Campus Community / People of SU

Presidential Perspective

Written by Mike Thee

June 3, 2014

Mass of the Holy Spirit 2013

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

Father Steve leads the procession from the Mass of the Holy Spirit at Immaculate Conception back to campus in October.

Father Sundborg reflects on the soon-to-be-concluded academic year, and more…much more.

It was quite a year for our president. He led the university through and into a number of key transitions, watched fireworks from the world's tallest human-made structure and continued his typically voracious regimen of reading. He even saved a life. Here are excerpts from a recent interview with President Stephen Sundborg, S.J.   

The Commons: What are a couple of highlights from this year that stand out for you, personally and for SU? 

President Sundborg: Two highlights. One was going to Dubai to be with our alum from 1982, Mohammed Alabbar, at his invitation to witness the fireworks from the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world, which Emaar, Alabbar's company constructed) on New Year's Eve. That was a big highlight. The second highlight was seeking and getting a commitment to a $30 million gift to Seattle U for the new campaign―$20 million for the Center for Science and Innovation and $10 million as matching money for endowment for scholarships. That's three times the largest gift we've ever had, and that was a highlight for me. 

(As far as highlights for the university), I think the biggest thing was the implementation of the Core curriculum. When you get 300, 400 courses that are designed, vetted, with outcomes developed, approved and then launched for a new Core curriculum in a Jesuit university, that's a big, big, big thing. 

The Commons: How about the upcoming year-what's coming down the pike? 

President Sundborg: The biggest thing that's emerging will be the development of the new School for New and Continuing Studies. There's not been a new school at Seattle University since July 1, 1997 when the School of Theology and Ministry was formally inaugurated so that's 17 years, and with the new school we will now have nine colleges and schools. And this is one that's an adult bachelor's degree completion program school and continuing education school with very significant use of hybrid and online education. So, moving into that and developing that and putting together the structures for that so that it's fully launched by the fall of 2015 will be a big thing. 

The other thing that's big is, as you may know, we've moved Career Services over to the academic side of the house. This is part of our move to an integrated center for career and academic advising, which will much, much more effectively put students on the pathway toward careers and jobs. So we're really taking that on and that will develop in the next year. 

The Commons: Going back to the School for New and Continuing Studies, how do the principles of Jesuit higher education come into play in a hybrid or online format? 

President Sundborg: It's very important that we retain the fact that Jesuit education is always high-touch education so it depends for its success on a significant encounter, engagement, relationship with professors and with other students. Our niche in education is that relationship between the professor with the intellectual passion and then the student and the questioning, so how we work that out in the hybrid and online is a very, very important dimension for us to work out together. 

And then it's important to work out what dimensions of the Core curriculum, what dimensions of value education, what dimensions of reflection and analysis, what questions around how do you use your education are embedded in these courses and this school. That's all very doable. There's been a thing called JesuitNet that lots of universities have been involved in and they've tested out whether you can deliver a Jesuit education in an online kind of a manner, and the outcomes show that you can. We just have to be very conscientious and intentional about how we do it. We're taking a prudent approach on this. We've not rushed into this. It would be a mistake not to move into this area; it would be a mistake to move into it too quickly and without lots of consideration. 

The Commons: As we embark on the new campaign and move in a number of key strategic directions, how do you see Seattle University positioning itself in the years ahead? 

President Sundborg: The phrase that keeps coming out is, "Seattle University is Seattle's  university." There's no other university that has set itself to be engaged in the city of Seattle the way in which we have. The University of Washington is more of a national research university-and at least a statewide kind of a university. There's a different way in which Seattle University is engaged with Seattle. We are very thick on the ground in what makes Seattle work and that's a big, big impact. 

The Commons: We're seeing more and more lay people assuming the position of president at Jesuit institutions. When you get together with the presidents of other Jesuit schools, what's the dynamic like? Do the lay presidents tend to be sort of deferential to their Jesuit counterparts? 

President Sundborg: As one of the longest holdouts as a Jesuit as a president, I wish there were more deference (laughs). I'm now the second-longest serving president of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities. Only the president of Boston College (William Leahy, S.J.) has been in a year longer than I have. In this last year, there were four new presidents of Jesuit universities chosen and three of the four were not Jesuits, but lay people. So gradually the landscape is changing, and I find that the lay presidents come in as very committed persons, as very professional persons, and they're really full colleagues with the Jesuits who are presidents. 

In some ways there's a bit of a different expectation (between Jesuit and lay presidents). I sometimes think that boards of trustees think, "Well, Father knows better." I think for the lay presidents, there's more demanded of them in terms of their management, their financial acumen, than there might be of the Jesuits. 

The Commons: How is Seattle University viewed by presidents from the other Jesuit institutions? 

