Meet Seattle University's moral compass

President Fr. Steve Sundborg celebrated his 15th year in the position in December. How his leadership has driven the school's mission.
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Fr. Steve Sundborg talks with Seattle University students.

President Fr. Steve Sundborg celebrated his 15th year in the position in December. How his leadership has driven the school's mission.

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.

He has also had to grapple with the increasingly strident public opposition to the Catholic Church's stance on same-sex marriage, contraception and clergy abuse, drawing fire from R-74 supporters last spring when he defended the amendment to R-74 that exempts religiously affiliated schools from having to accommodate same-sex weddings. “[It] protects us from having to make our chapels available for same-sex marriages. To require us to utilize them for this purpose would violate our identity and commitment as a Catholic University,” he said.

In spite of the harsh criticism he endured, Sundborg emerged from those crises with his reputation untarnished, a testament to his resilience and fortitude.

Sundborg is upbeat too about SU’s ability to leverage jobs for its graduates and contribute to the region’s economy during a time of recession. Increasing SU's emphasis on STEM disciplines, he says, will help graduates compete in an increasingly competitive workforce. “We’ve weathered the economic downturn well," Sundborg said. "A lot of people want to come to Seattle, and we’re situated right in the middle of the city."

Not one to ignore economic realities, Sundborg acknowledges the financial hurdles faced by the university’s 7,484 graduate and undergraduate students. “The hardest challenge is to make our education affordable to students and to their families through our own reductions in costs and through generous financial aid,” he said. “I am very optimistic because of how financially sound a university we are.”

In spite of the economic recession, SU students have been successful landing jobs in nursing, sciences, criminal justice, finance, and communications, though Sundborg acknowledged that college of education graduates have had a tougher time landing jobs.

Job placement for SU's business and economics program, the Albers School of Business, has been particularly high. “Last June, 88 percent of our undergraduates were placed within three months of graduation," says Joe Phillips, Albers' dean. "Our accounting and finance majors are getting the most offers. They have been finding jobs with larger employers such as Boeing, Paccar and Russell.” The reputation of the Albers School is reflected in some well-known alumni like Stan McNaughton, CEO of PEMCO, Dan Wall, senior vice president at Expeditors and Michelle Burris, executive vice president and CFO of OncoGenex Pharmaceuticals.

Sundborg gets high marks by the faculty. “He’s done a terrific job inspiring people,” said Phillips. “People trust him and want to do well by him. He’s set a great tone for our campus, faculty and staff. He has been supportive of the business school.”

That sentiment is borne out by Seattle civic and educational leaders like Washington State University President Emeritus Sam Smith.  “When I was chair of the NCAA Presidents Commission and president of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, I got to meet most of the presidents in the U.S. There is no question but that Steve is in the top 5 to10 percent as far as leadership and accomplishments,” Smith said. “Keep in mind this is looking at all universities big and small."

Phyllis Campbell, Chairman of Pacific Northwest JPMorgan Chase & Company, shares Sundborg’s optimism about Seattle University’s future. “Steve Sundborg is one of the remarkable educational leaders of his generation. He leads from his deep inner core, informed by his Jesuit training. There is no accident that Seattle University and its students have a well-developed ethos of social justice and commitment to community. We are truly lucky that he has chosen to stay on over 16 years as the leader of Seattle University.”

Asked what his long-term goals are, Sundborg sounds a familiar drum beat. “I would especially want to leave a legacy of having strengthened and secured for the future the Jesuit mission of Seattle University. I want to have led us confidently into an era of leadership of non-Jesuits of our mission. I am proudest of fostering the mission of founding the Seattle University Youth Initiative and building a great campus for a great educational mission.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.