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Campus Community / People of SU
Written by Mike Thee
June 11, 2019
Image credit: Clane Gessel
The Commons sat down with President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., in mid-May, just a few days before he received the Seattle-King County First Citizen Award and a week prior to the groundbreaking for the Center for Science and Innovation. Father Sundborg spoke about highlights from the soon-to-be-completed academic year, what’s ahead for Seattle U, his book recommendations and much, much more.
The Commons: What were the highlights of the year at SU for you?
Father Sundborg: Gosh, what a great year, really. The biggest highlight for me was the opening of Vi Hilbert Hall and the fact that it was named for a Native American woman who preserved the Lushootseed language. We had this wonderful dedication with the people of the Native American nations around here. That was a signature event to open the year. And for the closing of the year, we’re breaking ground for the Center for Science and Innovation (CSI). We’ve been planning that building for 10 years and raising money for it for over six years. So those two events bracketed the year and right in the middle I thought the best thing was Mission Day with Michael Eric Dyson. It was sort of a capstone for a great year of really fulfilling our pledge to engage in a new way at the university in regard to issues of inclusive excellence and diversity and overcoming discrimination and looking at our unconscious bias. And that we had students with us (at this year’s Mission Day) really made it special.
The Commons: What are you looking forward to about next year?
Father Sundborg: It’ll be great to see the CSI under construction. We will complete and begin to implement our new strategic plan. We have great hopes also for what the year will be like in our athletics programs. But I think next year the biggest thing will be the finalization and implementation of the strategic plan.
The Commons: What do you see as the biggest challenges confronting Seattle U at this time?
Father Sundborg: Unquestionably the biggest challenge is the cost of attendance—how much financial aid students need to afford a university education. I can see already that it doesn’t get easier. We’re on a path that we need to pivot from. We can’t go on with the model we have right now; we have to find a newer or better way in terms of how we determine the underpinnings of the finances of the university. The bottom line is we need to convince people of the value proposition of our university and that it’s worth the investment.
The other challenge I see is how do you match the momentum of Seattle. If you’re Seattle University and you’re in the middle of this city that’s on the move and you are the independent university at the heart of it, your future is determined by how much you match the momentum and the development of this city by your partnerships, by your engagements, by your connections, by your relationships—internships, jobs, how it impacts your curriculum what kinds of new programs you develop. Matching the momentum of Seattle is a challenge and an opportunity. The Commons: Where do you see the Catholic Church heading in the years to come?
Father Sundborg: You know, there are kind of two things going on at the same time, aren’t there? I see the Catholic Church heading in the direction that Pope Francis is leading us in terms of a more open, compassionate, welcoming, walking with others kind of church that reaches out and dialogues. I think that’s the major movement of the Catholic Church. And then there’s the incredibly difficult issue of dealing with the past sexual abuse by clergy and cover up by church officials. So (the question is) how do you change the Church so there’s an accountability within it, and at the same time how do you open the Church so it’s more compassionate. And key there is giving more avenues and opportunities for voice and decision-making for the people of the Church.
The Commons: Books. I see you read 36 this year…
Father Sundborg: (Executive Assistant to the President) Anne Moran saw the list of books that I read and she asked, “How do you read 36 books in a year?” And I said, “Anne, I haven’t bought any groceries in a store, I haven’t cooked a meal, I haven’t cleaned the house, I don’t even do my own laundry, I don’t have a family.” And she says, “Oh, I get it now.”
The Commons: But you have a pretty demanding job…
Father Sundborg: The thing is, you’ve gotta restock the refrigerator for all the talks you’re giving. I mean if you’re giving 250 talks in a year and you want to say something in a few of them, you better read a few books to get some ideas.
The Commons: What were your favorite books from this past year?
Father Sundborg: I’d say the very best book I read this year is The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks. That’s the one I’m borrowing from with abandon for every talk, every homily I give. There’s something there—he’s really trying to seek a more moral America. This is not a book that is in any way slamming anything political—it’s almost a philosophical ethics book.
The other book I would recommend it Melinda Gates’s The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. (The title) comes from when her father worked for the Apollo project—when they tested the rockets and they’d count down and say, “We have lift!” It’s a phenomenal book for taking you to parts of the world you don’t otherwise see and what’s the condition of women. But it’s also a phenomenal book for taking you inside the life of Melinda Gates and her work and her marriage and her children and the foundation, and how she’s an equal partner with Bill Gates.
Both very, very interesting books. If you don’t want to read ’em, just listen to me because I’ll be quoting them.
The Commons: “Game of Thrones”—did you watch it?
Father Sundborg: Didn’t see it once; don’t know what it’s about. There was a sign in a room in the Jesuit residence where people watch television (the night the finale aired)—“Last segment of ‘Game of Thrones’ tonight at 9 o’clock.” I don’t know if it was like warning so we don’t go in there, or whether it was an invitation, or whether it was reserving the room, or what.
