Living Jesuit values in a moment of crisis


On Nov. 8, at St. Francis Xavier College Church, Saint Louis University President Dr. Fred Pestello shared – with a mostly older crowd gathered in the church’s ballroom – his personal experience of leading SLU through the OccupySLU movement in October 2014. He gave a short note about his background: Pestello hails from Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended a Jesuit university, John Carroll, and then worked for 25 years as a sociology professor, provost, and then senior vice president at the University of Dayton; the next six years were spent as the first lay president of Le Moyne College, a Jesuit College in Syracuse, N.Y. After that, Pestello began his presentation.

Pestello said that his initial questions in time of crisis are first, “what is going on?” and second, “how do I resolve it?” These questions came to mind when Pestello faced what he calls the largest crisis of his career in October of 2014. Pestello mentioned that bias-related incidents, or more accurately, racism, during the spring of 2014 had left many students dissatisfied, prompting letters to the editor of the University News and to the former president of SLU.

After the killing of Michael Brown, a SLU faculty member approached Pestello for permission to host speakers on campus for an event to be held on Oct. 12. Pestello agreed, and about 1,500 people attended. There were many leaders who spoke, but there was a divide between the older speakers and the younger protestors in attendance. The divide manifested itself in protests that started in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, and then approached campus.

At 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 13, Pestello awoke to a phone call from Jim Moran, Vice President of Public Safety. Moran was predicting that the protestors were heading for SLU’s campus and wanted direction from Pestello as to whether or not they should be allowed in. Pestello deferred to Moran’s judgement, since although protestors could be prevented from entering campus initially, the campus is ultimately too porous to create any sort of secure perimeter. Student protestors arrived on campus with SLU identifications in hand saying, “We are SLU students and these are our guests.” Pestello then asked the crowd in attendance at College Church, “What would you do?” Video footage was then played that showed the initial entry to campus.

With about 24 or so protestors, #OccupySLU began. Pestello came to another crossroad. Now that the student protestors were on campus, and staying, should they be removed? Pestello again asked those in attendance, “What would you do? How many would have thrown them off campus?” No hands. “How many would have ignored them?” A few hands. “How many would have engaged them?” Most raise their hand. Thanks to social media, and the hashtag OccupySLU being the world’s most used hashtag for a two to three day period; food, water and warm blankets appeared for the student protestors.

Phone calls and emails poured in, with parents wanting the student protestors removed. Pestello confessed that he was haunted with the questions, “What would Jesus do? What would St. Ignatius do? What would Pope Francis do? What are our values?” Pestello felt that the values were the only thing to guide. The decision was made to pull back, give the student protestors space and attempt to engage them in conversation. Pestello approached the clock tower and asked, “Who is in charge here?” He was initially told that no one was in charge, and then that Christ was in charge. Pestello then asked, “What do you want?” “To occupy the campus space” was the reply. Pestello followed with, “What else?” The student protestors said that they did not know. While about 500 students, Jesuits, faculty and staff attended a two hour teach-in at the clock tower, phone calls continued to the President’s Office from powerful, prominent alumni. Pestello admitted that some of the calls were “almost threatening.” While contemplating the University’s next move, Pestello could not help but think of the killings at Kent State when students protested there. Again, he asked the crowd, “What would you do?”

After a Fox 2 news story on the student protestor occupation of campus, 316 phone calls, 187 emails, and 1,464 Facebook posts were directed towards the President’s Office. A webcam was installed in a somewhat successful attempt to quell concerned parents. Eventually, the student protestors and Pestello agreed upon 13 points about next steps forward.

Pestello’s secret, as he sees it, was to stop, pause and consider the values at hand – and have a little bit of luck. After a standing ovation, Pestello fielded questions on progress made since the occupation on campus. Pestello mentioned the hiring of a Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Community Engagement as well as an increased budget for the African American Studies Program and the establishment of a seminar on race. Pestello said that, “We got in the situation because we were not talking” and, when asked what advice he would give to the President of the University of Missouri – who recently stepped down amidst protests surrounding race relations – he said that conversation was the only way to get to a place where things can move forward. Pestello also urged people not to draw lines in the sand, but to be genuinely human. Moving forward, Pestello mentioned the importance of allowing Gospel values to guide and teach in future situations.

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