Skip to main content
Seattle University

Features

Q&A with Father Steve

President reflects on a fulfilling and challenging academic year

Written by Mike Thee
Photography by Yosef Kalinko
June 11, 2018

Stephen Sundborg, S.J., recently looked back on the highlights and challenges of his soon-to-be completed 21st year as president and provided a glimpse of what’s in store for the university in the coming year. He also talked about the two most memorable books he read during the past year and shared his thoughts on a number of other topics such as bowling, loons, his high school reunion, roller skating and even the latest gaming craze “Fortnight.” 

The Commons: What was your favorite part of the 2017-2018 academic year? 

Father Steve: The best part of the year was the Gala (at which my 20th anniversary as president was celebrated) when my sister Sarah spoke. And it was so amazing afterward because maybe a hundred people came up to me and said, “Wow, what an evening—your sister was phenomenal!” And I thought, Wait, wasn’t this an evening about my 20 years? 

The other highlight of the year for me was when I was called upon to give a talk on white privilege at the Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast. I don’t know if I’ve ever put as much effort into as sensitive a subject as white privilege. I feel very, very good about that talk, which is on my website. Being asked to do it—I was told, We want a white man to speak to whites about a system that has oppressed blacks…You’re it. (And I’m thinking) thank you very much. (Laughs) 

The Commons: What was most challenging for you this academic year? 

Father Steve: I was thinking about it the other day—I think the intention was for this year to be sort of a victory lap (for my 20th anniversary) and there were these events like the Gala and the Red Tie (Athletics fundraiser) and the (commemorative Fr. Steve) bobblehead and the talk I gave on 20 years of leadership and different awards and so forth… But this was a year where you just could not avoid the issues of our country—Charlottesville and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas, and the issues we got into on our campus about supporting our LGBTQ+ students. Balancing the budget and needing to make some reductions was another challenge for us. So, this was a year of facing the issues, and the truth of our country and our university. I think we met them well enough, but this was a challenging year. 

The Commons: You mentioned the work that’s now underway to better support LGBTQ+ students. Can you talk about what you took away from the situation that began with your concern over the photo from the Drag Show, which was on the cover of The Spectator, and subsequently led to numerous ongoing conversations about the experience of LGBTQ+ students at SU? 

Father Steve: That whole issue was one of my better learnings over my years as president of SU. There were a couple of learnings for me. Some of it was personal around how I need to conduct myself in terms of my own views about things and how I articulate or express them. More importantly, what I learned was how critical it is to so many LGBTQ students and their many, many allies that the university is a safe, respectful and supportive place for them. That incident changed my view about what are the things we need to put into place by way of support and structures. So I think the outcome of that, in spite of the hurt that regretfully was caused, is going to be a positive thing for the university. 

The Commons: If you could boil it down to one sentence, what would your message be for the students in the graduating class of 2018? 

Father Steve: It’s the last line in this poem (“To Begin with the Sweet Grass” by Mary Oliver): “Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.” That says it all. I think all of those are very important. There’s kind of a period of our life when it’s important for us to learn to love ourselves. It’s very important, foundational. And then there’s a period in our life when it takes quite a lot to get out of thinking too much about ourselves, and that’s not easy. And the last part is so important, “Then, (pause) love the world.” That’s our whole mission—empowering leaders for a just and humane world, loving the environment, engaging with other people of all different kinds of cultures and backgrounds…that’s what we’re meant to be. But it takes those two other steps. I love the way she puts the comma there—“Then, love the world”—that comma says a lot. 

The Commons: What stands out for you about this year’s Commencement speakers? 

Father Steve: Hey, Father Steve gets to have a poet up there!—Sam Green, the first Poet Laureate of Washington and a poet in residence at our university for many years. He’s going to speak at the Graduate Commencement. And the other speaker, for our Undergraduate Commencement, is Sally Jewell, who I think is probably the most admired, nationally known woman leader from Seattle, having been both CEO of REI and then U.S. Secretary of the Interior. So I’m looking forward to those two—I think they’re just great selections. 

The Commons: What are your hopes for the next academic year? 

Father Steve: There are several things. The big thing I’m really looking forward to is the coming of Shane Martin as the new provost of the university. The second thing is next year we will be developing a strategic plan for the university and involving the campus community as widely as possible in that work. And, third, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to take forward our capital campaign far enough so that we can get the green light from our Board of Trustees to begin the construction on the Center for Science and Innovation. 

The Commons: You mentioned the incoming provost—what kind of leader can we expect in Shane Martin? 

Father Steve: I’m impressed with him—he’s a very relational person, he listens well. I find him enormously experienced as an academic leader and, boy, he’s got Jesuit values that are so deeply grounded. I think he’s got all the qualifications we can possibly hope for. I think he’s going to be a great champion of the faculty and of the academic quality of the university. He knows how to do it. I just can’t imagine a better choice for provost than Shane Martin. 