President Sundborg: I remember around the time I started as president, Tom Brokaw said that in this country Seattle is seen as the city of the 21st century, and people look to Seattle as being the city that is the pioneer of the future. I think there's still something strongly about that-that Seattle is seen as out front of things culturally, and I believe other parts of the country feel that about Seattle, and thus, Seattle U. We're not as much a Catholic region as other regions are, so (other Jesuit presidents and schools) don't think of Seattle U as a leader in Catholic higher education, but I think they see Seattle University as being more experimental and entrepreneurial in its education. That we're more likely to try things out than other hidebound universities in other states. It's a great place to be, I'll tell you! 

The Commons: If the Father Steve of 2014 could give one piece of advice to the Father Steve of 1997 as he was just starting out as president, what would that advice be? 

President Sundborg: It's the people, dummy. When you start, you think it's the institution and you think it's the programs and you think it's the finances and processes and the structures, and the more you get going and the more you develop as a president, you realize it's all about people. And so the advice I would give is, slow down, you'll figure out the structures and the processes and the organizational administrative kinds of things over time; be present to people, relate with people, listen to people. It's all about the people and those relationships. Almost every (new) president is too focused on the university as a structure, rather than the university as a community of persons. 

So that would be the main advice, and then as early as possible, try to be president in your own way, rather than in the way that others want you to. A thousand different people are telling you what they expect you to be as president, but find your own way to do it, because that's something you can put energy into and that also provides longevity. 

So, boy, that's a lot of advice for a poor guy just starting out (laughs).

The Commons: Let's talk books. What were some of your favorites from the past year?

The President’s Reading List

Thanks to the crack efforts of Lynn Deeken and Rick Block in the library, you can view Father Steve’s entire reading list from the past year HERE. Titles carried by the library are hyperlinked to make for easy ordering!

President Sundborg: Without question, the best book I read this year and I think in five years is called My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. It is a phenomenal book, well-written by an Israeli journalist (Ari Shavit) about the history of Israel in vignettes. The other book is called The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade and this is by Thomas Lynch, the poet. Thomas Lynch was an undertaker in Ohio and a poet, and he's written several books of poetry, and I've read them all, but this is a book of essays and kind of an autobiography. It was most interesting to see what an undertaker sees of human foibles and reality. I found it funny and insightful. It's a fun book.  

The Commons: Pope Francis? I'll leave it at that and let you answer however you'd like…

President Sundborg: I spent a lot of my year, and probably about a third of my reading of the year, studying and trying to figure out Pope Francis. I think it's because, as a Jesuit, I'm very curious that there is a Jesuit pope, and I'm very interested to see how his Jesuit background affects the way he is pope. So I've done a lot of digging into his background and decisions he's made.

I'm still sort of surprised that there's a Jesuit pope, because it's kind of like, "They like  us? Really? (laughs) I thought we were the ones they were suspicious about." I'm just so amazed at the number of people that stop me on the streets and say, "Hey, Father, I'm not a Catholic, but, boy, do I like this pope of yours!" A very, very intriguing kind of a person. He's changed the conversation of the Catholic Church. He may not have changed the teachings of the Church, but he's changed what it is that we talk about that's important. And that's the biggest thing he's done. And the way he's just open to people is phenomenal.

The Commons: It came out recently that the pope said he would be open to baptizing an alien. How about you-could you see yourself doing that?

President Sundborg:  You know, most children when you do baptize them are like little aliens. (Laughs)  

The Commons: Is it difficult for you sometimes to remember what life was like on campus in the "Pre-Segway" era?

President Sundborg: I can't remember what it was like to not be looked down on by these giants riding around on these stilts. But I'm not really used to it yet. It's kind of like "Brave New World," this silent scooting around of these stand-up safety people.

The Commons: Any new apps?

President Sundborg: Yeah, got an idea for a new app. Last year's was Bon App. My new app would be called the "Nap App" or just "N" and then "app" for "Napp." And what this is, is an app that tells you the closest place where you can take a nap without anyone noticing. I think it's the fact that I'm now well into my 70s, approaching 71, that that's the app that I want.

The Commons: What about Facebook, Twitter…?

President Sundborg: Excuse me?

The Commons: Are you still on the sidelines?

President Sundborg: Yes, I'm clean. I'm trying to figure out where I draw the cyber line and I have not advanced a whole lot. I do have an iPhone 5. And I do use an iPad when I travel and I get on WiFi. I do use my cellphone as an alarm clock because I cannot figure out-I don't know who makes these things, but if you can figure out how to use an alarm clock that's in motel and hotel rooms, you're a better person than I am. I just can't figure out that high technology.

The Commons: What was your favorite act at Quadstock?

President Sundborg: My favorite act was the closing. I was just coming back on campus and they had the last drumbeat, and that was my favorite act of Quadstock.

The Commons: If you could choose what acts played at Quadstock, living or deceased, who would you bring here?

