Two months into the job and a few weeks from his official inauguration in October, new Saint Louis University president Dr. Fred Pestello has already had an eventful and challenging start. In handling these difficulties and new responsibilities, he looks towards his passion for SLU and the Jesuit mission to help him move forward with the university.
“I thought about it,” Pestello said on his decision to come to SLU, “[and] here we have a Catholic, Jesuit, international, residential research university. To me, it’s one of the most powerful organizations you can have in terms of humankind in exploring…the compelling questions of our time within a strong mission.”
Things are moving quickly at the start of Pestello’s tenure, and he’s had to handle several situations right off the bat. SLU’s bicentennial is around the corner, and the administration is preparing to mark the occasion with a strategic plan for the future. The University is looking to address concerns that Pestello sees as affecting campuses across the country: rising costs of educational technology and facilities, student affordability, and the overall national decline in college enrollment. “It is my plan,” Pestello said, “to have the strategic plan completed by the end of this academic year, and then to use the strategic plan to undertake a comprehensive fundraising campaign.”
As for other situations facing SLU, Pestello was blunt in his comments on the bias incidents of the spring 2014 semester, saying that “clearly there is no room for that behavior on our campus. It is contrary towards everything for which we stand.” He is hopeful that the incidents were not reflective of the general SLU student body and wants to ensure that the university is fostering an inclusive atmosphere for all students. Pestello also offered an equally challenging reflection on the current events in Ferguson.
“If you look at the underlying major social problems that we’re seeing Ferguson, they are not unique to St. Louis…we are not unique in problems of inequality, of race relations, lack of opportunity, and challenges with urban education. Those problems are deep seated,” he said.
Pestello sees SLU as capable of creating solutions—lasting solutions—to complex social problems, like the ones reflected in the events in Ferguson.
“These are problems that require deep and sustained engagement to make progress. But, if anything, it has called our community to thought and action, and I would like to see our University participate in that,” Pestello said.
But challenges like the ones Pestello is facing in these first few months are not unique to the job. He commented that the role of university president is essentially the same everywhere, and that the context, who and what the university is made of, creates the unique situation of each presidency. Pestello’s role at SLU is indeed one-of-a-kind. He is the first lay president of Saint Louis University, and he embraces this.
“I think it’s incumbent on us, as it would be any leader of a Jesuit institution to focus on the mission, and to remind ourselves that that is why we are here. Because we are a Catholic, Jesuit college, it’s simply not knowledge for knowledge sake. It’s knowledge for a purpose. I feel responsible to honor the trust that’s been placed in me to continue to advance the Jesuit mission of SLU,” he said.
Pestello says that he is also developing a good relationship with SLU’s Jesuit community.
He has been spending time in Jesuit Hall with the priests and meets regularly with Fr. Paul Stark, SJ, the director of Mission and Ministry at SLU.
He has not, however, met Pope Francis, the first pope of the Jesuit order. “I have had the chance to meet with the Father General Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, the Superior of the Jesuits…to meet Pope Francis, the Jesuit pope, would be very special to me.”