The University of San Francisco: Office of the President
St. Ignatius Church in the fog

Speeches and Articles by the President: Inaugural Address

 

Educating for a Just Society

Fr. Privett's address, as delivered at his installation as the 27th president of the University of San Francisco, November 18, 2000 in St. Ignatius Church.


I am confident that 58 years ago, my mother, Peg, who is sitting here next to my older brother, John, never thought that all of us would be in St. Ignatius Church, half a block up from the hospital where I was born. My mother has told us that she came out of the anesthesia after my birth to the beautiful voices of the Mercy Sisters singing High Mass, because the maternity ward was right under the chapel. She thought, for a moment that she was waking up in heaven. While I have no illusions about having died and gone to heaven, I am honored to have been chosen the 27th president of the University of San Francisco, and I am privileged to accept this charge from the Chair of our Board of Trustees, Mr. Dominic Tarantino. Dom is a person of warmth, intelligence, compassion, and integrity. The University is proud to claim him as an alumnus. His affection for and commitment to USF, coupled with his persuasive abilities, prevailed in my decision to come home to San Francisco.

Anne Lamott, in her autobiographical work Traveling Mercies, relates the story of her best friend who got lost one day when she was only 7 years old. Anne writes:

"the little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him very firmly, ‘you could let me out now. That is my church, and I can always find my way home from there.’"

This church in which we are assembled, with its twin spires and spacious dome, dominates the local landscape and, for many, symbolizes the University of San Francisco. For the lost child in the story, the church was not "home" but the place from which she could always find her way home. For me, church is a metaphor for all those "landmarks" — wise and compassionate mentors; challenging human experiences; a revealing book or movie; an inspiring talk or a touching story — all those things that point our lives in the right direction and send us home. For that reason, "church" is an apt metaphor for a Jesuit university, whose responsibility, at one level, is to help each of us and all of us "find our way home."

A Jesuit university is not just one more institution of higher education locked in a grim struggle for survival with other such institutions. The vision of a Jesuit university does not lock on itself, but looks beyond the immediate horizon to that mysterious and alluring place where we long to be. For Jesuit universities "that place" is the common destiny of all men and women – not just a select number of the best and the brightest, the deserving and the enterprising, the articulate and the witty. In fact, no one of us will ultimately find our way home unless all of us do. I am reminded of a young volunteer church worker in Guatemala, who told me that he learned from his two-year experience that if all the people of the world were placed in a single-file line, he would be at the very front of that line. And he could spend the rest of his life trying to get further ahead in the line or he could turn around and look back at the all the people behind him — four-fifths of the world. He chose to do the latter and that has made all the difference, for him and for them.

In my own Catholic tradition, there are numerous stories in which Jesus describes festive meals where the poor, the despised, and the shunned make up the guest list; stories where the people we would seat at head tables don’t even make it into the banquet room. Jesus told these stories to draw a sharp and revealing contrast between the way things are and the way he thought things should be. Our world is a place where 40,000 people die each day from easily preventable diseases; it should not be this way. Our world is a place where $2.4 billion dollars a day is spent on weapons of destruction, while three billion people live on less than two dollars a day; where the total assets of the wealthiest 358 individuals exceed the combined annual income of the poorest 45% of the world’s population; it should not be this way. The University of San Francisco remains unequivocally committed to critically assessing the way things are so that our teaching, our scholarship, our students, and alumni make this world more like the place it should be. May this critical sensitivity to the injustices of our world continue as a driving force behind the Jesuit University of San Francisco.

These past two days, the spectre of our martyred colleagues and their cook and her daughter at the Jesuit University in El Salvador looms large in our celebration and in our consciousness. These renowned and gifted scholar-teachers dedicated their considerable talents and their entire academic careers to serving as the moral compass in a country where the vast majority of poor Salvadorans were the victims of a mindless violence and terror, savagely directed toward maintaining the privileged status of a small but wealthy and powerful elite. These University martyrs whom we remember today pointed out to an entire nation the narrow and steep pathway home that they walked, but too few were willing to follow. They exercised their human and academic responsibilities with the requisite rigor and the marshalling of compelling evidence that is the heart of the academic enterprise. May their passion for the truth and their courage in its telling continue to be a model and an inspiration for all of us at the Jesuit University of San Francisco.

