Straight Talk With the President

Written by Gary McDonald
Father Privett Intro 2Photography by Barbara Ries

USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J., believes the time has come for new leadership at the university. Now in his 14th year as president—one of the longest tenures in USF history—he has formally announced that he will not renew his contract.

This decision is not a surprise. When he renewed his contract in 2009, the USF Board of Trustees reluctantly agreed that his third five-year term would also be his last. The board has launched a search for Fr. Privett’s successor.

Fr. Privett is a man of conviction, and he says what he thinks. That was on full display in his three-hour interview with USF Magazine.

. . .

On Nov. 15, the San Francisco Business Times named Fr. Privett the “Most Admired CEO” of a large nonprofit.

It’s easy to see why. During his tenure he expanded the university’s presence and influence in San Francisco by opening a downtown campus; he raised academic standards, making student admission the most competitive in USF history; and he inspired countless students with his unwavering commitment to educating for justice.

In our interview, Fr. Privett answered every question we asked—including what he thought about his three-day houseguest, the Dalai Lama.

Here are 24 questions for the president.

. . .

Father Privett 1Enrollment Stats

How do you characterize USF’s academic quality?

Stronger than ever! USF has become significantly more selective in admitting students, and it has also dramatically increased the number of full-time faculty, from 256 to 400. This faculty has won more national awards and grants than at any other period in university history. Three faculty members won Guggenheim Fellowships in 2011. In 2009, four won Fulbright scholarships, placing USF in the top 10 nationwide among research universities.

Just weeks ago, we opened the John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation in the heart of campus, which is a significant investment in academic quality. I marvel at the opportunities our undergraduates have to work closely with leading faculty scientists on significant research projects, an opportunity that students at other universities don’t usually enjoy until graduate school.

I’m especially proud to note that while USF was strengthening its academics, it was also receiving increased recognition for its contributions to the community. Last year, we were one of only five universities in the U.S. to receive the Higher Education Civic Engagement Award, which recognizes universities whose academic programs promote a strong sense of social responsibility for the community.

Does USF overemphasize educating for justice? 

There’s a vague sense that emphasizing social responsibility somehow “waters down” USF’s commitment to academic excellence. I think the university has demonstrated beyond question that the pursuit of justice and the acquisition of knowledge complement each other and, together, create the highest quality learning experience.

People need to understand that 60 percent of the world goes to bed hungry. We want our students to look at the world through the eyes of the people at the bottom not just their own. Those people are no more lazy, stupid, or unmotivated than the rest of us. They’re there because the world is put together poorly. Our economic, social, and political structures are created entirely by humans. They are not God-given. Justice is about restructuring these systems so that they provide equal opportunities for all people.



“I’ve always said that if you want to challenge Steve on something controversial, you had better do your homework. He has shown strong leadership when making tough decisions, and he was willing to put his presidency on the line.”
Chair, USF Board of Trustees

“It was a personal honor to invite Fr. Privett to deliver the invocation at the opening of the 110th Congress. His prayer for us to focus our time on ‘those who need us the most’ still echoes in the service of many members of Congress and still inspires us to work toward a future of fairness and to pursue the common good.”
House Democratic Leader

“Fr. Privett’s ability to encourage honest and open discussion of complex issues is extraordinary. He listens extremely well and articulates his vision and perspective with great insight and precision. Steve is one special administrator, Jesuit, and human being.”
Pastor, Our Lady of Sorrows Church

“He brought to life the university’s Jesuit mission for me. He gave us a common sense of purpose around our shared mission and values.”
Associate Dean, USF School of Education Professor, Counseling Psychology

“Fr. Privett has made USF a bigger part of the city. His vision for the university’s engaging the city coincides with the city’s vision for a greater role for USF.”
Executive Director, Omega Boys Club/Street Soldiers

“What is inspiring about Steve Privett is the way he treats students and donors the same way. If a student wants to meet with him, he takes the time to do so, in the same way he would with a big donor.”

What is USF’s greatest challenge?   

I think the continuously rising cost of higher education, which is putting it out of reach for many families, is virtually every college’s biggest challenge. Higher education is labor intensive, and compensation is our largest cost—about 65 percent of USF’s budget. We could easily cut costs by putting hundreds of students in a classroom with one lecturer. But that’s not a USF education. We offer relatively small classes, easy access to faculty, and strong academic support. The challenge is controlling costs without compromising quality.

No university can solve this problem alone. This is a national policy issue, and there are consequences for minimizing support for higher education, especially when other countries like China are investing heavily. The result? Only a wealthy few will enjoy a college education, and the U.S. will deny itself the brainpower, creativity, and entrepreneurial initiative that help to secure the nation’s future.

