Keeping centuries-old ideals relevant in a rapidly changing world of technology and communication is one challenge facing Marquette University’s new president, Jesuit Fr. Scott R. Pilarz.
Having become Marquette’s president on Aug. 1, Fr. Pilarz is taking to heart the remarks to Jesuit university presidents last year by Jesuit Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, Superior General of the Society of Jesus.
“He talked, very significantly I thought, about the risk he sees of what he called the globalization of superficiality,” Fr. Pilarz explained in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “What he urged was a depth of thought and imagination.”
Marquette’s arts and sciences tradition is one of its great assets, Fr. Pilarz said, noting that all of its students are required to study theology, philosophy, English and history.
“We can’t bury our heads in the sand with regard to technology,” he added, “but we have to re-imagine how we use technology in the context of the liberal arts and sciences that always have been the heart and soul of a place like Marquette.”
Fr. Pilarz was inaugurated as 23rd president of the university last month in ceremonies that included a Mass at Gesu Church. He succeeds Jesuit Fr. Robert A. Wild, who retired after 15 years at the helm.
Fr. Pilarz, 52, spent eight years as president of the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school in Pennsylvania with about 4,100 undergraduate students. He called it “a ridiculous idea” that he was selected when his résumé lacked administrative experience.
Prior to working at Scranton, Fr. Pilarz served on the English faculty of Georgetown University from 1996 to 2003 and was university chaplain 2002-2003.
As he did at Scranton, Fr. Pilarz intends to teach at Marquette. He’s also living in a university-owned student apartment building, and is hosting students and faculty in small groups for meals.
“I want to hear from them what their Marquette experience has been like and what their aspirations are,” he said.
Fr. Pilarz was the first member of his family to attend college, driving his desire to make Marquette affordable and accessible for first-generation students.
This year, as in the past several years, about 25 percent of Marquette’s freshmen are the first in their families to go to college. University officials note that 90 percent of all undergraduates receive some form of financial aid.
“It’s important for us, if we’re going to be the best Marquette we can be, that we’re always an engine of opportunity for families who have never been able to attend college before,” he explained. “We can do better talking about the financial aid and scholarships that are available.”
Extensive construction took place on the campus during Fr. Wild’s tenure. The week of his inauguration, Fr. Pilarz presided over the dedication of Norris Park, a new city-block-size green space and sports field for intramural and community use at North 19th Street and Kilbourn Avenue. The dedication of Engineering Hall, a $50 million facility, takes place Friday, with fundraising already underway for a $50 million Phase II. There also are plans to expand the dental school facilities.
Beyond that, Fr. Pilarz says it’s “too early to tell” what facility upgrades might be made.
Another area of uncertainty is the university’s sports teams, currently led by an interim athletic director. The Big East, meanwhile, is part of a shifting conference landscape, with Pittsburgh and Syracuse recently announcing plans to join the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“The goal right now is to keep the Big East together, and the presidents of the Big East schools are working very hard to do that,” Fr. Pilarz said. “We’ve got to be sure we’ve got the right set of teams in there, the right number of teams. I’m sure Marquette will be in a very good place.”
Fr. Pilarz’ inauguration was attended by about 2,000 people, including some 250 relatives, friends and former colleagues and students. His parents, Ron and Joan Pilarz, were there from New Jersey, and his sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew came from Texas.
Fr. Pilarz attended Catholic schools before going to Georgetown, where he initially intended to study political science. While in Washington, he worked for his home district’s congressman, James Florio.
“I didn’t know what a Jesuit was. Meeting Jesuits obviously changed my life,” he said, noting that he met Jesuits who worked in a variety of fields, including medicine and law.
At that time, Fr. Pilarz said, Georgetown did not offer retreat and discernment programs for students that are more common now. During his senior year, he began considering the priesthood.
“I wanted to give this a try and see how it works – and it just kept working for me,” he said. “It always felt like I was in the right place.”
He graduated from Georgetown in 1981 and entered the Society of Jesus. He earned three master’s degrees in philosophy, divinity and theology before being ordained in 1992.
As he settles in, Fr. Pilarz said he is enjoying meeting Milwaukeeans, who are “comfortable in their own skin.” He jokes he’ll have to work to dispel the New Jersey stereotypes depicted on shows such as “The Jersey Shore,” “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
“We get a funny reputation,” he added.
Sadly, Fr. Pilarz’ beloved pet bulldog Jack, who was to have moved here, died the week of his installation.
“God had other plans for him,” he said. “I miss him terribly.”
Jack originally had served as the Georgetown Hoyas’ mascot when Fr. Pilarz got him 12 years ago. He won’t be getting a Marquette mascot pet.
“It’s hard to walk an eagle on a leash,” he joked.