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Campus Community / People of SU
Written by Mike Thee
June 9, 2020
On May 21, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., sat down (via Zoom, of course) to be interviewed for his annual Q&A. As usual, he reflected on the year that was, but 2019-2020 has been anything but ordinary. Unsurprisingly a good portion of the conversation was devoted to COVID-19—which the president called “the most disruptive, longest lasting” crisis of his presidency.
And then on May 25, before the interview was published, George Floyd was killed at the hands of law enforcement officers in Minneapolis, sparking renewed calls for racial justice nationwide. In light of the new developments, The Commons followed up with Father Steve for his thoughts on the recent killings of Floyd and others. What follows are excerpts from both interviews, beginning with the more recent conversation on Seattle University’s responsibility to care for our Black students, faculty, staff and alumni.
The Commons: Can you talk about the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and how Seattle University is called to respond to racial injustice?
Father Steve: When I saw the killing of George Floyd—and before that, the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and so, so many others through the years who have died at the hands of law enforcement—I was horrified at this brutality, and my thoughts immediately went to the Black students, faculty, staff and alumni in our community. I will never fully know and comprehend the pain they are going through, but one thing is universal: we, all of us, cannot let this happen.
Taking from someone the most fundamental of human rights and doing so based on the color of their skin is not only unacceptable and sickening—it is pure evil. There is something very broken in our society, and as a Jesuit university we are compelled in a particular way to do everything we can to help fix it, systemically and as individuals. And that starts right here on our own campus. As a university, we must stand with our students, faculty, staff and alumni of color, and we must see to it that all members of our university are cared for and made whole.
Most immediately, we must take care of our students as they struggle with the events of the past several weeks, this in combination with all the disruptions already thrown at them by the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, with my full support and encouragement, our Provost, Chief Diversity Officer and VP for Student Development provided guidance to faculty in terms of waiving final exams or making other arrangements that support students who need it. This is just one of many ways we must support our campus community. Among many others, a key component is how do we use everything we have as a university in terms of teaching, research, discourse and engagement to really stand with the Black community in support of anti-racism and against white supremacy.
Our university has made strides in recent years in building a campus community that is more inclusive and welcoming, but this work has only just begun and is nowhere near complete. We must continue to listen to those who are marginalized and translate what we learn into concrete actions that make a difference in their lives. As president, I will continue to engage with issues of racial justice and I hope all members of our university family will join me in this work. It is on us to not only advance, but to accelerate, our efforts to build a more just and humane world.
Following are excerpts from the original interview with Father Steve, which took place May 21.
The Commons: As we look back on all that occurred during the 2019-2020 academic year at Seattle U, how would you put it into words?
Father Steve: You know, if I were to title it, it would be “Before and After.” We took for granted what things were like before (COVID-19) and now we’re living in the after. Things are all so different. It’s like there’s a divide that came in March. I could not have imagined how different everything about the university would become. I think the strangest thing is for me to realize that there’s 1,180 courses being delivered and engaged in by 7,300 students, delivered by 600-700 faculty…and you don’t see any of it. You don’t see the students, you don’t see the faculty, you don’t see the courses, you don’t see anything. It’s kind of like, is this an alternate state of reality? Is this really going on?
The Commons: What has impressed you about how the Seattle University community has responded to the pandemic thus far?
Father Steve: For me it’s almost like a miracle—it’s amazing how quickly we pivoted and completely adjusted our entire educational system in order to accommodate this situation. I mean, if you told me that in the course of a week we would shift our mode of delivering an SU education the way we did, I’d have said it’s impossible, it can’t be done. And yet, we were one of the earliest to do it and we did it quickly. There were some things that prepared us for it. The Center for Digital Learning and Innovation, under Rick Fehrenbacher, is really critical for us. That helped a lot of professors be ready for this and gave them a lot of help they needed.
The Commons: What has been most difficult for you, as president, in navigating COVID-19?
Father Steve: Really the most difficult thing is not seeing people. I didn’t realize how much for me to function depends on just seeing students. I love to see that river of students when there’s the break of class and walking between Arrupe and Admin. Just the campus and its activity and the faculty and staff. The people. The strangest part has been continuing to work in very high, intense, stressful pressure with an empty campus. That has been the hardest thing.
And then there’s the uncertainty. It’s hard to make plans. People want to know what’s it going to be like in the fall, what can you commit to, what are the classes going to be like, what are the residence halls going to be like, what are the safety measures. Everything is so dependent on the overall situation about this disease in our society.
