President Eduardo M. Peñalver delivered the following remarks at his inauguration on Sept. 24, 2021.
Seattle University is unique among the universities of the Pacific Northwest and arguably in the country. Unique even among the tightly knit community of Catholic and Jesuit colleges and universities, unique in our distinctive vision to become a university known for our innovative, progressive, Jesuit and Catholic approach to higher education.
That’s quite a list of adjectives: Innovative, progressive, Jesuit and Catholic.
There’s something in there for everyone.
Sometimes, piling adjectives one upon the other shrinks a category to extinction.
Is that what is happening here?
Or is this a case where the sum of the terms yields a whole that is greater and more inclusive than its constituent parts?
To my mind, exploring the union of these four adjectives that Seattle University uses to describe itself is like navigating a labyrinth.
Or, more precisely—and to borrow from Jorge Luis Borges—it is like navigating “a labyrinth of labyrinths, a maze of mazes, a twisting, turning, ever-widening labyrinth that contain[s] both past and future and somehow implie[s] the stars.”
The key to ensuring that this evocative string of words becomes an “ever-widening labyrinth”—rather than a narrowing intellectual cul-de-sac—åis the word I have omitted, the word that is most definitive of who we are: “University.”
All these other words are simply attempts to describe the kind of university we aspire to be.
In his justly famous discourses on the idea of a university, Saint John Henry Newman said that a university is, at its essence, “a place of teaching.”
If universities were—first and foremost—places of discovery or creation, he reasoned, then he could not understand “why a university should have students.” After all, research would certainly be more efficiently done without the distraction of teaching classes to beginners.
But the presence of students—indeed, the impossibility of imagining a university without students—suggests that students (and therefore, teaching) belong at the very center of our self-understanding.
Newman’s argument always makes me reflect on a prestigious endowed lecture I attended as a freshman in college. The distinguished scholar who was delivering the lecture, and who will remain nameless, began his talk by extolling the virtues of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, where he happened to be in-residence at the time.
In a room full of tuition-paying undergraduates, he praised the institute precisely because, he said with a wide smile, and I quote, “There are no students there.”
If Newman was right, and if teaching students is the purest distillation of the university’s purpose, it does not follow that the production of scholarship or creative works is without importance.
One of the things we are teaching our students to become is creators of knowledge. Producing superb scholarship and including our students in that process is vital to our educational mission.
Not all universities understand themselves—or scholarship—in this way. Instead of being student-centered, some schools channel that scholar from the endowed lecture I attended as an undergraduate–they view discovery as their primary mission and the nurturing of students, particularly undergraduate students, as a nuisance or perhaps merely as a necessary source of revenue, a way to keep the lights on.
I will start with the proposition that, as a Catholic university in the mold envisioned by John Henry Newman, Seattle University is a student-centered university.
But what does it mean for Seattle University to be a university that is both progressive and Catholic? The juxtaposition of these two adjectives is startling. Some would say that it is a contradiction.
To be progressive is to have one’s eyes fixed on a brighter future.
To be Catholic is, at least in part, to understand 2,000 years of tradition as a source of truth and wisdom.
Yet it is at the knife’s edge where these two perspectives meet that Seattle University has chosen to plant its flag.
That seems like an unusual choice, maybe even a slightly dangerous one.
But to understand its deep wisdom, let me take a bit of detour and talk about the Cuban-born conceptual artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
Before there were NFT’s, there was FGT.
Gonzalez-Torres’s art pushes the limits of minimalism.
This piece, for example, is called “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” It consists of 175 lbs of hard candy, typically arranged in a corner.
Torres created it to honor his partner, Ross Laycock—175 lbs was Ross’s healthy weight. Patrons are encouraged to take pieces of candy home with them. In doing so, they reenact (over and over again) Ross’s gradual wasting away as he grew sick and died of AIDS.
In 1990, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created one of his most memorable works: “Somewhere Better Than This Place/Nowhere Better Than This Place.”
The piece is a classic example of his minimalism.
It consists of two neatly stacked piles of paper.
On one pile appears the phrase “Nowhere Better Than This Place.”
Nowhere Better Than This Place
On the other are printed the words, “Somewhere Better Than This Place.”
Somewhere Better Than This Place
Patrons are invited to take sheets from the piles to keep for themselves.
The interaction between the audience and the art leads the piece to be in constant motion, with piles shrinking and then being replenished by the curator.
What I find particularly fascinating about it is the conceptual labyrinth it seems to create.
