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Q&A with Father Steve

President holds forth on wide range of subjects, including Seattle U, faith, lighthouses and licorice

Photography by Yosef Kalinko
June 7, 2017

On a recent morning, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., spent some time reflecting on the 2016-2017 academic year and looking ahead to what’s in store for the university in the coming months and years. As is the custom, he shared the favorite books he read over the past year. Responding to a series of (largely irrelevant) questions, the president also revealed what makes him laugh the most, who he’d like to see play the role of “Father Steve” if a major motion picture was made about his life, whether he’s ever questioned his faith and more. Much more—and yes, that somehow includes lighthouses and licorice. 

The Commons: If you were to sum up the 2016-2017 academic year in a phrase, what would that be? 

President Sundborg: It would be “Honoring 125 years of history,” without question. What this year will mean for me and the thread that has run throughout the whole of it, making it a different year from any other year I’ve had is the fact that you’re not just looking at a year, but a year as a culmination of 125 years. I didn’t think that was going to have any purchase on me—the 125th anniversary. The 100th anniversary is a biggie, as is the 150th, but the 125th—what is that? But wow, it’s been very significant in terms of being more grounded in our history and what our values are and mission is and where are we going and how are we looking to the future and who’s made this place to be what it is. It’s a real thing. It’s not a confetti and balloons sort of a thing. It’s substantive. It’s amazing what a difference that’s made for the year. 

The Commons: What are some of the specific highlights stood out for you from this past year? 

President Sundborg: One would be the parade on the launch of the year from Immaculate Conception Church down to campus and onto the chapel and lighting the fire and the picnic. That opening really was a highlight for me. Another highlight for me was that occasion we had up in the Popko Faculty Lounge around the NSF (ADVANCE) grant that our faculty—Jodi O’Brien, Jean Jacoby and others—received and what that’s all about, looking at the advancement of women in higher education. That was a spectacular event. Another more personal highlight for me was when they invited all of the Jesuits of the university to come up on stage at the Gala and honored us as being effectively the St. Ignatius Medal—they gave us each a medal—as part of the 125th anniversary celebration. Usually I’m alone up there on the stage, not with another Jesuit, and for me (the experience at the Gala) it came through to me that there I was up on the stage with 20 other Jesuits, being recognized not as me but part of this commitment that is the Jesuits. That was big. 

The Commons: What were the foremost challenges for the university this academic year? 

President Sundborg: The biggest was the unusual budget challenge for the university’s next fiscal year. And then the rising housing costs in a booming city—that’s really come home to me as a big challenge. 



The Commons:
At this year’s Mission Day, faculty and staff were invited to share their hopes and dreams for the university on index cards. What did you take away from the responses? 

President Sundborg: I was given all 150 cards and I had Liz Pilati type them up—and I think our faculty and staff could do a lot of work on their handwriting. What came through to me is that when I think of hopes and dreams, I kind of get lofty. I was taken by how much the hopes and dreams of our faculty and staff are practical kinds of things: maternity leave, day care, having a voice, space (facilities), communications. It was far more practical than I would’ve imagined. That was helpful to know because that’s where people really are. 

The Commons: How about the upcoming academic year—what’s on the horizon?                          

President Sundborg: Couple things. We’ll have construction underway again. It’s been a bit of a hiatus here that goes back to the building of the McGoldrick Learning Commons and redoing of the library (completed in 2010). There’s been some other construction since then, like the Eisiminger Fitness Center or the Connolly Complex renovation. But in the heart of campus, the construction of the new residence hall and the facilities for Enrollment Services will be underway this year. The second thing is we’re going to design a Center for Science and Innovation (CSI) this coming year. 

We’re also going to develop a new five-year scenario for Seattle U. I don’t like to call it a “strategic plan,” because I’d like it to be very different from what we’ve done before. (It’s more) of a picture of what Seattle University will be in five years. That’ll be the most important effort we’ll be doing in the fall. And I’m tolerating the fact that they are going to have events that are going to celebrate my having completed 20 years as president of the university. I have kicked and screamed but they are going to do it. 

The Commons: So the Board of Trustees appointed you to another five-year term. Typically, presidents have a plan for what they hope to accomplish in their first 100 days. What’s yours? 

President Sundborg: I plan on issuing various presidential orders. I would like to ban cellphones from public places on campus. (We were successful in banning the use of tobacco products.) I plan on spending every weekend in Cabo San Lucas and I will continue promoting the alternative facts about SU by which I’ve already hoodwinked the university these past 20 years. 



The Commons:
How about the Examen Mission process the university underwent this year? 

President Sundborg: You know, this was the right year for that. The synergy between the 125th anniversary of the university and the Examen—the review of our mission was really a successful kind of a thing. It both confirmed so strongly so much of what we’re about as well as some areas we need to improve in and strengthen. 