At the same time, I’ve got a great desire and think this upcoming year could be just phenomenal in the sense of, What an opportunity to have the students work together with us faculty and staff in order to make it a good year. We’ve all got this challenge, and what do we do with it? How can we do it together? I think 30 years from now, students who are here today, when they look back on their time at Seattle University, they’ll define this upcoming year as the most important time, the most memorable year and the one in which they learned the most. It could be a very good year, educationally, and how we pull together as a community.
I also look at (the present situation) as an opportunity to reshape our university, because when everything is disrupted, it gives you an opportunity to put it together in a different way. So this is not just about getting through this next academic year—it’s about how will this allow us to shape Seattle University in the longer term.
The Commons: In the earliest days of the pandemic, you wrote to the campus about how a Jesuit education is needed more than ever in this time of social distancing? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Father Steve: I think all of us recognize in this time that we are reaching out to connect with people maybe more than we’ve ever done because we feel the need to do so. I’m amazed at how many acts of kindness there are, where someone will just drop you a note and say, I’m just wondering how you’re doing. And I find myself doing the same thing. So there’s a way in which we’re compensating for the lack of being able to connect in person, and we’re doing it in a different way. I think there’s an awareness for that and a hunger for that will probably endure in our university community.
The Commons: As the university plans for the fall and the various possible scenarios, what are some of the principles that will guide the decision-making?
Father Steve: What’s critical is finding the right balance of what’s best for our campus community. We want to be sure that faculty and staff can carry out their teaching and work safely, whether its in-person or virtual, and how that aligns with the students—what they want and what they’re ready for in terms of their own sense about their safety and their own desires for what their college education will be.
The Commons: In February, you formally announced that you’ll be retiring as president in June 2021, and then just a few weeks later, you were met with the biggest challenge of your presidency in COVID-19, which took away any chance of coasting in.
Father Steve: I sort of envisioned myself running around the track on a victory lap (chuckles). Well, I don’t think it’s going to be quite that. But I don’t mind that it will be a challenging year.
The Commons: Well, maybe it just means you have to stay on for another year—make it an even 25—and take your lap in 2021-2022?
Father Steve: (Laughs) Ah, no, no, no. Twenty-four (years) is it. I’m very clear on that!
The Commons: What are your priorities for the upcoming year?
Father Steve: The first thing on my plate is I want to work with the whole university in terms of what this year will be like in addressing COVID-19. The second thing is I want to finish the capital campaign and I particularly want to complete the last part of the Center for Science and Innovation—it’s a $100 million goal; we’ve raised $96 million. And then the third thing is I want to dedicate myself to the hand-off to the next president. I’m not involved at all in the process of the search, but I want to be of help in that transition so the next president starts off in an informed, knowledgeable and connected kind of a way.
The Commons: If a candidate were to ask you what the job was like and why they should take it, what would you tell them?
Father Steve: I would say very few universities have the upside potential that Seattle University has. This is a place where a president coming in can make a difference in terms of what the university can become and what impact it can have. There’s two factors that are really significant. One is, you’ve got to admit that we are an edgy education in terms of our students who are involved in issues and politics and connected and committed to justice—there’s a certain kind of student that we have and that’s an interesting university to be a president of. Then you put in the factor of Seattle, and wow, there is a lot of upside potential because of the city in which we are located. It’s innovative, entrepreneurial with major corporations. And then relative to other Jesuit institutions, we may be the very best positioned for being a Jesuit university in a more inclusive way. I think we’ve worked hard at that and it’s part of being in the Northwest, where there’s not a dominant religion. What an opportunity. The next president has to have a lot of energy, has to be really innovative, has to be willing to be connected widely with faculty, staff and students, but there’s a brass ring out there to grasp in terms of what the potential of Seattle U is.
The Commons: When your time as president is up, what will the process be for determining what you’ll do next? How will that play out?
Father Steve: The way it’ll most likely play out is I’ll be given some time off—maybe a half year—before there’s a consideration of the next assignment with the Jesuits. And I look forward to that…I think I do (laughs). Before what will be 24 years of being president of SU, I was provincial, and before that, I was rector of the Jesuit community—so that’s 34 straight years of being in charge of things. So Steve may find that stepping out of that for the first time in all those years may be not quite as fun as he thinks it’ll be (laughs).
