Family Weekend Address: Where Innovation Meets Humanity

Photography by Yosef Kalinko

October 24, 2022

President Eduardo Peñalver gave the following keynote address on Oct. 22, during Seattle University's Family Weekend.


Thank you for being here this morning.    


It is so meaningful to us and to our students that you have chosen to spend this weekend here.


I know that many of you have traveled long distances.  We wanted to make sure you had an authentic Seattle weekend, and so we pulled out all the stops to bring back the rain – you’re welcome!


When I went to college, these sorts of traditions were not as well established. 


Move-in day and family weekends were not really a thing.


My parents just put me on a plane to New York, and I didn’t see them again until Christmas break.  


In coming to Seattle University, your students (and, by extension, you, their parents and loved ones) have embarked on an incredible adventure – one that will ultimately change how they understand themselves and the world. 


I remember my own undergraduate years as a period of intellectual and personal growth without parallel, before or since. 


One message I want to convey to you in no uncertain terms is that all of us at Seattle University are absolutely invested in your students’ success and in the excellence of the educational experience they will receive here. 


We are also invested in creating a community that brings them in and helps them to understand that they belong here. 


I am confident that your students will have a life-changing experience at Seattle University.


My confidence comes from knowing the distinctive kind of academic community they (and, by extension, you all) have joined. 


We like to say that Seattle University is the place where innovation meets humanity.


What does that mean?


Universities are not themselves known for being particularly innovative kinds of places.


As an institution, the university as we know it has been around for about 1000 years.


The robust stability suggested by that longevity is captured in the old joke about how many faculty members it takes to change a light bulb. 


“Change?” the faculty member asked suspiciously.


But the stability of universities as institutions has allowed them to become seedbeds of innovation and discovery. 


And, of course, here at Seattle University we are situated in the middle of a city and a metropolitan region known around the world for its embrace of innovation. 


Seattle ushered the world into the jet age with the Boeing 707.


The global trade that passes through our port has shifted the world’s attention to the Pacific. 


While Steve Jobs was down in California dreaming about putting a computer in every home and every workplace, Microsoft’s innovative business model made that a reality.


Costco changed the way Americans shop more than any other company . . .  until Amazon came long and changed it again.


And, to my mind, most importantly, Starbucks brought Seattle’s obsessive love of coffee to every city in the country and – I don’t think this is an exaggeration – around the world.


I could go on and on talking about all the innovation – in technology, in medicine, in music and culture – that have come out of this city – Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Bruce Lee, and on and on…. but we’d be here all morning.


The bottom line is that Seattle University cannot plausibly claim to be Seattle’s university, another thing we like to call ourselves, if we do not embrace Seattle’s culture of innovation.


Embracing innovation is very much aligned with our Jesuit-inspired mission to educate the whole person and to empower leaders for a just and humane world. 


If the world is going to become a more just and more humane place, and it needs to, then we need to help it find new ways of doing things.


I’m not just talking about technological and business innovation, although those are absolutely essential, but also innovation in terms of how we relate to one another –


  • innovation that changes systems entrenching racial and gender inequity
  • innovation that changes systems that foster widening economic inequality and that stifle social mobility.


We need innovation of all these kinds.  But let me change gears for a moment.  It is important to acknowledge that innovation – by itself – just means change.  It means novelty – new things. 


Change, by itself, doesn’t guarantee that anything will get better.


The air of innovation that we breathe in Seattle these days increasingly includes a hint of wildfire smoke – sometimes more than a hint.


On this (wet) side of the Cascades, that smoke is something new – an innovation of sorts.


And that smoke – linked as it is to climate change – is not easily separable from some of the economic innovations I mentioned and celebrated just a few minutes ago, dependent as they have been on a consumer economy powered by fossil fuels.


In a similar way, the saturation of the Internet and social media in our daily lives, another byproduct of the innovation Seattle has helped to unleash, is (along with many amazing things) associated with increasing economic inequality and declining social trust, phenomena that now threaten the stability of our democracy and of democracies around the world.


Innovation always carries with it this bivalent potential – to make things better, or better for some, even while creating new challenges or making things worse for others.


In 1891, the year of Seattle University’s founding, Pope Leo XIII surveyed the innovations unleashed by the industrial revolution in Europe and decided to write his foundational encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum – New Things (today, he might have simply entitled it “Innovations”).  


The letter has gone on to become the foundation of what we call Catholic Social Teaching.


Pope Leo began it by listing those new things he was observing, some good and some bad.  He talked about:

the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and the marvelous discoveries of science; . . . the changed relations between masters and workmen; . . . the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses; the increased self-reliance and closer mutual combination of the working classes; as also, finally, [a] prevailing moral degeneracy.