The Commons: What emoji do you use the most?
Father Sundborg: It’s funny—I heard the word “emoji” for the first time this year. Every once in a while I’ll be doing something on my phone and these little creatures will just sort of cluster around something I’m typing, and I’ve taken these to be the emoji. And there’s all kinds of them, I’ve noticed. Sometimes they’ll accidentally find their way into something that I’m texting—I hope people don’t misunderstand me.
The Commons: What’s the hippest thing you’ve ever done?
Father Sundborg: I attended a concert in which Stevie Wonder was the lead-on group to warm up the audience for Diana Ross and the Supremes. Nobody knew who Stevie Wonder was then. I think you could call that hip. I thought it was also pretty hip to go to this year’s Drag Show, which I did. I guess those are about the hippest things I’ve done. I have certain hip things I did before I was a Jesuit which shall not be revealed.
The Commons: Was Stevie Wonder and the Supremes the first concert you ever attended?
Father Sundborg: No. It was the National Marine Band on the shores of the Potomac.
The Commons: At the Faculty and Staff Appreciation Event this year, you talked about your Swedish heritage and demonstrated how a Swede shows joy (with a stoic, expressionless face). So what does it take to make a Swede laugh?
Father Sundborg: The answer’s easy—a Norwegian. (Laughs) The Norwegians, by the way, just celebrated the anniversary of their liberation from Sweden. The Swedes loved it.
The Commons: What did you do during the snow days we had in February?
Father Sundborg: What snow days? I grew up in Juneau, Alaska. Snow days? In Juneau we never got days off for snow. We used to get days off for sunshine. There was a rule that if there was a clear, sunny day, the nuns would let us out of school in order to enjoy the sunshine, because Juneau doesn’t get sunshine.
The Commons: What would you bring to a potluck?
Father Sundborg: A Costco apple pie, because I love the size of them—you know, that would be good for me and two or three other people—and it would relieve me from having to cook. Besides, Costco supports us.
The Commons: What was the last thing you cooked for yourself?
Father Sundborg: The last thing was spaghetti á la carbonara. Yeah, um-huh…a little crisp…
The Commons: Was this recently?
Father Sundborg: Noooo! This was in a cabin in the woods by myself about five years ago. No witnesses. Carbonara, you know, roughly means “in the manner of coal miners,” so it’s spaghetti for coal miners. The way I do it, yeah, it does remind you of coal miners. A little bit burnt.
The Commons: What three things would you choose to have with you if you were stranded on a deserted island?
Father Sundborg: That’s easy. The Bible, pajamas and bourbon. What else does a guy want?
The Commons: What would you have as your last meal?
Father Sundborg: Spaghetti á la carbonara made by someone else. (Chuckling) I thought the time I made it for myself was my last meal.
The Commons: Ketchup—directly on the fries or on the side?
Father Sundborg: C’mon, c’mon, c’mon…on the side! I’m not a barbarian.
The Commons: What gives you “the willies?”
Father Sundborg: Besides my brothers and sisters…rats give me the willies. But it’s close.
The Commons: Do your siblings know this?
Father Sundborg: They will.
The Commons: Do you swim?
Father Sundborg: I float. I’m a professional floater.
The Commons: Best gift you ever received?
Father Sundborg: A trip to Greece from the Board of Trustees several years ago. Hint, hint, hint…
The Commons: Best advice you’ve ever been given?
Father Sundborg: Always wear natural fibers. I was once given that advice, seriously, by a guy who said, “Steve, I’ve got something that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life. Two words: natural fibers.” I think he saw me as sort of the polyester demonstration model or something. So that’s the best advice I’ve been given but not followed, of course.
The Commons: Window seat or aisle?
Father Sundborg: Window seat over America; aisle seat over the oceans. I’m a 40,000-foot view guy, but you gotta have something to see.
The Commons: If you were a car, what make and model would you be?
Father Sundborg: I would be a 1948 Hudson because that was our family car. That ’48 Hudson was a low-slung car. It wasn’t the ideal car for Alaska, I’ll tell ya. Going over the Alaska Highway, it would scrape and knock off the exhaust. Too low. I rarely got to sit in the front seat. You know, there were five kids and you supposedly took turns, but I was the one who could be talked out of it.
The Commons: How about summer plans? I assume you’re heading back to Lake Winnipesaukee to spend time with your sister and her family, as long as they don’t read this interview…
Father Sundborg: I don’t know if people remember the time I scolded my great-niece when she was four years old. She’s now 16 and has almost forgiven me. So yes, I get to spend two weeks with my family on Lake Winnipesaukee, and then I’m going to take a week-long retreat to recover.
The Commons: Anything else?
Father Sundborg: I do want to say that I’m totally lost without the help of Liz Pilati and Anne Moran (in the President’s Office). I can’t do anything, really, without them.
The Commons: That’s it for this year. We’ll let you go so you can work on that carbonara.
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