Updated 1:41 p.m., Fri., March 21.
Saint Louis University has a new president, its first non-Jesuit president, to succeed the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, who stepped down amid controversy last year.
The university’s Board of Trustees unanimously elected Fred Pestello during a special meeting Thursday evening, according to a news release. He will begin his new position on July 1.
“Selecting the next president of this university is probably the most important thing that any of us would ever do as our tenure as a member of the Board of Trustees,” said Joe Adorjan, chairman of the board told reporters on Friday morning. “I’m pleased to report today that I think we’ve selected an outstanding, excellent candidate to run this university going forward.”
Adorjan pointed to Pestello’s Jesuit education, experience in Catholic higher education and track record of taking on increasing levels of responsibility over time.
“He’s very collaborative and has a very clear understanding of shared governance,” Adorjan said.
Last year much of the controversy surrounding Biondi hinged on faculty and students who felt like they had no say in the direction of the university. Pestello pointed to his collaborative style in his current position as president of Le Moyne College, a Jesuit liberal arts institution, in Syracuse, N.Y., as an indicator of how he intends to steer the university going forward.
“I need everyone, to join with me, to help me through a transition, to help through an acclimation and to help me plan the future of the institution,” Pestello said Friday, during the news conference.
Pestello said he will meet with faculty Saturday morning.
“I’m anxious to meet with the faculty and to indicate to them that my success is a function of us working together sincerely to continue to build this institution,” Pestello said. “I’m sure that my goals and aims are no different.”
Barrett Lanham is a senior studying sports business and was in class when Pestello spoke to students on Friday morning, but he quickly read up on the new president’s background. So far, Lanham likes what he sees.
“I think he’s got a lot of ideas that he’s bringing to the university,” Lanham said. “I think he’s got a great vision that could really put Saint Louis University on the map more than it already has been by Father Biondi.”
Pestello will be the first lay president of SLU, as was the case when he became president of Le Moyne College. He said that comes with some challenges.
“The advantage of a religious leader is the symbolic importance of it and the ability to administer the sacraments,” Pestello said. “It’s no small thing, I can’t do that.”
At the same time, Pestello said, with fewer Jesuits it’s important to identify what roles lay people can play as administrators.
“The most critical thing is the community itself. Is it ready for that?” Pestello said. “I’ve been told by everyone from the Board of Trustees to the Jesuits that they were ready and open to hiring the best person, whether (he or she) is Jesuit or not.”
Pestello said the key is remaining true to the faith and core religious principles. Both Adorjan and Pestello met with St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson Thursday, and Pestello pointed to his strong relationship with Jesuits at Le Moyne.
Larger role of the university
In recent years, Saint Louis University has been a major player in Midtown revitalization efforts. Pestello said he doesn’t envision that stopping once his tenure begins.
“The city and region are really an extension of our campus, for our student learning, for resources, for scholarship, and as part of our mission, for improvement,” Pestello said. “I see us continuing into the future to continue to work in the immediate Midtown area and beyond to help with development in a positive trajectory.”
Pestello also said that building a more diverse student body is intertwined with SLU’s core mission. At the same time, Pestello said he needs to familiarize himself with recruiting strategies before laying out any concrete plans.
“I can tell you, though, I have been and will continue to be committed to diversity, both in terms of diversity and inclusion,” Pestello said. “It’s not just simply welcoming diverse people into a community or bringing them in; it’s also about making them feel comfortable and providing the opportunity for them to flourish.”
Before becoming Le Moyne’s president, Pestello was the provost of the University of Dayton, a Catholic, Marianist research institution in Ohio. Pestello earned his doctorate in sociology from the joint program at University of Akron and Kent State University.