People of SU

President: ‘Perception of the City Affects the University’

March 24, 2023

Picture featuring President Penalver

Puget Sound Business Journal sits down with the president to discuss the school’s evolution, optimism for the city coming out of COVID-19 and more.

Recently, the Puget Sound Business Journal interviewed President Eduardo Peñalver on a range of topics. Here is the story as it appears in the publication:

By Alex Halverson
Reporter, Puget Sound Business Journal 

Eduardo Peñalver is embracing change. The Seattle University president, entering his third year on the job, is leading the school out of the Covid-19 pandemic and leaving the status quo behind.

He’s meeting in person with students and members of the community. But the meetings he used to take by phone, he’s doing by Zoom, in an effort to keep face-to-face interactions. And some classes that used to be fully in-person are taking a hybrid approach, opening them up to more people.

And on top of leading Seattle U, the former Cornell Law School dean is teaching a law course. 

Peñalver, who was the first Latino dean of an Ivy League law school and the first non-Jesuit priest to head Seattle U, sat down recently with the Business Journal to discuss the school’s evolution, his optimism for the state of Seattle and why he wouldn’t eat seafood during his tenure at Cornell.

Day in the life:

6 a.m. Wake up, meditation and prayer, then a 4-mile run with our black lab, Griffey
7–8:30 a.m. Make breakfast for the boys and coffee for me, arrive at thoffice
8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Meetings on campus with my direct reports and alumni visiting campus, or off campus with Seattle business or civic leaders
6:30 p.m. Family dinner
7:30 p.m. Check emails and clear out the inbox
9:30-10:30 p.m. An hour of reading or — more often — catching up on TV, followed by lights out

Are those firsts, which are tied to your identity, important to you?

Not so much for me personally, but for what they mean for the institutions that I’m a part of as they’re concrete manifestations of change. And they sort of made me proud to be part of these institutions and have me thinking about what I can do to continue to move them forward and keep pushing the boundaries of leadership.

What’s been the biggest difference between higher education in a pre-pandemic world and now?

My meetings used to all be in person. And now everyone’s been through this period of learning with virtual modes of interaction. And it’s also true for our students. The biggest change that we’ve seen is a greater comfort from both faculty and students with this medium, and therefore a shift in expectations about how services and instruction will be delivered. It’s a shift from a default assumption of in-person for everything to a more functional approach where we ask, “What’s the best way for this particular interaction to happen for both the quality and accessibility of it?”

Seattle U is embedded in the urban core of the city, what’s the biggest challenge that comes with that? 

The biggest challenges are the perceptions. I think the reality around the downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods is actually much more positive than the perceptions. If you focus on our part of downtown, the nexus of Capitol Hill and First Hill, it’s doing really well, though it’s not without its challenges. There’s a lot of street life, very few vacant storefronts in our part of town, so that reality is really strong. But we’re all part of Seattle, and so whatever the perception is of how Seattle is doing, that affects the perception of how Seattle University is doing. 

It feels livelier than a year ago, right? 

It does, I can tell you that my commute from Queen Anne is taking a solid 10 minutes longer than it was a year ago. I hear from a lot of different people this sort of optimism with a healthy acknowledgment of the challenges that we face, which are not all unique to Seattle. There’s work to do and Seattle University definitely feels like we’re in that fight.

After spending most of your professional life on the East Coast, what’s your favorite thing about working in Seattle?

As a kid growing up in Puyallup, to get to a Mariners game was a big undertaking in both directions. Now I can see a game after work easily. I can get to Climate Pledge Arena in a 10-minute walk from my house, I can get to T-Mobile Park or Lumen Field in a 15-minute drive from my house. And obviously, the food in Seattle is just so rich and great. The seafood is something I’ve missed, and not something I was having often in Ithaca. I have a rule about being a certain distance to a coast before I eat seafood. 

You were known as “Dean P” at Cornell and your predecessor at Seattle U was known as “Father Steve.” Do you have a nickname here yet?

You know, not that I’m aware of. Maybe there’s one lurking around the corner — I’m going to have to challenge the students to get on that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.