Family Weekend Keynote
No Caption Provided
October 23, 2021
President Eduardo M. Peñalver
Thank you for being here today.
It is wonderful to be here together in person, despite the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID pandemic.
We all thought it would be behind us at this point, but it has continued to surprise us and challenge us in unexpected ways.
I have long since given up on the “prediction business,” although I am happy to see the infection and hospitalization trendlines – both nationally and here in King County – again pointed in the right direction.
In keeping with that, I will not make any predictions today about where we are headed on the pandemic front.
What I will tell you is that we are absolutely committed to providing our students with as enriching an academic environment as possible, consistent with our best and most current understanding of the public health situation.
As a university, we are invested in providing a world-class educational experience, and we believe that in-person instruction, as well as in-person interaction inside and outside the classroom, are essential to that experience. [More on that in a moment.]
For this fall, following the science has meant a rigorous vaccine mandate, which our community has embraced. About 98% of our faculty and staff is fully vaccinated, and 96% of our students.
Following the science has meant upgrading the ventilation systems within our classrooms and office spaces, so that communal spaces at Seattle University are all at the highest tier of ventilation.
It has meant masking indoors – and I am delighted by the cooperation we have seen in our community with that mandate, as uncomfortable and challenging as it can be.
Finally, we are randomly testing 10% of our community every week – I just got randomly tested a few days ago (negative, by the way) – and I am delighted to share that those surveillance tests are showing almost no COVID cases on our campus. As of yesterday, we had conducted 1,500 surveillance tests, with only one positive result.
In coming to Seattle University, your students (and, by extension, you) 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.
I should say that I also remember – when I was in their shoes -- feeling no small measure of anxiety and insecurity, and I’m sure many of them have expressed those same feelings to you.
As an undergraduate, I sometimes felt lonely. I missed my family, and I missed friends I had left behind. I sometimes doubted whether I was good enough.
One message I want to convey to you in no uncertain terms is that we at Seattle University are absolutely invested in your students’ success and in the life-changing quality of their educational experience. We are also invested in creating a community that brings them in and helps them develop a sense of belonging.
I am confident that your students will have a life-changing experience here.
My confidence comes from knowing the kind of community Seattle University is.
For starters, we are a university. And there is simply no better place than a university to grow, to take intellectual risks, and to explore new ideas.
Of course, there are many universities in this country.
But Seattle University is more than just any university. In fact, as I said at my inauguration a few weeks ago, “there is nowhere better than this place” … for your students’ exploration . . . for your student’s intellectual and personal growth ...
Why are we special?
For starters, no matter where your family hails from – and our students come to us from across the country and around the world – it is almost certainly not a community as diverse as this one, with as many different kinds of people from different backgrounds, life experiences and identities all living and learning together.
There is nothing like a diverse community to stretch your mind. By bringing together people from such a broad cross-section of experiences and perspectives, Seattle University is a cauldron of intellectual cross-fertilization and experimentation.
More importantly, we are not just a university – we are a Jesuit and Catholic university.
What does that mean?
In his famous discourses on the idea of a university, Saint John Henry Newman provided the definitive account of what it means to be a Catholic university.
He argued that a university is, at its essence, “a place of teaching.”
The impossibility of imagining a university without students – means that students (and therefore, teaching) belong at the very center of our self-understanding.
Instead of being student-centered, many universities view research as their primary mission and the nurturing of students – particularly undergraduate students – as a nuisance, or perhaps merely as a necessary source of revenue.
That is not our approach. As a Catholic university in the mold envisioned by John Henry Newman, Seattle University is a student-centered university.
Honed over 500 years, the distinctively Jesuit approach to Catholic higher education engages our students’ intellect, their spirit and their values to teach them not only what they need to know but also how to discover, and ultimately how to live with integrity.
Jesuit education is known around the world for its excellence, but also for its commitment to educating and caring for the whole person – mind, body and spirit.
That does not mean imposing our values on our students – and in fact a majority of our students do not identify as Catholic.
But it means helping them to reflect on their deepest convictions and to bring their lives into alignment with them. We do that through an interdisciplinary core curriculum that, for example, requires our engineers to take theology, and requires our humanists to learn about science. (This is what we mean when we say that Seattle University is a place where innovation meets humanity.)
At the broadest level, Seattle University’s mission statement captures our aspirations well when it commits us to “empowering leaders for a just and humane world.”
There has never been a greater need for such leaders.
The challenges we are facing as a society are grave:
They include the existential threat of global climate change, which imperils our very survival; the scourge of persistent racial injustice coupled with ever-widening economic inequality, which threaten our sense of common purpose; and rapid technological transformation – the so-called fourth industrial revolution – which promises exciting changes in our ways of interacting and of doing business, but which also facilitates the spread of misinformation and extremism.
Education that fails to prepare students to understand and confront these challenges is esoteric and ornamental.
And education that addresses those challenges but does so in merely technical terms that are unmoored from engagement with values will fail to produce leaders with the spiritual and moral depth that overcoming those challenges will require.
The preparation of wise leaders who are capable of understanding society’s challenges, discerning the path forward, and leading us towards a more just and humane world, is what Jesuit higher education aims to accomplish.
At Seattle University over the next two years, we will be in the midst of a strategic planning process that is focused on – among other things – reimagining our curriculum through the lens of these three great challenges.
That process is also focused on enhancing our students’ experience on campus.
It is impossible to spend much time around higher education these days without hearing incredibly overheated claims about the challenges we face and the changes that are coming.
We are told that the model of the residential university is obsolete and will soon be replaced by the so-called “Mega-university,” characterized by its massive scale and by an almost exclusive reliance on online learning.
