Chris Joseph Taylor
Chris Joseph Taylor
At first glance, the Rev. Stephen V. Sundborg seems the antithesis of an outgoing, charismatic university president. The 69-year-old Jesuit priest is reserved and soft-spoken, but his professorial demeanor masks a quiet self-assurance. When he speaks about how his spirituality informs his philosophy of education, or articulates his vision of Seattle University’s mission, Sundborg sheds his shyness in favor of clarity and deliberation.
When he was tapped at age 52 to succeed the Rev. William Sullivan as the leader of the Pacific Northwest’s premiere Jesuit university in 1997, Sundborg took the helm of an institution in transition. Though SU was financially-robust, at the time it was still struggling to find its identity.
By all accounts and certainly by the numbers, Sundborg has overcome the challenges of leading the 121-year-old school, elevating its profile — both nationally and in the northwest — with a sure-footed determination. Since 1996 student enrollment has increased by 1,500 students to 7,484 and Seattle University is in the top third of all Jesuit universities in overall size and endowment. The latest U.S. News and World Report ranked SU in its top ten comprehensive, non-research schools in the west and its current endowment stands at $176 million. By the close of its last capital campaign in 2009, the university had raised more than $160 million.
Still, Sundborg’s expansive vision for the school has been less about numbers and more about its core Jesuit values. As he begins a new five-year term as president, his priorities are clear: engagement in community service, respect for the spiritual life of students, expanding global education, fostering interreligious dialogue and strengthening the liberal arts. Where the primary challenges facing his predecessor lay in shoring up Seattle University’s precarious financial health and strengthening its academic programs, Sundborg’s focus has gone beyond that, to ensure that SU lives out its Jesuit educational mission of service.
It's a focus informed by a long history in theological work. In the 80s, Sundborg taught theology at the school for eight years, four of which were also spent as spiritual leader for the university’s Jesuit community. From 1990-96, Sundborg served as provincial of the five-state Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, which includes Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.
“My studies in spirituality have helped me to focus more than most presidents on our mission, to be clear about values, to emphasize our Jesuit character and to be articulate about our vision,” he said. “We would not exist as a Jesuit and religious-based, Catholic university if we did not believe in or did not think we could help students know and live their spirituality.”
“Our philosophy is to emphasize how students use their education and how they will serve,” said Sundborg. “Service learning is the DNA of the university and is embedded in all of our courses. Three out of four SU students are now involved in community service. Our goal is to identify the systemic issues of justice as reflected in the social structures that impact people. Empowering leaders for a humane and just world is our primary purpose.”
True to his word, Sundborg has been quick to turn real political and socioeconomic struggle into teachable moments. When Seattle University hosted Tent City 3 in November 2004, he took the initiative to engage students in studying the causes of homelessness and serving those in the encampment. Law and nursing school students and faculty provided law and health clinics for homeless residents, while other departments like social work, criminal justice and education incorporated the encampment into their classrooms.
Under Sundborg’s presidency, the university has also strengthened ties with the region’s civic institutions. The Seattle University Youth Initiative, a $1 million-a-year project, focuses on improving the academic achievement of low-income youth living in the area served by the Central District's Bailey Gatzert Elementary School. Modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone, the project is a long-term campus-wide effort by faculty, staff and students — in concert with parents, the Seattle Public Schools, faith communities and more than 30 community organizations — to provide support for vulnerable families and strengthen the university’s educational programs. Partnering with the Seattle Housing Authority, Yesler Terrace, the Seattle Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the University has mobilized its eight colleges and schools to provide academic support for elementary school students.
“These are young people who are falling between the cracks,” Sundborg said. “We want to create a pipeline so that they can go to college, hopefully Seattle University, and get good jobs. The crisis is acute in our own backyard, and with community-building collaboration, we can make a difference. Our dedication to helping and working side by side with underserved populations and those in need is proven and unwavering.” This year, the Youth Initiative received the 2012 Presidential Award for community service — the highest recognition by the federal government to a college or university for civic engagement, service learning and volunteerism.
The university has also tackled family homelessness under Sundborg, with a coalition of 14 faith communities across the region that have committed to changing attitudes, behaviors and policies around family homelessness. Selected communities receive financial resources and support designed to increase their response to family homelessness, while learning to effectively advocate for the public policy changes needed to reduce family homelessness in the region.
One of Sundborg’s newer initiatives is engaging Seattle University students to work in poor, developing countries with nongovernmental organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Service, Peace Trees Vietnam and the Jesuit Chikuni Mission in Zambia. “I believe Father Sundborg sees this global outreach as an updating of the Jesuits’ historical outreach to the world,” said associate provost for global engagement Victoria Jones. “This is an opportunity for our students not only to broaden their awareness of the world, but to partner with local communities to address the needs of under-resourced areas.”
These partnerships are also reciprocated, Jones said. For example, the University of Central America in Managua, Nicaragua asked Seattle University to provide their students an opportunity to do an immersion practicum with local businesses to learn about sustainable growth. “Our students work in a geographical area, or convergence site, where we have a set of local partners,” Jones said. “Students are not only learning international competencies, but also capacity building for partnering [with] businesses on the ground. We are working strategically with the Jesuit network worldwide.”
Notwithstanding its academic strengths, however, Seattle University’s institutional visibility remains low in the Puget Sound region — frequently overshadowed by the University of Washington. “We’re under-recognized for the impact we have in this state,” Sundborg said. “There are 40,000 alumni in Washington state, 35,000 of whom live here in the Puget Sound. Seattle University is making a great difference in the Pacific Northwest region.”
Like other religious leaders, Sundborg’s presidency has not been immune to controversy. From 2006 to 2009, the Seattle University president was embroiled in a much-publicized and stormy legal battle involving Jesuit priests accused of having sexually abused minors, including Native Alaskan children while Sundborg was acting provincial of the Oregon Province. He was named a defendant in the civil suit in the latter case, which was settled two years ago.
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