The biggest challenge that comes out it is how do we see ourselves as a Catholic university and what does that mean to us. My thinking is, Don’t be afraid to jump into the Catholic swimming pool—the water’s warm. 

The Commons: Any notable interactions with students of late? 

President Sundborg: I continue to have this one every once in a while: I’ll not be wearing my priest suit and I’ll be walking along and as you know I say hello to every student and a student will say, “Oh, Father Steve, I didn’t recognize you—you look normal.” I always think, Geez, I’m glad to know that. Transfer students are interesting—they’ll say, “What do you do here?” So I say, “Well, I’m the president,” and they say, “Yeah, but what do you do here?” 

The Commons: You mentioned the event around the NSF grant earlier. What were some of your other favorite events at SU this year? 

President Sundborg: One of them was the swearing in of Anita Crawford Willis (’82, ’86) to the Seattle Municipal Court, which took place at our School of Law. Boy, that was a really great event and what an honor for a double alumna. The other one just happened the other day—the launching of the Seattle University Undergraduate Research Journal. 

Other recent highlights of the year for me were the Athletics Award Show in Pigott with 350 dressed up athletes (at least the women athletes!) and the Senior Engineering Projects again in Pigott celebrating its 30th anniversary. I wish all of our university community could experience who these great students are, what their accomplishments are, and how much they love Seattle U. For the awards show they had me in a video lip synching "Mamma Mia" with a poster of Meryl Streep beside me. I hope that has not gone viral. 

The Commons: Books…You’ve shared the complete list of what you read since we talked last year. Any favorites to recommend? 

President Sundborg: There are two books—they’re written by the same person, Yuval Noah Harari. The first one’s called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and the second book is called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. I do not understand how any educated person has not read or does not know they should read these two books. They are the most remarkable books in terms of understanding the place of the human being in history. The author is a macrohistorian. I tell people that my favorite word in the English language is “perspective”—it used to be “licorice” when I was a boy. So maybe I love these books so much because they’re a perspective on where we’ve come from, where we are, where we’re going. It’s just a tour de force. I’ve heard the books are extraordinarily popular in Europe, but when I ask people if they’ve read it, and they look at me like, “Really?” And they think it’s going to be very difficult, but it’s not. They’re so well written. I loved Hillbilly Elegy also, by JD Vance. I read it as kind of a post-election book. I don’t know these Americans well and I should. 

(Click here for the full list of books Father Steve has read during the past year. A big thank you to Lynn Deeken, director of public services and coordinator of the learning commons partnership in the Library, for creating this resource) 

The Commons: I know you read a lot of poetry. Do you have any advice for someone (I won’t name names) who might have some difficulty “getting” poetry? 

President Sundborg: Approach poetry the way you approach a painting. Don’t try to figure it out—let it encounter you. Don’t ask, What does it mean? Just take it whole…Don’t stop when you don’t understand a poem; just let it encounter you. Poetry teaches you how to read poetry. 

The discovery of the year for me was Mary Stewart Hammond and her book Entering History. The one now that I’m really enjoying is (SU Professor of English) Sharon Cumberland’s poetry. I enjoyed her new book, Strange with Age, so much that I’ve now gone back and am reading her earlier poetry and am very much enjoying that. Very, very high-quality poetry and very accessible poetry. There’s also a religious depth to Sharon Cumberland’s poetry, which fits with our mission. 

The Commons: You often say that if someone wants to know what Seattle U is all about, they should ask our alumni. As you go out and meet with them, what are some of the things our alumni tell you about the SU experience they had? 

President Sundborg: What they tell me is the most important thing at Seattle U is the Core Curriculum. They keep on coming back to that and they particularly focus on philosophy. They say, You know, I didn’t appreciate it at the time but that’s what’s stayed and been most valuable for me. 

And then the other thing they tell me, which kind of makes me a little bit concerned, is they so speak about the impact of the Jesuits in their experience at Seattle U. This whole transformation we are undergoing of the new leadership of the Jesuit character of our university being in the hands of the faculty and staff at Seattle University who are not Jesuits—that had better work because the impact of the Jesuits as persons and what they hold is just so, so strong (a pull) on our alumni. 

And then more recent alumni—what’s strongest for them is our justice commitment. 

The Commons: If you were an SU student today, what’s that one course you would be sure you took before graduating? 

President Sundborg: It would be “Economics for Eggheads.” I, like all Jesuits, are completely oblivious to what economics is all about, and I wish I knew something about economics now. “Economics for Eggheads”… or maybe “Economics for Boneheads.” And then any course by Fr. Mike Raschko (School of Theology and Ministry). People work so hard in his courses on systematic theology, but I think I would love it. 

The Commons: Have you ever questioned your faith? 

President Sundborg: I’ve never questioned my faith, not even for a second. I cannot make real to myself what life feels like except in having faith. I can’t imagine it. I did question my vocation after starting the Jesuits…for one hour and then I got over it and got on with things. I had my mid-life crisis in one hour. Checked that box. Bucket list, done with that. “The one-hour mid-life crisis”…why fool around with it; just do it. Since then, I’ve never really questioned my vocation as a Jesuit and as a priest. 

