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A conversation with the president

Written by Mike Thee
June 2, 2010

As the 2009-2010 academic year wound down, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., took time out of an insanely busy schedule to talk about the state of the university, Jesuit higher education as well as some of his recent interactions with SU’s students. He graciously fielded questions on his favorite hikes, ice cream and television shows (in those rare moments that he actually watches). And of course, as is the custom, he offered some recommendations from among the books (41!) he read this year. Here's the interview edited somewhat for length.

The Commons:  What were some of the highlights for you from this year?

President Sundborg:  Going into the year, I said this was going to be a transition year, meaning it would set up a new time for Seattle University. A highlight for me was to see the new Library and Learning Commons going up, the largest construction project ever for us, and to have everything be on schedule and under budget. That’s really an exciting thing, in addition to doing the $10 million law annex.

The other thing that was fascinating in the year was the thinking through of the Seattle University Youth Initiative. This will also be coming forward next year in terms of a concrete plan for how to build that out and build on what we already have.

This was a key year for our self-study in preparation for our accreditation visit in the fall. We also had the hiring of our first associate provost for global engagement, which allows us to follow up on our strategic plan for global education. And then Division I and being in the KeyArena for the first year; making that work and making it work well. Another highlight was going through the initial stages of the development of our new core curriculum.

When you think about it, this really is a year more than the other 12 that I’ve experienced as president that sets up the future of Seattle University in a very positive way. And I really believe that when we start school next year, we’re going to recognize the new era at the university, which I call the “Era of Our Educational Commons.”

The Commons:  What brought you the most joy this year? 

President Sundborg:  It’s always the students for me. There’s never anything as much fun as the students, but I’d have to say, in addition to that, Mission Day and meeting the neighbors—the people who work in the Juvenile Detention and Bailey Gatzert and Rotary Boys and Girls Club—and seeing the involvements we have there, it was just a fascinating day. For me, it felt like the beginning of the fulfillment of the dream of what an education that ties us into the neighborhood could be like.

I also enjoy this time of year when we have recognitions, awards, appreciations, celebrations. And this year we’ve had the 75th anniversary of College of Education, the 75th of the College of Nursing, the 35th of Matteo Ricci College and the 40th of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. This is just an incredible kind of a run, the last quarter of the year. It’s just really fun.

The Commons:  What about the biggest challenges in the year?

President Sundborg:  The biggest challenges continue to be financial. I think every institution is trying to find its way through the economic recession and the shock in the stock markets and endowments and monies to borrow. Everyone is working to set up solid financial foundations for the future, and for us, that has to do with tighter budgets and prioritization of programs and careful financial oversight.

Another challenge we had was the straightening out of our enrollment offices in terms of our recruiting, our admissions, our financial aid, our marketing, our contact with students—how that all should operate has been a challenge. It’s not one that I’ve directly needed to deal with—it’s more in the Provost’s Office—but I’ve continued to monitor it.

And then I think the other challenge is that we’ve become aware this year as never before of the amount of deferred maintenance the university has accumulated over the years, particularly in the residence halls. So that’s a significant challenge, which is part of the overall financial challenge. At our trustees meeting in May, the focus of our meeting was on strategic financial choices, so that’s obviously front and center on the trustees’ minds and on the minds of the Executive Team members, too.

The Commons:  In April you attended a meeting in Mexico City at which the presidents from all Jesuit institutions worldwide were represented. What did you take away from that?

 
Father Steve applauds Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, a four-star general and 32nd vice chief of staff for the U.S. Army as the 2010 Alumnus of the Year. (Photo by Candace Shankel)

President Sundborg:  It was a meeting that had been planned for two years for the new Superior Adolfo Nicolas to meet with the leaders of Jesuit higher education around the world. All 110 presidents were invited to come together, usually with a representative from the faculty, so we had a little over 200 people there. About 30 of the representatives were not able to make it because of the volcano in Iceland.

For me it’s the best conference I’ve ever attended of any kind. It was a fascinating conference around trying to build out the networks that technology now makes possible for us and tap into the potential that is there for the Jesuits having an international network and system of higher education institutions.

It was an extraordinarily interesting thing to try to be practical in developing ways in which we could bring about a networking and association and exchange and common research among Jesuit universities. I facilitated a group that worked on culture, science and theology, and we came up with two projects. One of them is networking so that theologians and scientists across the universal Jesuit network can work together and enter into dialogue together about the interplay between science and religion or science and theology—whether that takes on the aggressive atheism in the world or just deals with post-Christian societies or whether it deals with “intelligent design” issues. And then the other project that we helped design was a study on the cultures of our students at all Jesuit universities so we know how to enter into them in our education.

