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Seattle University


Year in Review

Written by Mike Thee
May 31, 2011

As is the custom, The Commons sat down with President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., to review highlights of 2010-2011 and to get a glimpse at what’s ahead for the coming academic year and beyond. The conversation touched on Father Sundborg’s new role as board chair of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, as well as where he likes to go to eat, whether he watched the royal wedding, what his summer plans are and more. Of course, the president also shared his reading list from the past year and highlighted a couple of his favorites.

The Commons:  From your perspective, what were Seattle University’s proudest moments this year? 

President Sundborg:  The proudest moment, without question, was standing down there in the new plaza, having walked down in a wild procession from Immaculate Conception Church for the opening of the new Library and Learning Commons at the end September. Just what had gone into 10 years of thinking and planning and fundraising and designing…to have it turn out as it did. That opening was an extraordinary moment.

The second proudest moment was being in the editorial board interview with The Seattle Times to explain to them the launching of the Seattle University Youth Initiative, and having them run an editorial, an article and a column. It was gratifying that the initiative just clicked, with everyone recognizing it as a part of Seattle University’s mission, and to get it off the ground with some structure, and to be able to raise some of the money to help support it and get a number of students down at Bailey Gatzert already working there as tutors, teacher’s assistants and so forth—that was a very, very proud moment.

The Commons:  What other highlights come to mind?

President Sundborg:  A couple. One was 11,200 people at KeyArena when we played the Huskies. That was an extraordinary night. It was half red and half purple, and it was kind of like the beginning of the great cross-town rivalry. It was an electric evening, and we’re gonna fill that place for that game in the future!

The other one was when I got the word that our ROTC program was ranked the number one battalion in the nation (by the Order of the Founders and Patriots of America) for the quality of its members and their academic performance, retention, graduation and service.

The Commons:  Looking ahead to the next academic year, what do you foresee as some key things for the university?

President Sundborg:  I think the most important thing will be the implementation of the Core Curriculum. We have a year to develop our courses and to have them vetted and approved in terms of do how they achieve the learning outcomes of the Core. I think it will be a very academically creative year as faculty consider how they find their intellectual passion as professors, how do they put that into a course that achieves the learning outcomes and then how do they move that through the system so that it gets approved as a Core Curriculum course that students will want to take.

I think some physical things will be important for us next year, too. The opening of the new fitness center in the fall will be well-received by the students and faculty and staff. The opening of the Douglas so we can have 258 more students on campus is going to help us in regard to the quality of our overall residence life on campus. And then the third thing is we hope to be transforming Logan Field into an intramural field with artificial turf, redesigning it and bringing it out to Cherry St.

The Commons:  Speaking of the fitness center, I seem to remember Kristen Christopher (fitness, strength and conditioning specialist) standing up at Convocation a few years back and mentioning that you had started working with her on a fitness regimen at some point but that you had since stopped showing up at Connolly for your training sessions. My question is this—do you think the new fitness center will increase the likelihood that you’ll get back onto the program?

President Sundborg:  You know, I haven’t seen Kristen at Green Lake at 6:30 or 7 in the morning when I’m walking around. And I haven’t seen Kristen when I’m climbing up the various trails in the Cascades. So I don’t know if it’s that I’ve dropped out on Kristen or that she’s kind of given up on me.

But I think the fitness center will help all of us. I could see myself going over there and using it for the intrigue of seeing what a really nice fitness center is like. I think it will be great for our whole community, but I wouldn’t count the number of times I’ll be there. It’s more of a time thing than anything.

The Commons:  If Seattle University were applying for a job, how do you think the university would answer that typical interview question of where it wants to be, say, in the next five year?

President Sundborg:  I’d say two big things will transform us over the next five years. The Seattle University Youth Initiative will be fully inherent in our educational programs and our engagement with the city, and our global engagement will help redefine the scope and content of our education. I also think that five years from now we’ll have a winning NCAA basketball team, that we’ll be in a conference and perhaps playing in the post-season.

