Inauguration Address: President Michael E. Engh, S.J.

Prepared remarks for the inauguration on April 24, 2009

Inauguration Address: President Michael E. Engh, S.J.

Bishop McGrath, Father McGarry, Rabbi Greenebaum, distinguished guests and friends of the University, colleagues and students:

To begin, I wish to express gratitude to all of you gathered here today. Your presence humbles me, and I am pleased to see the esteem with which you hold this university. You may honor a new president, but you celebrate Santa Clara University. I welcome and thank the delegates from institutions across American higher education. I am indebted to our loyal Trustees, Regents, and Fellows who so generously care for this University. In particular, I want to acknowledge the leadership of our chair of the Trustees, Mr. Mike Markkula,
who has served Santa Clara so generously. 

It is also a pleasure for me to recognize numerous former colleagues from a certain school to the south of us, some of whom have made the sacrifice of taking two days off work to come celebrate with us. My friends from Loyola Marymount University: Welcome to the land of the Broncos! I express my thanks, too, to the faculty, staff, and students of Santa Clara, whom it is my pleasure now to serve. I also want to acknowledge the presence of a mighty tribe of family and relatives, led by my parents, Don and Marie Therese Engh.

Finally, I am indebted to someone who is not here today. My predecessor, Fr. Paul Locatelli, led this University for twenty years with boundless energy and a passion for justice. His vision attracted friends and benefactors whose generosity and hard work have enabled Santa Clara to weather the economic storms of the past six months. This week Fr. Locatelli sent greetings from his new office in Rome and he saluted “this remarkable community committed to learning and
to advancing the moral and universal good.”

Presidents, as you know, do not work in isolation. Many people provide me support, and many more offer advice. I want to thank all those who suggested that in this speech that I be profound, humorous, and insightful; literate, inclusive, and inspirational; respectful, aspirational, and brief.

What I shall do is offer my vision for Santa Clara University. I shall share with you several of the sources that inspire me to make a proposal, a special undertaking in the sometimes contentious, always amazing enterprise we call American Catholic higher education. I draw my insights from a poet whom I admire, from people I have met, and a prophet that I revere. These sources of inspiration match the aspirations of many of us for Santa Clara and for Catholic colleges and universities. 

I first turn to the American poet Mary Oliver, whose observations provide us with an insight into what we do. Her poem is entitled “Song of the Builders.” Oliver writes:

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –

a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside 

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

We at Santa Clara educate in order “to build the universe.” Like universities everywhere, we hone further in students their skills in critical thinking and analysis. We encourage their joy of exploring theories and testing ideas. We challenge further their abilities to produce works of art, music, theater, and poetry. We do so in order that students can fully engage their talents in “building the universe.” We provide a wide array of opportunities in the liberal arts, in professional schools, and in graduate programs. We want the best for our students, and the best from our students. We provide them an excellent education, thanks to a dedicated faculty of distinguished teaching scholars here before us.

Like our peer institutions, we at Santa Clara advance knowledge and the creative arts in order to better our world. We train a skilled work force for our nation so that this country can succeed in an evermore complex global economy. We strive to graduate students who value intellectual inquiry and who are competent in their fields of study. At Santa Clara, and in Catholic institutions of higher learning, however, there is another animating energy at work. We hold ourselves to an additional measure.

This added goal requires contemplation. Note how Mary Oliver began her poem. She sat down to think about God, and her attention focused on an insect, a cricket. She explains how time for reflection can lead us to closer observation of our world, to a deeper consideration of what is happening around us. In religiously affiliated colleges, and in the Catholic universities with which I am most familiar, we commit ourselves to notice all living beings, whether an insect or an individual person. We ponder what we see and the Creator we cannot see. We commit ourselves to create a space where we can take seriously the questions of ultimate meaning, transcendence, spirituality, holiness.

As we build the universe, we do so conscious of our responsibility to use our unique gifts and talents. We build with the belief that the Ultimate Other we
call God desires all humans to enjoy dignity, health, and happiness. This Lord
of Creation looks to us to construct social, economic, and political systems that foster human development, greater equality, a world of justice. So, we feel a
restlessness within our hearts, a dissatisfaction, when we reflect on others who live with less and suffer more, or when we witness cruelty, injustice, or suffering.

