Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I Stand with President Pestello

Maggie Needham

As my senior year at Saint Louis University draws to a close, I am amazed at how much has changed since I first stepped foot on SLU’s campus, in 2011. I have seen this university struggle to find its place as a Jesuit institution in the city of St. Louis, and I have seen our campus polarized by issues that should have brought us together. This polarization has stunted our growth as a community, and it has prohibited us from doing the hard work that our Jesuit mission proclaims.

I have also seen many students, faculty and staff dedicate their lives to furthering the mission of our university -- “the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity.” President Fred Pestello has become an invaluable member of our community, taking the time to understand SLU and to work with student and faculty leaders, to continue and to strengthen their work.

When I made the decision to attend SLU, I did so based on the school’s commitment to service, rooted in its Catholic, Jesuit values. I wanted a school that would challenge students to be women and men for and with others, as well as clarify my understanding of social justice. These are the values that make SLU such a meaningful institution; and they are the reason that so many of us choose to invest our lives in the SLU community.

These are also the values that Pestello has embraced and that make him an exemplary leader for our university.

His leadership is moving SLU strongly in the right direction, aligning the school’s actions more closely with its mission. The actions of our new president have been, from the beginning, informed by a dedication to living the the mission’s values. He has explicitly chosen to pursue truth, with every decision he makes, and to engage SLU and St. Louis community that he now calls home. His presence on campus has been marked by listening, collaborating and communicating, with transparency.

Pestello’s interactions with the Occupy SLU movement in October are a prime example of how he lives the Jesuit mission. He could have immediately shut down the protest or confronted the activists as unwelcome outsiders. However, that approach would have ignored the school’s mission in favor of pretending that injustice in St. Louis does not affect us. But the SLU administration, under the leadership of Pestello, used the opportunity to engage in dialogue about racial inequality and learn from voices in our community that are often relegated to the margins.

In an email to the SLU community on Oct. 18, Pestello explained: “What we needed most was to listen and learn and find common ground.” His actions showed the humility and courage that we will all need, if we want to make a positive, enduring change. The pursuit of truth requires that we listen to those around us and learn from their experiences. And service to humanity requires us to take concrete steps to bring justice to all communities.

In agreeing to the Clock Tower Accords, Pestello demonstrated that he was willing to take those concrete steps. He agreed to work with others to strengthen SLU’s relationship with the city of St. Louis, to support students of color at SLU and to engage in dialogue about race. He also agreed to recognize the part that SLU has played in racial-justice issues, with a commissioned sculpture, which would, as Pestello noted, “honor our shared Jesuit values that promote inclusion rather than division.”

This sculpture -- regardless of its final form -- will serve as a testament to SLU’s place in history and in this city, and it will serve as a hopeful reminder that, as always, there is more work to be done.

From day one, Pestello has advocated and practiced open dialogue and humility. He has used his position and authority at SLU to explore how the university community can better serve others. That is servant leadership. And that is valuing social justice, love and unity.

Pestello lives the mission of our university, and he challenges and inspires us as students to live the mission, as well. He challenges us to understand complex issues and engage with those different from us. I appreciate all he has done for SLU in the months he has been here so far, and I look forward to seeing how SLU continues to grow under his servant leadership after I graduate.

I am proud to be a Billiken, and I stand with President Pestello.

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