When the weather warms and commencement looms, that means it's time for The Commons to sit down with the president to get his thoughts on the soon-to-be completed academic year and a variety of other topics. This year's interview was so wide-ranging that we had to cut it in two parts. In this first installment, the president shares his highlights from 2011-2012, an interesting interaction he once had with SU students in a Safeway parking lot and a big change in store for the face of Seattle University.
The Commons: It's a nice day out there and it reminds me of something you once said about how when you taught on SU's faculty you had a rule that you would only be amenable to having class outside during months that did not include the letter "r." Where did you take your classes on nice days?
Father Steve: I'd hold it out there (motioning to the green space behind the Admin Building), as close to Broadway and Madison as possible so that you could hear a lot of traffic, because the whole point of "Class in the Grass" is the students can just doze and there's no danger of them being distracted by the teacher.
The Commons: There was no danger of dozing through the 2011-2012 academic year-and if you did, you missed a lot! What were the biggest highlights for you?
Father Steve: Absolutely the biggest thing of the year was the 2012 President's Award for community service, and it came at the absolute perfect point in the development of Seattle University Youth Initiative. For SU to be named among five universities out of 800 for the quality of programming in community service really made it clear that, wow, this Youth Initiative is even more than we thought it was. I've had more people contact me about this award than anything else we've done. I've had calls from the president of the University of Washington, a senator, the mayor, the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. This was a very significant thing for how people see Seattle U.
The other highlight in a parallel sort of a way was (Chemistry Professor) Vicky Minderhout being named the 2011 Professor of the Year in Washington state. What was exceptional about that was what the award was for-her pedagogy, the way in which she goes about it, in partnership with Jenny Loertscher, this sort of case approach to teaching chemistry and coaching and mentoring her students. I was thrilled with the tenor of (the recognition), which was all about student-focused learning.
And then another highlight, of course, was the opening of our wonderful, new William F. Eisiminger Fitness Center. So it's been a great year at SU, to say the least.
The Commons: We all get so busy in our various roles at Seattle University and there's so many things going on that sometimes we don't fully understand or appreciate something significant that has happened. Can you think of anything along those lines from the past year that many of us might have missed or not completely understood for how important they were?
Father Steve: The main one is we had accreditation visits for Albers, Science and Engineering, Nursing and for Education, as well as for Social Work, all in the same year. All of those site visits got extraordinarily positive reviews. Now some of those are not final, but in terms of what the accreditation teams saw in us, we are really, really strong in these areas. Another thing that kind of got overlooked because I never announced it was that I got appointed for a fourth five-year term as president-we just kind of slipped that one by the university. It kind of went unnoticed, but I'm happy about it and looking forward to the next five years.
The Commons: As you complete your 15th year as president, what sorts of things are most energizing for you these days?
Father Steve: It has to be, just has to be my contact with students. There's not a student that I don't say hello to or gesture to so that they pull their earplugs out of their ears and ask what I'm saying. But I do try to say hi to every student I encounter and have a conversation or ask a question like "What great Seattle University class did you just come from?" or "What are you doing this weekend?" It is my breakfast of champions, that regular contact with students.
The other one is the Youth Initiative. Kent Koth said, "You know, Father Steve, the development of the Youth Initiative is a dream come true for a person in my position of community engagement," and I would have to say also as president of a university to be involved in something that is so defining and so distinguishing of our university as the Youth Initiative can become is something that just gives me a lot of energy. There's a lot of spin-offs and connections that come from that--involvement with the City on different issues, with other organizations, with foundations, with public schools, with kids. It is a multi-splendored kind of engagement.
The Commons: I want to go back to some of those conversations you have with students. When you ask them what they're doing for the weekend, what sorts of answers do you get?
Father Steve: Well, none of them say, "I'm going to get up tomorrow morning at 5 and go fishing." I notice it's all afternoon and evening things-their weekend starts about noon on Saturday.
I'll give you one example. On Memorial Day weekend about three years ago, I was on my way to a cabin out in the woods by myself, and I stopped at a Safeway. As I was coming out of the store, there were about six SU students there in the parking lot, and they were piling into a van. They had about three cases of beer and they were headed to Sasquatch at the Gorge, and they said, "Father Steve, you wanna come along?" And I thought, "Uhhh (groaning), I can't think of anything worse than spending all that time with a whole bunch of people and drinking beer out in the sun and listening to rock music. I just can't wait to get to my armchair and sit back and read a book and just be by myself and listen to the silence." So the ideas about what's a great weekend-between students and their president, it's a big, big gap.
The Commons: How long does it typically take you to write a homily?
Father Steve: It takes me an hour and 45 minutes to write it. And I almost don't even lift the pen. I've never had a writing block. I just write it. I can do that because I will have taken probably a 45-minute walk to just mull over the subject and the topic in what I call my "thinking pad"--Green Lake--somehow the birds and the water and the trees, they sort of sort through what's going on in my brain and they put it in some kind of an order and an idea. And then I come home and I sit down with my cup of tea, and I just write it. So I might go out and walk around Green Lake at 6 (a.m., of course), start writing it at 8 and I'm done at 9:45.
The Commons: That still gives you enough time to head to the Safeway parking lot, meet up with the guys and head to Sasquatch…
Father Steve: (Polite laughter)
The Commons: Without revealing my source, I got an inside scoop that you recently went shopping for new eyeglasses. Which got me thinking--since you are the face of Seattle U, you are essentially choosing a new face for all of us. In light of that, I certainly hope you chose wisely. I won't ask you to describe the frames you selected, but can you share with us whether there was any sort of philosophy guiding your search?
Father Steve: It's really simple. Someone who's a member of our board of trustees told me one day that his daughter said, "Dad, you've gotta get new glasses! Your glasses make you look so old-fashioned!" and I thought, "Hmm, I always thought he looked pretty good." And then I realized I've got no one who's gonna tell me that. So I thought, "Well, OK, time to go modern." I suppose it's the first of about a hundred things people do to try and hide their age, so I think the new glasses will be the first step. Then I'll start buying buckets of wrinkle cream and looking into hearing aids and nose hair clippers. I do have a couple sisters and they suggest certain things. If you ever see me dressed nicely, it's because one of my sisters bought me the clothes.
The Commons: So when will we see these new glasses?
Father Steve: We're going to bring them out in sort of a low season so there's a gradual infusion of this sort of modern-looking Seattle U. Probably the summer time. Certainly not for the Faculty and Staff Appreciation event or Commencement-that would be too abrupt a change for people to take in.
Stay tuned for the second part of this interview in which Father Steve talks about his unique perspective on Jesuit higher education in the United States, how his father reacted when told that his son planned to enter the Jesuits and much, much more.