Does the growing popularity of online learning threaten the future of traditional college campuses?

I don’t think so. Technology greatly enhances the learning environment, and our faculty uses technology in amazing ways. But technology, in and of itself, is not a full college experience. I don’t think earning a degree entirely online is the experience that traditional students are looking for between high school and their careers.

Learning isn’t just about putting information in students’ heads. It is about character and community. USF describes itself as a learning community in the Jesuit Catholic tradition. Bringing students together in real time and space offers a powerful learning environment that can’t be matched by sitting alone in front of a computer.

Father Privett 2Do USF students get a good return on their investment in education (ROI)?

We want our students to be successful, of course, and they are, and their degrees often earn them higher salaries than would otherwise be possible.

But this is the wrong question. Ultimately, the value of a college degree isn’t how much money it helps you earn, it is the quality of life it allows you to live. If the only metric of a good life is the size of a paycheck, critical questions may go unanswered, like “What is my passion?” and “How can I satisfy the deepest desires of my heart?” Answering these questions is key to realizing the fullness of our humanity.

The real question students must ask themselves is whether they seek only to develop a set of skills that will earn them a big salary, or do they also desire a full, rich, and satisfying life.

Why do you require all undergraduates to take a service-learning course?

USF was one of the first universities to require service learning of every student. Let’s be clear: service learning is not about volunteering. It’s about learning problem-solving skills and, most important, shifting perspectives. If you’re at the top of the mountain looking over Rio, it’s a beautiful city. But if you’re living in a favela at the bottom of the hill, it’s harsh and ugly.

Through service learning, students begin to realize that what they see depends on where they stand, and what they hear depends on whom they listen to. They begin to understand the complexities that make creating a more just and humane world so challenging. A student working at St. Anthony’s kitchen might ask, “Why does the wealthiest nation in the world have so many hungry people?”; “Are soup kitchens the answer to hunger in America?”; and, “Will more shelters solve homelessness?” They learn a lot about what’s wrong with our political and economic structures by standing with and listening to the poor.

You’ve said that diversity is a vital part of USF’s education.

Some people regard diversity as responsive to a political agenda.  At USF, diversity is about education, not politics. The more varied the back-grounds and the experiences in the classroom, the richer the learning.

I like to use this example: If there are four birds on a wire, and you hit one with a rock, how many are left? A city kid says three; a rural kid says none, because they know when you hit one bird, they all fly away. There is not a right or wrong answer, and it’s important to understand how each individual’s perspective colors the way he or she sees the world.

At USF, diversity allows students to learn from each other in and out of the classroom. Our students are surrounded by differences, and they work with them every day, learning to collaborate, communicate, and solve problems. These are skills that employers value highly. The USF experience gives our students the education they need to succeed in the global workplace.

Father Privett 3

Do today’s students surprise you in any way?

I’m surprised by how techno-dependent they are. I walked down the hallway the other day and virtually every student was so absorbed with an iPhone and earplugs that they appeared oblivious to their surroundings.  

I wonder if they ever unplug to reflect on what’s going on in their lives. They’re exposed to huge amounts of information, but are they better informed? Does this virtual interaction arrest the development of social skills that are essential for the human relationships that build community and society? I have a lot of questions and no answers.

How do you describe a typical USF student?

I don’t think there is a typical USF student. USF is one of the nation’s most diverse universities in terms of ethnic background, socioeconomic status, religious practice, and sexual orientation—whatever lens you use, you’ll see it at USF.

I do think USF students share some common traits, however. They want the energy of the city, not the quiet of the suburbs. They come prepared to rub shoulders with people who are different from themselves, and they welcome challenges. Our students are adventurous, outgoing, engaging, and friendly. I think these qualities are more common than not across the student body.

What is the story you tell about the village with 100 people?

If the world were reduced to a village of 100 people, only one person would have a college education. Every student at USF is part of that 1 percent, and we educate them not only for their personal success, but also for what they do can for the other 99 percent. I agree with USF alum Joe Marshall ’68, a MacArthur genius and trustee emeritus, who says, “The more you know, the more you owe.”

Many of our students come from low-income families. They may not think of themselves as privileged, but, in a global context, they really are. They’re one in a hundred, and they have an opportunity that is denied to 99 percent of the world.

I’m proud that we are the sixth most successful university in the nation at graduating students from low-income families.  This is compelling evidence that USF is an engine of social mobility. We move students up the ladder and create futures for them and their families that they would otherwise not have.

