Campus Community / People of SU

Exit Interview

Written by Mike Thee

June 2, 2021

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Father Sundborg reflects on 24-year presidency and looks ahead in wide-ranging Q&A



Through the years, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., has generously shared his insights and perspectives on Seattle University—and quite a bit about himself along the way. In previous years’ interviews, we learned about his fandom of the movie “Home Alone” and the unapologetic delight he takes in watching those burglars get their comeuppance. We learned about his adventures in cooking (the “spaghetti carbonara incident”—a supper he feared might be his last). We learned about his prowess in slugging doubles during his Little League days in Alaska (“That means I could hit the ball a mile and I was very slow…”), his custom-made bowling ball, his favorite and least favorite words (“magnanimous” and “siloed,” respectively). 

And then there’s the various talks given through the years—some of which he refers to as “Father Steve Unplugged.” He has shared such stories as the hike he took in Italy and how a woman he encountered reminded him that his descent took no more effort than a zucchini rolling downhill; a failed attempt at disciplining a family member (more on that later); and his trepidation in redeeming a gift card he received for a massage. 

So what possibly could be left to cover? In this exit interview, the 16th such end-of-year Q&A he has done, Father Steve looks back on 2020–2021, his 24 years as president and what’s next for him. He talks about a bet he made with his predecessor and one he’s made with his soon-to-be successor, his latest hobby, how he hopes to spend the upcoming year before getting his next assignment and more. 

Q:  How was your year?

Father Steve: Wow. Don’t they often say, “How time flies!” This is the opposite. How did time ever slow down as much as it slowed down this year. It’s been a long year. It’s been a bit of a slog, I’d say. I was thinking sometime ago that I’d have a victory lap (for my final year as president), with a flag around my shoulders, but it was no victory lap—let me tell you. With COVID and with the national issues and the whole transition, this has been quite a year for all of us, and I’ve not been exempt from that. So it’s been a challenging year. 

I think the thing that has most buoyed me is I’ll go down at least once a week and just walk around the Center for Science and Innovation, the Sinegal Center. I’ve never taken such delight and curiosity and interest in a building—we’ve built so many of them in my time—as I have in the Sinegal Center. I’ve really identified with the building; as construction is finishing off, my time as president is, too. 

Q:  You lived alone for 12 months during COVID as a precautionary measure. What was that like? 

Father Steve:  You know, I always thought I would enjoy the bachelor’s life. There’s some things to it. I lived over on 13th, and having that small distance from campus, it felt like going home in a different way, and I enjoyed that. But I’ll tell you, I’m really not meant to be a bachelor. It got kind of stark, living alone. I think I had underestimated how much I enjoy living in Jesuit community. I’ve lived in a home for men—or kind of a men’s club—for 60 years. I’m not meant to live alone. I was glad I had the protection. It kept me safe, but no thank you. 

Q:  You’ve spoken of how one of your roles at Arrupe is to get up sometime during the 4:00 hour, make the coffee and bring in the newspaper. During those months you were living by yourself, who was taking care of the coffee and paper? 

Father Steve:  Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think it was getting done until like 5:15 in the morning. 

Q:  How has the experience of the last year, particularly with COVID, changed you? 

Father Steve:  If you can believe this, it’s made me even more reflective than I am usually. There’s something about it that makes you more reflective, a bit more in touch with your own feelings, more compassionate, more thoughtful about others. 

This year the Jesuits have been making what is known as the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life—it’s kind of an additional half-hour of prayer time each day for nine months. And COVID really allowed a little more space and time for this, a bit more of a contemplative or meditative mode. 

Q:  Looking back at your 24 years as president, what moments brought you the most joy? 

Father Steve:  There’s a lot of them. One of them is a lunch I had with a donor during our campaign, and afterward, the donor called me up and said, “You asked for $25 million and I’m not going to give you $25 million. I’m going to give you $30 million because I believe in what Seattle University is about and what you’re doing.” Hey, that’s joy. 

