Time Out with Rev. Scott R. Pilarz, S.J.
Q&A from the Spring 2012 Issue of Marquette Magazine
After becoming Marquette’s 23rd President in August, Scott R. Pilarz, S.J., spent his first semester on the job alternating between patiently learning about the university from those who know it best and moving decisively on issues such as the composition of the Big East Conference and a search for a new athletic director. The current semester also saw Father Pilarz back in the classroom teaching Early Modern English Literature, while engaging the university community in thinking strategically about its future. Marquette Magazine caught up with him to discuss where he’s turning his — and the university’s — attention this spring.
Note: This is the full-length version of the interview, which was abbreviated for the print edition of the magazine.
Q. Why was it important for you to dive back into teaching during your busy first year at Marquette?
A. It’s a great way for me to have a sense of who our students are and what they are concerned about. I can speak, as a result of teaching them, to their intelligence and compassion. I am very fortunate to have a terrific group of students in my class this semester. Ultimately, teaching is a way to stay in touch with them and, selfishly, to stay in touch with an academic discipline that I love and that gives me life. So I know that at least once a week, I’m going to be reading poems in addition to memos on the budget. And that gives me a lot of satisfaction and inspiration.
Q. Does teaching influencing your outlook as you meet with faculty to discuss Marquette’s future?
A. I think so. It gives me a relationship with the faculty that I wouldn’t otherwise have. It helps me remember the realities that they are navigating all the time: grades, research, scholarship and class preparation. It gives me a renewed appreciation for the hard work that our faculty members do. As I speak with faculty I hear so clearly from them what they want for our students, and what they aspire to for our students. They really are committed to excellence and to the personal formation of the students who come to Marquette.
Q. You and Provost John Pauly are asking faculty and administrators to discuss Marquette’s strengths and their aspirations for the future and obstacles standing in our way. Where is this leading?
A. These meetings are part of the listening and learning I promised to do when I was named to this role over a year ago now. More significantly or as significantly, they are the first stage of what will ultimately become a strategic planning process. That process needs to begin with an assessment of who we are now. And I think those questions that Provost Pauly and I developed in addition to other university leaders, those questions help get at some thematic issues that certainly come up again and again. As we move through the colleges and other constituency groups on campus, there is a lot of commonality in terms of what people care about and where their hopes are about what Marquette can be, grounded in what we do so well already. We’re working toward some themes that can guide our planning, and also to identify some priorities as we move forward. I do keep telling people that no strategic plan is a magic bullet that is going to solve all of Marquette’s problems, nor will this be the last strategic plan for Marquette, but it can guide us and help us establish priorities for the next five to seven years.
Q. It’s pretty early but have you seen interesting patterns emerge in the responses to these questions?
A. Yes, we are starting to see them. I am a little bit concerned about prejudicing conversations that haven’t happened yet by saying too much about it. But not surprisingly, for example, when we ask pretty much every group, “What are Marquette’s strengths?” they all point to the quality of community here and the way in which Marquette people care for one another. Also, consistently we hear about Marquette’s responsibility to the city of Milwaukee and the region that is our home. So I am seeing a consensus gathering around the issue of civic engagement. As a university, we can’t obviously fix all of Milwaukee’s problems or respond to all of Milwaukee’s challenges, but we do have tremendous resources here that can help Milwaukee and the region move forward and we need to be more deliberative about that.
Q. How do you think Marquette might be a different place because of this strategic planning process?
A. There is good will to move forward as a university community in the direction of strengthening our academic programs, continuing to provide access for the excellent students who want to come to Marquette, providing faculty support so that our teacher scholars can continue the groundbreaking work that they do in their academic disciplines — and then, of course, the campus itself, what are our needs and priorities in terms of capital projects moving forward? We are going to have to identify all of that. It’s not going to, in every case, make everybody happy, but I think we need a plan in order to move forward so that we are clear about the direction we want to move. Certainly academic excellence, faculty support, student access, those things are emerging as clear priorities.
Q. Marquette’s teacher-scholar model is demanding, asking faculty to put a lot of energy into teaching as well as research and scholarship. Yet you’re seeing its value affirmed in the discussions you’ve had?
A. Yeah, it is kind of an academic high-wire act. We expect an awful lot from our faculty and they deliver. We want them to be outstanding teachers who are dedicated to the success of their students. We want them to be available to students. We want them also to make strides in their own academic fields and to develop their academic discipline through research, scholarship and publication. I lived that life for a number of years, and I can tell you that it takes a lot out of our faculty but they consistently deliver.
Q. You have provided additional resources to help faculty travel to conferences to make presentations. Why is that important?
A. It’s enriching for them. Again, grounded in my own experience, I know that participating in my own academic discipline through conferences, through research and publications, it made me a better teacher, ultimately. If you’re looking for a practical payoff, there it is. People who are engaged in their discipline and are exposed to emerging ideas — that’s going to affect the way they present in the classroom. It is also very enriching for our faculty, both personally and professionally, to have opportunities to meet with their colleagues and talk about the direction that research in their particular field is moving. It also enhances Marquette’s reputation. As our faculty travel to conferences, as our faculty publish articles and books, people hear about Marquette, and that is a great thing. We have a tremendous story to tell about the work of our faculty, and that story telling is all the more effective if they get out in person and present to their colleagues.
