University of San Francisco President the Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. is a man bridging many divides, be they bureaucratic, political, or ideological. As the individual tasked with overseeing the entirety of the university, he must attempt to please all sides while fulfilling the most pressing needs of the institution and ensuring its long-term success.
Fitzgerald is the chief diplomat, politician, lobbyist, fundraiser and public face of USF, all at the same time — doing his best to juggle a multitude of constantly shifting demands.
Over six months into his tenure, the Foghorn sat down with Fitzgerald for an interview covering his background, personal beliefs, overall vision and plans for USF, and even his views on controversial topics, including gay marriage and abortion.
Q: Tell me more about your background and experience. What initially drew you to become a Jesuit priest?
A: I went to Los Gatos High (in Los Gatos). I was a first-generation college student. And I didn’t know that you were supposed to apply to more than one school because at Los Gatos High they had one college counselor for 800 seniors. So I applied to Santa Clara (University) and fortunately I got in. And, you know, lived at home and commuted and worked part-time to pay the bills. But I had a great experience.
While I was there, I met a couple of Jesuits and had some Jesuit professors and they were just really intriguing. Interesting guys. They had this big old house and they lived together and they had amazing conversations. And they has this great contact with the students. I just found it kind of attractive. So after I graduated, I worked for a couple years and after about a year and talked to this one Jesuit and said, “How does someone become a Jesuit?” And he’s like, “You!? I can’t believe it.” When I was a student, he was just Charlie Fitz (sic), he was my academic advisor, and he said, “Paul, if you want to do anything, if you want to change the world, you gotta go into business or go into politics or go into education.” Well I said, “Well maybe I’ll do all three. I’ll be a Jesuit.”
Q: What is USF doing to bridge the socioeconomic gap in terms of accessibility for middle and lower income students?
A: Salaries and benefits are the largest item on our annual budget, financial aid is the second largest item. I think it’s about half the students graduate with debt and half graduate without debt. For those that graduate with debt, the average debt is about $28,000, which is about half of the annual first year salary. […] So, we’re working very hard, and you know $28,000 would be 12 percent of the full sticker price of attendance over four years. That’s pretty reasonable.
But also, we’re looking, we’re raising money for endowed scholarships. We need to grow the endowment so that USF is very affordable to all the students that we want to enroll and we give students that ability to be nimble. So if we can push it (average student debt) from $28,000 to $25,000 to $21,000, as low as we can go, so that they turn and do that JD or MBA or that Master’s in Nursing or whatever it is they want to do. It’s very important. But there are kids graduating from other universities where they have $80-100,000 of debt. And they’ll never escape from that.
Q: Are there any resources at USF–like an incubator, grants, or endowment–to help entrepreneurial students that want to start ventures of their own?
A: We do already have a tech transfer office. We’ve hired someone, a consultant, to come in and help us. And we have a couple of other folks too talking about us using 101 Howard St. (USF’s Downtown Campus) and starting an incubator or accelerator in the heart of downtown in the heart of things. We could also do things here. We really want to create and strengthen structures so that undergraduates, graduate, and faculty can do startups, incubate projects. We can lineup students with angel investors. Yeah, there was more venture capital in San Francisco then there was in Silicon Valley last year. I mean this is “silicon city.”
So, with the internships, check, we’ve got the internships going full blast. The next step is to have robust business plan competitions and other structures so that students can move an idea forward even to launch, before or after they graduate. And hopefully, our incubator could have a special flavor of social benefit. Minority-led, women-led teams so that we could put something out there which helped and contributed to the local, regional, global economy but also had that USF stamp on it. The other thing we’re beginning to structure and plan is a Center for Applied Ethics, so again, right in the middle of the city to help companies do the right thing at the right time in the right way even if no one else is looking.
Q: What are your thoughts regarding the issue of sexual assault and rape within the USF community?
