The President's Vision

Father Sundborg reflects on Jesuit education, shares his reading list and more

Story by: Mike Thee
Published: 2012-06-06

In the last edition of The Commons, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., reflected on the highlights of the 2011-2012 academic year, spoke about his interactions with the students of SU and shared that he will be getting a new pair of glasses (following his recent trip to Eyes on Fremont). In this, the second installment of the two-part interview, the president talks about his role as chair of the board of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, shares his reading list from the past year, and much, much more.

The Commons:   In your "spare time," I know that another one of your responsibilities is to serve as chair of the board of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU). What's going on with that-what sorts of initiatives and issues is the board taking up these days?

Father Steve:  I've had a full year now of being the chair, and that's a major undertaking, but I'm up to the job. It's a most interesting challenge to get 28 presidents who are used to being completely in charge in their own places-and all have great pride in what they're doing-to collaborate strongly with one another. The place where it works best is in what we call the "conferences" of AJCU (such as the conferences of deans of colleges, the conference of vice presidents for enrollment, conference of campus ministers, the conference of facilities directors, etc.). There's 34 of those conferences, and they are really stellar in terms of how they work with one another, what they learn from one another, what are the best practices. But it's a little more difficult bringing that collaboration into being on the board of the 28 presidents.

One of the biggest issues for the presidents is how do we develop and foster a technologically mediated international Jesuit network because we see that would be to the benefit of Jesuit universities and their students. We've also faced an issue but haven't decided whether it's valuable to put out a national branding campaign for Jesuit education. Many universities are more interested in branding their own institutions, though, so we haven't yet developed a collaboration around that. But this is just the first of a four year term for me. It's a very challenging thing to do; it takes me into some very interesting issues.

I'm also on the board of the Association of Catholic Colleges (which includes 225 institutions), and the interplay there is the relationships between universities and the Catholic Church. And that's a big issue, as you know, here at Seattle University-that creative tension between being a university and being Catholic. You can't resolve it by just saying we're just going to be a university, or we're just going to be Catholic. We have to be a university that is Catholic. So there's issues that are aggravated in a presidential election like the one we're in the midst of now around multiple things, whether it's same-sex marriages or the healthcare mandate that relates to contraception or religious liberties or stem-cell research. All are live issues and some of the most difficult things for the president of a Catholic university to confront.

The Commons:  Someone was telling me about a speech you gave recently in which you talked about how your dad only became Catholic later in life and that he wasn't Catholic when you decided to enter the priesthood. What was his reaction when you told him you wanted to become a Jesuit?

Father Steve:  I was going on 18 when I decided to be a Jesuit. I blurted it out to my mom, and she was delighted because she was a Catholic and went to Mass every day, very devout. She wanted one of her boys to be a priest and I was the youngest of the three and this was her last chance, so it was great for her.

I was very, very close to my dad and he was not of any religion. I tried to convert him when I was a boy, and he would listen to me patiently but he said he just couldn't believe. So when I told him (I wanted to become a Jesuit), he said, "Well, whatever you want to do with your life, I'm fine with that." And there were kind of two sides of that that I picked up. One was that he genuinely meant that, but the other thing that I picked up was he was thinking, "You're very young and you'll find this is not your way but there's no harm in you trying this." So, when he'd visit me at the novitiate (in Sheridan, Ore.), each time he'd ask me, "Are you gonna stay?" And then seven years after I entered the Jesuits, I was able to go home (then Washington, D.C.) for the first time, and I was home for about two days when my dad turned to my mom during a meal and said, "You know, mom-he used to call her mom-isn't it something? Steve is still himself!" Now, that was a very, very high compliment because I think what my father thought was that the seminary and the Jesuits would take and convert me and turn me into something other than what I really was. So he was kind of putting together that I could be who I really was and be a Jesuit.

The thing I thought you might be asking was how he became a Catholic.

The Commons:  Let's hear it.

Father Steve:  He was converted in the dead of the night, literally, up in Fairbanks, Alaska, after the pope had visited there. Someone had asked him why don't you become a Catholic, and he said, "I'm ready to become a Catholic; nobody's ever asked me." And so he was with a bishop, and they walked him across to the church and they brought him into the Catholic Church at about 10:30 at night. And he was in! And then he got back to his home parish in Seattle and his next door neighbor asked him, "George, would you be willing to be the chair of the social affairs committee?" and my dad said, "Sure I'd be glad to do that." So he was elected chair, and only then did he understand that social affairs did not mean running parties and holding social events-that it meant social justice.

The Commons:  How often do you go to confession?

Father Steve:  I go to confession every day to everyone (laughs). Everybody is asking the president of the university to go to confession about what you did with the budget or rank and tenure or what you really think about the core curriculum or what have you. So I probably go to confession about as many times as I get e-mails-about 150 times a day.

The Commons:  All right. Let's get down to books. I've got the list here of all the books you've read since last May. Which ones stood out the most?

Father Steve:  I think the  most important book I read was Jesus: An Historical Approximation. It's an incredible book by José Pagola. He's an exegete with a doctorate from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and the book is his attempt to write from everything we know historically about Jesus and how his life would be understood in his historical time. Now, the book has run into some conflict with the Catholic Church because they find it inadequate in representing the divinity of Christ, but that's not his intent-he's trying to write about an historical understanding of Jesus. I think it's a very powerful book and it had a big influence on me.

And then I just finished reading a book called Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes. He was the art critic for Time and he's from Australia and he wrote a book on the history of American art called American Visions. (Rome) is a read because he gets off some outrageous comments and pulls no punches. He's kind of the perfect character to explore the beauty and crassness of art and architecture in Rome because he's an expert in the beauty of the city, but he's also crass. This is a really fine book.

Now Available at the Library:

 Father Steve’s Reading List

Thanks to University Librarian John Popko and Instruction and Assessment Coordinator Lynn Deeken, the full list of books Father Sundborg has read in the past year can be found on this SPECIAL LIST. All of the titles are now available at the library.

I find that my poetry reading is expanding-more than a third of what I read now is poetry-and so I may just read myself right out of contact with reality. I think it's escapism for me, an escape from the dull life I lead otherwise (laughs).

The Commons:  How about TV?

Father Steve:  They tell me I still have one, so I dust it off now and then. I doze with Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett on CNN, and I've never made it through an hour with either one of them.

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