He has Puyallup roots, and he’s a Rhodes scholar and former clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Next year, Cornell University Law School dean Eduardo Peñalver will become the first Latino president of Seattle University, the private Jesuit college announced during an online event Thursday morning.

The appointment of Peñalver, 47, during a global pandemic marks an important moment for the school in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. Freshman enrollment is down by 10%. Students are attending classes primarily online. Peñalver will take the helm from a veteran president who has led the university for more than two decades; he’ll also be the first Seattle University president who is not clergy.

Peñalver will succeed the Rev. Stephen Sundborg, who announced his retirement in February. Sundborg plans to conclude his tenure at the end of this school year, his 24th as the university’s leader. Peñalver’s term will begin on July 1, 2021.

In an interview with The Seattle Times this week, Peñalver said his first priorities include familiarizing himself with the community, responding to the university’s short- and long-term enrollment challenges and building on the school’s social justice mission and academic programs.

“I want to spend a lot of time meeting people, listening to people,” he said. “I see so many opportunities to build on the strength of [the university’s] Jesuit tradition and the breadth of its academic offerings and its proximity to downtown and to this global tech hub.”

School officials declined to provide Peñalver’s salary, but said it is competitive with other peer universities. Sundborg earns around $448,000 annually, according to university tax documents from 2017.


Peñalver will take the reins of one of the state’s largest private universities; 7,050 students are enrolled this year, officials said. The school is known as a home to some of the nation’s leading business and specialty law programs. Roughly 49% of undergraduates are students of color, according to last school year’s data.

As the son of “very devout Catholics” who still live in the home they raised him in, Peñalver said his family is thrilled about his new role and for his homecoming to the Pacific Northwest. He and his four siblings attended All Saints Catholic School in Puyallup before graduating from Henry Foss High School in Tacoma. His wife and two sons — already avid Mariners and Seahawks fans, he said — will join him as he moves from Ithaca to Seattle.

Peñalver graduated from Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1994 and studied as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford. In 1999, he earned a law degree from Yale Law School, then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens before beginning his teaching career. He specializes in religion law and property law.

In 2014, Peñalver became the first Latino dean of an Ivy League law school. When he was a student in the 1990s, he said, he noticed that faculty and college administrators didn’t reflect the increasingly diverse student body. Recruiting a diverse administrative team was one of his top successes as dean at Cornell Law School, he said.

Having more students of color on campus “is vital to the success of the university in achieving its mission of educating citizens in a diverse and pluralistic society like our own,” he said. “For a Catholic Jesuit institution it’s directly related to this mission of social justice.”

Peñalver said the transition from law school dean to university president is “dramatic,” but said his experience at Cornell prepared him to interact with faculty who specialize in a broad range of disciplines. He intends to oversee campus in a tradition established by his predecessors. “I’m not a priest,” he said. “But one thing to build on is that approachable, pastoral style of leadership.”

Peñalver was in Seattle this week for the university’s announcement, and said he hopes to travel here several more times before moving next year, barring travel or other safety restrictions related to the pandemic.