In that groundbreaking letter, he acknowledged the creative potential of emerging industrial technologies (“the marvelous discoveries of science,” as he put it) even while warning of the need to attend to their less marvelous impacts on the dignity of the human beings working in factories and on the common good.


This ineluctable ambiguity at the heart of innovation is the reason why Seattle University balances our commitment to innovation with an equally abiding interest in “humanity.”    


To be the place where innovation meets humanity is to be a university where we do not naively celebrate innovation for its own sake.  Our motto is not: “move fast and break things.” 


As a university firmly rooted in our Jesuit heritage, being the place where innovation meets humanity means that we couple our openness to innovation with a search for meaning and truth inspired by a 2000-year-old faith tradition . . .  even while acknowledging that tradition’s own need for constant renewal . . . for innovation.


To be a place where innovation meets humanity is to be a university that understands both that change is essential if we want to create a more just and humane world (as our mission statement puts it) and that attending to our shared humanity is essential if change is to be oriented in a productive direction. 


Our dual commitment to innovation and humanity explains why we became one of the first universities in the country to divest our endowment from fossil fuels.  It explains why we are committed to become a net zero campus.


Being a place where innovation meets humanity is a powerful distillation of our Jesuit values.


Since their founding 500 years ago, the Jesuits have always been innovators and leaders in higher education.


Jesuits have had a long and distinguished history in discovery and in education.  It was a Jesuit astronomer, for example, who in 1927 first noticed that the universe is expanding in every direction, setting the stage for the Big Bang Theory. 


But Jesuits have always grounded their openness to the discovery of “new things” in a commitment to enduring human values. 


In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the world needs innovators with that kind of grounding.  We need innovators to confront and discover solutions for the many challenges we face – climate change not least among them.  But, as Pope Francis has said, new discoveries “will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass.” 


The great 20th century Jesuit scientist and humanist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin challenged us all to become “architects of the future” – leaders who are comfortable with innovation but who can elevate that innovation through the application of spiritual depth and wisdom.  Those are exactly the kinds of leaders Seattle University aspires to educate. 


Central to our effort to make good on this ambition is our reignited Strategic Directions process. 


The foundational goal of that process reaffirms our Jesuit character – which is what grounds our commitments to innovation and humanity; to empowering leaders for a just and humane world.


Everything we do at Seattle University – our curriculum, our commitment to diversity, our creation of an inclusive culture in which all of our students experience a powerful sense of belonging, our student-focused pedagogy – each of these things is ultimately rooted in our Jesuit values.  As a university, the heart of our effort to live out these values, to be the place where innovation meets humanity, starts with our curriculum. 

Because of this, Goal 1 of our Strategic Directions carries a special significance.  It commits us to reimagining and revising our curriculum to prepare our students for the great challenges they – and we – face over the coming decades: (1) climate change and the challenge of building a sustainable future; (2) racial inequity and widening economic inequality; and (3) rapid technological change, with its attendant opportunity as well as the risks of social disruption that it engenders. 


Developing a curriculum that prepares students studying across the full range of university disciplines to understand and engage with these challenges will draw on every ounce of innovation that we can muster. 


A curriculum that can accomplish these goals simultaneously will be a genuinely new thing.  And, if we do it right, such a curriculum will engage our faculty and our students from the standpoint of both technical proficiency and understanding as well as the human values that ground our interest in these challenges.


Our other strategic goals call on us to enhance our student experience, to promote professional formation for all members of our community, and to foster inclusive excellence.  We will only accomplish these goals by tying ourselves even more closely to this remarkable city whose name we share – collaborating with the neighborhoods, businesses, nonprofits and civic institutions that surround our campus.


And our ability to accomplish all of our strategic goals will depend on Goal 5 of our Strategic Directions, which commits us to becoming a more efficient, effective, and nimble academic community. 


Resisting the aversion to change that has been typical of universities over the centuries, we need to become a university community that is more comfortable with the risks of trying new things.  Inevitably, trying new things involves the possibility of failure.  But we can’t let that prevent us from trying.  When we fail, we should fail fast, learn from that failure, and try again.  If we can build those entrepreneurial muscles, then we will deserve to call ourselves “Seattle’s university.”


Making good on Seattle University’s ambitious vision to be the place where innovation meets humanity could not be more important – not just to us and our students, but to the world, which so urgently needs leaders who possess knowledge, wisdom and integrity, the kinds of leaders we are dedicated to empowering – “architects of the future.”


We will never stop working to ensure that there is nowhere better than Seattle University to become that kind of leader.