The thing that’s so interesting about this is that I think all of us realize that the Jesuit universities are sitting on a goldmine that no one else has an opportunity to mine, which is this international network of higher education institutions with a common mission. Who else has that? And what would it be like if faculty had the opportunity to do joint scholarship with faculty from Latin America and India on issues of poverty or the Millennial Goals or sustainability or peace issues? And what would it be like for our students if they came to Seattle University and, by coming to one Jesuit university, they were linked to students at other Jesuit universities around the world?

The Commons:  You are a president who is very closely in contact with students. I know, for instance, that you’ll frequently ask students what great Seattle University class they’re coming out of as you leave the Admin Building on your way to a meeting. Can you share any of your most recent interactions with the students of this university?

President Sundborg:  Sure. A couple come to mind.

I was asked to teach a class on leadership this year, and I made the point that there’s a generation in America called “The Greatest Generation,” and they’re the generation of the Second World War and they’re called “The Greatest Generation” because they had a great cause. I made the point that a great cause calls forth great leaders. And a student raised her hand and said, “Why are they the greatest generation? We’re the greatest generation because we have the greatest cause.” And I said, “Oh you do, well what’s that?”And she replied, “It’s the cause of the survival of the planet and there’s no greater cause than that.”

I’ve checked that out with various students I stop and chat with as they’re coming out of class and they all, almost universally, agree that that is their cause. And what I find from this is that it’s different from the way in which I say, yes, sustainability and ecological challenge and climate control and global warming and extinction of the species are all important issues that we need to deal with. But for me, that’s coming from it reasonably, from my head. For these students, it’s in their guts, it’s in their feelings, it’s in their pulse, it’s in their heart. It really is embedded in them as the great pressing, urgent, emotionally felt cause of their lives.

Then there’s a funny story. One evening this year I was checking my e-mail before going to a meeting and there was a message from a student that was a rant on the increase in tuition that the university had just announced. She was saying that I was a hypocrite, preaching Jesuit justice but not being concerned about the students, and how dare you do this and so on. Soon after I read it, I went out the front door and recognized a student named Ryan who was with a woman student, and so I asked them about the class they were coming out of, and we chatted for a bit. At some point I said to the woman student, “I don’t think I know your name,” and she said whatever the name was and then said, “I’m the one who just sent you the e-mail that was a big rant.” It was so funny. I think she must’ve written it during class, and I think she was just kind of venting. So we had a good laugh about that, and I told her I thought we should go out for lunch sometime and have a good talk about it.

I’ll be 67 this summer and most people are kind of surprised that I have the energy I do. I think I’m actually younger than my biological age; I think it’s being around students that keeps me young.

The Commons:  Speaking of students, I ran into a former student of yours on my way over here, Mike Mullen (mechanical shop lead). I know he took a theology class with you about 20 years ago. You obviously went on to become president, and Mike, for his part, has become “The Mayor” of Seattle University. Was there anything in 

 
Mike Mullen, mechanical shop lead in Facilities Services, is known as "The Mayor" of SU. He prides himself on knowing every nook and cranny of the campus.
 that class that you think he picked up about politics and leadership? In other words, are you kind of responsible in a way for his ascension to this station in life that he has assumed?

President Sundborg:  I’m totally responsible for any good thing that Mike Mullen has become, and I take no responsibility for any of the rest of it. Definitely he picked up on the charismatic approach to leadership and that’s why he’s thought of as Mayor, Mayor Mullen of Seattle U. I had him when he was 20 years old, and obviously it stuck.

He’s got the longest term as mayor of any person I know. I mean, we turn over mayors for not plowing the streets, and yet we don’t seem to be able to turn over Mayor Mullen. I think it’s time for us to do a little bit of an investigation into his activities in the university. I’m suspicious as to how he can have such a long term as mayor.

The Commons:  It is a little strange.

President Sundborg:  Yeah, very strange. 

The Commons:  Sharing your reading list is becoming something of an annual tradition and we’ll get to that in a moment. But I’m wondering if we can broaden your range of recommendations a little. Knowing you’re an avid hiker, do you have any suggestions on good trails to check out?

President Sundborg:  Sure. Most of my hikes are concentrated between North Bend and Snoqualmie Pass. My favorite hike of all is Kendall Katwalk. You go to it from the Pacific Crest Trail at the summit of Snoqualmie and it’s just a fantastic hike. When you get to the very end of it, you walk along this ridge and you look over into a just completely untouched natural area of rugged peaks and valleys and small glaciers and lakes. It’s just incredible.

