People of SU

Q&A with the President

Written by Mike Thee

June 9, 2015

President Stephen Sundborg, S.J.

The Commons caught up with President Stephen Sundborg, S.J.

In mid-May The Commons caught up with President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., to get his thoughts on the 2014-2015 academic year, what's ahead for SU and a variety of other subjects, serious and whimsical. You'll find a list of the books Fr. Steve has read in the past year and reflections on his many selves (and selfies!) as president, priest and person. If you don't read all the way through, you'll miss out on such important matters as the president's radical new diet program, what kind of dog he would have as a pet-and what name he would give the dog-and more. Much more. 

The Commons: What were the highlights of the year for you? 

Father Sundborg: Not only the highlight of the year but the highlight of my whole life was the time in Rome seeing the pope. What, for me, was so amazing was that somehow I was able to help bring this about and get the access to the pope. I love the line where people say I took all my chips and I pushed them across the table, and then I emptied my pockets and I added that and then I took off my watch and put that there and I melted two chalices and I shoved it across and said, "Father General, head of the Jesuits, I've never asked for a favor, but I've got one." 

So that's really informed a lot of what the year has been like, just an overwhelming kind of an experience for me. Things come from it that I just keep thinking of.   

The Commons: OK, that's a pretty good highlight. Anything else? 

Father Sundborg: This has been a big year for me for the capital campaign. I just really am thrilled with the way it's organized, the leadership of it-I think every single person I've asked to lead a task force of one part of the campaign or another has agreed to do so. We really have an A-team working on the campaign. 

And then I just love it when there's a Truman Scholar that is named and we get the confidential indication of who it is and it's up to us to announce it to the person in some sort of nice, surprising way. Scheming with Bridget Hiedemann (Truman Scholarship advisor) and Luke Green (director of the Office of Fellowships) on how we would do this and finding that very night there was a Sullivan Leaders meeting, so we just happened to stroll by at the time of the meeting and let Olivia (Smith) know that she won. I just love those moments!

The Commons: What were the challenges of the past year?

Father Sundborg: This is probably the hardest year that I've had as president and I'm not so sure it's not the hardest year the university has also had. The biggest part of it was the financial, budgetary challenges that affected all of us, not only the challenges of getting the budget right-which we have-but the amount of engagement, meetings and work and the length of time I was involved. This is the 19th  budget I've been involved in and more than any of the other 18 budgets, I was really engaged with it and had to stay with it all the way from the end of the summer when we knew it wasn't going to come out right for this year. So that's been a big challenge, but we've faced it. I regret that one of the parts of the decision is no compensation increase for faculty, staff and administration, except for the final year of the market equity adjustment we were committed to for staff. 

It's been a difficult year, too, in terms of the issue around unionization and issues around fossil fuels and other kinds of things. This has been a more fracturing kind of a year on campus, and that's been present to me also. That concerns me-what can we do to enhance the relational quality of the community of faculty, staff and students at Seattle University? We need to be creative in finding ways to do that. That's a big challenge. 

The Commons: How would you complete this sentence: In 2015-2016, Seattle University will ______? 

Father Sundborg: Seattle University will put itself on the right footing for longer term financial stability. We're involved in a repositioning of the university, especially financially. There's many different facets of that including new programs, finding efficiencies and prioritization of the various things we do here, seeing what we're doing now that we don't need to do, what are new sources of revenue. We're also doing an assessment of every academic and non-academic program in the university as part of the repositioning, so there will be a lot of work to get ourselves on the right footing so we can invest in our strategic priorities. It's going to take a couple years to get there but this year is the crucial, I'd say pivotal, year. 

It's also the year of preparing for our 125th  anniversary as a university, which we will celebrate in 2016-2017. So we'll be exploring what's the most important way to celebrate not only looking back on 125 years, but looking forward from 125 years. I think that will be an interesting process for us. 

And of course we'll win the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) in men's and women's basketball and soccer, volleyball and the full range of sports. 

The Commons: Complete this sentence: Being president of Seattle University is _______. 

Father Sundborg: Being president of Seattle University is the best job in the city. Bar none. It's hard for me to respond simply to that question because being a priestly president of a university transforms it into a different kind of experience. It's not only just great being able to be the president of this kind of an independent university but at the same time to be able to be a priest and to try to bring as much as possible that priestly or pastoral way of acting into being president is just extraordinarily fulfilling. 