Another one of them is the moment that Jim Sinegal of Costco informed me about the initiation of the Costco Scholarship Fund (which allows underrepresented students to receive a Seattle University education). That was an extraordinarily encouraging and promising moment. 

Nothing equals the 45 minutes with Pope Francis in his library, especially translating him from Italian to English and from English to Italian. That experience with “Uncle Frank”—that’s something that’s really treasured. 

And then the choice by the university of Eduardo Peñalver as the next president really does give me a lot of joy, just in the kind of person he is. And finally, the opportunities to be “Father Steve Unplugged.” I’ve done that at the faculty and staff appreciation events, Homecoming Weekend, Parents Weekend. There’s a few times a year for the unplugged moment. I almost always go too far, but I still enjoy those a lot. 

Q:  What is something you’ll miss most about being president? 

Father Steve:  My image of Seattle University is the stream of students when there’s the class break. I’m going to miss seeing that and being able to say hello to students or ask them a question. Another thing I know I’m going to miss extraordinarily is I’ve had people who have supported me—senior staff, administrative staff—all the way through these 24 years. They’ve rendered me totally helpless on my own. I’m going to have a rude awakening and will miss being taken care of in that kind of a way. As president, I’ve based a lot of what I do around the relationship with the cabinet, and I’m really going to miss having a team like that. 

Q:  And what won’t you miss? 

Father Steve:  Having raised about a half-billion dollars over these years during two campaigns, I won’t miss doing fundraising. And then there’s something about the pace that you live at and the complexity of being president. I won’t miss that. I’m looking forward to a simpler way of living. 

Q:  Would you do it again? 

Father Steve:  You bet I would do it again! I look at myself and I’m almost 30 years older than Eduardo Peñalver. If I was 30 years younger, I’d do it in a moment. It’s a rich, varied, challenging thing to do if you throw yourself wholeheartedly into it, but you’ve got to have the youth and you’ve got to have the energy to be able to engage in it. 

Q:  What were your favorite books from this past year? 

Father Steve:  Two books really stood out for me. One is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns about the great migration. Phenomenal book. I think The New York Times once said it was one of the 10 best nonfiction books ever written. And the other one I liked was Barack Obama’s A Promised Land

Thanks to our colleagues in Lemieux Library and Learning Commons, Father Steve’s full reading list from 2020-2021 is now available.

 Q:  I see one of the books on your list from the past year was a book titled How to Read a Graveyard by Peter Stanford. Does this mean that your fascination with cemeteries has continued? 

Father Steve:  Yes, I am a taphophile—a lover of cemeteries. (“táphos” in Greek is “grave.”) By the way, taphophobia, is an extreme fear of being buried alive. But I’m a taphophile. I discovered it through COVID. I found my weekly entertainment every Sunday afternoon was going to a different cemetery in Seattle. They’re beautiful, they’re quiet, they’ve got a lot of history, they’re funny as can be about what people put at the gravesites and there’s a certain prayerfulness about them. Cemeteries are phenomenal, so much better than going to the movies. This is a new hobby. I haven’t quite exhausted all the cemeteries of this region, but I’ve been to most of them. And if I travel, I’ll go and see the cemetery in the town, because it’ll tell you more about the town than anything else will. I’m very curious about cemeteries. I don’t think it’s morbid. 

Q:  You’ve mentioned that you are the oldest president SU has ever had, by 12 years. Would you recommend that? 

Father Steve:  You know, it’s amazing, we used to think that these Jesuit presidents were old. But yes, I am the oldest. The next oldest was Father Sullivan, who retired when he was 65. I do say that every decade is better than the previous one and I still find that true. I think there’s a greater richness or depth or self-possession that goes on through the different years. I did find that about five years ago, people started treating me as an elder—I was the senior member of this or that—and then doing more mentoring. I wouldn’t encourage people to go on as long as I have—it’s a little too much—but I think for me, maybe because of my genes (my mother lived to 100, my dad ’til he was 96), I think I’ve maintained a good mental and physical ability right on through it. 

