Father O’Brien discusses new initiatives at univ.
The Santa Clara
May 16, 2019
From movements around unions and wages to new buildings for STEM, times are a-changin’ for Santa Clara. And starting July 1, it’ll be the job of 25th University President Kevin O’Brien, S.J. to shepherd us into a new era as we undertake a $1 billion fundraising initiative.
The campaign—Innovating with a Mission—seeks to expand scholarships and endowed professorships, increase student and faculty diversity and fortify the athletic program. These goals have been the subject of controversy in recent years as students and faculty wondered about where the university’s priorities lie amid rising tuition costs, adjunct faculty/lecturer unionization efforts, campus-wide construction and tension surrounding diversity and discrimination scandals.
As the 2018 Campus Climate Survey found, 72 percent of survey respondents felt “very comfortable” or “somewhat comfortable” on the university campus but 25 percent of survey respondents said they had personally experienced exclusionary, intimidating or hostile conduct.
This is the Claradise that O’Brien is stepping into.
But he isn’t shying away from the growing pains Santa Clara is experiencing. In fact, he welcomes the activism and input of the study body and faculty.
“The key is to engage,” O’Brien said. “As a student I was involved in activism because I cared. I like seeing students as activists learning to exercise their voice. But for all of us that voice must not become raised voices but voices engaged in conversation.”
Student and faculty engagement will be critical to understanding the lived experiences of the campus community, though he admits that limited resources make it hard to please everyone. It is also the responsibility of the administration, he notes, to explain the constrictions they have by law or finances.
“I’m not threatened by activism or nervous about it,” O’Brien said. “It’s better to be engaged. It just has to be constructive. Whenever there’s faculty or student engagement or activism, they all are doing it for good. And I want the good. The question is how can we achieve our goals? That’s where we may have differences. But engaging in that conversation is really important.”
The construction on campus is part of how the university has envisioned achieving the goals set forth by their fundraising campaign. Strategic planning assessed a need for more residence halls and up-todate STEM facilities.
“Buildings are meant for people,” O’Brien said. “Building a state-of-the-art modern campus and education go together.”
O’Brien cites the 2016 opening of the Edward M. Dowd Art and Art History Building and last year’s new law school, Charney Hall, as projects which have transformed the student experience. He attributed the increase in law school rankings in part to the new facilities.
However, he agrees that his primary focuses as president are on access and affordability for students, as well as helping faculty and staff afford to live in this expensive neighborhood.
To that end, the billion dollar goal will make it possible for the university to address concerns over wages, educational equity and tuition.
Santa Clara has already raised six hundred million dollars toward their goal.
“We’ll get there,” O’Brien said. “But even when we get there we’re going to move the goalposts because it’s important to ensure a diverse campus and faculty. We need to make sure that there is funding available to attract and retain the best student body and the best faculty regardless of their ability to pay or afford to be here. We’re in a much better place than we were 10 years ago or five years ago. But we have a lot more work to do.”
O’Brien was nominated for the position and approached about it by the Presidential Search Committee in October, but it wasn’t until November that he formally applied. It was not a decision he took lightly.
“For a Jesuit, regardless of the position, we approach such opportunities as a discernment,” O’Brien said. “Am I the right person to serve that community? As I got to know the Santa Clara community better I became more animated and excited about the opportunity.”
Part of his discernment process was consulting with his religious superiors, as well as reflecting on what gifts and limitations he could bring to the job. He reflected and prayed on the decision for a month or so before he formally applied for the position.
Although O’Brien knows no leader is perfect and no leader is perfectly suited for a position, he does believe he can gather a collaborative team of indivduals who cares deeply about Jesuit education and are there for something greater than themselves.
Gathering a staff dedicated to the mission of Santa Clara wll be a critical component of his transition period, especially for important university positions such as the provost and vice president for academic affairs.
That position will be up for grabs once current provost Dennis Jacobs steps down at the end of the academic school year.
According to O’Brien, his transition process means a lot of long days and doing a lot of listening when meeting with deans, vice presidents and other university leadership to learn more about their work.
“I want to get to know people personally or learn about their personal experience before we talk about the nuts and bolts of a position or that particular work we need to do,” O’Brien said. “What’s most important is to build a relationship because that’s what the foundation on which all work is done.”
O’Brien is still heading the Jesuit School of Theology during his transition period. Until then, he is looking forward to growing as a leader, as a Jesuit priest and learning from his colleagues.
“As Jesuits, we find God in all things and all people,” O’Brien said. “And this just provides another opportunity to encounter the living God in the lives of people here and in the experiences that we’ll have together. That means throwing myself more deeply into the experience of this community to meet new people and to learn from them to understand how God is laboring in a unique way in the life of our students and faculty here.”
Contact Perla Luna at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.