Diversity at Seattle University

June 12, 2023

President Eduardo Peñalver delivered the following remarks at Baccalaureate Mass on June 11 as part of Seattle University's 2023 Commencement.

Good afternoon.  I am Eduardo Peñalver, Seattle University’s 22nd President.

I would like to thank Bishop Schuster for presiding over this year’s Baccalaureate Mass.

I would also like to thank St. James Cathedral, and Fr. Mike Ryan, for their hospitality in hosting us this afternoon. 

And, of course, many thanks to the staff of Seattle University’s Campus Ministry for their efforts in organizing this celebration. 

At Seattle University, our mission is to empower leaders for a just and humane world. 

In addition to an unwavering commitment to academic excellence, our mission of empowering leaders requires us to foster an inclusive academic community, one that fully reflects the rich diversity of the globally interconnected world that our students will lead towards greater justice and humanity.

At Seattle University, we understand our diversity to be intrinsic to our mission.  That understanding takes on added significance this year, as universities across the country are forced by the their state governments to scrub the words “diversity and inclusion” from their websites and as we await a decision from the Supreme Court of the United States that will likely hinder the ability of many universities to achieve diverse student bodies.

We know that diverse academic communities are generally more excellent than homogeneous ones.  They are more generative.  They are less likely to be defined by the limited perspectives and life experiences of their individual members. 

But we also understand that, when diverse communities splinter, when members of groups turn on one another or retreat into corners, when members subordinate and marginalize one another, diverse communities can fail . . . and fail spectacularly. 

In his first letter to the faction-prone Christian community in Corinth, from which today’s second reading was drawn, Paul is clear-eyed both about the importance of diversity and about its potential for fragmentation.

Throughout the letter, he returns again and again to the body, a metaphor that captures simultaneously the importance of unity and the necessity of diversity.

In today’s reading, Paul says that “we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”  His words are echoed by the Second Vatican council when, in Lumen Gentium, it says that “the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ” is “both expressed and brought about” through the sacrament of the eucharist.

But Paul’s reference to the body is not a simple insistence on unity, much less uniformity.  Paul observes that the healthy body does not just tolerate diversity.  It requires it.  “If all were a single organ,” Paul asks in a later passage, “where would the body be?”  Pope Francis affirms this sentiment when he calls diversity “a richness” that we need to embrace.

But to enjoy the full fruits of diversity, we also need to attend to the things that we share as co-members of one body.  Pope Francis cautions us not to allow our celebration of diversity to lead us towards the kind of radical individualism that “close[s] ourselves up in what makes us different and unique,” ignoring what we have in common – our shared humanity.

This insistence on celebrating diversity while also attending to community distinguishes a Catholic conception of diversity from its more individualistic secular cognates. 

I always bristle when people use “diverse” as a synonym for “person of color” – as in, “he is a diverse person.”  Besides being nonsensical, this unfortunate usage reflects a deep confusion and misunderstanding about diversity . . . and about community. 

Diversity is a quality of communities, not of individuals or even collections of individuals.  And by “communities” I mean communities in their entirety.  Every member of a diverse community contributes to its diversity. 

At Seattle University, we care about each individual member of our academic community, whom we have committed to educating as whole persons, in all your complexity.  But we treasure our diversity because of who we aspire to be as a university.

Paul valued the diversity of spiritual gifts among the Corinthians precisely because that diversity strengthened the Christian community in Corinth. 

We can’t genuinely value and love the rich diversity of Seattle University without, at the same time, valuing and loving Seattle University itself and the shared mission that defines us as an academic community. 

Put another way, anyone who praises Seattle University’s inclusive culture offers implicit (although perhaps sometimes unwitting) praise to our reasons for being inclusive . . . our reasons for existing as a university at all. 

Seattle University welcomes students, faculty and staff from all faith traditions – including many people who identify with no faith tradition and some who affirmatively reject faith altogether.  We welcome people of all races, national origins, sexes, gender identities, and sexualities.  We welcome people with a diversity a viewpoints. 

Seattle University’s reasons for extending this inclusive invitation are inseparable from our mission.  The radical inclusiveness of our invitation is ultimately rooted in our Catholic faith, which teaches us that all human beings, without exception or qualification, are loved by God. 

Seattle University’s foundation in the Jesuit educational tradition makes us different from every other institution of higher learning in Seattle.  And the audacity of our effort to live out our Jesuit Catholic charism, in our distinctively inclusive way, here in the Pacific Northwest (the most secular region in the United States) is the reason it matters whether our inclusive mission succeeds or fails.

Graduates, as you celebrate your successful completion of your courses of study, and as you reflect on your time at Seattle University, I hope you also take time to reflect on and celebrate the distinctive academic community you have been a part of for these past few years – a university unlike any other – a Jesuit Catholic university unlike any other.

I hope that, as you continue in your lifelong pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, your appreciation and affection for Seattle University will continue to bring you back, time and again, to our campus – your intellectual and spiritual home – for renewal and encouragement.  And I hope you will continue to enrich us with the diversity of your perspectives, identities and experiences.

Once again, congratulations!