When Fred Pestello began his tenure as Saint Louis University’s first lay president last July 1, anyone involved with the school may have said his biggest task would be reuniting the campus after a tumultuous time under the Rev. Lawrence Biondi.
Critics of the former president said his style of making decisions without consultation led to no-confidence votes in his leadership. But when it comes to Pestello's leadership style, the critics are silent. Rather, they have praised Biondi's successor, saying Pestello honors the shared governance approach that Biondi ignored, and in the process, has won back much of the respect and goodwill that had been lost at SLU.
But no one could have foreseen the crucible that Pestello and the university plunged into as protests over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson spread throughout the area. In mid-October, demonstrators swarmed up Grand Boulevard and onto the SLU campus in the middle of the night, establishing an encampment near the emblematic Clock Tower that lasted nearly a week.
The so-called Clock Tower Accords that ended the standoff drew some criticism, but they helped reinforce Pestello’s leadership role at SLU, punctuating a difficult year with a positive ending.
“When the protesters came on campus, he didn’t throw them off and say, 'You have no reason for being on campus,'” said Bob Cropf, a professor of political science. “I think that he recognized that doing that would preclude an opportunity for students to learn what was happening in the outside world.
“Allowing those people to be on campus and interact with students and faculty and staff gave an opportunity to have conversations and dialogues with people who were adults and were on the front lines of this protest, and also stimulate similar types of conversations among themselves," Cropf said. "I think that is very important, and I think the accords that emerged from that whole process were also very important. They recognize that SLU has a commitment, a longstanding commitment to the St. Louis community.”
For his part, Pestello said he consulted with a wide-ranging campus committee to make sure the demonstration would end in a way that respected both the protesters and the mission of the university.
“My senior team and I gathered,” he said. “We talked. We formed a crisis management team that involved the senior leadership, student representation, faculty representation, representation from our public safety department and from risk management.
“We said, 'How do we respond to this?' And so we literally asked ourselves, 'What would Jesus do? What would St. Ignatius do? What would Pope Francis do? What course should we take?' We decided to try to engage them in dialogue to find out what is it that they wanted. Why were they there? What would it take for them to peacefully end the encampment?”
In the end, the spirit of inclusion that helped win over the anti-Biondi forces worked to his advantage with the Clock Tower sit-in as well. Jane Turner, an assistant professor of pathology who led the Faculty Senate when Pestello took office, noted that Biondi is not much of a presence at SLU anymore, and his 25 years of leadership has faded into the background.
“I don’t feel his presence,” she said. “He really has no visible role on campus. He’s spotted from time to time. He does come into town when there’s a board of trustees meeting. He’s spotted occasionally at Billikens games. But this is Fred’s campus now.”
“I am who I am”
As he was at his previous post at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., Pestello is the first lay president of a Jesuit institution. He says it is the mission of the university that is important, not whether the leader is a member of the clergy. And to him, part of the mission is making sure many people are heard before decisions are made.
“I think that one of the advantages of being a lay person is that I can hold the order up and celebrate its members, celebrate its history in a way that would be uncomfortable for a Jesuit himself to do," he said. "And I believe in doing that. I'm Jesuit-educated. I think it has been transformative for me, as it is for most of those with whom I speak who have been Jesuit-educated.
“Each leader has his or her own style,” he said, "I think that the search and selection committee at SLU, when they hired me, really tried to determine what my leadership style would be. I am who I am. We’re all a little bit different. I believe that engaging in dialogue when you're making important decisions — to the extent that time allows for it — is critical to both coming to a better decision as well as getting the buy-in of those who will be involved in living with whatever decision is made.”
At his formal inauguration last October, Pestello outlined three questions that SLU must face:
- What must the university become? To frame that future, as its bicentennial approaches in 2018, he has begun a strategic planning process, to determine areas where SLU might expand.
- How can the university become more affordable and more accessible?
- How can SLU become a more integral part of the St. Louis community and address the problems that it faces? He said the recent transaction where the university reacquired its hospital from Tenet and aligned with SSM Health is one way to accomplish that goal.
