Campus Community / People of SU

A Legacy of Leadership

Written by By Allison Nitch and Tina Potterf

May 18, 2021

A photograph of Father Steve and Seattle University community members leading Mass of the Holy Spirit.

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Father Steve steps out of the role of Seattle U’s president and into a new phase of his life this June.

“If Father William Sullivan laid the foundation for the modern Seattle University, Father Steve built the skyscraper.”

These words, expressed by alumnus DJ Weidner, ’07, president of the Alumni Board of Governors, reflect the transformative, legacy-defining powers of Seattle U’s 21st President Stephen Sundborg, S.J.

Seattle U’s longest-serving president is affectionately known as Father Steve, a builder, a friend to all, guiding light, steadying force and deft leader. Many of the university’s most defining moments—from the return to Division I and the building of great new facilities to the creation of pivotal programs benefitting students such as Fostering Scholars, service-learning initiatives within a Jesuit and Catholic framework and the elevation of Seattle U’s reputation as a top institution of higher education—have occurred under the direction and advocacy of President Sundborg. His imprint across the university is indelible and inspiring, notes alum Lindsay Leeder, ’02, ’07, a Sullivan Scholar and soccer player who started at Seattle U the same year as Fr. Steve.

“Fr. Steve’s impact goes beyond the physical changes that occurred over the last 24 years. That kind of growth only occurs through vision, collaboration and community support. Fr. Steve harnessed the energy of his community to build a center of learning and education that moves beyond the walls of a classroom,” Leeder says. “I truly believe that his vision of SU was to create a launching pad for individuals to authentically lead and serve in the world, to create a safe space for personal disruption so that we, as students, could break through our own barriers to try to walk in the world as passionate and curious change agents."

In June, nearly 24 years since he first took the position, he will step into a new phase of life as he leaves the post at this Jesuit Catholic university that he helped transform from a one-time “hidden gem” into a nationally known university recognized for its academic excellence, top faculty-scholars, commitment to social justice and care for the whole person. He leaves with the university on strong footing, all the more remarkable considering the unprecedented challenges presented by a once-in-a-century pandemic.

And he leaves having been the state’s longest-serving college president, handing over the reins to President-Elect Eduardo Peñalver.

“Seattle U under Father Steve’s leadership has become more established, respected and uniquely positioned to address both local and structural injustice,” says Weidner, who is not only a graduate of Seattle U but a past employee and current mentor and volunteer, interacting with the President in different capacities. “I think he realized the positive impact an institution like Seattle U could have on the world and did everything in his power to make sure Seattle U and its graduates achieved that potential.”

Recently, Fr. Sundborg—who was inaugurated as president on September 26, 1997—shared his reflections on his presidency while giving a nod to the future:

“People ask me frequently what I am most proud of from these past 24 years. What stands out for me is above all the development of and consistent commitment to our mission. That mission calls us to be Jesuit and Catholic, supports our challenging and relevant academic programs, expresses our personal care of each student and explains why we are so involved with the local community in hundreds of ways. It is the reason we have received such wonderful scholarship programs as the Sullivan, Costco, Naef, Fostering, Bannan and Alfie Scholars and is the rationale for our wide-ranging degrees all in service of ‘empowering leaders for a just and humane world.’ So, when asked what I am most proud of, I say “It’s the mission!”

Here’s a look at some of the key programs, campus improvement projects and initiatives that have defined Fr. Sundborg’s presidency:

A Purposeful Mission

In 2003, President Sundborg authored Seattle University’s Mission Statement, dedicating the university “to educating the whole person, to professional formation, and to empowering leaders for a just and humane world.” 

The mission puts students at the center of all we do and all we are as a university and underscores the new strategic directions for Seattle U, shaping its vision for the future.

During his 24 years as president, Father Steve has developed strategic opportunities for the Seattle University community to carry out that mission, championing endeavors such as the Costco Scholarship Fund for underrepresented students; the Seattle University Youth Initiative to strengthen the education and support systems for 1,000 local youth and community-engaged learning for SU students; and Mission Day.

The mission not only infuses every part of the student experience at Seattle University but also carries forth in the tireless work of faculty and staff, and in the relationship-building championed by the president.

“I worked with Fr. Steve for a number of years while serving on the Board of Regents.  When he returned from his visit with Pope Francis, I noticed a change in him, a peacefulness and sense of purpose that served to inspire me in ways he never had before,” says Joe Zavaglia, ’71. “His engagement and respect for the Regents was always admirable, but from that moment on he was on another level. He helped us build a level of community and engagement with the Regents that set the standard for how it should be done. He emanated a spiritual presence and love for the work he was doing that so inspired all of us, he made us feel we were truly part of his inner circle of respected advisors. … He made us feel like we made a difference and were a critical part of the community.”