Which sheet do we take?
Does choosing “nowhere better” suggest that we believe this place, at this time, is as good as it gets, that there is no room for improvement?
If so, then choosing that page would seem to embody the self-satisfied affirmation of the complacent and the comfortable, an expression of pure privilege.
In the midst of all the imperfection and injustice that is plain to anyone with eyes to see, the decision seems simple—we need to set our sights on “somewhere better than this place.”
But is that necessarily right?
The poetry of Denise Levertov overflows with wonder at the world’s beauty:
She chastises visionaries who dream of colonies in space, but who “do not love the earth.”
And she even points an accusing finger at herself for allowing days to pass without remembering the most fundamental mystery of all:
“that there is anything, anything at all, let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything, rather than the void.”
If we are forever pining for “somewhere better,” our eyes fixed on the endlessly receding horizon, we risk overlooking the goodness and beauty already present in the world all around us, flawed as it is.
St. Ignatius of Loyola called “ingratitude” the “most abominable of all sins,” because of its refusal to acknowledge the many benefits and blessings we have received. If we fixate too narrowly on the possibility of “somewhere better,” we may fail to accept his invitation to seek God “in all things.”
Sometimes, people seem to toggle between the two extremes.
Revolutionary movements, for example, start out by focusing single-mindedly on creating somewhere better, by any means necessary.
Once in power, however, they very often come to believe that they have achieved perfection and that (as a result) there can be nowhere better . . . Even a discussion of that possibility comes to be viewed as counterrevolutionary. And so all too often they begin to repress political freedoms and devolve into the self-satisfaction of “nowhere better.”
Which sheet do we choose?
Felix Gonzalez-Torres does not tell us and yet his decision to make the piles the same size is perhaps suggestive of his perspective on the matter.
To my mind, his piece challenges us to celebrate both ideas at once—to find a way to live in gratitude for the goodness that we have received, without forsaking the indispensable and never-finished search for “somewhere better.”
But in this Manichean, all or nothing moment in which we are living, simultaneously acknowledging value in the present (or—even more controversially—in the past) while affirming our commitment to work for “somewhere better” can feel like an impossibility.
That uncomfortable but necessary tension—between acknowledging what is good while at the same time longing for what might be better—distills for me the challenge of Seattle University’s vision to be a university that is simultaneously progressive and Catholic.
In recent years, an insistence on tradition—on the notion that the past has all the answers—has seemed to dominate the public understanding of what it means to be Catholic.
And yet, as Pope Francis reminds us, the Catholic tradition has always sought to maintain a balance between a reverence for received wisdom and the recognition that the restless Spirit of God remains alive and in motion, even today, seeking to set the world on fire and to inspire us with new ways to live out and deepen our understanding of enduring truths.
It is therefore not altogether surprising that from the soil of the Catholic intellectual tradition has sprouted many potent and progressive ideas over the years, ideas that were once novel. It is ideas like “social justice,” a term that was first coined by the Catholic Thomist Luigi Taparelli, S.J., in the mid-19th century and which has been so forcefully elaborated in the social teaching of the Catholic Church in the 130 years since the publication of Rerum Novarum – “New Things” – in 1891.
Coincidentally, in that same year, 1891, on September 27 in this remote corner of North America—on this eastern shore of the Salish Sea that we call home—a new thing came into being when two Jesuit priests celebrated the first Mass in the school that would become Seattle University.
In the ensuing years, Seattle University has grown from a small Catholic college largely by and for Catholics into a comprehensive university that engages with an increasingly secular society around us, a university that welcomes a diversity of people and ideas. And in so doing, Seattle University has become a cauldron of intellectual cross-fertilization and experimentation.
These developments, our increasing openness to a diversity of people and ideas and the increasing vitality of our academic culture, are closely connected.
Sustaining the kind of intellectual ferment that has led us to excel as a university has depended on our embrace of diversity. And by this I mean more than compositional diversity, although I surely mean that as well.
But it has also depended on our embrace of a diversity of viewpoint and on our creation of an inclusive and supportive culture—both inside and outside the classroom—one that allows the full and fearless expression of our diversity.
Universities have not always been hospitable to diversity. In the 20th century, many American universities excluded women or people of color.
Many excluded Catholics and Jews and purged communists from their faculty ranks. Some continue to exclude LGBTQ and gender-non-conforming people.
And even among those who do not actively exclude, many fail to create an environment that nurtures and sustains a sense of belonging.