I’m finishing 14 years as president and in five years it’ll be 19 years.  I think there’s a way in which a university can capitalize on the continuity and longevity of two presidents—Father Sullivan served 20 and I’m going strong and looking forward to continuing to serve. But about five years from now, the university will begin to be looking at succession, who’s next in its leadership, how do we make that transition, how solid are we in our Jesuit Catholic purposes and our identity and our mission, and what’s the legacy for these last 40 years for the university.

I have a sense that (as president) there’s five years to get into the job, there’s 10 years when you’re really doing the main work of your job and then there’s five years where you’re positioning the university strongly for its continuity beyond that and building for the succession by the new leadership. My guess is that in the coming years I’ll be doing a lot more fundraising and campaign work because that’s something an experienced president can do. I also think I’ll be doing quite a bit more mentoring.

This summer I’ll be taking on the responsibility of being the chair of board of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities—the chair of the board of the 28 presidents of the 28 Jesuit institutions in the United States—and that’s a three-year appointment. That’s no small responsibility to be chairing that association and that collaboration. So I’d say that’s a pretty good résumé—I think you should hire me.

The Commons:  I’ll think about it. Picking up on your appointment with the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, what are some of the larger issues that you and the other presidents of Jesuit institutions will be thinking about and working through in the years ahead?

President Sundborg:  There are currently a lot of presidential transitions underway among the 28 Jesuit universities. My guess is that in the coming years as many of the new presidents will be laypersons as they are Jesuits. So a big question will be, what is that like when the Jesuit network of colleges and universities are headed by lay people and how do we make a smooth transition into that? And what do we do about the assurance of the Jesuit character, which is probably easier for Jesuits to assert and promote because it’s in our training and our bloodstream?

The other one, I really think, is that if we don’t move into a very substantial collaboration of Jesuit institutions worldwide in the years ahead, we will have missed an extraordinary opportunity that no other network of higher education has. The Jesuits have 110 universities or colleges around the world and the opportunity in a globalized, technological world to develop a collaborative network of those universities, so that if you go to one you’re connected with all and you deal with world issues from many different angles. That’s a huge opportunity. Imagine if a student, in coming to Seattle University, comes also to Bogota, comes also to Calcutta, comes also to Oxford and comes also to Manila. So I would hope that, as chair, I can help foster that growing sense that we need to get beyond competing with one another to collaborating more with another worldwide.

The Commons:  OK, let’s talk books. Out of the 36 titles you’ve read this past year, which one or two would you suggest reading?

President Sundborg:  The book I would recommend from my list this year is American Grace: How Religion Divides  and Unites Us, written by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and it’s a sociological study of religion in America in the last 50 years. Robert Putnam is the man who wrote Bowling Alone: The Decline of Social Capital in America. American Grace is a most interesting study about religious affiliation in America, why there has been a decline, how America different from other countries in this regard, why young people are leaving religious affiliation and where are we on this whole thing about “spiritual but not religious.” It’s by far the most impactful book of the year that I’ve read.

Another book I liked was My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, the novelist who has written Prince of Tides among others. It’s kind of an autobiography of what he’s read over his life and why he’s read it and its significance. I think if reading is your main hobby that you will love this autobiography of a person’s reading life.

The Commons:  As always, there’s lots of poetry on your list…

President Sundborg:  Yes, I like to read a poet in chronological order to pick up on where they came from. My favorite literary genre is autobiography or memoir. I’m in spirituality—that’s my doctoral degree—and I’ve always been fascinated with the study of the personal, firsthand experience of religion. So I think what I’m doing is taking the poetry of authors, whether it’s Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson or Philip Larkin or someone else, and I’m kind of reading them autobiographically.

(Visit FatherSteve'sReadingList2010-2011for the books Father Steve has read in the past year.) 

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How many books on Fr. Steve's reading list have you completed? Compare your list to his by visiting FatherSteve'sReadingList2010-2011 and send the number of common reads to for a chance to win a Commons hat. (Scout's honor!)

The Commons:  Any new restaurants in your life?