And the way it works is you enter into a dialogue with your provincial, so in our case, that’s Scott Santarosa, S.J., who’s headquartered in Portland. And you present to the provincial things you’ve been thinking of that you might want to do—or that people have been asking you to consider—and he has certain things that he would like you to do or the Province has a need to do. So, you have a dialogue and a discernment about that. We have a joke in the Jesuits that there’s a way to conjugate the word “discern”: “I discern, you discern, he (the provincial) decides.” That’s the process. I’ll be 78 (when my term is up), and I’m in good health, good mind, good experience, so I think there’s another something that I can contribute. But I don’t want to look at it until I get some time off and a freer space.
The Commons: Back to COVID-19, what’s been most challenging for you personally about life during the pandemic?
Father Steve: I moved out of the Arrupe Community back in March at the request of both the cabinet and the rector, Arturo Araujo, S.J., in order that I be more safe and take greater precaution about not catching COVID-19. They thought you’re more at risk if you live in a community of 20 guys and you should isolate yourself from that. For a period about two weeks (after the outbreak intensified), I was still living there (Arrupe) but I wasn’t taking any meals with anyone. I would simply take them up to my room and eat by myself just to avoid that kind of contact.
So anyway, the weirdest thing now is I’m the reclusive bachelor. I’m living in an apartment in Bellarmine. I’m the only one there. This is really a big change for me. I’ve never lived alone in my life. I entered the Jesuits in 1961—so that’s 59 years ago—and I’ve always lived in community, and here I’m living totally alone. I think I’m approaching 200 meals in a row eaten solitarily. All the events at which I would give my welcomes and my talks and my blessings, all those breakfasts and lunches and dinners, and assemblies and galas and so forth—all cancelled. Some of them are going virtual, but boy, it’s different. I didn’t realize how probably a third of what I do as president is all those public kinds of things. It’s opened up a lot of time in my life, but that’s been filled with all the challenges there are out there. So there’s a lot of hard work that fills in that kind of open time.
The Commons: You’ve described yourself as an introvert. Has life in the pandemic only reinforced that or has it caused you to reexamine that way of being?
Father Steve: Well, you know, I weather this really well because I’m an introvert. I like privacy, I like to be alone. But I like this as part of life rather than as the whole of life. I was not meant to be a monk or a hermit—I chose to be a Jesuit. I find joy by going out to a restaurant with people and having a meal. I find joy by going to a movie with friends. And these ordinary ways of finding joy amidst life are just not there right now.
The Commons: How have you been filling your free time these days?
Father Steve: One thing I’ve been doing and—I don’t know, I got on to it because, what do you do to get out of your room—I decided I’d go down and visit the graves of my parents in Aberdeen. So I went down there and I just so enjoyed being in a cemetery and walking around and it’s quiet and meditative and it’s peaceful and historic. So I’ve been making a hobby of visiting cemeteries. I don’t know why, and people think, Geez, that’s kind of sad, but it’s not sad at all to me. It’s so peaceful, it’s so historical, it’s so interesting, it’s so quiet. I just find it a healing kind of a thing to do. I don’t think it’s morose or focusing on death. It’s more focusing on life, and the most common word I found in a cemetery is not “faith” and it’s not “farewell” and it’s not “eternal life.” It’s “love.” The most common word in a cemetery is the word “love.”
For me it’s almost like a substitute for going to the movies. You come out of it and it’s almost like you’ve been absorbed for an hour and a half. There’s a whole history that’s wrapped in there. It’s a story.
The Commons: How is the Arrupe Jesuit Community doing in terms of COVID-19?
Father Steve: I think the community is doing just fine. I stop up there for provisions about once a week, and I’ll go to Mass there once a week—there’s a small Mass we have where people are socially distanced from one another. There’s a good strong adherence to the safety measures that need to be in place. Jesuits are meant to be in ministry, so it’s curious to be sheltering rather than engaged with people, and I think that’s hard, but as far as I can tell, people are doing fine in the community.
All of us are still dealing with the death of Peter Ely—and this on the heels of having lost another great Jesuit, Pat Howell, back in November. That a person can celebrate the Good Friday ceremony and die on Holy Saturday morning from a heart attack is just hard to take in. Peter was such a good man to all of us, and to have that happen in the midst of these strange times we’re living in, it’s such a shock. I was so amazed at how many people commented about Peter—that he stopped and talked to people and he never seemed to not have time for people. He connected, he spent time with people. It’s amazing how much that counts.