Today, the value of interacting across diverse identities and viewpoints is increasingly under assault from all directions, on campuses and in our wider society.
At Seattle University, we must recognize that diversity—and the creation of an inclusive environment that allows that diversity to express itself—is at the very heart of our university’s excellence.
A university that is not diverse across multiple dimensions of identity and perspective—and that does not go beyond that diversity to establish a commitment to inclusion, belonging and engagement—cannot credibly claim the mantle of excellence.
We acknowledge that we still have a great deal of work to do. We need to increase the diversity of our faculty and senior administrators, we need to ensure the success of our diverse student body and sustain a campus culture in which students of all backgrounds and identities feel like equally valued members of our community. We need to welcome constructive engagement with people who hold different points of view.
These are not distractions from our academic mission. They are essential to our ability to achieve it.
But if we are true to our vision to be a progressive university community, is disagreement a sign of failure? Does welcoming a diversity of viewpoints suggest a lack of commitment to being a university that is truly progressive?
In considering these questions, we need to first remember that our vision is to be a university that is progressive and Catholic. It is no more the case that for Seattle University to be true to that vision we must all be progressive than that we must all be Catholic . . . or that we must all be progressive or Catholic in precisely the same way.
Nor do I need to remind you that even progressives—full stop—disagree about a great deal. In fact, some might say that we are exceptionally good at disagreeing with one another. I have sometimes heard Seattle’s contact-sports version of politics described as “the left versus the lefter.”
Progressives disagree about what “somewhere better” looks like. Is our goal radical economic equality or an end to radical inequality? Is our goal the freedom to choose one’s gender expression or the rejection of gender as a meaningful category?
Progressives disagree about how to prioritize among shared goals—about which goals should take precedence or whether that is even possible. Must we address economic inequality in order to make meaningful progress on climate change? Or is climate change an existential threat that takes precedence over all other issues?
And of course progressives vehemently disagree about means—how do we get to “somewhere better.” Would a Seattle tax on payrolls provide badly needed revenue to tackle challenges like housing affordability or would it simply encourage employers to move to Bellevue?
People who consider themselves progressive can disagree about the answers to all these questions, many of which are questions of empirical fact that require rigorous investigation, the kind of relevant investigation at which Seattle University excels.
At a more basic level, we will disagree about what it means to navigate the tension between our university’s Catholic and progressive commitments.
And so it should be clear that our vision of being a university that is innovative and progressive and Jesuit and Catholic is hardly a recipe for consensus.
This observation comes as no surprise to anyone who has spent an appreciable amount of time at Seattle University. It is a feisty and unruly place. But that is a feature, not a bug because we are a university. A university characterized by consensus would not be one worthy of the name.
But our status as a university also has some important implications for how we should go about living out our mission, including how we should go about disagreeing.
Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., the former rector of the Jesuit University of Central America, delivered the commencement address at Santa Clara University in 1982, seven years before he was murdered by a death squad in San Salvador.
In that address, he spoke about how a Catholic university committed to justice should live out its mission. Central to his argument was the insistence that, even when confronted with radical injustice, as he surely was, we need to respond to it as a university.
Ellacuría recognized that university work is collective work and essentially so. He insisted that, as a university, we are “an intellectual community,” not a collection of isolated individuals.
Among other things, the collective nature of our work means that our disagreements at a university should be accompanied by a mutual recognition of our shared participation in a common academic enterprise.
As a result, those disagreements should be tempered by a commitment to collegiality. They should be characterized by the kind of intellectual charity and the spirit of generosity—what the Jesuits call presupposition—that sustains community even as we challenge one another.
Ellacuría further insisted that, as a university, we should confront the injustices we seek to defeat first and foremost as academics—by rigorously analyzing causes, by deepening our understanding of social mechanisms.
Finally, and here perhaps echoing John Henry Newman, Ellacuría argued that, as a university, we should seek to bring a better world into being through our students. As a student-focused institution in the Jesuit model, it is our students, he said, “who will be the immediate instruments of [social] transformation.”
Seattle University’s mission statement therefore wisely commits us to “empowering” our students to become “leaders for a just and humane world.”
Our mission of educating and empowering students means preparing them to lead, teaching them to question and to think, equipping them with the skills to persuade those with whom they disagree.
And it means helping them to appreciate the beauty and the blessings in the world around us, even as we recognize its imperfections and injustices.