The University of San Francisco is where Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, wanted Jesuit universities to be — in the center of a great city. To Ignatius’ consistently strategic way of thinking, important cities drove the economy, were the seats of government, the centers of religion and the arts; all the key institutions and influences of culture emanated from the great cities. Ignatius wanted Jesuit universities to be urban institutions so that they could influence culture through scholarship and teaching; so that culture — whose all-pervasive influence is as taken for granted by us as water is by fish — itself would support a humane way of being together in the world, which is, after all, the goal of humanistic education in the arts and sciences.

The centrality of the performing arts in the earliest Jesuit universities is well documented. An 18th century critic wryly observed, "There is no one like the Jesuits for doing pirouettes." Jesuit commitment to the arts was driven by an underlying conviction that exposure to the finest expressions of the human spirit results in people absorbing something of that spirit. We have vivid descriptions of dramatic productions at Jesuit universities wherein "a boy speaks as he drops from a cloud to stage. Europe, Asia, Africa, America, borne through the air in chariots, enter from the four corners of the earth. Here is performed, after Indian fashion, a sportive dance." These staged spectacles of sight and sound were not ars gratia artis of that growling MGM lion from my childhood, but art for the sake of humanizing persons who make the culture that shapes us all. May challenging individuals and influencing culture to more effectively reflect the full depth of our graced humanity remain a hallmark of education at the Jesuit University of San Francisco.

I would qualify the old saying that "home is where the heart is" with Augustine’s insight that our hearts are inherently restless, because our ultimate satisfaction — our final home — is beyond our own ability to construct. But we must attend to that interior landmark, the restlessness of our very human hearts, if ever we are to find the path that leads us all home. I recall novelist Andrew Pham’s reflections upon looking into the pleading face of a child beggar in Vietnam to whom he had just given all the money in his pockets. He writes in Catfish and Mandela:

"I stood there sickened for her, gasping at her tragedy and my part in it. Oh, child. What have I done? Her parents will send her back here again and again on the off chance of a windfall like today's. Oh, God. Why is she here? This beautiful child. What his her birth-fortune?

…Why do I care for this persimmon-faced child? Is it simply because she bears a likeness to someone I once knew? Is that what it takes to remind me that I am Vietnamese? That I am human, capable of feeling the misery of another?"

Our capacity to feel the misery of another is central to our being humanly together in this world. The compassionate promptings of our heart point us homeward. To muffle our heart’s voice with hollow assertions that it’s not our problem or by constantly changing the subject is to take a fork in the road that leads nowhere.

Pleas of the heart are not the only voice calling us home. The voice of reason is our heart’s most needed and trusted companion on life’s journey. Reason is the strongest and clearest voice in the conversation that is authentic education. If it is true that reason without compassion is ruthlessly narrow, it is certainly true that compassion uninformed by reason degenerates into mere sentimentality. And sentimentality is a dead-end street. Sentimentality evokes the novelist’s image of Russian nobles weeping profusely at the death of Mimi in the opera La Bohème while their servants literally froze to death outside on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Achieving the fullness of our humanity — the goal of a humanistic education — requires that we attend to the full complexity of the human person. We are knowers and lovers. We are head and heart. While knowledge by itself will not take us home, the attainment of knowledge is among the most satisfying of all human achievements. Discovering the truth — whether in mathematics or literature, botany or law, organizational theory or nursing — is its own reward and delight because we are naturally oriented to know, even if our thirst for knowledge is unquenchable. Intellectual satisfaction comes in bits and pieces — more in the search for knowledge and truth than in their possession. If our hearts are restless, so are our minds. Restlessness is the core of our humanity. The Catholic tradition maintains that our deepest desires — to know and to love — are of God, and far from being doomed to frustration impel us beyond ourselves toward the fullness of truth and love, which we believe is the person of God.