A Foundation for the Future

Under President Sundborg’s leadership, enrollment has grown by nearly 80 percent, as the university has strengthened its academic programs, more deeply engaged with civic and community partners and embraced an educational mission that forms tomorrow’s leaders.

Nicole Piasecki, chair of the Board of Trustees, has said of Fr. Sundborg’s leadership that, “Seattle University has grown and flourished, consistently rising in national and regional rankings.” Seattle U consistently ranks among the top universities and colleges in the nation from U.S. News & World Report to WSJ/Times Higher Education and Princeton Review.

In January 2020, Fr. Sundborg shepherded the launch of the Strategic Directions to guide Seattle University’s most important work over the next five years to further its mission and advance a long-term vision for the university.

“Being a Catholic university is something many of us are so proud of and Fr. Steve built on our image and strengthened it by his strong Catholic leadership, at times taking stands that may have been unpopular, but he did so because they were the right decisions, so his strength of character solidified our reputation as a great Catholic university,” says Zavaglia.

Another important initiative that coalesced during Fr. Sundborg’s presidency is the creation of a Staff Council. Erin Beary Anderson, associate director of Campus Ministry, says the president worked closely with her and others in getting the council off the ground.

“Fr. Steve was so incredibly supportive of the work we were doing because he cares for staff and truly understands the positive impact staff have on the student experience,” she says. “Our partnership with Fr. Steve through the difficulties of 2020 made a tangible difference in the lives of Seattle University staff and I will always be grateful for that.”

Center for Community Engagement and Seattle U Youth Initiative

The Center for Community Engagement (CCE) serves as the main entry point for students, faculty and staff who want to engage in the local community through service learning, mentorship and other outreach. It also acts as the focal point for community-based organizations and government institutions seeking university support to address unmet community needs. Its signature focus is the Seattle University Youth Initiative (SUYI), which unites the campus and the surrounding neighborhood to enhance Seattle U students’ learning and improve the academic achievement of 1,000+ youth from low-income backgrounds in Seattle Public Schools.

“It was Father Steve who led the effort to create the Center for Community Engagement in 2004,” says Executive Director Kent Koth. “And he led the effort to launch the Youth Initiative in 2011. Bold initiatives require bold leadership. Father Steve has led the way.”

Koth continues, “He leads with conviction and also deep humility. I think this arises from his Jesuit Catholic spirituality. I’ve appreciated how he will offer a vision, often through a metaphor or poetry, and then empower those around him, myself included, to take action.”

Adds Carol Ann (Conroy) Barnickol, ’64, “Father Steve’s initiation and support of the Center for Community Engagement and the Youth Initiative have distinguished Seattle University while clearly benefitting both the students and the surrounding community.”

Family Homelessness Project

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has provided funding to The Project on Family Homelessness at Seattle University since late 2009 to support strategic communications around the need to help families experiencing housing instability.

The project used journalism, art and storytelling projects to help engage the community to make family homelessness rare, brief and one time only in Washington state. Concluding in late 2020, it was the oldest continuous homelessness advocacy project at Seattle University.

“Under Father Steve’s leadership, Seattle University became the first university in the country to host a homeless encampment. … His clear and insistent message to house the homeless will be greatly missed in our community,” says Kollin Min, Housing & Homelessness senior program officer for the foundation. “When I look back on all the years that we’ve collaborated, I’ll always remember the many occasions on which Fr. Steve stood up and with his calm, but forceful, presence made the moral case for taking care of our neighbors as we would our own families.”

Fostering Scholars

The Fostering Scholars program was established in 2006 to make higher education possible for current and former foster youth. The program is designed to identify students whose achievements and goals mirror the university’s mission and to allow these exceptional students to fully focus on their goals by providing financial, academic and personal support toward the completion of an undergraduate degree.

Since day one, "Father Steve’s open heart and servant leadership were instrumental in the creation of the Fostering Scholars Program,” says Director Colleen Montoya Barbano.

“Without him, the program would not exist, nor would we have graduated almost 60 former foster youth from Seattle University in the past 15 years. These exceptional young alumni are now leaders in their own rights—in health care, law, business and education. Fr. Steve’s legacy is alive in their successes.”