President Sundborg: Simon and Garfunkel…Peter, Paul and Mary…John Denver. (Starts crooning "Leaving on a jet plane…")  

The Commons: How about Macklemore, would you consider bringing this 2007 alumnus of Quadstock back to campus?

President Sundborg: I was at a breakfast the other day and they played Macklemore music and I didn't know it was Macklemore. I do know who he is now.

The Commons: Did you recognize the song at all?

President Sundborg: No!

The Commons: How are things over in Arrupe these days? I assume you're still carrying out your duties of getting the coffee made no later than 5 a.m. and "de-boning," as you've called it-or removing all the ads from-the newspapers. Any big changes? 

President Sundborg: Yes, I'm still on coffee and paper duty. We have a new regime at Arrupe because we have a rector from California, so we're trying to teach him to dress Northwest and that's sort of with the wool plaid shirts and suspenders. He's not there yet but we're trying to break him into the Northwest dress, rather than the California casual. 

The Commons: Who's the one person, living or non-living, with whom you'd most like to have coffee or dinner? 

President Sundborg: Besides Meryl (Streep)? 

The Commons: Yeah, let's try someone else-let's move down the list a little bit… 

President Sundborg: (Pause) I think it would be Abraham Lincoln. I mean, what was it that gave him the character that he had? Incredible. I'd love to have him for a log cabin dinner or coffee. 

The Commons: What's it like to be at a Redhawks basketball game, look across the court and see a student holding up a giant cardboard cut-out of your head? 

President Sundborg: First of all, I hope it scares the opponents. And whoever got that picture, it's a very skinny Father Steve, so I see it and I say, "They don't have the double chin there or the jowls." There's some growth yet for that poster. But I was surprised to see it, yes. 

The Commons: Have you gotten back to your home state of Alaska lately? 

President Sundborg: I've never left Alaska. You can take the boy out of Alaska but you can't take Alaska out of the boy. I'm still the dogsled priest in northern Alaska. Haven't been up there this year but I keep connected with Alaska. Our School of Law is branching out to Alaska. 

The Commons: Maybe you could use your tuition remission benefit to pick up a law degree up there someday. 

President Sundborg: That's right. 

The Commons: How many LiVE wellness points did you rack up last year? 

President Sundborg: I think HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) prevents me from answering that. I am alive , so that's one good point. 

The Commons: So I hear "Great Uncle Steve" is venturing back to Lake Winnipesaukee to be with his sister and her family for part of the summer… 

President Sundborg: My great-nephews and my great-nieces see me either once a year or every other year, so they pretty much forget who I am, thankfully, and I have a chance to reinvent myself every year with them. There's six of them now. I find ice cream is helpful to get across how much they love their great uncle. I'm eager to see them… (long pause)  …I'm eager to see them but to have a separate cabin from where they're all living so that I can sneak away to use my Nap App. 

The Commons: So your personal cabin is still intact?

President Sundborg: Yes, but it's threatened. I've got a sister, though, who knows that the priority in her life should be to spoil her priest brother. I think she's getting some high pressure from her kids and one of their families would like to stay in that cabin. 

The Commons: Can you tell us about the girlfriend you had before you entered the Jesuits? 

President Sundborg: Yes, I had a girlfriend when I was in high school. She was the next door neighbor and her name was Popsy Apcar and she was from England. She was a very, very close girlfriend…except I never spoke a word to her. 

The Commons: We better stop there so we have some questions left for next year. Anything else? 

President Sundborg: Well, there is one thing. I saved a person's life this year. 

The Commons: Details, please… 

President Sundborg: I was at a restaurant and a woman at a nearby table started choking on a piece of steak, and I very calmly got up and performed the Heimlich maneuver on her, never having actually seen the Heimlich maneuver, but just sort of knowing generally what it was. Put the old forearm underneath the rib cage, got the other hand under that forearm, three good lifts, and the husband or boyfriend said, "Father, you can stop now, you've dislodged it." People came over to me during the meal and said, "You know, you did save that woman's life-I hope you know that." 

So I came home and I Googled "Heimlich" and learned that it's named for Henry Heimlich who was in Vietnam and developed the "Heimlich" maneuver. And I learned that I had somehow performed it properly. So if people are looking for a companion when they go out to a steakhouse, I'm the guy. And I'm one of these guys, I think of myself as a total klutz! 

The Commons: Well, I guess if it didn't work out so well, you could've administered last rites, so she was covered either way. I assume you ate for free?  

President Sundborg: When we went to pay, the waiter told us that the couple (the woman who was choking and her companion) paid our bill except they paid it before we ordered the coffee and dessert, so the waiter said they'd only charge for the coffee. And afterward, I began to think, that was pretty cheap of that restaurant (laugh), I mean, how would you like Medic One in there with a gurney, wheeling someone out of your restaurant?