You know recently-I don't know if it's a sign of age or what-I'll be walking along one of the malls of Seattle University and there will be a flow of students one way or another. Of course you can't talk with them anymore because they've got the buds in their ears, but I'll have this feeling come over me of, Boy, I am gonna miss this someday. I guess I'm thinking of when I'll be sitting in my rocking chair down in Los Gatos, California, with the other retired Jesuits and remembering the days of walking the malls of Seattle University and the flood of students and the campus and the grounds and the whole community…it's an accumulation of experiences that breaks through as an emotional impact for me.  

The Commons: Seattle University will become a tobacco-free campus on July 1. I know you were a smoker once. Was there anything in particular that prompted you to quit? 

Father Sundborg: I kicked the habit because I came back to interview to be president of Seattle University and I saw that there were these signs-No smoking within 50 feet of any building-and I'd come out of the Administration Building during my interviews and see these forlorn people in the drizzle underneath the trees on the bench and I said, "Really, Steve? You're gonna be out there smoking a cigarette?" And so I quit January 1, 1997, and started as president July 1, six months to the day that I quit. I had my last cigarette in Rome. It was the fact that there was some part of Seattle University that was smoke-free that gave me the incentive to quit. If you're a smoker, you need all the help you can to quit. Being a tobacco-free campus will help and probably save the lives of some of the people of our community. But it was hard. 

The Commons: Who has been the most influential person in your life? 

Father Sundborg: Besides Meryl Streep? 

The Commons: Yes. 

Father Sundborg: (Laughs) Well, you know the most influential person in my life other than my own family members is a woman named Sister Ruth Burrows, an author in Christian spirituality and a Carmelite nun in England. I had the great, great fortune of writing my doctoral dissertation about her life of spirituality and I've been in regular contact with her. It's hard to describe-she's a mentor but she's more than that. I think of her as a watchperson on the tower. I get my bearings from the kind of person she is, plus she understands the Christian life. I pray for her every day and I visit her about every three years somehow. But she's a big, big influence on my life. 

The Commons: If you were to have a dog... 

Father Sundborg: Oh, I'd love to have a dog. 

The Commons: What kind? 

Father Sundborg: Oh, I'd go for like a cocker spaniel. Or a smaller kind of a sheep dog. Furry dog, frisky, smart. 

The Commons: What would you name the dog? 

Father Sundborg: "Ignatius!" It would have to be "Ignatius." 

I happen to think that dogs not only look like their owners, but they look smarter than their owners. They're more alert. You look at people walking dogs and you look at the dog-my impression is that dogs look brighter, more alert than their owners. I don't know if people get a dog and start to look like the dog or they get a dog that looks like themselves, but I would encourage people to try to become as smart as their dog. 

Some people complain about it, but I love the fact that we are the largest off-leash dog park in Seattle-or we seem to be. I just like that. I've always loved dogs. But you can imagine how a dog would go over in a Jesuit community with 22 guys feeding it and teaching it how to behave. That dog would have multiple personalities. 

The Commons: What's your favorite dish served in the Arrupe dining room? 

Father Sundborg: Clam chowder, on Fridays. New England Clam Chowder, not Manhattan Clam Chowder. That one, I forget whatever my doctors told me. That's my favorite dish. But it has to be New England. 

The Commons: Speaking of which, you seem to have lost some weight recently. 

Father Sundborg: Yes, I had a resolution this year that I was going to lose a turkey by Thanksgiving, and I didn't lose a pound. So then I said, well, I'll lose a ham by Easter and then I was thinking, You're not gonna make that one either, so how about a hot dog by the Fourth of July?

And then I went to see my doctor for my semi-annual appointment and I remember him looking at me and saying, "You know, there's a name for that condition you have-it's called 'centripetal obesity.' When you get to your age in the early 70s, you put on weight around your waist. And you need to eat less." 

So I've been taking care of myself since then-that was about eight weeks ago-and I've lost about a turkey, 20 pounds. Feel great, more energy.   

The Commons: Are you on any particular diet or program? 

Father Sundborg: Yeah, it's a really complicated diet program. It's called "Eat…Less." That's all it is. There's three sizes of plates at the Arrupe Jesuit Community. Donnnn't take the big one! Just eat less.   

The Commons: Have you had any memorable interactions with students lately? 

Father Sundborg: There was a student who wanted to interview me because he was writing a paper on moral leadership. We had the interview and it was about an hour long and his last question was, "What can we, the students of Seattle U, do for you?" And I just was so struck by that question, that a student would ask that. I was caught off guard because I've never been asked that in 18 years as president. It shows something of that student's perception of relationship, or maybe presidents and priests have needs also. I told him that students do so much for me, both in regard to respect and affection. That's sort of the gas in my tank as president.