It’s amazing—I don’t know how it happened, but I am stepping down at just the right age. I would not want to do one more year because of the energy it takes, and I don’t think I’d want to do one less year. There’s something about it where I kind of discerned how far I would go. I knew four years ago the date I was going to finish and I informed the Board of Trustees, and I’m holding true to it. I don’t know how I guessed that would be just the right time to step down. 

Q:  Your predecessor, Father Bill Sullivan, served as president for 20 years. No one knows better than you what it’s like to follow a longtime president at Seattle U. What advice would you give President-elect Peñalver as he prepares to take the reins from someone who is finishing 24 years at SU’s helm? 

Father Steve:  Throughout my time as president, but especially in the early years, I was frequently called “Father Sullivan” by people who would mix us up. He and I had a bet that every time someone called him “Father Sundborg,” he would give me a dollar and every time someone would call me “Father Sullivan,” I would give him a dollar. Well, he broke my bank. I’ve told Eduardo the way that’s going to show up is you’re going to be called “Father Eduardo”—just watch! He said, “Oh no, no one is ever going to call me that,” so I said, “Give me a dollar every time it happens.” So I’m going to do well off of that. 

The main thing I would tell him—and I don’t think I need to tell him this—is be yourself just as soon as you can and don’t live in anyone else’s expectations of what you should be like as president. Be who you are because that’s where your energy and everything else will come from. But he doesn’t need much advice. He’s a very listening and thoughtful person, so I think that’ll all come naturally to him. 

Q:  In the earlier part of your presidency, I remember you speaking of Seattle University becoming “Jesuit in a new way,” that is, the importance of readying ourselves to carry on the Jesuit tradition with fewer Jesuits and more laypersons helping to lead the institution. Under your leadership, a great many programs have been launched for faculty and staff to engage with the Jesuit tradition—the Arrupe Seminar, Mission Day, Colleagues and so on. So, do you think we’re ready to be “Jesuit in a new way?” 

Father Steve:  You know, I’ve recently gone back and looked at notes from talks I gave on that and how I spoke of SU’s history in four eras: Jesuit in the old way, Jesuit in the former way, Jesuit in the current way and Jesuit in the new way. And I think I was right on the money, and we’ve worked very hard in order to be Jesuit in a new way. If you look at Seattle U, you see that about 400 or 500 faculty and staff have had a pretty in-depth education and formation in what it means to be a Jesuit university and really a strong built-up capacity for being able to carry the university as Jesuit. 

I think the coming of Eduardo Peñalver as the new president, the implementation of the strategic plan and coming out of COVID opens up new terrain about where the university can go. I think it is the beginning of a new era and being Jesuit in a new way.

I’ve always looked at that as a call of the Holy Spirit that we move into that era—that it’s important to fully engage the richness of what laypeople bring to the institution. We’re ready for it. I may be biased but if you look at the 27 Jesuit institutions, I think we’re the most ready. 

Q:  As you prepare to step down as president, what is your hope or prayer for Seattle University and its future? 

Father Steve:  I hope the university retains its hopefulness, its positive attitude about the future. My view is the best days of Seattle University are yet to come—that we’re the equivalent of like a 27-year-old person but we’ve not yet come into the prime of our life. And I just feel like Seattle University is moving toward its best years and has all the opportunities. I hope the university embraces that while keeping true to its core values, its soul, its heart, its Jesuit character. 

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is kindness. I remember one person who was retiring a few years ago and speaking at our appreciation event said, “Don’t lose your kindness.” Sometimes we can be hard on one another. 

So I pray that Seattle University be optimistic about its future, move into its prime years and retain the kindness that really will makes us a strong university. 

Q:  June 30th is your last official day as president. And then you’ll have a year off before your next assignment. I know you’re a very early riser. So let’s say it’s July 1st and your alarm clock goes off. What time is it? 

Father Steve:  My alarm clock will go off when it goes off every day—that’s just when it goes off. But it will be a time of freedom, a time of space. It’ll be a time for the open road, the wide horizon. I imagine myself on July 1st, the first day I’m not president, in a car heading east to Spokane and Montana and into wide open sky country, and not having a single appointment in my book. That’s what time it is. It’s the time of the open road. I’m not able to do the drive across the country at the beginning of my year off, but I’m planning to do it in the second part of my year off. 

