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Seattle University


Presidential Ponderings

Father Steve gamely fields questions on Seattle University and a variety of other topics

Written by Mike Thee
June 8, 2016

In late May, SU President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., spent some time reflecting on the soon-to-be completed academic year and what's ahead for next year. He also weighed in on the state of higher education today, what his memoir might be titled, the favorite books he's read in the past year, which horse he was pulling for in the Kentucky Derby, and more.

The Commons: How would you sum up the 2015-2016 academic year at Seattle University? 

Father Sundborg: I recently had an opportunity to give a talk on how I would name the year. And I said I think I would name it "The Year of Awareness" around the challenges of inclusive excellence on our own campus. It seems that's the thread that's run through the whole year-in regard to the climate survey, Moral Mondays, Black Lives Matter, our Mission Day and then also the occupation of the MRC offices. Treating people with respect, looking at our own areas of bias and discrimination-the year's been about that. So it's not necessarily a year of having addressed those issues, but it's (been a year) of becoming aware of the challenges and needs (in becoming a more inclusive campus). 

The Commons: How about the next academic year-what can we watch for? 

Father Sundborg: Next year is the 125th anniversary of the university. I'm hoping it not only be a year for externally how does Seattle University communicate itself more publicly, but also what does this mean for us as an examination of where we are internally: where do we come from, what's important for us, where are we going? So I think there's a real opportunity in this coming year of the 125th to take a measure of ourselves and our mission and examine where we stand and where to we want to be 25 years from now when we celebrate our 150th. 

The other thing that will be a significant thing next year (in addition to the ongoing work on diversity and inclusive excellence) will be developing better mechanisms and instruments of shared governance and greater opportunities for voice within the complex decision-making processes the university is involved in, and how that will be with faculty, how that will be with staff, how that will be with students. 

The Commons: Personally speaking, what were a couple highlights of the year for you?  

Father Sundborg: I went to Saudi Arabia and was there for a week and, boy, going inside the kingdom and engaging with our alumni and their families-many of whom have significant positions of authority and influence in the country…the hospitality and (seeing) what Saudi Arabia is about-that changes you somehow. I love engaging with our Middle Eastern students. I've always felt like a friend of theirs in a special way. The way they invite you into their families, it's just so gracious and beautiful. And then another highlight was when Isiaah Crawford told me he had just been appointed president of the University of Puget Sound. That was thrill for me-that our provost had been named president of that kind of university.   

The Commons: How have students of Seattle U changed since first year as president? 

Father Sundborg: First of all, we have very, very good students. When I say good I mean bright and curiously interested, but I also mean good in the sense of good persons. So when we talk about putting the good of students first, I think we also need to say we put the good of students-who are good persons-first, and that's something that has remained the same (throughout my presidency). The thing that is newer is a very acute attentiveness around issues of inequity and identity. That's the most important awareness of students today. They want all students to have equal opportunity for success and quality of life-whether that's in terms of race, in terms of gender, in terms of disability, in terms of their national and cultural (identities). That's a newer dimension in my 19th year that was not nearly as high in my first 10 years as president. 

The Commons: What skills are most important for a university president to have in 2016? 

Father Sundborg: The most important is engage, listen, act…engage, listen, act…engage, listen, act…engage, listen, act. You cannot be a good president unless you lean into the university and its students and its faculty and staff, its trustees, its fans. This is increasingly important. There are so many more voices that are present around the university and, as president, it takes a lot more engaging and listening. In this day and age, you cannot be distant and be successful as a president. 

The Commons: Where do you see higher education moving? 

Father Sundborg: It's sort of like you go to a restaurant and maybe there used to be five things on the menu. Well now on the menu, you've got 15 starters and two intermezzos and then you've got 25 main courses, and they're listing out the fish dishes and pasta dishes and pizza dishes, and you've got so many desserts…So the variety of higher education is expanding enormously. (Up until recently) there's been a similarity among colleges and universities; there's different kinds-such as comprehensive, research, liberal arts-but they kind of fit into about five main dishes. And I think now universities are going to need to find their niche, they're going to need to specialize more, they're going to need to offer a greater variety. We're into a time of greater choice on the part of students and their families, and adults wanting to continue their educations. So universities are going to become much more varied and offer a much richer kind of menu. You're probably thinking I've had too many meals out this year (laughs)

The Commons:  If you were to write a memoir, what would the title be? 

Father Sundborg:  I've got two ideas. The first is "The Confessions of Father Steve"-kind of like "The Confessions of St. Augustine." But that's probably a snoozer, a real "drool" book. The other title I thought of is "From Dogsled Priest to Dogged President." That picks up on two things: I do come from Alaska and I wanted to be a Jesuit to become a dogsled priest in northern Alaska; and I realized this year that I'm one of the most dogged people I know. It's a trait in our family: we're persistent, enduring, steady, keep to it, work at it, be patient, apply all you got. I'm a dogged person-and I love dogs, by the way. That's why I'm glad that Seattle University is the city's largest off-leash dog park. I love to walk across campus, especially on a weekend, on my way to Mass and there's as many people out on the (Union) Green with their dogs frisking around as there are in the church. I just love seeing all that conviviality with dogs. So "Dogsled Priest to a Dogged President…" And I looked it up and "dogged" means "to be like a dog." Which title do you like best? 