Another one up there I like that is a more popular hike is Snow Lake. It’s a fairly long hike and then you drop into a basin where the lake is. The snow doesn’t go off until maybe mid-July. It’s a beautiful lake and a wonderful hike.

I do need to find some winter hikes because there are so many places you can’t go because of the snow pack. My favorite winter hike is the Mount Si loop. It goes up 2.1 miles on Mount Si and there’s a trail that goes off by a creek and loops back on down to rejoin the Mount Si trail. It’s just a wonderful hike because it’s barely used. I don’t think people know about the loop part so you can walk for an hour and not see anybody. There’s another one off the John Wayne Trail called the Cedar Butte Trail, and it’s not a very vigorous hike. It stays low enough so you can do it in the winter, but it’s a beautiful hike.

I sort of choose the hikes according to my condition. I take an easier hike one day and then a somewhat harder 

 
Father Steve adds his signature to the final beam of the new McGoldrick Learning Commons before it is lifted atop the building. He views the library and learning commons, set to open in the fall, as a pivotal moment that will help usher in what he calls "the new era of our educational commons." (Photo by Chris Joseph Taylor)
  hike the next day and then a quite vigorous hike the third day. I try to go on a couple hikes once a month and take my mind for a walk.

The Commons:  OK, are you ready? Here are some questions from the “Peanut Gallery.” Favorite ice cream?

President Sundborg:  I’m a very dull kind of guy. My favorite ice cream is vanilla ice cream, smothered with dark chocolate chocolate chips so that there’s about as many chocolate chips as there is ice cream, but that’s the best ice cream there is.

The Commons:  Do you watch TV?

President Sundborg:  Barely. Some people say, “Get a life!” I watch C-SPAN—Senate hearings. I watch BBC News whenever I find the time. I watch the Academy Awards, even if I haven’t seen the movies. I’ve always liked glitz and glamour, and I’m always hoping that Meryl Streep will win. Each year she’s nominated for best actress and every year she’s in the front row. I think 17 years in a row now she’s not been named best actress after she won for “Sophie’s Choice” and was best supporting actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Every year she has at least one movie—this year “Julie and Julia” and “It’s Complicated,” and she was nominated for best actress. Every person who wins says it is an honor and a privilege to be in the presence of the greatest actress ever, Meryl Streep. I fell in love with her about 30 years ago. She’s got a husband named Don Gummer, and I always think, you know, who’s he? Meryl Streep, she’s been my favorite actress, my flame, for 30 years. I think I’ve seen every movie she’s been in. I love that she’s getting into more humorous things lately.

And then “March Madness”—I will indulge in some “March Madness.” I’m not allowed to be a betting person since we’re a member of the NCAA, but I just love the tournament. I never watch a full game; I try to time it so that I can see the last two minutes of a game—what else do you need?

Sometimes if I’m tired on a weekend, I’ll watch golf. I’ve never played golf, but it’s a way to relax.   Anderson Cooper. I watch “Anderson Cooper 360.” I usually fall asleep and drool. He doesn’t completely hold my attention. I get tired of some of the subjects that they focus on, not exactly what I’m interested in. But, for some reason, it’s easy to turn it on and there’s Anderson Cooper and he’s tracing some earthquake or following up on some scandal. So Anderson Cooper is sort of my sleeping pill in the evening. I don’t think he would like that, but he’s my guy. Don’t know what I would do without Anderson Cooper.

The Commons:  OK, books. You’ve provided a comprehensive list of books you’ve read since last June. (A link to the full list appears at the end of the interview.) Can you share some highlights?

President Sundborg:  Because I had a sabbatical, I was able to read more; I read 41 books this year, and 13 of them are poetry books. I read poetry every day. My favorite poetry books of the year were by John Updike. I didn’t realize that he was such a good poet.

Being on sabbatical, I had a chance to read some heavier, deeper books, and I’ve read several books by the Jesuit author John O’Malley. I read his book The First Jesuits, which is a study of the first 50 years of the Jesuits and what they actually did. Most interesting—really a solid, solid research book. He has a fascinating book called What Happened at Vatican II, and it’s sort of an ecclesiastical whodunit—who were the people who made Vatican II happen and what was their opposition and how were the popes involved in it. It’s a very good read. And now I’m reading a book that I would’ve thought that written by anyone would be ultra-dull—it’s called A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present. How many people have ever sat down and read a history of the popes anticipating anything better than kind of an annotated telephone book of the popes? But he manages to make it very interesting because of his command of history and what was really going on.