The Commons: Of all the books you’ve read over the past year, which one or two most resonated with you? 

Father Steve: The book that most stays with me is Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. He’s a professor at Georgetown. That book was so helpful in a constructive sort of a way to face the issue of white privilege and discrimination. I just thought it was phenomenal. That wasn’t the most enjoyable book I read, but it was the most impactful. 

The most enjoyable book I read was The Peregrine, which was about falcons. This is a book that someone gave me after I mentioned I had read H is for Hawk in one of our previous interviews. I read The Peregrine during my retreat in a Benedictine monastery in British Columbia. There’s something about how the falcon is perfectly geared to do what it does (that stood out for me). It has a little tooth in its upper palate that allows it to bite and snap the vertebrae of its prey and it has a vision that’s just extraordinary—like 40 times better than the vision humans have. And it can plummet at 200 miles an hour upon its prey and can kill something much greater than its own weight. 

The Commons: So, what does this avian assassin have to do with a prayerful priest making a retreat at a monastery? 

Father Steve: Yes, getting to that. In my retreat, one of the questions I was asked was, “Well, Steve, what are you designed for. And that’s where I got into how I’m designed for God. I’m designed for praise of God. I’m designed for service and love of other people. There was something about that peregrine falcon that is so wonderfully designed for what it does—it’s phenomenal. So that was the parallel. 

By the way, I’m a little uneasy that SPU’s (Seattle Pacific University’s) mascot is the falcon and ours is the red-tailed hawk. The red-tailed hawk is much bigger, but the peregrine falcon is much faster. 

Books: Father Steve’s complete reading list from the past year is available HERE.
 

The Commons: You were back at your high school recently. What was that all about? 

Father Steve: I was a sophomore at Monroe Catholic High School in Fairbanks, Alaska, at the time when they had their first graduating class, and this was the 60th graduating class. They asked me to come back to give the commencement address and do a Mass for the reunion. I loved going back to Fairbanks and walking the halls of my little high school. It’s booming! When I was there, there were 14 students in my sophomore class, and this year, there were 21 who graduated from Monroe. 

The Commons: What did you take away from your time as a student at Monroe? 

Father Steve: It’s amazing, you go back to a place and you don’t realize how much it shaped you. I was only there for my sophomore year. (I went to Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C. for my junior and senior years). But the friends I had and what that school was like—I think it’s the place where I decided the kind of priest I wanted to become was a Jesuit because the Jesuits were the ones who ran that school. They got me into Georgetown Prep, so Monroe is kind of where the Jesuit part of my life started to come together. I always wanted to be a priest but that’s where (the decision to become a Jesuit) happened. 

The Commons: Did any other classmates make it back for the reunion? 

Father Steve: Yes, I did see two others. It’s amazing how I can remember all of the boys in my class—all seven of them—but I couldn’t remember any of the girls. It shows that I really was going to be a priest! 

The Commons: What were you like back then? 

Father Steve: I was an addict of bowling, baseball and books. The three Bs. Going back to Fairbanks, I was reminded that my buddies and I would go bowling all the time. I was a little league player—a catcher, All Star. I had the record for number of doubles. That means I could hit the ball a mile and I was very slow. 

The Commons: Do you still go bowling? 

Father Steve: This is a little secret: I’ve got in my storage bin at Arrupe a bowling bag with a ball, drilled for my grip, with my name on it and bowling shoes of my size and a towel. I used to keep the bag in my car when I was provincial, but haven’t done it recently. I think it’s the knees. 

The Commons: Are you playing a lot of “Fortnite” these days? 

Father Steve: I’ve never heard of “Fortnite”—what is it? 

The Commons: It’s a video game that, in a nutshell, is about survival… 

Father Steve: Oh, I’d probably be good at that. As I finish my 21st year, I’m the last president standing in the whole state of Washington. No current president at the state’s other colleges and universities has served longer. So I’d be good at “Fortnite.” 

The Commons: What’s the most unusual thing that’s ever happened during a Mass you’ve celebrated or attended? 

Father Steve: It’s a Mass I attended in the Chapel of St. Ignatius. Paul Janowiak, S.J., was the presiding priest. At the very end of the Mass, he invited the couple down into the aisle and he invited everyone to come around and put their hands on the couple. And he said, “Now let us all bless…” and he gave the name of the bride and he gave the wrong name of the bridegroom—he gave the name of the previous boyfriend of the bride. And the previous boyfriend was there. So everyone was all huddled around and pretty soon it was like a scrum in rugby, they were all just bouncing up and down with laughter. 

The Commons: You’ve officiated many a wedding. What would you say is your percentage in terms of couples you’ve married who are still together? 