These reflections recalled for me a twilight walk toward Lake Suchitoto in El Salvador over a decade ago. I can still see two figures darkly outlined against a setting sun brilliantly reflecting off the water. A woman was lifting a man out of a small rowboat and dragging him from the water’s edge up the shore. I asked my friend what was going on. She explained to me that the young man lost both legs when the Salvadoran army attacked a group of unarmed, innocent campesinos working in the cornfields. Without legs this campesino could no longer work the land he loved. So he and his wife came down from the mountains to the lake, where she could put him in a boat each morning and he could row out to deeper waters and fish all day. In the evening, he rowed back to shore where she waited to gently lift him up and drag him to the shack that was their home. Together — and only together — were they able to eke out an existence.

Intelligence and compassion, knowledge and love, head and heart together — and only together — will lead us all safely home. On the eve of India’s independence and in face of nearly insurmountable challenges, when Gandhi was asked what he feared most, he replied, "hardness of heart in the educated." Gandhi would view with satisfaction and hope the rich blend of academic rigor and human compassion that constitute education at the Jesuit University of San Francisco.

In my eight weeks as president, I have discovered that the University of San Francisco is uniquely positioned to remain a landmark not only for the citizens of this great city but for the all the peoples of the Pacific Rim, whom this city opens its arms to and embraces. The diversity of our city and our University community closely mirror the rich complexity of our world. The University of San Francisco first served Irish and Italian immigrants who otherwise had no access to quality education. The original roster of student names has expanded over the years from Cleary, O’Brien, Pinasco, and Vanzinni, to include Nguyen, Aquino, Takashi, Gonzales, and Chang. We are proud that after 145 years, 25 percent of our undergraduates are first generation college students. Providing a quality education to immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants will forever be a heart-felt concern of the Jesuit University of San Francisco.

This is a University community where students, faculty, and staff learn from each other; where diversity is not a political agenda, but the necessary ingredient of a quality education in the 21st century. We learn from hearing each other’s stories. The more diverse our stories, the richer the learning experience. Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, who was just named president of Brown University, told a New York Times reporter her story about shopping as an African-American woman at Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Ferragamo in New York City; how she was followed around by suspicious department store clerks who seemed convinced that she was about to shoplift something — not an uncommon experience for black and Latino Americans. Dr. Simmons said that she will retell her story to Brown students, because, "If we could get a cadre of leaders who are bold enough and courageous enough and intelligent enough… we could change society." Educating students for bold, courageous and intelligent leadership that changes society is what we are about at the Jesuit University of San Francisco.

In my first few weeks here, I learned that the University of San Francisco is uniquely graced with administrators, faculty and staff keenly attuned to its mission and deeply committed to promoting student learning in the Jesuit humanistic tradition of the arts and sciences. Our faculty actively pursue and create knowledge through outstanding scholarship which ranges topically from religion’s role in the lives of new immigrants to trademark law to the biological effects of ozone depletion to applied economics to controlling schizophrenics’ inner voices to telecommunications management — and all topics and issues in between. Our faculty’s scholarly work does take them out of the classroom and away from students, but vitalizes and enriches the learning environment for all our students. These are scholarly teachers who actively engage students in their search for the knowledge proper to each discipline and for those broader truths that serve as the points against which we may chart our lives’ course.

We are proud of those whom we have educated. You alumni are an important part of our story. You are the value added to society by Jesuit education at the University of San Francisco. The story that I tell with anecdotes and statistics and illustrations, you alums tell by who you are, as much as by what you say. I ask you today to tell the story of the University of San Francisco more loudly and clearly than you may have done in the past. Ours is a rich and endearing story which all of us have had a hand in writing. Let us continue to write it well and tell it with passion and pride.

I began with the assertion that this University is a global landmark in one of the world’s great cities; a "church" — a place where all who have lost their way may return to find their way home again. Apropos of this, I cite the concluding paragraph in Chesterton’s biography of Charles Dickens:

"…comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travels home; but rather our travels home are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God, shall endure forever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet with Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world."

May comradeship and serious joy animate the Jesuit University of San Francisco and give us a little taste of the satisfaction that we all will finally enjoy. May this University be "church" – a place that warmly welcomes all who have lost their way and points them toward that house with many mansions that is our home. May this morning’s celebration of companionship and joy strengthen our sense of solidarity with the entire human family and give us sustenance and purpose on our journey home.

Thank you.

 

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