Inauguration: Fr. Pilarz's Address

Scott R. Pilarz, S.J., delivers the Inauguration Address.

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My fellow Trustees, Bishop Bambera, Father Provincial, honored guests, my brother Jesuits, members of faculty, staff and administration and most importantly, University of Scranton students.

First and foremost, thanks to all who made this great day in the life of the University possible – this wonderful celebration of community. In all honesty, there is only one thing I want to say today: 

I love this place, and I am blessed to be back here with you.

However, my bosses, the Trustees, are sitting behind me, and I don’t think I can get away with a single sentence. They hired me, and they are going to want to hear more.

There are actually three aspects of the University that I wish to address today: Our Community, Our Core and Our Shared Commitments. 

Our Community

Speaking to community, let me start by thanking Father Herb Keller for the groundwork he laid last year as Interim President.  I’m delighted that he is the rector of the Scranton Jesuit community and also special assistant to the president. This is one of those rare instances where my boss is also my special assistant. Herb’s good work built upon the legacy of community that generations of women and men serving the University have made our hallmark including our former president, Father Joseph McShane, who we are happy to welcome back today.

One of the primary reasons I am so happy to be back is because of the special, unique nature of this community that has once again so warmly welcomed me and my family.

Two years ago, I was happily serving as the president of Georgetown Prep, the oldest Jesuit high school in the United States, complete with my own golf course (if only I golfed). I was blessed with remarkable comrades and collaborators, some of whom have joined us here today. People who are devoted to serving Prep’s exceptional students.

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I can assure you that there was no other place on the planet that I would have considered leaving Prep, except for The University of Scranton. When Scranton friends first suggested that I consider coming back, my respect for and devotion to this place led me to discern the pursuit of this opportunity. And throughout that discernment, I was haunted by some words that somebody etched on the front of the DeNaples Center:

Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live.

While community is a key strength, we can never be complacent here at Scranton. As you know, community both here and everywhere is under stress. Some of these stresses are not new. In 2011, Father General Adolfo Nicholás in Mexico City said:

“When one is overwhelmed with such a dizzying pluralism of choices and values and beliefs and visions of life, then one can so easily slip into the lazy superficiality of relativism or mere tolerance of others and their views, rather than engaging in the hard work of forming communities of dialogue in the search of truth and understanding.”

We have never been afraid of this kind of hard work at The University of Scranton. In our current context, this work requires a focus on reconciliation. As our current Father General recent wrote:

"What better place for hope to enter than here at The University of Scranton."

The university is …a privileged space for exercising human freedom. Freedom to search and find the paths of social transformation through research and teaching. It is a space in which the message of liberation of the Good News of the Gospel can contribute to finding better ways to generate life in the midst of difficulties and uncertainty, which seem to overwhelm the daily lives of most men and women, opening a space for hope to enter. 

What better place for hope to enter than here at The University of Scranton. We must ensure that hope always abides here and more that we are the source for hope in our local community, the communities in which our graduates live and work, in the Church, and in the world.

Our Core

How do we go about equipping our students to live lives that are sources for hope? For me, the answer is clear and central to my own education and life’s work. We have always given pride of place to the liberal arts and the humanities, and our commitment to these academic disciplines is rooted and grounded in our mission and identity. The earliest Jesuit educators believed and developed a curriculum out of the conviction that the study of literature, history, language, theology and philosophy, transform students to be agents for positive change in a world always waiting to be made more gentle and just. At Scranton, the humanities and liberal arts are the heart of the matter and must always remain so.

This is not to say that as a comprehensive university we are not committed to an array of outstanding undergraduate and graduate, professional and pre-professional programs. But what sets apart a Scranton doctor, nurse, accountant, teacher, scientist or executive is a deep appreciation for and understanding of the human condition. Humanities and the liberal arts offer opportunities to gain wisdom by engaging and embracing life’s greatest mysteries. Those of you that know me well, know that at heart, I am an English teacher. At the conclusion of every English class I have ever taught, I share with my students these words from the New Jersey novelist Philip Roth:  

“I love teaching literature. I am rarely ever so contented as when I am here with my pages of notes and my marked up texts and with people like yourselves. To my mind, there is nothing quite like the classroom in all of life. Sometimes when we are in the midst of talking, when one of you has pierced with a single phrase right to the heart of the book at hand, I want to cry out: Dear friends, cherish this. Why? Because once you have left here people are rarely if ever going to talk to you or listen to you the way you talk or listen to one another and to me in this bright and barren little room. …I doubt that you know how very affecting it is to hear you speak thoughtfully and in all earnestness about solitude, illness, longing, loss, suffering, delusion, hope, passion and love. …To put it as straight as I can, what the church is to a true believer; a classroom is to me. Some kneel at Sunday prayer, and I appear three times each week to teach the great stories to you.”

"At Scranton, the humanities and liberal arts are the heart of the matter and must always remain so."

The humanities and liberal arts are home to the great stories, and Jesuit educators have always believed that reading the great stories is the best preparation for a life lived generously in service of others and God. In addition, they knew that the great stories teach you that time is a finger snap and a blink of an eye, and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it. In other words, the humanities teach us don’t waste love.

