Presidential Perspective

Father Sundborg reflects on the soon-to-be-concluded academic year, and more…much more

FatherSteveQA2014_Main_2
Story by: Mike Thee
Published: 2014-06-03

It was quite a year for our president. He led the university through and into a number of key transitions, watched fireworks from the world's tallest human-made structure and continued his typically voracious regimen of reading. He even saved a life. Here are excerpts from a recent interview with President Stephen Sundborg, S.J.   

The Commons: What are a couple of highlights from this year that stand out for you, personally and for SU? 

President Sundborg: Two highlights. One was going to Dubai to be with our alum from 1982, Mohammed Alabbar, at his invitation to witness the fireworks from the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world, which Emaar, Alabbar's company constructed) on New Year's Eve. That was a big highlight. The second highlight was seeking and getting a commitment to a $30 million gift to Seattle U for the new campaign―$20 million for the Center for Science and Innovation and $10 million as matching money for endowment for scholarships. That's three times the largest gift we've ever had, and that was a highlight for me. 

(As far as highlights for the university), I think the biggest thing was the implementation of the Core curriculum. When you get 300, 400 courses that are designed, vetted, with outcomes developed, approved and then launched for a new Core curriculum in a Jesuit university, that's a big, big, big thing. 

The Commons: How about the upcoming year-what's coming down the pike? 

President Sundborg: The biggest thing that's emerging will be the development of the new School for New and Continuing Studies. There's not been a new school at Seattle University since July 1, 1997 when the School of Theology and Ministry was formally inaugurated so that's 17 years, and with the new school we will now have nine colleges and schools. And this is one that's an adult bachelor's degree completion program school and continuing education school with very significant use of hybrid and online education. So, moving into that and developing that and putting together the structures for that so that it's fully launched by the fall of 2015 will be a big thing. 

The other thing that's big is, as you may know, we've moved Career Services over to the academic side of the house. This is part of our move to an integrated center for career and academic advising, which will much, much more effectively put students on the pathway toward careers and jobs. So we're really taking that on and that will develop in the next year. 

The Commons: Going back to the School for New and Continuing Studies, how do the principles of Jesuit higher education come into play in a hybrid or online format? 

President Sundborg: It's very important that we retain the fact that Jesuit education is always high-touch education so it depends for its success on a significant encounter, engagement, relationship with professors and with other students. Our niche in education is that relationship between the professor with the intellectual passion and then the student and the questioning, so how we work that out in the hybrid and online is a very, very important dimension for us to work out together. 

And then it's important to work out what dimensions of the Core curriculum, what dimensions of value education, what dimensions of reflection and analysis, what questions around how do you use your education are embedded in these courses and this school. That's all very doable. There's been a thing called JesuitNet that lots of universities have been involved in and they've tested out whether you can deliver a Jesuit education in an online kind of a manner, and the outcomes show that you can. We just have to be very conscientious and intentional about how we do it. We're taking a prudent approach on this. We've not rushed into this. It would be a mistake not to move into this area; it would be a mistake to move into it too quickly and without lots of consideration. 

The Commons: As we embark on the new campaign and move in a number of key strategic directions, how do you see Seattle University positioning itself in the years ahead? 

President Sundborg: The phrase that keeps coming out is, "Seattle University is Seattle's  university." There's no other university that has set itself to be engaged in the city of Seattle the way in which we have. The University of Washington is more of a national research university-and at least a statewide kind of a university. There's a different way in which Seattle University is engaged with Seattle. We are very thick on the ground in what makes Seattle work and that's a big, big impact. 

The Commons: We're seeing more and more lay people assuming the position of president at Jesuit institutions. When you get together with the presidents of other Jesuit schools, what's the dynamic like? Do the lay presidents tend to be sort of deferential to their Jesuit counterparts? 

President Sundborg: As one of the longest holdouts as a Jesuit as a president, I wish there were more deference (laughs). I'm now theFatherSteveMassofHolySpirit2013 second-longest serving president of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities. Only the president of Boston College (William Leahy, S.J.) has been in a year longer than I have. In this last year, there were four new presidents of Jesuit universities chosen and three of the four were not Jesuits, but lay people. So gradually the landscape is changing, and I find that the lay presidents come in as very committed persons, as very professional persons, and they're really full colleagues with the Jesuits who are presidents. 

In some ways there's a bit of a different expectation (between Jesuit and lay presidents). I sometimes think that boards of trustees think, "Well, Father knows better." I think for the lay presidents, there's more demanded of them in terms of their management, their financial acumen, than there might be of the Jesuits. 

The Commons: How is Seattle University viewed by presidents from the other Jesuit institutions? 

President Sundborg: I remember around the time I started as president, Tom Brokaw said that in this country Seattle is seen as the city of the 21st century, and people look to Seattle as being the city that is the pioneer of the future. I think there's still something strongly about that-that Seattle is seen as out front of things culturally, and I believe other parts of the country feel that about Seattle, and thus, Seattle U. We're not as much a Catholic region as other regions are, so (other Jesuit presidents and schools) don't think of Seattle U as a leader in Catholic higher education, but I think they see Seattle University as being more experimental and entrepreneurial in its education. That we're more likely to try things out than other hidebound universities in other states. It's a great place to be, I'll tell you! 

The Commons: If the Father Steve of 2014 could give one piece of advice to the Father Steve of 1997 as he was just starting out as president, what would that advice be? 

President Sundborg: It's the people, dummy. When you start, you think it's the institution and you think it's the programs and you think it's the finances and processes and the structures, and the more you get going and the more you develop as a president, you realize it's all about people. And so the advice I would give is, slow down, you'll figure out the structures and the processes and the organizational administrative kinds of things over time; be present to people, relate with people, listen to people. It's all about the people and those relationships. Almost every (new) president is too focused on the university as a structure, rather than the university as a community of persons. 

So that would be the main advice, and then as early as possible, try to be president in your own way, rather than in the way that others want you to. A thousand different people are telling you what they expect you to be as president, but find your own way to do it, because that's something you can put energy into and that also provides longevity. 

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