Probably the best book I read was The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie. I just am amazed at how he can write this book. It’s a book on Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy—four major Catholic figures of the 20th century. And Paul Elie manages to write a book that weaves together the whole period of 40 or 50 years when they’re active and writing and organizing and having an influence, and it is just a masterpiece. (Executive Vice President) Tim Leary bought it for me as a gift, and I started reading it and thought, boy, this is going to be a hard slog, but, wow, it is a fascinating book.

Another really fine book is the sequel by Greg Mortenson to his Three Cups of Tea called Stones into Schools. It’s about what he’s done further in terms of building schools for girls in Pakistan and now in Afghanistan, and what’s the relationship between the religious conflicts there with the Taliban and the effort to provide schooling for girls in those countries. I would have to say that of all the people in 13 years that I have met and had an association with at Seattle U, including great people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and Corazon Aquino, in my mind the greatest person I’ve met is Greg Mortenson. There’s something about him and his heart and what he’s been able to do—not from a position of being a president or head of a country—but just by commitment. He is an amazing, amazing person. And Stones into Schools is a worthy

 

Father Steve greets congregants after presiding at the annual Advent Mass for alumni and friends of the university. (Photo by Braden Van Dragt)

follow-up to Three Cups of Tea. We were privileged to have him here at Seattle U for our celebration of the final stage of our capital campaign. He is unique. He really listens to people. He gives people time. He is a wonderful human being.

If there’s a third one I would mention, it would be Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church by Rembert Weakland, who was the archbishop of Milwaukee. It’s the whole story of his life and his being a monk, then coming into being the head of the Benedictines in Rome for many years and then being appointed the archbishop of Milwaukee and everything about the economic pastoral he wrote and then troubles he got into in terms of how he managed some cases. It’s a very interesting book for taking you inside the Catholic Church and the leaders of the Church and the issues they dealt with in the 20th century.

I think my reading has become a little more serious. I looked over the list and there were very few novels I read this year. Maybe the poetry makes up for it. The best novel I read was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It’s a great story at the time of Henry VIII and his various wives and the people of Thomas Cromwell. It’s about a 700-800 page book, and you see Saint Thomas More in a very different way than you ever saw him before—and not exactly all very complimentary. Hilary Mantel is great; she won the Booker Prize this past year for Wolf Hall. I love to try to anticipate who will win the Booker Prize and read the book before they announce the winner. So I just finished Wolf Hall just before the prize was announced and, again, I was right on. But I’ve got Jesuit sources sizing up the field and making recommendations to me.

The Commons:  Last summer you had your first sabbatical as president, which you spent in England and Italy. What’s on the schedule for this summer?

President Sundborg:  I’m going back to spend two weeks with my sister at Lake Wentworth in New Hampshire, to be again with her and her grandchildren. I’m hoping that the grandchildren will have forgotten my manner of correcting them from three years ago and kind of not remember who great uncle Steve is and I get a fresh start with these little kids and see what they’re like after a few years of growth. And then my next older brother is turning 70, so I get to go up to Fairbanks to help him celebrate his birthday. And then I’ll make my retreat in August.

The Commons:  Anything else?

President Sundborg:  I think I can say that I’ve never relaxed as much as I am now as president. I just find a lot of joy in what I do and, frankly, there are a lot of times when I can hardly believe the feelings I have of how blessed I am as being president and being able to do what I do and working with the people I work with and getting to know the students. It feels like it’s too much sometimes—the satisfaction, the consolation, the joy, the sense of fulfillment in doing what I’m doing.

It takes a long time to work through dealing with the fundamentals of what you need to do to help lead a university so that you can finally take joy in being involved in the directions in which it’s going and its people. I guess I found the way to somehow to finally be priest and president, and one flows into the other so I can be a priestly president and a presidential priest. And that’s nice when there’s that sort of integration of what you’re about. There’s something new there. I don’t quite know what words to put on it. Maybe it came out a little on Mission Day where I was asked to listen to the whole morning and then to simply speak from my heart about what I’d heard. I don’t think I could have imagined myself having done that eight, 10 years ago—I would have given a long keynote address.

I’m looking forward to the future. I had my evaluation by the board of trustees—very confirming. I am simply delighted and open to continuing as president.

Visit Father Steve Reading List  to see what books he's read this past year.