President Sundborg:  A couple, and they’re all Italian. La Rustica in West Seattle—great Italian restaurant. You can’t get reservations there so it’s good to go early. It’s a real super place. I continue to go back to Salvatore up on Roosevelt. There’s one I’ve come to like in Magnolia called Mondello, and it’s kind of a neighborhood Italian restaurant, but very high-quality.

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

President Sundborg:  (Laughs)  I thought I’d just cancel the summer. I figure God has cancelled it anyway. It feels like it’s February out there!

The Commons:  Good point, maybe the question should be “What are your plans for the spring?”

President Sundborg:  Yes, what are my plans for spring in August! I’ve never seen a year when more people are saying, “Golly, when are we going to get out of this long, cold winter?” But my plan for the summer is to go and inflict myself on my sister for two weeks at her house on a lake in New Hampshire and to be again with her five grandchildren—my grandnephews and nieces. Every once a year I can sort of tolerate and I think they can tolerate their great-uncle being with them for two weeks. I’m not used to being around kids, and I don’t know how they look on me. They probably think I have a big voice and that I seem to be pretty strict. I try to spoil them just as much as I can in order to win their appreciation. So, I’m looking forward to that.

I’ll be making my retreat this year in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I’ll do that after my two-week vacation on the lake in New Hampshire, so I’ll recuperate from my five grandnephews and nieces with eight days of silence at the retreat. Sounds good, huh? Perfect balance! I don’t want to do the reverse. I want to come off being with all those kids and having my sister take me on a walk every day and sort of set me straight and then move into eight days of silence and repose.

And then, this year, I’m going to be celebrating my 50th year as a Jesuit. Fr. Pat Howell and I both entered the Jesuits on September 7, 1961. So a little bit of the summer will be taking that in and realizing what 50 years has been like. We’ll have some celebrations in the fall.

The Commons:  So you’ve mentioned before that one of your most important jobs is to make the coffee for the Jesuits of the Arrupe House, and there’s been some question as to who, if anyone, picks up the slack when you’re traveling and is responsible for caffeinating the community.

President Sundborg:  People try. They try to pick up the slack, but they fail. It’s a full routine to not only make the two pots of coffee—the French roast and the all-day regular—and both have to be ready by five o’clock, for sure, but it also includes taking out the old newspapers and bringing in the new ones and deboning them, getting rid of the ads and putting them out properly. So all of that is part of my morning job. I’ve learned that if I don’t let the members of the community know that I’m going to be away, I come back and find that the coffee hasn’t been made until something like, good Lord, 5:30 in the morning, and the remains of the previous day’s newspapers are still scattered around. I just don’t think the community is capable of carrying on without me. There’s a young Jesuit there named Quentin Dupont, and he gets up early to go work out in the weight room, so he’s looking for his coffee by about a quarter to five and comes staggering in—we don’t say much to one another. He tries to pick up on it, but I find him singularly lacking in the skills that are required at that time of the morning by the community.

The Commons:  Is there any sort of succession plan being put in place for the coffee and newspapers?

President Sundborg:  I think we should do a national search for an early-rising Jesuit who knows how to make coffee and sort newspapers. I don’t know how many of them are available and the salary is not what might attract a person here, so it’s going to be a bit difficult.

The Commons:  As an early riser, did you indulge in the live coverage of the royal wedding?

President Sundborg:  There were some Jesuits who got up to watch it. I was up making the coffee, of course, but I sort of exercised a little mortification and didn’t turn it on. Instead, I watched the highlights later that night on Piers Morgan, and that was about enough for me. I was most interested in the hats. The wedding was sort of a subtext or a frame for the hats that the people wore, and particularly the daughters of Fergie. One of them had on these almost lavender antlers. They looked like elk horns, and many of the other hats were like flying saucers or bird’s nests.

I also noticed that William and Harry seem to have developed this sort of regal way of sauntering, like they kind of own the place. I’m trying to imitate it by practicing as I go around Green Lake on weekends, but I don’t quite have it down yet.