New SLU president touts Jesuit, liberal-arts education

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

St. Louis University's new president, Fred Pestello, began his new role July 1.

Pestello, who will live in the Central West End of St. Louis, said he is a strong advocate of an education grounded in the liberal arts, making students better prepared as critical thinkers. It gives them the ability to learn and adapt as the economy and jobs within it change at an ever-increasing pace, he noted.

This type of education is expensive, but it pays off not only financially but also in quality of life, he said.

Q. How do you think your personality and gifts will be put to use in this new position?

A. I was born and raised in Cleveland ... pretty much spent my entire life in the state of Ohio, so I consider myself to be a Midwesterner. I'm very comfortable. I know the style and approach of people and feel I fit right in.

Q. What makes you passionate about education on the university level? And why should others be passionate about it?

A. I'm Jesuit-educated. My undergraduate experience was a deeply transformative one. I was first-generation college. I exited college extremely different, genuinely transformed. That happened, I believe, because of the investment that the faculty and staff made in me and is based on the Jesuit education (I received), first and foremost the general education requirements.

I went in thinking very narrowly. I entered as what was called a comprehensive chemistry major. ... I wasn't particularly interested in taking social sciences, humanities and other courses. I saw it at the time as forced to (take them).

But it's the best thing that ever happened to me. It tremendously expanded my intellectual interests, and I came out much more broadly- and well-educated than I anticipated or desired going in. It ... laid the foundation to prepare me to take advantage of opportunities that came later. If you would have told me at 18 to 24 that I would be a university president, I would have laughed. I would have put up any sum of money I could have scraped together at the time to bet against that. ...

I see the power of that education and want to do all that I can to make SLU as powerful as it can be in transforming young men and young women with a rigorous, values-based education of the whole person.

Q. Does that power tie into a values-base institution?

A. I think our mission as a Catholic, Jesuit institution is certainly grounded in intellectual rigor and excellence. Our goal is to (help students) realize that God gave us this tremendous gift of a mind, and it's (up to us) to open it, stretch it, challenge it and expand its capacity and flexibility. But beyond that, it's not simply our head, it's also the heart and the hand. So social justice is a key part of us, too, to give back and make the world a better place. I love our tagline, "Higher Purpose, Greater Good." To go out into communities in which we live and work, to participate and to leave the world a better place. ...

Q. How can the university connect with the larger Catholic community and with Catholic values?

A. Catholic colleges and universities are to some extent where the Church does its thinking. It's the questions we embrace, the opportunity to dialogue about issues which are central to the faith. On the intellectual level certainly we have a critical role to play for Catholics and for Catholicism. Add to that the good work that we do. St. Louis University does million hours of service a year through various organizations. That's our faculty, staff and students out there living the mission. ...

Q. Is there a way the university can help build vocations and lay leaders?

A. Part of our role as Catholic, Jesuit colleges is ... always to provide fertile ground for those being called to a religious vocation and provide support for them as well as helping laypeople develop in their faith. Not just Catholics, but I think we should be a place where people of all faiths feel comfortable to explore questions fundamental to their own traditions and to grow deeper in those traditions ... . Interreligious dialogue is absolutely critical, and we've seen some of the consequences that can come when people of different faiths are in conflict with each other.

Q. There are a lot of aspects to this university, but is there an area you found out about or that people may not know about .... ?

A. If you look at the campus, how beautiful it is in an urban area in a major metropolitan area, the research that is being done, the good work of our alumni -- clearly it's been on a very positive path with substantial momentum. What strikes me the most is how hungry people are to get even better, to take it to new heights. And I think it has the resources necessary to do that. So I'm hoping over the course of this year, working with all groups internally and with our external stakeholders, we can develop an ambitious and compelling strategic plan that will guide our efforts in that direction. I'm hoping every person on campus and every person who should be interested off campus has an opportunity to participate in this process.

Q. How can a university like SLU be sensitive to the fact that the cost of a college education has risen so fast that it is perhaps out of reach for some today or resulting in a massive debt by students and families?

A. The most recent Chronicle of Higher Education points out that debt is clearly a serious issue and private higher education is expensive, but it's important for people to know the facts. ... More than 65 percent of students owe $10,000 or less. We hear about these extreme stories of students $100,000 in debt. They actually represent 2 percent of cases. When you consider the fact that the average college graduate earns $1 million more over a lifetime, $10,000 of debt in that perspective seems like a good investment.

That said, I realize that higher education is expensive. So it's incumbent on us in higher education to do all that we can to contain or reduce costs. We've seen a dramatic slowing of tuition increases and a dramatic increase in aid being awarded. ... From 2008-09 to 2013-14 the net average inflation-adjusted price (grant aid and tax benefit) of private higher education declined 8 percent. And that's largely a result of the increase in aid, funded and unfunded, that colleges and universities are providing as we struggle to help meet the needs of families. ...

You'll find institutions trying to provide more services designed to support students who are struggling; identifying them and then supporting them ... having them well-prepared to enter a career.

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