President Pestello listens to student voices, responds effectively

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Last week, the University News Editorial Board met with University President Fred Pestello to talk about the paper and his role as SLU’s president. In the meeting, we asked him what he thought about the success of the University’s sports teams, how SLU’s new dining hall will differ from Griesedieck and about his greatest challenges as president of the University. He wanted to know which story we felt was most important out of those we covered this year.

Our overall impression of Pestello was of a personable and pragmatic individual. However, because some members of the student body criticize the president’s decision-making, we wanted to share our thoughts on his short tenure in office thus far. Since Pestello was inaugurated in 2014, his leadership has often been in question. In his first year as president, the police shooting of Michael Brown sparked protests and led to the occupation of the Clock Tower on SLU’s campus. Tis moment would define Pestello and his administration. Would he operate from toughness or lenience? History will view his response to the occupation favorably.

One side of the issue urged him to forcibly disperse the protesters, while the other side urged him to do more to end social inequality at SLU. No matter his choice, Pestello would receive criticism — his decision would either be perceived as too harsh or too weak. By adopting the Clock Tower Accords, Pestello responded to the grievances of the protesters.

Still, those on the side of the protesters have not felt enough progress has been made, and after the University announced plans to create a sculpture meant to “[capture] the spirit and importance of the demonstration and encampment,” critics claimed the artwork might embody anti-police values. Although neither side of this debate has felt his decision best resolved the issue, we believe, especially considering the pressure of his circumstances, he handled it fairly and effectively.

In our discussion about Pestello’s struggles as president, he explained how the circumstances of his new presidency made the Clock Tower occupation more difficult. As a new leader, he had not worked with the board of trustees for long, and he had not been in the area long enough to know who his congressman was. In spite of his initial lack of familiarity, Pestello has managed to sort through issue after issue the University has run into.

This year, SLU unveiled its new Billiken mascot at Hermann Soccer Stadium on Sept. 20, and students, alumni and several national publications shredded it on social media. Since the reveal, the president has used social media to control the damage, including a video of him looking for new mascot ideas at the Saint Louis Zoo. This comedic response defused the issue, and along with announcing that changes would be coming to the mascot, displayed respect for students’ opinions.

With that said, respecting everyone’s opinion is difficult. Negative responses over social media garner more attention than positive ones. People also naturally dislike change in all forms, and we often warm to the object being replaced once it disappears. In this situation, the president measured the response to the new mascot and decided the complaints were great enough to give the student body and alumni more options. Pestello told us the University will design several Billikens and determine which one SLU will adopt based on student response.

Pestello works to give students a voice, and in situations of adversity, counts on them to act with grace. This non-interventionist approach may appear as negligence. We view this as providing trust in the University’s students.

When Allen West called students at SLU “cupcakes” and ranted about the censorship of the term “radical Islam,” students were outraged. Despite talks of not allowing West to speak on campus, the president trusted in the student body. This decision allowed students to make something better out of the situation while preserving the freedom of speech. As a result, students protested the event and stood in defense of SLU’s Muslim students, transforming a moment of hate into one of resilience.

In the past, especially concerning the Clock Tower Accords, Pestello has been criticized for having liberal policies. However, in the case of West speaking on campus, Pestello facilitated conversation on both sides and displayed fair treatment of each. Before West spoke, he met with both the Muslim Student Association and the College Republicans. He did not pick a side and worked instead for unity.

The Editorial Board does not agree with every decision the University has made since Pestello took office, and because Pestello represents the University and holds its highest office, we do not think every decision of his has been ideal. With that being said, Pestello inherited the issues to which the University and its previous leaders contributed, and amending imperfections of the past is no small feat.

Pestello has, in a large majority, served our University well. We urge him to continue on the path he has thus far followed for the betterment of SLU.