Why does USF stage the Vagina Monologues when other Catholic universities have banned it?

As I tell our students, the Vagina Monologues has all the appeal of the annual grammar school Christmas pageant. It’s the same old thing year after year.

But, as educators, we shouldn’t be afraid of ideas we don’t agree with. The answer to a bad idea is a better one. Censorship is antithetical to the goals of our university, and only generates more attention—exactly what “censors” want to avoid.

When USF students stage the production, it is followed by a faculty-led discussion so that issues can be addressed and clarified, and a controversial presentation is thereby transformed into an educational moment.

Why did you sell KUSF radio?

KUSF was originally student run and operated, and a valuable learning laboratory. It morphed over time into a community enterprise where only 10 percent of the workers were USF students, while USF remained 100 percent responsible for its operation and costs.

Our mission is to educate in the Jesuit Catholic tradition, not to provide opportunities largely for non-students. I am obligated to spend tuition dollars to support student learning, and that’s how the proceeds were used: to fund scholarships and academic programs.

USF continues to offer students solid learning opportunities at, which is entirely student-staffed and streamed live on the Internet.

How do you motivate donors to support USF?

Let me be clear: This university exists because of the generosity of people who believe in USF. They built our campus, and they grew our endowment. To everyone who has supported the University of San Francisco—from alumni and trustees to parents and foundations—please know that I am deeply grateful.

With continued support, we hope to double USF’s endowment over the next five to seven years, so that we can continue to provide a USF education to students who otherwise could not afford it.

When I talk with donors, I explain how any gift to USF has positive effects that reach far beyond The Hilltop. An investment in USF is also an investment in shaping the city of San Francisco and the world. We partner with them in creating opportunities, and they help us create a better world through education.

What do you think of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope?

I think his focus on the marginalized—the poor, aged, sick, imprisoned—is exactly what we need. Bringing people who are on the periphery to the center of our consciousness is a necessary corrective for a church leadership that has fixated on a few issues to the neglect of others, such as the increasingly disproportionate distribution of wealth, immigration reform, the devastating impact of sequestration on the poor, and an ideologically frozen legislative system.

Pope Francis’ simple lifestyle and human warmth resonates with people, increasing his effectiveness as a leader and the likelihood that people will listen to him.

Its not widely known, but when the Dalai Lama visited USF in 2003, he stayed with you at Loyola House. What was he like?

He was a delightful guest. He’s very comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t take himself too seriously. It’s unusual for someone of his stature to be as low key, unassuming, and gracious as he is.  He’s not unlike Pope Francis, who also has a down-home way about him and likes to mix with people.

Father Privett 4

What is your greatest achievement as president?

I don’t feel qualified, or even think it is appropriate, to say anything about that. I can honestly say that the development and growth of USF is the result of many people: outstanding faculty, a committed staff, increasingly talented and engaged students, generous benefactors, dedicated trustees, and remarkable leadership from deans and vice presidents. 

As president, you hosted everyone from movie stars to heads of state. Who impressed you the most?

(Nobel Peace Prize laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi. There was an air of dignity and strength to her. She is of slight stature but made of steel. I asked her what sustained her during the 20 years she spent under house arrest, and she said she read a great deal, listened to news on the radio, and meditated.  I found her to be reflective, substantive, and strong.

What will you miss about the job?

That’s a good question. Certainly my colleagues and most particularly my immediate staff: Jaci Neesam, Grace Sanchez, and Chitchi Tabora. I’ll have to learn how to do all the things that they do for me.  USF is a uniquely wonderful collection of people, and I feel privileged to have had an opportunity to work with them.



A comprehensive, national search for USF’s next president is underway. Selecting the university’s president is the most important responsibility of the USF Board of Trustees, and it has formed two committees to lead the effort:

The Presidential Search Committee

The Presidential Search Committee (PSC) is coordinating the selection process. Its members, current and former trustees, will interview candidates and recommend a finalist to the full board of trustees for a vote. The PSC is chaired by Charles H. Smith, president and CEO (retired) of AT&T West, who is also vice chair of the USF Board of Trustees.

The Search Advisory Committee

The Search Advisory Committee (SAC) is gathering input from the USF community to help define the qualifications and personal attributes the trustees should consider when making their decision. Members include faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Once the new president is selected, this committee will coordinate “meet and greet” sessions with USF’s new leader. The SAC is chaired by Teresa Win ’85, investment consultant (retired) and trustee emerita. She also serves as vice chair of the PSC.

The board of trustees hopes to name USF’s new president prior to the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year.

You can give us your opinion on the presidential search, and get the latest news on its progress at



    « Back