Global Engagement

Experiential learning is an invaluable way to connect classroom concepts to service experiences both in the community and throughout the world. It’s also part of educating students to be global citizens, one of Seattle University's defining characteristics, and an important element of the mission under Fr. Sundborg's leadership.

Global engagement is a gateway to the wide world of international study programs and resources at Seattle University. On our global campus and through Education Abroad programs, we advance the university’s mission established by Father Steve of creating leaders for a just and humane world.

Seattle University alumni are truly global, coming from 93 countries. Of the nearly 7,200 students on campus, 36 percent are from culturally diverse groups and 700 are international students. With distinguished faculty from around the world, our students explore 130 fields of study.

In the latest Strategic Directions, global engagement is among the top priorities: “Deeply connected to our region, creating partnerships that provide our students unparalleled professional learning experiences locally and globally.”

Great Facilities

“How do we measure his impact over the past 24 years? Let’s look at what is visually obvious, the physical plant itself—our facilities,” says Zavaglia. “Just look where we are now vs. 24 years ago. It was Fr. Steve who had the vision to build out Seattle U into what it is today.”

Over the term of his presidency, Fr. Sundborg has been at the forefront of many of the physical changes—by way of new facilities and services—that have transformed the Seattle U physical campus.

Also of importance: Many of these new buildings are designed to LEED Gold standards, reflective of the president’s and the university’s commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship.

During his presidency, the Seattle University campus has been transformed physically with construction of, among other facilities, a Student Center, the School of Law, residential housing, the Lee Center for Arts, a reimagined and renovated Lemieux Library and McGoldrick Learning Commons and a modern fitness center. A new state-of-the-art hub for STEM education—the Jim and Janet Sinegal Center for Science and Innovation—will open in the fall. With all of these buildings and new spaces Fr. Steve has played an outsized role in helping make them possible.

“Father Steve is a phenomenal fundraiser and I cannot think of another university president who has been as successful over such a long and vital career,” says Michael Podlin, vice president of University Advancement. “He leaves a legacy with the Jim and Janet Sinegal Center for Science and Innovation, the Lemieux Library and Learning Commons and countless endowed funds in support of students and faculty.”

Return to Division I

Led by the President, and unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees, Seattle University began its return to NCAA Division I membership in 2007. The university entered the then five-year reclassification process in 2008.

“I was honored to serve on the committee to evaluate the return to Division I athletics,” recalls Zavaglia. “Father Steve is the person we thank for making this courageous decision and his passion for Athletics reignited a flame and longtime passion for many alums that was so needed.”

The university completed the process in 2012 by earning active Division I membership and joining the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) as a full member.

“Competing in Division I, it’s about striving for the highest level. I think what our student athletes gain from their experience is being fully committed and all in,” says Director of Athletics Shaney Fink. “With a vision to achieve all around excellence, enhancing Seattle U’s national reputation, engaging alumni and the community, and creating a vibrant student experience, Father Steve championed Seattle University’s return to NCAA Division I.”

Strategic Focus

President Sundborg has also been a pivotal and invaluable force in driving the future of the university through key strategic initiatives that will guide Seattle U through the next several years.

In 2020 the university presented, Strategic Directions for Seattle University 2020-2025: A Jesuit University of Distinction for a Time of Change.

As Fr. Steve remarked, “The strategic directions do show us what kind of university we aim to become, what we intend our Jesuit education and formation of students to be, how we will relate to and be enriched by our wider community, how our colleagueship as educators will enable this future and what choices we need to make—especially in academic and financial repositioning.”

Legislative Presence

Over the course of his presidency, Fr. Sundborg was a consistent presence in the government and external affairs efforts of Seattle University. When his schedule would allow, he helped represent the university at community-building events and galas for local charities and other nonprofits.

And he never missed an opportunity to engage with elected or public officials. He worked diligently to always understand complicated issues of public policy or who represented the university in congress or the legislature. Many people of his stature may not routinely—if at all—engage in the kind of grassroots lobbying that goes on behind the scenes. Not Fr. Steve, who has a way of putting anyone he met with at ease will sending an unmistakable message: I represent Seattle University and this is how you can help our students and institution. 

As Fr. Sundborg readies his next move, he recently reflected on the invaluable connections and rich memories he will carry forth from his presidency:

“My heart is full of gratitude for all of you who believe in Seattle University and who have supported and accompanied me during these years. I have never felt alone in leading Seattle University because I have known that I have been accompanied and supported by people like you: friends, alumni, donors, parents of students, members of our boards. I experience more and more that what is important is not the list of the accomplishments but rather the network of people and the relationships with them.”

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