An interview with usf’s president on diversity, sex, sin, and what it means to be a Jesuit

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BEN GILL
Staff Writer

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

8 COMMENTS

  1. WOW, sorry but the answer to the sexual assault and rape question within the USF community was absolutely unsatisfactory. He said rape and sexual assault is less common with women in college rather than it is with women out of college because women with an education have a higher self-worth?

    WHEN is it EVER a woman’s self worth that stops her from being raped?! How does blaming young women for being “manipulative” rather than “loving” help us? Fucking ridiculous.

    How about we focus on educating our men to RESPECT the women around them, whether or not they are drunk at a party?

    • Many who worked with Messrs. Paul Fitzgerald at two other campuses he was embedded in before arriving at USF found him to be among the most destructive of administrators we had encountered – especially during his days in the Deans Office of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University. He had his eye on the Provost position there.
      When then President Paul Locatelli looked beyond Fitzgerald and appointed Denise Carmody Provost, Paul went wild. Angry, antagonistic, self pitying, destructive: these were words that
      characterized his demeanor and actions at that time. Paul Fitzgerald is cemented to the far right wing of the church ( nothing else explains his rise to power) and it is unfortunate USF will have to suffer through his reign. In addition to his views repulsive attitude toward women that begin to be conveyed by his comments in Foghorn’s interview, at Santa Clara he spoke in a way that made him seem entirely against multicultural education, ethnic studies, and diversity. On the other hand, take a look at USF. Steve Privett did what he could to promote tolerance and open mindedness in the church. Messrs. Fitzgerald has been brought aboard to do the opposite. How the Trustees of USF could be so blind as to appoint him is difficult to understand. Unless, of course, the same forces that created Ave Maria University were involved. Some of them actually wear white collars and teach at USF.

  2. This is absolutely disgusting and appalling. I am completely ASHAMED to be a member of the USF Community after reading this man’s views on sexual assault. Change the world from here? Social justice oriented? That just went straight out the window. More people need to read this. This is unacceptable.

  3. Reiterating my disgust and shame at the campus sexual assault answer. This is especially appalling as tomorrow is the nationwide kick-off of sexual assault awareness month. The answer provided by Rev. Fitzgerald makes it evident that he needs to spend some time listening to survivors in our community and understand that nothing that the victim does has anything to do with the chance of sexual assault. This perpetuates the notion that the victim is to blame based off of where they were, what they were wearing, if they were drinking, etc. Ashamed of our new president and hoping that he takes this opportunity to look more in depth to the growing issue of sexual assault on campus.

    Perhaps he should attend the Human Rights Film Festival on Thursday April 9 at 3:30pm to watch The Hunting Ground (http://www.sundance.org/projects/the-hunting-ground )

  4. Reverend, as you can probably see, your interview didn’t go over well with women. The reason for that is that to integrate college rapes into your Think About It Act suggests that if students are taught how to respect each other and treat each other with dignity, it will help to solve the problem of the presence of college rapes.
    What you need to know is that Rape is a violent act against a woman. It is meant to overpower her, humiliate her, and cause her great physical pain. It is not about teaching students to respect each other to prevent it. Rape has nothing to do with normal sexual relations and it certainly has nothing to do with some one making a bad judgment or a poor choice. Rape is committed by RAPISTS, it’s as simple as that.
    A rapist doesn’t turn into one as a result of drugs or alcohol. There is NO excuse for rape.
    there have been laws passed, The Rape Shield law for example.that protects a woman from having to march out her sexual history in court and its been quite a while since what a woman was wearing, what a woman was saying, or even if she was under the influence meant anything in terms of why a woman was raped. A rape victim is just that, a rape victim.
    I’m heartened to hear that more females feel safer reporting their rape but why did it take so sickeningly long for that to happen. If it hadn’t been for the media and strong women support groups, there would still be fear for those college girls today.
    So take any mention of rape out of your Think About it Act as there is nothing remotely related between the two. The Act without that is admirable however.

  5. Two things occurred to me. One is if college girls have been suffering while their rapists having been walking around campus free because the thinking is that he ‘just made a poor choice’, ‘he was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing’,’It was bad judgment on his part’ or anything similar, essentially letting them off the hook because of it; everyone involved should be drawn and quartered because there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for not fully educating yourselves about rape, what it is etc. then what all of these colleges have done is let rapists go free!.What, are we in the dark ages?
    Also Reverend if your comment that females and males are equal was to in any way suggest that females and males share equal responsibility where campus rapes occur than I am confirming for you that getting yourself up to date on the definition of rape and everything that goes with it should be your top priority. With all due respect ‘shame on you’ if that was the case.

  6. Fr. Fitz, you obviously based your answer to the sexual assault question on assumption and not on any kind of research. In a way, you happen to be correct. Based on studies from the Department of Justice Statistics, the rate of sexual assault among students as compared to non-students is higher, but not very statistically significant, based on the narrow populations surveyed. The rates are basically the same. It’s when you start to describe the “reasons why” that scares me, and probably a lot of other people. Uneducated assumptions like that coming from University Leadership have dangerous implications for women at USF. Your comments imply that if one is sexually assaulted (or maybe just not attending college), it is because they are stupid, unorganized, and do not have a “sense of themselves.”

  7. I thought if I’m feeling so free to be critical the least I could do is offer some advice that makes sense. Your Think About It course that freshman are required to take freshman year, from what I understand, is an impressive course. Part of the point I was making is that there seems to be quite a bit of confusion, especially amongst males as to what constitutes rape and I fear they are getting the wrong message.
    so my suggestion to you is that you have an entirely separate course including both males and females. One that gives a powerful and clear message about what rape is exactly; because,again it is not about college boys being too drunk to know better etc. Those excuses are letting college males off the hook for having committed a violent criminal act. As I said, there is NO excuse for rape.
    I believe if you have that powerful course that gives the students knowledge that leaves them WITHOUT any doubt as to what rape is, then when and if it happens EVERYONE is on the same page about what it is that happened, there would be no question that a college male accused of rape for example, will not be playing their sport that evening or any evenings after until the issue has come to it’s conclusion.
    And contrary to what some believe it is a rare female who will accuse someone of rape without having been raped (have your statistics guy look that up). However, if it is proven that a female has accused a male of rape when it hasn’t occurred, then she should be prosecuted to the extent the law will allow. So to use that as a reason to allow young men who have been accused to walk free, it really doesn’t hold water.
    My strong belief is there is hesitation amongst colleges to speak loudly and with confidence about what constitutes rape because they fear having to take responsibility but that responsibility should never be left to one person. I believe part of the reason for that is that no one really wants to take a stand, leaving frightened, assaulted college females with nowhere to go and that is criminal.
    So don’t be afraid to make that a part of your core curriculum because it’s such necessary information to have. The more black and white it is, because it is black and white, the quicker it can be handled in a way that uses the law to make the decisions necessary, (an educated police force).
    Let me give you an example of how strongly I feel about this issue. When my daughter was looking for colleges, she received many letters, pamphlets etc. from an unnamed college in the midwest who had handle this same situation in an unforgivable way. When we had an envelope full of them, we sent them back to the school saying, “No thank you, we need our daughter to be at a school where she knows she’s safe and we knows she is safe.” We wanted them to never forget.

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