Another thing that shocked me is that five Jesuits in a retirement home in Pickering, Ontario, died of the coronavirus (within five days). Out of a community of 22, 16 got the virus and five of them died. One of them was a classmate of mine. And then I learned that four Jesuits in a retirement home in Dublin died of the coronavirus. And that six Jesuits in a retirement home in Philadelphia died of the virus. We learned of the deaths in these three communities, through news clippings, in the span of three days, and I don’t know what’s happened to the Jesuits in Spain and in Italy and India…But imagine living a full life as a Jesuit and what you do by way of your ministry and service to others and then dying alone, not able to be in contact with others. No one around you praying with you. That’s a hard reality to take in. Jesuits are brothers with one another internationally and so we really do have a profound sense of fraternity among us. It’s not like those are the Canadian Jesuits or those are the Maryland Jesuits and so forth—no, we have a sense that we’re all a part of the one Society of Jesus. These in some ways are our siblings—and when you live with them, they kind of push you toward God—and losing so many of them at once is really just overwhelming.
The Commons: I imagine you’re having more time than usual to read—what are Father Steve’s top picks from the past year?
Father Steve: The most remarkable book of the year, and perhaps the most remarkable book I’ve ever read, is called The Five Quintets (by Micheal O’Siadhail). It’s about a 350-page poem of the development of the world since about 1500. One quintet is about art, another is about science, another about economics, another about governance and finally one is about emerging visions or philosophy. It is the most amazing book. Now, I like poetry, but I’ve never read a 350-page poem on such a profound subject. I recommend if you read it, read one quintet per weekend, because you just have to absorb it. And on the jacket, the president of Ireland says, Get rid of all your other books. And I kind of agree—other books are great, but this one is different. I said to Peter Ely how much I looked forward to getting this book. I ordered him a copy and he couldn’t wait to read it. The book arrived two days before he died. I don’t think he had a chance to open it or look at it.
My second favorite book was by Austen Ivereigh on Pope Francis—it’s the most comprehensive book on the pope. My third one is Timothy Egan’s A Pilgrimage to Eternity. I happen to be featured in the book a couple times, because Timothy Egan (New York Times columnist and author) is a friend and he was seeing whether I could get him an interview with Pope Francis at the end of his journey of walking from Canterbury in England to Rome, but I’m not going to spoil it for you. The fourth book I’d recommend is this one by Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, and it’s about a therapist going to a therapist—very, very insightful. And then there’s a real discovery, a book by Hisham Matar called The Return. He’s from Libya and it’s a story of what happened to his father when he was taken prisoner by Gaddafi. So those are my five books and I’m sticking with them.
The Commons: How about TV? Have you discovered any new shows during the quarantine?
Father Steve: (Laughs) If I could figure out how to use a remote control, I would have a better TV life. I mean, c’mon, you have to have a doctorate to know how to make a TV function these days. I just want to turn it on and press “5” and get channel 5. I’ve been watching NBC News every night at 6:00, but what I’ve gotten onto is I’m really enjoying PBS documentaries. There was one on George W. Bush, there was one on inside the Vatican, one on Asian Americans’ experience—those are so good. But no sports. I mean, it’s supposed to be baseball season. That’s a real joy, being able to relax on a Saturday afternoon, have a tuna fish sandwich and a soda and watch golf or something. But there’s no sports.
The Commons: How long did it take you to get through “Tiger King?”
Father Steve: (Long silence…) Never heard of it. What is that?
The Commons: We’ll move on. How about video games? Someone passed this question along: What’s your native fruit in “Animal Crossing: New Horizons?”
Father Steve: I think the last time I played a video game, I sat down and by mistake with my leg I accidentally detached the cord and I never got back to it. One chance at a video game and I failed.
The Commons: Was that with one of your grandnieces or grandnephews?
Father Steve: No, I think it was just a couple other Jesuits who were just as inept as I was.
The Commons: I know that every summer you go to visit your sister and her family at Lake Winnipesaukee. Are you going this year?
Father Steve: I think I’m going! August 1st. I called my sister to see if it would be possible and can the family come and how do we do it. So I’m hoping. Cross my fingers. I can’t imagine not doing that.
The Commons: Anything else?
Father Steve: I’m just really grateful for the way people are pulling together during these times. It’s remarkable. I always knew we had it in us, but it’s really been shown. And I’m looking forward to one day not being a reclusive bachelor and rejoining the Arrupe Community.
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