But even though he enunciated his vision in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Pestello had no way of knowing that the situation would be arriving on his doorstep a little more than one week later.
“What would Jesus do?”
At about 1:30 in the morning on Oct. 13, Pestello was woken up by the university’s head of safety to be told of a wave of demonstrators about to come onto campus. Almost immediately, and after consultation with a crisis management team, he realized the best way to handle the surprise situation was to let them stay.
“The first night of the encampment, at the Clock Tower, they had what they called a teach-in. Some 500 students and some of our faculty and many of the Jesuits and I went out there to listen to what their concerns were and to try to begin to establish some common ground.”
After six days, he said, the demonstrators agreed to leave, with the promise of a 13-point document that became known as the Clock Tower Accords. The agreement addressed demonstrators' hopes to boost the number of African-American students at SLU and for the school to establish stronger ties with the region's African-American communities.
Pestello said he and his team had no script to work from in the situation, beyond a desire to end things peacefully and constructively.
“The demonstrators were peaceful throughout the week,” he said. “No property was damaged. No one was hurt. I was hopeful that we would be able, through conversation, to resolve the situation and have them peacefully resolve it rather than engage in an attempt at forceful removal and risk violence…..
“Kent State did come up in our conversations. Many of us were very much aware of what transpired there, and obviously none of us wanted it to have it end anywhere close to what happened at Kent State.”
Coming so soon after his tenure began, the Occupy SLU situation was a real test for Pestello, says Stefan Bradley, who directs the university’s African-American studies program.
“I think President Pestello’s real strength was that he was willing to listen to people who don’t have administrative positions,” Bradley added. “That got him somewhere.
“So, when he asked me if it was possible to get representatives of the demonstrators to come and speak with them and that sort of thing, I was able to help along those lines. If he had been so narrow to think only his vice presidents and deans and that sort of thing could help him, then the situation might have been longer and even more destructive.”
Student Jonathan Pulphus, who was active in the situation as well, praised Pestello for being true to the university’s values.
“I think the climate on campus has definitely been impacted in a more positive manner since the Clock Tower Accords signing," he said. "To change the hearts and minds of a lot of people, you have to bring about new programs. I think, as the accords begin to be implemented, we’ll see a lot more measurable change in the climate on campus.”
Biondi’s new role
Faculty and others on campus who were interviewed about Pestello’s first year, often used the phrase "honeymoon period." And even those who were among Biondi’s strongest critics say that the past year has been a pleasant opening to what they hope will be a rosy future.
“I hate to sound like a Pollyanna to you,” said Ken Parker, a professor of theological studies at SLU, who recalled a dispute with the Pestello over a campus budget issue.
“I emailed with Dr. Pestello. I found him to be very respectful, very concerned. The experience of being treated with respect and regard as a faculty member is something that is probably the most refreshing aspect of his first year.”
“The good work that was done last year will lay the foundation for continuous improvement at the university, which is something that was really at the heart of why we were pushing to remove Biondi," he said.
“There was a sense, not just among the no-confidence movement, that we had stalled" Cropf said. "That we were not moving forward anymore, and in fact we were moving backwards. And so I think Pestello has changed at least that attitude.”
For those faculty members and others who were unhappy with the leadership of Biondi, the question of his future role with the university is one that has largely gone unanswered and has prompted a lot of speculation. Pestello explained it this way:
“I think that Father Biondi will continue to assist with fund-raising, with international recruitment and with further developing our international alumni chapters," he said. "Those will be the key things upon which he will focus.”
And, Pestello added, those activities should contribute to an outlook for SLU that he says is bright.
“I think it's been a tremendous year,” he said. “I'm thrilled to be here at SLU and in St. Louis. What I've said and what others have said who have come in from the outside, which I think is fascinating, is that I knew SLU was strong coming in. It's even stronger than I thought it to be, so that's been wonderful. I think it's been overall a tremendous year for us.”
So what grade would he give himself for the job he did in his freshman year?
“I’d say I passed,” Pestello said.
And if the course wasn’t pass-fail, and it required a letter grade? He demurred, saying only:
“That is always better decided by others.”