Father Steve taking a photo with a digitalized version of himself in a photo boothAnd then I was speaking at a recent event for admitted students and I asked how many of them were born in the year 1997, and (shwoop!)  all hands went into the air, and I said, "Well I am your age, because that's the same year I began as president of Seattle U." And they looked at me like, "Oh, you poor guy! My whole life you've been doing this?" So it was kind of like, get a life! 

This year they put this darn thing into the bucket list, take a selfie with Father Steve. So I'm on more selfies-I've probably flooded the Internet or Facebook, or whatever you call it, with those things. A lot of these students timidly stop me and ask, "Father Steve, do you think I might take a selfie with you?" I get a kick out of that. This year, they had a photo booth for Red Night Out (at which student awards are given out) and asked my permission if they could have people get their picture taken with (a digitized version of) Father Steve. They had me doing "The Hawk." So I got a selfie of myself with Father Steve. 

The Commons: Which Father Steve looked better? 

Father Sundborg: Oh, I look better (than the digitized version); it's post-diet. 

The Commons: We've got the full list of books you read this past year. Any highlights? 

Father Sundborg: If you look at my list, I read six books on Pope Francis. The one by Austin Ivereigh is an excellent book and the more recent one by John L. Allen, Jr., is just a superb book on him, too. I would highly recommend these books. I did enjoy reading Lila  by Marilynne Robinson-I would recommend anything by her. It's the third of her trilogy and it's about this town and families in the Midwest. It's a great, great book. The book that everyone was talking about… 

The Commons: Fifty Shades of Grey?  

Father Sundborg: No… All the Light We Cannot See (by Anthony Doerr). I thought that was good. It was a remarkable book. I don't know if it's the impact of the poetry, but I'm looking for something more literary. I think that's why I like Marilynne Robinson, and the poetry. I'm afraid that poetry's going to take over. Right now I'm not only reading poetry every day, but I'm reading biographies of the poets. 

The Commons: Have you ever tried your hand at writing poetry or are you just a consumer of the genre? 

Father Sundborg: (Laughs)  I've tried my hand. That's about it.   

The Commons: Do you typically read multiple books at once or just one at a time? 

Father Sundborg: I'm one of these unfortunate beings, you know, that if they start a book they don't go to another one until finishing the book they started. That forces you to choose well. 

The Commons: So what do you want to be when you grow up?

photoshopped image of Father Steve as a dogsled priest Father Sundborg: I still have the Alaskan bug in me. The old dogsled priest has not disappeared-"Mush you, huskies!" is still there somewhere. I don't think I should endanger my life by actually trying to be a dogsled priest but there's something about the great frontier. If you grew up in the Territory of Alaska and you get that sense of "the great land"-which is what Alaska means-that's got a pull on you. 

The Commons: OK, it's second-and-goal on the one-yard line with 20 seconds left, a time out and a chance to win the Super Bowl. Do you hand the ball to Marshawn? 

Father Sundborg:  Absolutely you hand the ball to Marshawn! I was watching that game with a bunch of Jesuits back in Washington, D.C. I'm not allowed to bet because of NCAA rules, but I thought, "Oh gosh, the Seahawks have pulled this out and they're gonna win this game!" And then…So no, I would try him a couple of times. Or a quarterback sneak. Makes life interesting, doesn't it? 

The Commons: Have you ever been to a rock concert? 

Father Sundborg: I once went to a concert of Judy Collins (in Seattle). I also went to see The Supremes, and you wouldn't believe it but the warm-up was a singer named Stevie Wonder, who was relatively unknown at the time. So don't underestimate me-it's been 40 years but I've been to concerts! 

The Commons: How about summer plans? 

Father Sundborg: I've got great plans. Every five years the presidents of Jesuit universities from around the world gather for a meeting, and this year we're meeting in Australia about international Jesuit education collaboration. I've never been to Australia, so I'm looking forward to that. And then the best is that I'm going to be spending two weeks at my sister's home on Lake Winnipesaukee (New Hampshire). It's on Lake Wentworth, actually, which is a tributary lake to Winnipesaukee. And boy am I gonna look good in my swimsuit now that I'm trim and toned. So I'm going to impress these, what do I have now?-eight grandnephews and nieces-Great Uncle Steve is gonna be really impressive! 

The Commons: So last academic year you saved someone's life (by performing the Heimlich Maneuver on a fellow diner who was choking). This year, of course, you met the pope. How do you intend to top all of that in 2015-2016? 

Father Sundborg: Save the planet? I don't know. What's left?