Q:  When you have the opportunity to take that road trip, where are you planning to go? 

Father Steve:  I want to drive across the southern part of the United States. I’ve never really driven in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Florida panhandle, Georgia. I want to see the people there, learn the history, go to the museums. I’d like to visit the Presidential Libraries of America. I’d like to visit the art museum in Bentonville, Ark., where Walmart is headquartered. I can imagine myself finding a small café in the south, sitting at a table and sort of eavesdropping on people talking about what’s going on in the town and find out what America’s like—because as I’ve said, every once in a while it’s good to leave Seattle and visit America. 

Q:  A former student of yours, Mike Mullen of Facilities, asked that it be relayed to you that he is ready and willing to be your driver for the road trip. 

Father Steve:  (Laughs) Yeah, he’s made that recommendation and it was about a nanosecond before I said, “No, Mike, I don’t think we’re going together.” 

Q:  Anywhere else you want to travel in the coming years? 

Father Steve:  I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon. I’d like to see the great monuments in southern Utah. I’ve never been to Ireland. We Vikings conquered Ireland and I’d like to see the land that we conquered. Never been to the Holy Land—I think I’d like to go now. I think I had my own images of the land that Jesus lived in and have not wanted them to be changed by the reality, but I think I’m ready to see what it actually looks like there. 

Q:  You’ve talked about how SU’s campus is a bit of a “dog pound,” and I know you’re a fan. With your schedule easing up soon, do you see yourself becoming a dog owner? 

Father Steve:  No, I don’t think I do, because what I like is seeing other people’s dogs. If I step out of this Administration Building and there’s a dog on a leash out there and suddenly its head is up and it wants to come my way, hey, my day is made. They brighten my life up so, so much. And then I like to walk on and not have to take care of the dog. I’m glad we put in the leash rule—I was the one who resisted that the longest time (“Let those poor dogs run, let ’em chase the ball around and scamper”)—but it got to be a bit dangerous. 

Q:  I guess that makes you something of a patron saint of dogs on SU’s campus. 

Looking ahead to summer, will your travels take you to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire to visit your sister and her family? 

Father Steve:  Absolutely. I usually go there for two weeks, but I’m going for four weeks this year. My sister told me she told her son to fix up certain things in Father Steve’s cabin. I can’t wait to get there. That’s my idea of real joy, real happiness, being on Lake Winnipesaukee. (It’s actually a little tributary lake called Lake Wentworth, named for the colonial governor who was opposed to the war of independence and had to ship out.) 

Q:  I remember hearing you tell a story at a faculty and staff gathering years ago about one of your visits to the lake and your attempt at parenting—or grand-uncle-ing, as the case may be—one of your grandnieces and how that didn’t go very well. How is she doing these days? 

Father Steve:  She’s going to college this year! She’s finishing high school at a school in New York City and is a very fine actress, and I admire her. She’s the oldest of my grandnieces and grandnephews and survived my scolding. 

Q:  Anything else? 

Father Steve:  Well, I’ll tell you this, when you have the job and responsibilities and position that I do, you focus so much of your time on the challenges and the accomplishments and the things that need to be done and you’re all taken up with that. The campus has been transformed, there’s been a couple of campaigns and we’ve developed our academic quality and we’ve grown and so forth. And those are good, but really at the end of the 24 years, what I feel—and I’ve been feeling it for about a year—is what I’ll miss are the people and being able to have that richness in those relationships. 

It’s a very wonderful kind of a thing and I can’t imagine any challenge or position that would be richer than the one I’ve had the opportunity to be in. I used to say I have the best job in Seattle, and I do believe that. To be president of a university, to be associated with the young, to be a Jesuit school in the heart of Seattle and to do that for a long time—I don’t know what would match that. And even with all of that, it’s the personal relationships that count, and I’m just grateful for that. I’ll treasure that. It goes with you and shapes your own spirit.

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