Father Steve: Oh, I’m at like 95 percent. They only seek me out if they’re pretty serious. If they’re looking for a more convivial, lighter kind of a wedding, they’re not looking for Father Steve. It’s kind of hard to tell the difference between a wedding that Father Steve conducts and a funeral that he conducts—this is serious business. I’ve been told, in fact, that I can make people at a wedding cry and people at a funeral laugh. 

The Commons: What are your plans for the summer? 

Father Steve: A little bit of the Oregon coast and then two weeks at Lake Winnipesaukee (New Hampshire), so I can be spoiled by my sister who has a house there. 

The Commons: She owes you after stealing your thunder at the Gala. 

Father Steve: Yes, that’s right. I love the moment when I’m sitting in the lawn chair by the lake at about 12:30 p.m.—a half an hour late, I should mention—and she comes to the screen door and asks, “Steve, would you like a panini?” And I say, “Of course, Sarah!” So that’s the kind of tough life I have. And then to play with the nephews and nieces and be able to escape to my cabin for a grandfatherly kind of nap in the afternoon. It’s the perfect vacation. 

The Commons: OK, now for the lightning round…What’s your favorite word? 

Father Steve: “Magnanimous.” I would like nothing more than to be known as than magnanimous. I think it’s a wonderful thing. 

The Commons: Least favorite word? 

Father Steve: “Siloed.” I mean, I think we should talk about being “neighborhooded”—that we’re in different neighborhoods within the university. We’re not siloed—siloed is like we’re fodder for the cows or something. 

The Commons: Favorite sound? 

Father Steve: The loon—the call of the l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-n in the morning mist of Lake Winnipesaukee. That haunting wail. (Mimicking the sound) The eastern loon. Nothing like it. 

The Commons: Least favorite sound? 

Father Steve: The sound of an alarm clock at 4 a.m. on Monday. 

The Commons: The word you use to express joy? 

Father Steve: “Elan.” Love that word. 

The Commons: The word you use to express frustration? 

Father Steve: “Drats.” That’s probably old-fashioned. 

The Commons: A profession other than your own that you’d like to try your hand at? 

Father Steve: (Long pause) I’m torn between being a lawyer and being the pope. I think I might make a good lawyer. I’ve been impressed with our law school; I enjoy what lawyers are about. 

The Commons: How about the profession you’d least like to take up? 

Father Steve: When I was a boy, I made a resolution that I would never become a salesman. I did not want to ask people for things. And here I am, running campaigns and asking people for all sorts of things. So I’m in sales. I’m a larger-than-life salesman. (Laughs) 

The Commons: If you could sing a duet with anyone, who would it be? 

Father Steve: (In a matter of fact tone) Cher. 

The Commons: Do you have a song in mind? 

Father Steve: What’s that one with something about “baby?” 

The Commons: “I Got You, Babe?” 

Father Steve: Yeah, that’s the one. 

The Commons: So you would stand in for Sonny? 

Father Steve: Yeah, and that movie she was in, “Moonstruck”—my favorite movie of all time. It’s almost as good as “Home Alone.” I’m good to go if I can watch “Moonstruck” once a year and “Home Alone” every Christmas. What more can a guy ask? 

The Commons: What do you like on your pizza? 

Father Steve: I like the Quattro Stagioni. It has four different sections to it, so it’s like summer, fall, winter, spring. One part’s got artichokes and pepperoni and it’s got the pineapple and then right there in the middle, it has a fried egg…Quattro Stagioni. That’s the best of all. The four-season pizza. It’s for a person who can’t make up his mind. 

The Commons: Who’s the last person you sent a text message to? 

Father Steve: I think it was a text back to (Executive Vice President) Tim Leary one day last year when he texted me about whether we should close because it had snowed. I sent back a text that said, “Thanks for letting me know, Tim. Good luck. It’s all yours.” 

The Commons: Last photograph you took? 

Father Steve: (Pulling out his phone) Let’s check here. This one’s of the new sculpture of the red-tailed hawk by Tony Angell that’s outside of Arrupe. 

The Commons: What instrument would you master if you could? 

Father Steve: The computer. (Laughs) I’ve got the ballpoint pen down; I’m working on the computer. 

The Commons: Do you use any product in your hair? 

Father Steve: I was told the other day that if you rub Guinness stout on your bald spot, your hair will grow. So I’m thinking of rubbing a little and drinking a little to see what that’ll do for me. That’s an Irish piece of wisdom. 

The Commons: If you had a tattoo, where would it be and what would it be? 

Father Steve: I don’t know—I’ve never imagined having a tattoo. 

The Commons: Have you ever roller skated? 

Father Steve: That same little sister, darn her, the one who can do everything better than I can do and steals the show, she tried to teach me how to roller skate. She was a failure at that (teaching me) but she’s not been at anything else in life.

A special thanks to Lynn Deeken, director of public services and coordinator of the learning commons partnership, for compiling the list of books read by Father Steve.