A: It’s a super important question because it goes back to the dignity and worth of human beings. So, now at the big, big picture level women who are in college are safer than women of their own age who are not in college. Non-college attending young women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than women who are in college. Now, that has a lot of reasons, but part of it is women in college they are smart, organized, and have a sense of themselves. That having been said, nationwide, there is an awful lot of drinking and use of other drugs on college campuses and sexual assault often is connected to overconsumption of alcohol (and other drugs). And where does consent come into this?
So what we’ve done at USF — Peter Novak led a team and they crafted this thing called Think About It, which has now been adopted at over 200 universities, including Stanford. They threw out their old system and adopted Think About It because it’s based upon the respectful engagement of students where they really are.[…] We’re able to aggregate, but we don’t know what any particular student said, but we have a real clear picture of what this population looks like as they arrive. […] So we can track and see are students altering their behaviors? Are they becoming more mature, more responsible, more respectful?
But in those undergraduate years it’s about gaining a sense of your own deep worth and gaining a real sense of awe for that person across from you so that you can be loving and not manipulative. And manipulation often comes out of a desire for love. It’s really hard to find someone who’s malicious, people can once in a while be mean, but it’s hard to find people who are really malicious. It’s often to time we do the wrong thing but we thought were doing something which was a good. And again, alcohol clouds this stuff, we make bad judgements, we make bad choices. […] I mean you’re an adult and you’re responsible and you’ve got rights. You’ve got the right to privacy, you’ve got the right to all kinds of things and so we want you to kind of grow in your freedom. And get out of here without having gotten hurt.
Q: What impact has Think About It had on the rate of sexual assault at USF?
A: I think that our statistics actually have ticked up a little bit in terms of reports (to campus security), which is a good thing. If more students are coming forward then it means that more students are engaging the system of support because there’s more trust. And, you could talk to Peter Novak about this, and also to Jeff Hamrick about the statistics but if the more we can create a culture of trust, the safer a place we can become. But again, to go back to the idea of inclusive excellence, you know we value every member of the community. And the male students value the female students as equals and vice versa. And all of the complexities of gender, we can support it a way so that every student feels safe. So our LGBT (students) feel safe. And again they can appropriate their freedom and can appropriate their adulthood.
Q: What are your personal views on more controversial issues within the Catholic church, like abortion for instance?
A: As Catholics I like this whole idea of a “seamless garment.” A Catholic worldview, it’s like for the human person. And therefore, racism is a sin. The death penalty is a sin. Abortion is a sin because…when does life begin? Does life begin at birth? Well, you know, a week before the birth this baby is viable, three weeks before birth the baby is viable, five weeks before she’s viable, ten weeks before it gets really…The science continues to advance so you have these preemies. Do you say, “Okay, after three months this is just a non-person that then becomes a person.” Right now, there’s this ambiguity.
If I shoot and kill a pregnant woman it’s a double homicide. So with the abortion thing it’s messy and complex. So we just take the extreme position and say life begins at conception, when the sperm and the egg come together and now the DNA of these two people mix. And now there’s a unique newness there. And, gee, a lot of pregnancies end in a spontaneous miscarriage. And I know a lot of women, a miscarriage is a source of great sadness and mourning…And also with the death penalty, someone does something bad, they kill someone, with all of the complexity of motive and freedom and lack of freedom. But do we turn around and kill them?
Then we’re doing it in a very cold-hearted way. Or do we just say human beings never lose their dignity, no matter what they do. […] You know I was just at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and in Nazi Germany they systematically went into hospitals where there were severely handicapped people and they would just kill them. And then they started doing abortions. So to say this human life is valuable and this human life is not…and that distinction is the root of all human suffering, well not all human suffering, but so much human evil. Us against them. That’s the rationale for slavery. That’s the rationale for sexism. So Catholics just take this radical position of let’s just say that every human life, no matter how weak, no matter how marginal, has worth.
Photo Credit: Larue Burks/Foghorn