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At SLU, New President Faces Many Challenges

Stephanie Zimmerman

The scaffolding surrounding DuBourg Hall on the Saint Louis University campus is as much symbolic as it is structural.

While the administration building gets a facelift, the president’s office got a new occupant this week. Fred Pestello, SLU’s first non-Jesuit president, took over on Tuesday after a six-year career as president of Le Moyne College, another Jesuit institution in Syracuse, N.Y.

Pestello, 61, succeeds the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, S.J., who was president at SLU for 26 years before resigning last year. His departure came after months of strife on campus, as faculty members and students voted no confidence in his leadership.

Appearing on St. Louis on the Air Thursday, Pestello was asked what role Biondi might play under the new administration. Pestello said he had met with Biondi after being selected for the presidency in March and had spoken with him a few times since. But he denied reports that the former president would be in charge of SLU's art museum and said no role for Biondi had been settled on as yet.

“I definitely will talk with Father Biondi about where he thinks he would like to make a contribution," Pestello said, "and then assess where Father Biondi can continue to contribute.”

Adding that he is not ruling anything in or ruling anything out, he added:

"I think any decisions with respect to Father Biondi’s future role on the campus are up to me. I have not agreed to anything with respect to what specifically Father Biondi will be doing at this time.”

As far as the difficulty in following such a strong personality as Biondi with a long tenure, Pestello said:

"You can’t assume a presidency after someone has led an organization for a quarter century and not in some way be in the shadow of the person that you follow. We inevitably will be different, and that will be determined by the needs of the institution, my style, the people we have here today. But to follow somebody with that tenure, which is extraordinary in higher education – the average presidency is seven or eight years – clearly there’s a legacy there.” 

Pestello discussed a wide range of topics -- the university's role in redeveloping Grand Center, his experience in being the first non-Jesuit to head a Jesuit university, the importance of the humanities, the need for fund-raising and financial aid and others. Here is a sampling of what he had to say.


On his leadership style:

“I believe that you surround yourself with the right people…. You gather around a common mission, and then you empower those people to do their jobs. I like having a strong, cohesive team and supporting that team. So as I enter the job, one of my first and highest priorities will be to establish a strategic plan and a set of strategic priorities. That will be done in consultation and collaboration with  representatives across the campus, and then to make sure I’ve got a team that is moving forward to execute that plan....

"I think communication is important, but more important than that to me is collaboration. If I were to be making all the decisions and simply saying these are the decisions, that’s communication. I don’t think that works. I think you have to invite people in to the conversations at the right point, and use the brains of all of those people who are part of the organization to seek input, then to develop the plan and move forward.”

On SLU's role in Grand Center:

"One of the things that struck me and I think strikes most visitors to the campus is how beautiful it is, particularly for an urban campus. Father Biondi clearly had a strong aesthetic sense, and you can see that reflected in the beauty of SLU.… I am very supportive of  the development of the arts, and I intend to be active in the development of region, particularly in the city and in Midtown. To a person, those who hav8e brought up this topic have been very strong that they want to see Saint Louis University continue to be a good citizen and partner in the region, and I intend to be."

On affording college:

"Anyone considering private higher education, I hope they are not deterred by the sticker price. If you look at the data…. From 2008-09 until 12-13, in that five year period, the average net tuition at private colleges and universities I think went down 8 percent. So a private higher education in net inflation-controlled dollars actually has decreased. So what’s happened. I think we responded to the crisis of 2008 by increasing what we call financial aid, both funded and unfunded, what we call the discount rate.

"But there’s research to show that people, particularly people of lower socioeconomic strata, tend to be deterred by the sticker price. If you’re considering private higher education, or higher education in general, apply and talk to the financial aid office and see if it’s affordable. That said, people struggle with well, it’s an investment, and we know that the investment is worth it from the financial side. The average loan I think it’s $30,000 now, students coming out with some degree of debt. But if you look at lifetime earnings, it’s staggering how much more a college graduate can earn. There are lower rates of unemployment among college graduates. There’s no doubt investment in a college education pays off on average for people.”

On why colleges charge so much:

“What financial aid allows us to do is to try to make it more affordable for students of lesser means. Let’s say that the average sticker price is $30,000 and the average amount of discounting is 50 percent so the average student is paying $15,000. That’s the average student. Some students are paying nothing. Some are paying $5,000. Some are paying $10,000. If you lower it down to $15,000, those kids who are paying $15,000 to $30,000 are absolutely going to be able to afford it.

"Students paying nothing or $5,000 or $10,000 are now out. So what it does is it allows us to have a socioeconomic mix and allows students coming from families of lesser means to attend. That’s what it does, and I think that fits with our mission as a Jesuit institution.”

On the humanities and liberal arts:

"I encourage students to pursue their passion. I have dealt with cases over the course of my life. I had an engineer in my office who was in my office, an advisee of mine, I remember crying. He was literally crying. This young man was crying because he did not want to be an engineering major and his parents were telling him that was the only way they were going to pay for his education. He wanted to major in sociology. What could I do, other than listen to him and try to be somewhat sympathetic?

"It’s clear the world is becoming increasingly complex, and those who are good critical thinkers, have well-developed and refined basic skills, are to my mind the ones who are going to continue to be successful. Can you write? Can you speak? Do you have some sense of science and the scientific method. Do you have some sort of quantitative reasoning? Those basic skills, coming out of the liberal arts, are fundamental for career success, career flexibility, and also for leading a richer life. I hope that parents would not try to sway or discourage their sons or daughters from pursuing degrees in the humanities and social sciences if that’s where their passions are.”

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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