The Commons: The second one seems a little snappier. 

Father Sundborg: Yes. I just hope there's not a last chapter called "Going to the Dogs." 

The Commons: Or "In the doghouse." 

Father Sundborg: Oh, I'm always in the doghouse. 

The Commons: If you had to choose between being a priest or being a president for the next five years, which would you pick? 

Father Sundborg: My answer is that I would choose neither. I would choose to be a Jesuit. And my sense on that is the most important thing about my identity as a person is that I am a Jesuit. You can be a Jesuit and not be a priest. You can be a Jesuit and you can be a brother, a Jesuit who's not yet a priest. Being a priest is one dimension of being a Jesuit. I committed myself to being a Jesuit 53 years ago. It's a commitment to a group of people and a way of living together in a community. That's the most important thing. So I guess (if I was pushed to make a choice between being priest and president) I would side with being priest. I've spent three decades in Jesuit leadership-of a Jesuit community, of a Jesuit province and now of a Jesuit university-and I do hope there's some period in my life beyond that for being able to be just kind of a more pastoral Jesuit. Maybe that calling to northern Alaska stays with you forever-you know, like how you can have shingles later in your life from having smallpox when you were a child. 

The Commons: What's the favorite book or books you read this past year? 

Presidential Reading

Every spring, Father Steve shares a list of the books he’s read over the previous year, which library and learning commons staff then post on their website. CLICK HERE to see what books the president has read since last year (and the call numbers for those available at the library). You’ll also find lists of what he read in previous years.

Father Sundborg: It's interesting, the two books that sort of stuck with me the most were, one, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In The End  by Atul Gawande, and the other is Aging Well  by George Vaillant. So it's curious I'm reading those, isn't it? I figured if you're going to be mortal, you may as well work on how you age. 

My other (favorite) books (of the year) are Our Kids  by Robert Putnam-that's the one book from the past year I'd recommend to anyone asking me which book they should read. It's the leading sociologist in America with the most acute assessment of the education of our young people and what's happening in regard to segregation of people and who gets to go to which kinds of schools. And then the book I just couldn't put down is The Immortal Irishman. The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero  by Tim Egan. I had Tim Egan as a student in study hall when I was a teacher at Gonzaga Prep back in the '60s, and I was the moderator of the school newspaper, The Gonzagan , in which he had his very first byline. I'm very proud of Tim and I love everything that he writes. I can't remember if he behaved himself in study hall. He used to work in the Jesuit community to-he'd set the tables and wash the dishes. Unfortunately, he knows a little bit too much about the inside, about the lives of Jesuits. He's not yet written about that and I'm not challenging him to do so. 

The Commons: Seen any movies you liked lately? 

Father Sundborg: Michael Moore's "Where to Invade Next" is a phenomenal movie. It's an acquired taste, this Michael Moore. The places he takes us in the world to illustrate great ideas elsewhere that America should really  have-like what school lunches for kids in France are like, or what about countries where they don't arrest anyone for drugs, or what about places that have totally restorative prison systems, or higher education that's completely free, and so forth. And Michael Moore, kind of the slob that he is, wandering into these places, and the kinds of questions that he asks-I found it delightful. But not for everyone. 

The Commons: What about TV shows? 

Father Sundborg:  I'm just being thrilled by C-SPAN Senate and House hearings-that's about the level of my engagement in TV. I told that to someone and they said, "Get a life! You poor guy-you spend your days in meetings and then you watch more meetings on television? You gotta let loose a little bit!" 

The Commons: Who's a leader you admire most? 

Father Sundborg: The leader I admire most is Pope Francis. If you want to know someone in our world who really knows who he is and acts consistently on who he is almost without having to think about it and acts in a way of engagement and listening and mercy and compassion, and has an incredible knack for the daily kind of deed or comment. I'm just fascinated by him. I read about him every day. 

The Commons:  Have you taken a ride on the streetcar yet? 

Father Sundborg: I haven't yet. I now have an Orca Pass in my wallet. It hasn't come out of my wallet. But I'm told it works on the streetcar or the bus or the light rail. 

Father Sundborg: Did you put any money down on the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes? 

The Commons: I went to a Kentucky Derby party and people were coming with their white hats and guys with their bowties and straw hats and we had mint juleps. And we watched the derby but no betting was allowed. I think there was a horse named "Redemption," and that sounded pretty good to me as a priest, so that's who I was pulling for. I think that's what a priest should do. 

The Commons: Here we are in 2016-I have to ask every year whether you have yet to indulge in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc… 

Father Sundborg: I'm on Uber. That's as far as I've gone. I'm not good at Uber. Uber cars come from all over when I try to summon one. I'm not sure I'm using it right but I've done it three times on my own and I've gotten where I've needed to go. 

The Commons:  (Looking around the office) So where do you keep your selfie stick? 

Father Sundborg: I don't have one but I still get a kick out of it when students ask if they can take a selfie with me, and somehow they think it's a real prize…maybe. 

The Commons: What do you have planned for the summer?

Father Sundborg: I'm going to England. I haven't been there in about four years. The person I wrote my doctoral dissertation about is a Carmelite prioress, or nun, and she's 93, so I want to visit her and make my retreat and take a bit of a vacation and see some other friends.