Rev. Stephen A. Privett S.J. is the 27th president of the University of San Francisco. He is a native San Franciscan, an accomplished Catholic scholar and theologian and a gifted public speaker who recently accepted an offer from the Board of Trustees for a third five-year term as USF president.
Who has had the biggest influence on you in your life?
The group of Jesuit priests who taught me at Loyola High School in Los Angeles. They were highly qualified, enthusiastic, clearly enjoyed what they were doing and fun to be with. Their inspiring example led me, at 17, to enter the Jesuit seminary. Fifty years later, I realize it was the smartest decision of my life.
Is there a golden rule by which you live?
If I had only one guiding maxim, which I don’t, it would be something Nike-ish, like “do the right thing.”
Where, to whom, or to what do you turn to in dark times?
I am definitely a “glass half full” person. I’ve been graced with an amazing capacity — through no effort on my part — to see the silver lining of virtually every cloud. As a person of faith, I ultimately believe that good will triumph over evil, and love over hate. Those convictions, nurtured by prayer and reflection, have served me well.
Is there something about you that people would find surprising?
One never knows what would surprise people about someone who has been a Jesuit for 50 years. Perhaps that I clean my own room, do my own laundry, am a decent cook, a voracious reader (especially on my Kindle) and love the beach.
What book or piece of writing has had a large impact on you?
The most powerful novel I have read is “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. It was an incredibly moving experience of seeing life through eyes completely different from my own. No one has more compellingly captured the slave experience from the slave’s perspective than Morrison.
What’s the best part of your job as president of USF?
Leading the university as we strive to provide values-based Jesuit education to deserving students who will use what they learn and experience here to make the world better. I love serving as the spokesperson as well. Sharing with others the story of The City’s first university, originally founded to educate the children of immigrants and still doing so, though now our students come predominantly from Asia and Latin America. Approximately 30 percent of our students are the first in their family to go to college; about one-third come from families that make less than $28,000 per year; USF is the 15th most ethnically diverse university in the country. USF opens up opportunity for the majority of students rather than protecting the privileges of a few. We are the best-kept secret in town, and I especially love telling San Franciscans how good USF is.
What’s the most challenging part?
These are difficult times for higher education across the country. USF, like every other university, must figure out how to deliver its high quality, Jesuit Catholic education at lower cost to students and their families. We want to remain accessible to deserving students, no matter their income level, and that’s an increasingly difficult challenge. — Lisa Geduldig
Since USF is a Jesuit university, what role does religion play in the coursework at USF? What are Jesuit values?
Religion at USF is not narrowly restricted to the theology and philosophy courses required by the curriculum. The Jesuit tradition “finds God in all things.” Our conviction is that the search for truth, whether in biology, marketing, nursing, or law, is ultimately a search for God. Teaching, learning, scholarship and service are all avenues to the fundamental human desire to know and understand God.
How do you see your role in the world?
It is important to realize that my worldview is shaped by my Catholic faith. I believe that my role in the world – no matter where I am — is to do what is right and to expend the time, energy, imagination, and reflection needed to determine the “right thing” to do in whatever circumstances. In the end it’s about integrity, not accomplishment or recognition.
What was it like delivering an invocation before Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as Speaker of the House?
The invitation from Speaker Pelosi to deliver the invocation at her swearing-in was a great grace and wonderful surprise. I have heard her say so many times in so many places that her parents raised her “to be holy.” Whether one agrees with her politics or not, she is a woman of faith whose commitment to public service reflects her desire to live St. Francis’ prayer — to be “an instrument of peace” and “bring hope to those in despair and light to those in darkness.” You may argue with the means but you cannot argue with her goals.