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New President Says SLU Must Maintain Jesuit Mission

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Michelle Peltier/Saint Louis University
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Fred Pestello may be the first lay president of Saint Louis University, but he is hardly ignoring the school’s mission grounded in Jesuit philosophy.

At his inauguration Friday morning, Pestello told faculty, staff, students, alumni and representatives of other universities that the traditions of a Jesuit education mean that SLU must “ask the most compelling questions of our time. Our mission statement itself is a reflection of this extraordinary vocation. We commit ourselves to the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and the service of humanity….

“The result is an education that does not simply give our graduates the skills to succeed in their respective careers, but also imbues them with the wisdom to lead lives of meaning and purpose.”

Pestello, who took office on July 1, was chosen in March by the university’s board of trustees to succeed the Rev. Lawrence Biondi. Biondi retired last year after 26 years as president, a tenure that ended with votes of no confidence by faculty and student groups. Prior to coming to St. Louis, Pestello was president for six years at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit institution in Syracuse, N.Y.

In an address that was largely historical, laying out how Saint Louis U. came to where it is today, Pestello ended by framing three questions the university now has to face.

First, he said, “We must grapple with the question that sets the course for the future: What must we become?” He said a strategic planning process outlined earlier this year will help answer what SLU’s place is “within in the vast and varied landscape of higher education.”

Second, Pestello said, the university has to face what he called “the most significant issue facing higher education: cost.” Clearly, he said a college degree has benefits that are both financial and less tangible.

“Nonetheless,” he added, “ the economic reality is that some simply can no longer afford a college education, and if trends continue., more will be joining their ranks. There are no easy answers to the question of affordability, and technology is not a panacea.”

Without denying that technology can make higher education more efficient, Pestello said schools must do more with personal interaction.

“Authentic human relationships are fundamental to educating,” he said. The most important part of the education we offer is not in the facts that are mastered but in the character that is formed. It is only through sustained face-to-face interaction that relationships are built and the skills that make us fully human are acquired and honed.”

Finally, he said, in a clear reference to recent unrest in Ferguson, Saint Louis U. must help the region “delve even deeper into the circumstances that continue to undermine the life chances of our fellow citizens. These include factors that foster ongoing divisions and perpetuate the climate of systemic injustice that traps so many of our brothers and sisters. As a Catholic Jesuit university, we must now ask, what else should we do for and with our neighbors.”

Calling the university “a home for explorers and pioneers” since it was founded in 1818, Pestello said it must continue to “blaze trails in thought and action.”

“SLU’s past is what drew me here,” he said. “Its extraordinary potential is what motivates me.”

Fred Pestello
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman

The feeling during the two-hour ceremony was a warm one, sharply contrasting with the tension of the final months of Biondi’s tenure. The former president, now president emeritus, was not present for the inauguration; a university spokesman said he was traveling.

In the only mention of Biondi during his speech, Pestello called his predecessor’s tenure “transformative,” with a vision that led to record student enrollment and the “creation of a beautiful, residential urban campus.”

One question about Biondi remains unanswered -- his future role with the university. Pestello has said that he will be making that determination about Biondi's role, but he hasn't done it yet.

Other signs of reconciliation came from the greetings brought to Pestello by representatives of faculty, staff, students and alumni – and the hugs he exchanged with each speaker in turn.

Jane Turner, president of the faculty senate, told the new president: “We, the faculty, pledge our support to you.” And when her mortarboard fell off her head as the two embraced, Pestello quickly went down to retrieve it.

In his first few months in office, Pestello has already made changes in the university’s administrative structure. In a campuswide memo last month, he announced the reinstatement of the office of provost and realignment of other top officials. Responsibilities for fund-raising and communications, formerly under one vice president, were divded in two.

And Joseph Conran, a partner in the law firm of Husch Blackwell and a member of the SLU board of trustees since 2012, has been elected the new chairman of the board, effective in December. He will replace J. Joe Adorjan, who becomes chairman emeritus.

Not everything about Friday’s festivities was warm and cuddly. As the procession of professors and others was about to begin, an email from the group known as SNAP – the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests – called on Pestello to “come clean about ‘proven, admitted and credibly accused’ current and former university staffers who have faced child sex or sexual misconduct allegations.”

A university spokesman said he did not have any comment about the group’s statement.

The ceremony at Chaifetz Arena on the SLU campus featured several musical interludes, from “Pomp and Circumstance” to a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And it concluded with a performance of the 1812 Overture punctuated by loud firecracker noises that sent blue and white streamers and confetti showering down from the arena’s ceiling.

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