Even before I arrived, faculty and administrators were talking about how Scranton can best be positioned as a leader in humanities education. Inspired by their good work and by my own deep convictions, I have already made finding resources to support this dream a priority. We must explicitly re-dedicate our community to Ignatian intellectual rigor, curiosity and personal and professional growth. 

As a start to accomplishing this, we will create a center for the humanities that will provide every part of our academic community – business and nursing, the arts and political science, communications and chemistry – with an empowering and coherent basis for these Ignatian ideals. 

While you will hear much more about our plans in the coming weeks, I wish today to let you know that we have already received the first of what I hope will be many leadership gifts in support of it. I know I am putting him on the spot, but I want to acknowledge the generous commitment of one million dollars from Mr. James Slattery and his wife, Betsy. Jim…. thank you and Betsy for helping to launch this dream.

Our Commitments

While the liberal arts central to our mission, we have over the decades defined a Scranton education in much more comprehensive ways. We are proud of all of our academic programs and the ways in which they too transform the lives of our students. As we look to the future, we are committed to strengthen strategically our existing programs and to add appropriate new ones. While our past provides a compass, we always need to be aware of opportunities and potential directions. I encourage all of us, especially our new provost, the deans and the faculty, to be innovative, entrepreneurial and collaborative. Ultimately, all of the programs that we offer now and will offer in the future to our students must develop organically and authentically in accord with our mission and identity. 

In addition to finding financial support for the liberal arts and humanities, I am committed to doing the same for student-faculty research and faculty development. Our students tell us again and again how such research has helped them discern their passion in life. These opportunities obviously require a level of generosity from our faculty who give so freely of their time and who remain excited to create knowledge. We can all be grateful, as I am, for the Scranton faculty who are so selflessly committed to student success.

In order that future generations may have access to the Scranton experience, we are committed to redoubling our efforts to support endowment for the sake of affordability. Scholarships and financial aid are the difference makers for students and their families. To this end, we must invite our alumni, parents and friends to help our students to realize their dreams here. 

We have a strong tradition here in Scranton of service and service programs both international and domestic. I have to admit that during my first tenure, I had to be strong-armed into accompanying a group of students to El Salvador. They had earlier in the semester talked me into offering a reader on liberation theology. At the end of the semester, they asked a question: “What are we going to do with what we have learned? Let us go to Central America and put theory into practice.” Their example was an inspiration for me and my shared experience with them convinced me more than ever of the importance of exposing our students to the gritty reality of the world. While we didn’t change El Salvador in 10 days. That experience of service forever changed all of us. We must be committed to seeing such programs flourish, and a dream of mine is to see them fully endowed.

"We are committed to the University remaining an engine of opportunity, a voice for social justice and a hub of cultural, intellectual and spiritual life." 

While our current strategic plan rightly encourages us to embrace the world, we just as enthusiastically embrace our city and the region of Northeastern Pennsylvania. We are committed to the University remaining an engine of opportunity, a voice for social justice and a hub of cultural, intellectual and spiritual life. 

As a University founded by the first Bishop of Scranton and sustained by the Society of Jesus since 1942, we uniquely manifest our Catholic and Jesuit identity. For example, and with deference to my fellow Jesuit presidents with us today, Scranton stands out among our sister Jesuit institutions in our practice of cura personalis

Based on the Saint Ignatius’ experience during his conversion of God drawing close to him as an individual with his own hopes, aspirations, dreams, our paradigm for relating to Scranton students embodies the “reverent familiarity” practiced by the earliest Jesuit educators. We have learned that caring for students in this way is the heart of our transformational education.

This qualifies our University community to address with care, issues facing the Church both local and universal. Recently our Board of Trustees dedicated endowed funds to launch an effort both scholarly and pastorally to harness our gifts at time when the need for transformation is so apparent. We commit ourselves to this effort with a sense of humility, but also with a sense of urgency.  

As I conclude, let me draw upon the words of Father Timothy Healy, a mentor, friend and late president of Georgetown. Father Healy once spoke of the work of a University as an “act of love,” and Ignatius reminds us that “Love is shown in deeds, not in words.” Our devotion to community, our passion for the liberal arts, and all of our commitments constitute a call to action, a call to think beyond ourselves in service of our mission for the greater Glory of God and world’s wellbeing. Ultimately, they are a call to love.

"I love this place, and I am so blessed to be back here with all of you."

To again paraphrase Father Healy: while universities are great at assessment, planning and accreditation, in our heart of hearts they don’t really matter to us. What does matter is the individual contact, the teacher in the classroom…, the arc across which our learning bangs into the energy of the young. That interchange is more important to us than all the statistics, rules or regulations issued by the office of the dean or provost, all the fulminations of the president and the Board of Trustees or anyone else on the good ground on which we serve. “Only individuals grow and that growth, in mind and heart, is the university’s preoccupation.”

I pray today and every day that all of us at Scranton will be preoccupied with love for our students and for one another. I love this place, and I am so blessed to be back here with all of you.

God bless you, God bless Catholic and Jesuit education, and God bless The University of Scranton.

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