The Commons: What are you watching on TV these days? 

President Sundborg: What I’ve been watching on television is the Senate hearings and “Antiques Roadshow.” That just shows you how culturally illiterate I am. I tell people what I watch and they say, “Get a life!” Senate hearings and “Antiques Roadshow”—they’re a bit the same. I’ll let people sort that the way they want! 

The Commons: Do you sing in the shower or in the car? 

President Sundborg: I sing on trails. It’s a little bit like “The Sound of Music.” (Singing) “The hills are alive with the sound of music…” So I will sing on hikes the closer I get to the summit. I don’t know why, it just kind of comes out. 

The Commons: What kind of reaction do you get? 

President Sundborg: Oh, the birds scatter, the dogs on leashes pull hard, the snow melts, the rocks start avalanches. Other than that, not much. 

The Commons: You’re a president who’s very accessible and plugged into all facets of university life. How many Pokemon characters are lurking on our campus at any given time? 

President Sundborg: I’m supposed to know what a Poke-man is? 

The Commons: I’d actually be concerned if you did. 

President Sundborg: No, don’t worry about it. 

The Commons: So you probably don’t know what a “fidget spinner” is either… 

President Sundborg: That’s something you use when you’re fishing to catch rainbow trout. Right? 

The Commons: Works for me. Who or what makes you laugh the most? 

President Sundborg: I laugh most every year by watching “Home Alone” with McCaulkin—whatever his name is. I laugh so hard that I cry. I always know how this little boy is going to outdo the robbers, but I don’t know—there’s just something about it. My nephew and niece whose house I often go to around Christmas—they cannot wait for me to arrive and put on “Home Alone” and watch me watch the movie. It’s kind of become the tradition. I love especially that guy who’s stumbling to get up the steps and the kid puts ice on the steps, so the robber’s falling down, he’s banging his head. And he finally gets to the door and he grabs the door and the kid’s put this hot poker on the doorknob so it scalds the robber’s hand. I don’t know what that is. Is that the sadist coming out in me? But that’s my funny bone, that one. 

The Commons: Speaking of movies, if your life was made into a major motion picture, who would you want to play the role of “Father Steve?” 

President Sundborg: I checked with Liz Pilati and Allison Golden and they proposed John Lithgow. I would go with that, but I was thinking more of Anthony Hopkins. Not of “The Silence of the Lambs,” but of “Shadowlands.” The good Anthony Hopkins. They also gave me this other person. Who is this guy?—I’ve never seen this actor. 

(Father Steve shares a page of images with the interviewer, who identifies the actor in question as Bryan Cranston, best known for his role in “Breaking Bad.”) 

The Commons: Let’s go back in time and say that instead of becoming a Jesuit, you joined a branch of the Armed Forces, which branch would it be? 

President Sundborg: The Coast Guard. I always had a dream that I would be a lighthouse keeper. And my dream was to be up in the lighthouse with an interior that was all bookshelves, and I would read and I would have the light that would rescue the ships. My younger sister would bring up meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’d like to be a beacon that rescued people in danger and myself to not be in danger but to be in the cozy lighthouse with all those books and three meals a day. That is the only vocation that has vied (with my role as priest). There’s some parallels between being president of Seattle University and the lighthouse keeper. 

The Commons: Let’s return to that bombshell you just very casually dropped earlier. What is this about “licorice” having been your favorite word when you were a boy? 

President Sundborg: When I was a kid I so loved black licorice that it became the only gift I got at birthdays. 

The Commons: What about red licorice? 

President Sundborg: Red licorice is not licorice. It’s a copyright infringement on the word “licorice.” Anyone thinking of Red Vines as licorice—that’s an infringement on what licorice is about. 

The Commons: So before we let you go, anything else to report from the previous year? 

President Sundborg: Well, I’ve had this Mikhail Gorbachev look-alike thing on my forehead for six weeks (after having precancerous cells removed). I’d like to recommend my dermatologist to anyone who would like to be made ugly for six weeks. It’s really fun to be the priest doing weddings and they want the photos to be perfect and there I am with this brand on my forehead. 

Also, a friend got tickets and I went and saw “Hamilton” in New York City. That was a thrill. That’s by far the best musical I’ve seen in my life. Just extraordinary. 

I am dieting again and what motivates me to diet is going to my sister’s lakeside house on Lake Winnipesaukee and how I look in my swim trunks to my sister—she’s a doctor. 

Other than that, I’m just going to go plowing into that fifth five-year term. Sometime this summer—I’m not sure of the date—but late August, I think, I will be the longest serving president in the history of Seattle U. To celebrate, I plan to go off my diet for one day and eat all the black licorice I want to eat.