This past fall marked the 10th anniversary of my inauguration as president of Seattle University. When the trustees told me a decade ago...
This past fall marked the 10th anniversary of my inauguration as president of Seattle University.
When the trustees told me a decade ago that I was selected as president, they added, “You lack three things: a career of academic administration, knowledge of fiscal oversight, and any significant experience of fundraising. But you can learn those things and you will do just fine as president of Seattle University.”
They were right — I have learned those and many more lessons in my tenure at Seattle University. Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned in the past 10 years:
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A university is really a small city. I heard someone once say and I agree, “Being a university president is less like being a CEO and even more like being a mayor.” It is a job of working with multiple constituencies of students, faculty, alumni, parents, donors, sports fans, civic and corporate leaders and more. Leading these stakeholders forward requires never-ending consensus building and engagement in always-slow-moving processes.
Say who you are, then live by it. There is nothing more important for a healthy university than a president’s clear articulation of its educational mission. The catchphrase is, “No money, no mission.” But equally true for a complex, values-oriented university is, “No mission, no movement.” The most important thing I’ve done in 10 years is articulate and embed in all we do our mission of empowering leaders for a just and humane world.
Never underestimate the power of education. A university education yields the best “return on investment” of any investment a person can make. Graduating with a $20,000 debt pales next to a working-lifetime earning power of $1 million or more compared to that of a high-school graduate. This doesn’t account for the inestimable return on investment in the reflective and intellectually engaged quality of one’s life. Even more important is the multiplier effect our graduates have in bettering society. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is knowing the significant things our alumni are doing and realizing that the university contributed to the human beings they are. This is the greatest return on an investment.
Accountability matters, but academic freedom reigns. There is a growing suspicion in the public about whether universities deliver on their promise and whether they adequately prepare graduates for the workplace. This skepticism, which is rising upward from K-12 education into higher education, is legitimate in holding us accountable for the price we charge, but becomes problematic when testing or other such methods impinge on the culture of intellectual openness that a university must safeguard.
Our understanding of “diversity” must be more diverse. While there is, justifiably, great focus in our universities on racial and gender diversity, less discussed are the equally impactful challenges surrounding economic, political and religious diversity. We are getting better at the former, but not at the latter. I am proud that Seattle University has become a more diverse campus in the past 10 years, but prouder still that we are now grappling as a university community with how we can provide a more diverse climate — in every sense of the word — to our students.
Labels don’t define students. University leaders, parents and the general public at times try to tag or box in young people with labels that fail to acknowledge individuality and intellect. Such labels — like “Generation X, Y or Z” — are inherently problematic as these young adults are always changing and growing and working to define their place in the world. At Seattle University, our students are active in service learning, social outreach for justice and globally minded work that showcases their talents and desire to have an impact in their corner of the world and beyond. Their actions — not generational buzzwords — define who they are and how we should define them.
Faculty are worth the price of admission. Our faculty live by an intellectual passion nearly impossible to fully understand from the outside looking in; they function in a free environment; they challenge assumptions pervasive in society and broaden horizons. A free and passionate faculty is, in my view, “the real deal,” the core of a university and worth the price of admission.
Global citizenship includes America. One of the challenges we continually face is educating and inspiring students to be active, responsible American citizens who are engaged with their global partners. Many universities are failing in this, but it’s not because of a lack of trying. There is a disconnect in students who, for the most part, are turned off by prevailing American political and civic leaders and institutions. They have a far stronger self-identification as global citizens than as U.S. citizens. They are not apathetic but have simply relocated their passion from America to the world at large, the world they will live in. We used to have to get students as, American citizens, to be interested in the wider world. Now what we are doing is getting students who view themselves as world citizens to be committed to and proud of America.
What it means to be a university and Catholic. Being the president of a Catholic university presents many rewards and unique challenges. A Catholic university is a place where the church asserts its presence and where it meets culture and divergent viewpoints. Being faithful to both “university” and “Catholic” is not easy, but the tension it creates is fruitful on many levels. Unlike a parish, critical engagement with the culture is the function of a Catholic university and is an indispensable contribution to Catholic ministry. Catholics and non-Catholics alike see a different but faithful presence of the Catholic Church in a university such as Seattle University.
Fundraising and mission aren’t mutually exclusive. A university president must devote at least a third of his or her time to fundraising. I have learned that if you really believe in your mission, fundraising is an easy and enjoyable enterprise. Fundraising does not take me away from being an educational leader but broadens the scope of my leadership. It is one of the most satisfying parts of the job, whether or not the answer of donors is “yes” to the “ask.” I love it because it is a way to bring our students and their needs to generous, caring people. I feel like I’m a matchmaker.
These are some of the lessons learned from my years as president of Seattle University. The trustees told me back when I accepted the position that I had a lot to learn. I did and I have. But they could not have told me the satisfaction I would gain through learning in many unexpected ways. In fact, I believe I’ve received the best education of anyone at SU and that I have the best job in town.
The Rev. Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., is the 21st president of Seattle University, a Jesuit-Catholic university founded in 1891 on Seattle’s First Hill.