To realize Seattle University’s bold ambition that there be “nowhere better” for students to grapple with society’s great challenges, we have our work cut out for us.
As we look to the future and consider what stands between our imperfect present and “somewhere better,” three great challenges loom.
One is the existential threat of global climate change and ecological sustainability, which imperils our very survival. This summer’s heat dome, not to mention the wildfires and hurricanes, drive home the imminence of this threat and the need to develop new ways of thinking and living. Seattle University, which this year will achieve Scope 2 carbon neutrality, needs to be at the forefront of this effort, which will require all of our creativity and intellectual rigor.
A second grave challenge is the scourge of persistent racial injustice coupled with ever-widening economic inequality and other forms of social exclusion and subordination that threaten our sense of common purpose. The events of the past 18 months, particularly the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, have underscored the urgency of understanding and addressing the deep structures of injustice we have inherited. If our multiracial, pluralist democracy is to survive, our students need to understand those structures so that as the leaders for a just and humane world they can help to dismantle them.
The third great challenge of our time is rapid technological transformation—the so-called fourth industrial revolution—that promises exciting changes in our ways of interacting and of doing business, but which also facilitates the spread of misinformation and extremism.
No matter what field of study our students have chosen, from political science to computer science, they need to understand data and technology, not just in their technical dimensions, but through an interdisciplinary lens that includes their impact on human beings and on our communities.
Rapid technological change also opens doors to new pedagogical possibilities. Over the past 18 months, COVID has forced us to rethink the way we educate our students.
Some of the changes imposed on us by the pandemic are things we will be happy to leave behind. I have never taken to bumping elbows as a sign of greeting. And if I never attend another “virtual cocktail party,” it will be too soon.
But some of the things we have learned during COVID have permanently expanded our capacity to reach students where and when they are. In the coming months and years, Seattle University will take advantage of those new muscles to roll out programs of study, making use of hybrid online modalities that allow us to draw on the best of both in-person engagement and online flexibility, growing our graduate, professional and executive educational programs and making them more accessible.
In the new world that COVID has accelerated into being, our educational community will expand both spatially and temporally to encompass students in far-flung places and in different stages of life.
But, as with everything we do, we will undertake these efforts with a firm commitment to our Jesuit approach to deeply engaging with and educating the whole person, reconciling faith with reason and inculcating in our students not just knowledge, but wisdom.
As we returned this fall to on-campus instruction, we draw upon these lessons and reignite Seattle University’s Strategic Directions process. We will launch working groups aimed at moving forward on the five goals Seattle University has identified for itself.
Those groups will be charged with reimagining an interdisciplinary curriculum in order to prepare our students to engage with the three great challenges of our time, enhancing the student experience inside and outside the classroom and investing in professional formation for all members of our community, promoting inclusive excellence and creating the conditions for institutional growth and innovation.
And we will approach all of these efforts from a foundational affirmation of our Jesuit and Catholic character.
We will live up to our promise to be a student-centered university that welcomes people of all backgrounds and identities, that cares for our students as whole persons—attending not only to their intellectual well-being but also to their spiritual, physical and moral development.
As I said, we have our work cut out for us.
But, like Borges’s infinite labyrinth, the work of a university is never accomplished.
At universities around the world, that work has been going on continuously for a thousand years.
Here at Seattle University, we are relative newcomers, carrying on that tradition in our distinctive way in this outpost in the Pacific Northwest for a mere 130 years.
As Seattle University’s 22nd President, I am committed to stewarding our unique approach to the academic enterprise, ensuring that our bold ambition to become a university that is simultaneously innovative and progressive and Jesuit and Catholic is not a culde-sac that turns in on itself, ultimately leading nowhere, but instead remains an ever-widening labyrinth within a labyrinth, one that encompasses the past and the future and implies even the stars.
I am committed to looking hopefully to the future, even while giving thanks for the blessings we have inherited from the past.
And I will work tirelessly to ensure that, for Seattle University’s second 130 years, there will be nowhere better than this place to imagine somewhere better than this place.
Thank you to Board Chair (Nicole) Piasecki; Father Carroll; President Emeritus (Stephen) Sundborg; Provost (Shane) Martin; members of the Seattle University Board of Trustees; faculty, students, staff and administration; alumni and friends; distinguished colleagues and visitors from other universities; civic leaders; the Inauguration Oversight and Planning Committee—particularly Michael Flores, Lizetta Solarik and Julie Brady; and my family—with special thanks to my parents and my wife, Sital Kalantry.