So you wouldn't be very impressed if someone were to say to you that they're now up to 1,000 friends on Facebook?

Fr. Sundborg:  Well then I'd say do you have a true friend?

The Common:  How would you grade the Seahawks' draft this year?

Fr. Sundborg:  Is that a new kind of beer? "Seahawks Draft?" I've not heard of it.

The Commons:  Last year when we talked, you were in the process of transitioning into a new pair of glasses and you had mentioned getting a new car around that time as well. Anything new to report this year in terms of new acquisitions?

Fr. Sundborg:  This year I branched into the iPad so I am now able to cheat the way most people do at the meetings I lead by reading my e-mails at meetings that others lead.

The Commons:  Any new apps on your phone that you're enjoying?

Fr. Sundborg:  What about Bon App--does that count as an app?- 'cause they've got my number in the sense that I can go to any reception and someone from (SU's food service provider) Bon Appétit will bring me a glass of chilled white wine. Now I'd say that's a good app--a bon app!

The Commons:  Speaking of which, when Father Reichmann leaves SU this summer, he will leave behind a huge void in the pun department. Do you think anyone is capable of picking up the slack?

Fr. Sundborg:  My comment on that would be never underestimate the ability of the Jesuits to continue to produce eccentrics. If people have not had a chance to get to know Father Bill O'Malley (Matteo Ricci College) and his humor and puns, they should--he's a worthy successor to Father Reichmann. Now he won't be walking around campus every afternoon at 4…

The Commons:  All right, let's get to the books. What were your favorites from the past year?

Fr. Sundborg:  The best book I read this year was Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Tim Egan, our Commencement speaker from last year. My other favorite book was a theological book by Gerhard Lohfink titled Jesus of Nazareth:  What He Wanted, Who He Was-just a superb book. I'm a little concerned. I look at my whole list and I think there's only one novel. There's a lot of poetry--I'm kind of tripling my poetry capacity--and I'm reading a lot of serious books, but I've sort of moved away from novels, and I don't know why. (Click here for the full list of books Father Steve read in the past year.)

The Commons:  How do you choose what books you're going to read?

Fr. Sundborg:  The thing that people should be aware of is that Jesuits dedicate a lot of time to reading book reviews and talking knowledgably about books they have not read but about which they have only read the reviews. So I read a lot of reviews--I read the New York Times Book Review every week as well as reviews in America and Commonweal.

The Commons:  Do you get a lot of book recommendations from colleagues or other Jesuits?

Fr. Sundborg:  I do. That's one of the very best things about being a Jesuit--the conversations we have about books. (Rector) Pat Howell and I will often be exchanging ideas or books we read, and that's true with several others. I'm given a lot of books--at least two a week.

The Commons:  What are your plans for the summer?

Fr. Sundborg:  I am going to have some time off this summer. I'm going to England for the sake of being renewed for the launching into the capital campaign. I'm particularly looking forward to spending some time in London and making my retreat at the famous Saint Beuno's in Wales where (Jesuit) Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote his poetry. I am turning 70 this summer, and I've schemed to celebrate my birthday while at a Carmelite monastery in a remote part of England where no one can get at me.

The Commons:  Boy, you really know how to party! So no trip to Lake Winnipesaukee to spend time with your sister and her extended family this year?

Fr. Sundborg:  No, not this year.

The Commons:  So much for the seven follow-up questions I had on Lake Winnipesaukee alone.

Fr. Sundborg:  I am worried about this because last year at Winnipesaukee, there were 11 people in the main house and there was one in the cabin, Father President Steve Sundborg. I thought that was just the right proportion. I'm worried that this year without President Steve Sundborg at Lake Winnipesaukee they're going to discover that the cabin would be great for a family of five and that I'm not going to have those accommodations in future years. So it's dangerous not to hold onto my property rights at Lake Winnipesaukee.

The Commons:  Maybe you could invoke SU's faculty-to-student ratio as grounds for maintaining sole rights to the cabin.

Fr. Sundborg:  I hadn't thought of that. Yeah, that's perfect. I'll tell them that-that I'm used to something around an 11:1 ratio. But I do hope they'll carry on and have a good time without me this year. I hope the loons will continue to do their calls and the morning mist will be out in full force. I hope someone will have the courage to walk five miles with my sister before breakfast because she badly needs someone to talk to every morning for a couple of hours. There's just some duties that need to be kept up!

The Commons:  This one's a little out there, but we've been doing these interviews for seven years now and we need to get creative with some of the questions. OK, here goes…As we know, the provost has two consecutive "a's" in his first name. Have you ever thought of doubling up on the "e's" in your first name--as in "S-t-e-e-v-e?"

Fr. Sundborg: Ha, no. But I can tell you this…There is one faculty member who sticks an "i" in there between the "v" and the "e"--with courage--whenever they e-mail me. This should not be encouraged! My grade-school nuns and mother have copyrighted that.

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Very fun. Thanks for the reading list. I love: matching black with black; the Seahawks draft; and hiding out for his birthday. My "little" brother just turned 70 - he and his wife went on a cruise!
(6/20/2013 3:22:16 PM, Sue Hogan )