Online learning, we are told, is more efficient; capable of taking advantage of economies of scale.
It can provide the same education far more cheaply, making higher education more accessible than is possible under the traditional residential model.
I’ll start by acknowledging that -- there is no question – over the past eighteen months, COVID has changed 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 or that we will look back on and cringe.
I – for one – don’t think that Sea Shanty video thing is going to stick.
But some of what we have learned during COVID has permanently changed how we do business, and for the better. Many of us had never taught a class online before last March, and we would have resisted it if asked.
But now Zoom and Teams are second nature. (Although I still don’t think I’ve made it through a meeting where at least one person has forgotten to un-mute.)
In the coming months and years, Seattle University will take advantage of our new online muscles to roll out programs of study, making use of online and hybrid modalities that allow us to draw on the best of both in-person engagement and the best of online flexibility, growing our graduate, professional and executive education programs and making them more accessible.
In the new world that COVID has accelerated into being, our Seattle University community will expand both spatially and temporally to encompass students in far-flung places and in different stages of life.
So I think it is absolutely true that important aspects of the educational experience can be improved or made more accessible through online modalities.
But I am skeptical of some of the more extravagant claims made on behalf of online instruction.
To my mind, where those claims go wrong is in their shallow, narrow conception of the aims of higher education. Specifically, they assume that education is only about imparting knowledge or skills or information to our students.
While higher education is in part about conveying information – about passing knowledge from one generation to the next – the Jesuit conception of education aspires to do much more than that.
The Jesuit approach to education seeks to instill not just knowledge, but wisdom.
Adolfo Nicolas, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, described the wisdom we hope to cultivate in our students as not only “knowledge about something – but a kind of knowledge that leads the individual to have an attitude of constant search for the big questions.”
The core curriculum I already mentioned – which is one of the hallmarks of Jesuit education – seeks to cultivate students who can ask those big questions, who understand the world through interdisciplinary lenses, and who can then take that understanding and lead with intelligence and eloquence and integrity.
When Jesuit education is successful, the leadership and wisdom we impart manifests itself as a dedication to the service of others.
At Seattle University, we foster our commitment to service through programs like the Fr. Steven Sundborg Center for Community Engagement and its Youth Initiative.
These place-based programs put the energy and excellence of Seattle University faculty, staff and students to work on behalf of – and in partnership with – the communities in the vibrant neighborhoods around our campus, neighborhoods that have been shaped by years of racial exclusion, redlining, and – more recently – gentrification and displacement.
As we reimagine our curriculum as part of our ongoing strategic planning process, we will not only be thinking about preparing our students to confront society’s three great challenges, we will also be working to incorporate community-engaged learning into the heart of that curriculum.
But the most important tool for developing wisdom and a commitment to service is a campus experience that is intensely relational, and this is why enhancing the student experience is a key focus for us in our strategic planning process.
Whether between students and faculty, students and staff, or among our students; whether inside the classroom, in our clubs, or on the athletic field, the secret ingredient in a Seattle University education is “relationship” – relationships that change lives and that last a lifetime.
But – at least to my mind – relationship requires presence. It requires the rich interpersonal interaction that a Zoom meeting only incompletely approximates.
Relationship requires the inspiration that can come from the unplanned, serendipitous conversation over a cup of coffee.
Purely online education simply cannot deliver that.
If you doubt the importance of that rich, in-person engagement to the quality of an educational experience, just ask our students.
When given the option, they invariably prefer a residential education to a purely online alternative.
They instinctively understand that there is more to higher education than the transmission of knowledge – that an education not accompanied by relationship is a shadow of what it could be.
Jesuits have always known this. For 500 years, they have honed a pedagogy rooted in a rich understanding of context, in transformative experiences, and in relationship.
This insight is why – when Seattle University does employ online modalities (and, as I said, we will be doing so, although primarily in the context of graduate, professional and executive education), it is supplemented by opportunities for in-person engagement, with our faculty, with our staff, and most importantly, among our students.
But the kind of rich, relational educational experience I am describing is incredibly resource-intensive.
It requires constant effort on our part to evaluate how we are engaging with our students and to ensure that we are not falling into well-worn ruts – that we are actually delivering the kind of education we promise our students and ensuring that our education remains accessible to people from all walks of life.
Keeping that promise depends on sustaining a culture of continuous improvement – rooting out inefficient or ineffective practices – and keeping our costs under control to ensure we are delivering the most transformative educational experience possible in the most accessible way we can.
But even if we are successful in that regard, our kind of education will always be more expensive to produce than less ambitious, less student-focused alternatives.
This is why online educational providers will always be able to offer a cheaper product. But what they cannot offer is a comparable, life-changing experience.
I do not want to be misunderstood – to say that this kind of education is more expensive to produce is not the same as saying it needs to be more expensive to receive.
Along with everything else we are working on, I would add the need to develop sources of revenue beyond tuition to ensure that the superb education we are providing remains financially in reach for students from all backgrounds.
That means growing our annual fund and our endowment – developing the philanthropic resources to expand financial aid, to promote academic excellence, and to enrich the student experience.
It means supporting efforts at the local, state and national level to increase financial resources for tuition-assistance for higher education, and working to ensure that those resources allow students and their families to choose where to spend those dollars.
There is so much to do.
As Seattle University’s new president, I am inspired by that challenge.
Making good on Seattle University’s ambitious vision could not be more important – not just to me, but to the world, which so urgently needs leaders who combine knowledge, wisdom and integrity, the kinds of leaders we are dedicated to empowering.
We will never stop working to ensure that there is “nowhere better than this place” to become that kind of leader.
I welcome your questions.