Q. The topic of diversity has come up in the listening and learning you’ve done. In addition to continuing to promote student diversity, how can Marquette also address the diversity of its faculty, especially since it will likely be competing with other universities that have the same goal?
A. I hear students put it well. In fact last night at a student forum, one of the students articulated an aspiration that someday Marquette would look more like the world than it does right now. Ultimately, that’s a question of resources. How do we encourage students to apply, how do we encourage faculty to want to come and work with us at Marquette? I think that we have some inherent features historically that make us a very attractive place both for students and faculty. But we need to keep building on those historic assets by providing more resources so that people will come here, and come here enthusiastically, and want to participate in the work of this great university.
Q. Marquette has had an interim dean of Arts and Sciences for several years. How will you approach filling this key leadership opening?
A. Very practically the provost and I have had many conversations over the past month about the shape of the search committee, should we work with a search firm or not. I think it’s very important for us to aggressively recruit candidates for this job, and part of that recruitment is convincing people that the College of Arts and Sciences is in fact the heart and soul of Marquette. The liberal arts and sciences are at the core of what Jesuit education has been about since the 16th century and holds a pride of place in the university. It’s the one college that educates every student who comes to Marquette so it is tremendously important that we find the right fit for the college.
Q. You’ve had a real immersion in Division-1 athletics this year. What’s struck you about the role athletics play in the Marquette community?
A. Marquette can be very proud of its rich athletic tradition, a feature of the university that I’ve come to appreciate greatly over these past several months, especially in the work I’ve been privileged to do in working to stabilize the Big East and to hire a great new athletic director. And in spending time with our student athletes, I can appreciate the contributions student athletes make to the life of the university, not just on the field or on the court but as leaders and shapers of university culture.
Of course, going to the NCAA tournament [was] a thrill. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the Marquette community to gather and to rededicate ourselves not only to our athletic success but to everything Marquette is about. Through the Big East tournament, in Louisville and in Phoenix … we had a great opportunity to celebrate Marquette and to renew the ties that bind us to one another and the university.
Q. CNN has a report praising Marquette’s graduation rate for student-athletes. Can you speak about the effort behind those results and the overall need to make sure student-athletes are fully integrated in campus life?
A. We are very proud that CNN would identify Marquette as a leader in terms of the support we provide our student athletes, around academics and really the full range of university experience. They are promised every bit as much as any other student that they will have a transformational educational experience. And the CNN story bears out that, in fact, they do. We commit significant resources to be sure they achieve academically as well as athletically. I am confident that we have coaches who are very committed to the academic and personal success of the student athletes here at Marquette. It’s great to be touted in a national story especially at a time when there’s been some bad news about intercollegiate athletics in the United States. I’m happy that Marquette University is recognized as a leader in producing great student athletes who contribute to the life of the institution. We look to them to provide leadership and to shape the life of the university in very significant ways. So we are always looking for ways to make sure our student athletes are very much central to the life of the university community.
Q. You’ve noted that other Jesuit colleges and universities look to Marquette for leadership on matters of mission and faith. How does this leadership pay dividends?
A. For all of the years I have been involved in Jesuit higher education, I heard much about Marquette’s success in integrating its mission and promoting and enhancing its Catholic and Jesuit identity. Other schools look to Marquette as a model. Marquette has been very fortunate to have tremendous leadership around mission and identity. I think some of the programs that Marquette has developed, Marquette’s willingness to step up and provide leadership for all 28 universities in the United States, are a singular contribution that Marquette has made historically. And certainly we want to continue to make those kinds of contributions, so that not only does Marquette benefit from the kind of work we have been doing so well for so long, but really all of the schools in what we call the American Assistancy benefit. And as well we need to respond to Father General’s call to establish tighter connections with other Jesuit universities around the world. At the now famous Mexico City meeting in 2010, the general reminded us that we are part of the largest network of schools in the world. There are hundred of Jesuit schools all over the world, and he urged us to have more than a big family resemblance to one another so we are going to reach out in new and deeper ways to Jesuit schools around the world to try to develop partnerships with them.
On the ground here we are very much affected by the way mission is integrated into the work that we do. It’s interesting to talk to new members of my leadership team and to hear how edified they are, and maybe even a little surprised, that students and other members of Marquette community can very clearly articulate the mission of the place. That is not the case at every college and university, but here people understand our mission and engage with it.
Q. In responding to Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Nicolas’ call to reimagine and refound Jesuit universities in response to dramatic global changes, you draw inspiration from the example of St. Ignatius and his early companions. Do you have an idea how they might approach establishing or re-establishing a Jesuit university in Milwaukee today?
A. I think they would be engaged in the kind of work that we’re engaged in, which is ultimately the work of discernment and reading the signs of the times. The early Jesuits backed into the work of education; that wasn’t their intention when the 10 companions originally gathered and asked the Pope for approval. Their goal was to help souls, but early on they discovered that schools were perhaps the best way to do that. If you want to transform the lives of young people, if you want to provide an education that develops character, that encourages people to move in the direction of excellence, that ultimately helps young people understand that they have a responsibility to be agents for change in a world waiting to be made more gentle and just, there is nothing quite like a school as the place to do that kind of work. It’s ultimately the work of formation — not simply supplying information, but helping students understand wisdom and the kind of wisdom that encourages them to make their way in the world as women and men for others who are ultimately going to serve the greater glory of God and the well being of human kind.