Fred Pestello named first lay president of St. Louis University

When Fred Pestello was elected St. Louis University's new president this week, one of the first things he did was pay a visit to Archbishop Robert Carlson.

Pestello described the experience as "a wonderful meeting and a great way to get started."

The university's board of trustees announced March 21 that it had elected Pestello as its 33rd president during a special meeting the night before. He becomes the university's first permanent lay president in SLU's nearly 200-year history. Pestello, a Catholic, currently is the president of Le Moyne College, a Jesuit liberal arts college in Syracuse, N.Y. When he was appointed there in 2008, he also became Le Moyne's first permanent lay president. He will begin his new role at SLU July 1.

At a March 21 press conference on SLU's campus, the Cleveland native touched on several topics, including the challenges of being a lay president at a traditionally Jesuit-run institution, and how he hopes to connect with the wider community, including Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Prior to becoming Le Moyne's president, Pestello has spent almost 25 years as a faculty member and provost at the Marianist-run University of Dayton. He is a graduate of John Carroll University, a Jesuit institution in Cleveland. He has three degrees in sociology — a bachelor's from John Carroll University in 1974; a master's from the University of Akron in 1981; and a doctoral degree through a joint program of the University of Akron and Kent State University in 1985.

Pestello said that he looks forward to working collaboratively with those connected to SLU, including faculty, staff and students, as well as the wider St. Louis community. "The more people are involved in charting the future, the more investment they will have in it," he said. "Unlike our beloved new Jesuit pope, I am not infallible. I am much less likely to make mistakes or set down the wrong path if we come together as a community."

Pestello said that twice being named the first lay president of a Jesuit higher education institution is an indication of the changing culture in which more laypeople are being called to these leadership roles. He noted the declining number of Jesuits as well as an increase in the number of nonJesuit presidents and said there is and understanding and acceptance of that. More than half of the 230 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States have lay presidents, he added.

"The key is remaining true to the tradition of the faith and the charism," said Pestello. "Although everything changes as we move forward, those core commitments and principles remain the same. As long as we maintain that commitment, we'll be able to successfully transition to the first permanent lay leader" at SLU.

In a press release on his appointment, it was noted that one of Pestello's main priorities has been to expand the work the college does to advance its mission. As president of Le Moyne, he has met regularly with members of the Jesuit community on campus and developed a strong working relationship with Catholic religious leaders in Syracuse, including Bishop Robert Cunningham, head of the Diocese of Syracuse.

At Le Moyne, Pestello regularly meets with Jesuits at their residence for lunch and has given talks on the state of the college, followed by a discussion. He also noted working closely with the rector of the Jesuit residence and the director of mission identity at Le Moyne.

"Based on my conversations with some of the Jesuits I've already met here as well as the Archbishop (Carlson), I have every reason to believe (the relationship) will be as strong here as it has been at Le Moyne," he said.

In a written statement, Archbishop Carlson said he is confident Pestello will be impressed by "the diversity of gifts and graces present in the priests, deacons, religious and laypeople — especially the students of St. Louis University. As the first layman to hold this position, I pray that the graces Dr. Pestello will receive in his service to St. Louis University will enable him to lead the university into this exciting new chapter of its already rich and important history."

"The Jesuits of the Missouri Province are very happy to welcome Fred Pestello to St. Louis University," said Jesuit Father Douglas W. Marcouiller, Missouri provincial for the Jesuits. "Father Adolfo Nicolas, the Jesuit superior general, recently urged the presidents and board chairs of all Jesuit universities to continue to develop spiritual leadership. That is precisely what Dr. Pestello has done during the past six years as president at Le Moyne. He is deeply committed to SLU's Catholic and Jesuit mission, and we look forward to working with him." 

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