Attentive to the needs we see, at a Jesuit university we set ourselves this other goal. We teach ethics, so that students and faculty together reflect on justice or on its absence. Across the curriculum, in the classroom and beyond, we engage in that moral questioning that leads to protecting the weak and guiding the strong to right action. Happily, this university has earned a distinguished record for teaching ethics and promoting social justice. Santa Clara grounds its commitment to ethics and justice in its Catholic intellectual heritage. We welcome, however, everyone who shares our concerns for moral reckoning and our attention to the neediest in society. 

In our ethical reflection we consider the needs of our world. We see with increasing clarity the fragility of our planet: the depletion of the soil, the destruction of its forests, and the pollution of air and water. Probing more deeply into these issues, we learn that the poorest of the poor suffer the most. They lack the resources and access to basic necessities when the natural world is so corrupted. And we might ask ourselves: Who hears the voice of the needy and listens to their concerns about exploited lands and economies? Who is the voice for the defense of the assaulted world? Who trains the leaders we need to understand the intricacies of biodiversity and who are also equipped to discern the ethical dimensions of their decisions? Who, indeed?

Santa Clara University is uniquely positioned to make a significant contribution to achieving a more just and sustainable future. I propose that we become a major center for discussions of environmental justice, and for examining the ethical dimensions of how we treat the physical world. I believe we can lead in the development and promotion of practices, businesses, and technologies that will ensure a viable and just future for all.

We are blessed by our location. As the Jesuit University of the Silicon Valley, we can lead and participate in the valley’s fast-growing interest in sustainability, green energy, and environmental protection. We can partner with institutions and corporations with the potential to solve the world’s problems through invention and innovation of all kinds. The value-added element that Santa Clara can and should bring to this “Green Wave” is the voice of environmental ethics, built on theological and philosophical foundations that are fundamental to our Catholic, Jesuit tradition.

I believe that Santa Clara can and should lead in initiatives for just environmental policies and practices. We already are using ethics language “to frame responses to environmental problems.” Catholic social and environmental teaching has broadened our understanding of our “social responsibility for the economically marginalized.”1 Drawing on this intellectual heritage, we must now strategically link our long commitment to justice to the growing efforts to protect our environment and ensure a sustainable future for all. 

Santa Clara is an ideal environment for this initiative. Here we can sort through complex issues and debate vigorously the tough trade-offs and decisions our society must make. We bring an intellectual rigor to such dialogue because of our strength in law, engineering, business, the sciences, philosophy, and theology. I see an immense opportunity for Santa Clara to champion environmental justice, and to do so explicitly for the sake of and alongside the poorest in our world. 

There is a reason I say “alongside the poor.” Permit me a few moments of personal recollections. Since my sabbatical in 2000, my thinking has shifted dramatically because of situations in which I have lived, and people I have met. I recall the faces and voices of persons in Dolores Mission parish in East Los Angeles situated amidst the largest public housing west of the Mississippi. There I heard on a quiet Sunday afternoon the shots that killed a young girl and a teenaged gang member. There, two impish altar boys served my Masses: one since murdered in a gang-related crime, the other now in prison. There, I was welcomed and embraced by parishioners who shared their stories, their struggles, and their hopes for their children.

Other encounters followed that broadened my horizons. Graduate students in crowded Chinese universities longed to know more about the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and his arguments for a life of virtue and the common good. The shoe-shine boys, like young Rodrigo, spoke of working full-time on the streets of Quito, from age 6. In El Salvador, other people like Edith, Rosa, and Leo shared the stories of their life journeys amidst poverty and violence. And lest you think that I revel in depressing experiences, let me add that in every one of these situations I have found an amazing human resilience. Again and again, people manifested remarkable hope, an ability to express joy, to delight in humor, to revel in song, to laugh and joke across language barriers and cultural differences. 

I mention these encounters because of the opportunities available to every one of us. Meeting others allows people to open the doors to their world, to invite us in, and to teach us what they know from their experience. We can gain rich insights into the human spirit, the economies we create, and the natural environment we inhabit. Studying and reflecting alongside the poor will touch our hearts and open our minds to broader realities. 

Conscious of the needs of others, I propose that Santa Clara undertake a major effort on behalf of our environment and its just use. We can develop programs and research out of our contacts with those whom we encounter and the world they show us. This interaction will further animate the solid programs, faculty research, and student service that already link justice and the environment. (Let me cite a few examples, and I ask the faculty’s forbearance; please do not take it amiss if I do not mention your program!) We can build further upon the accomplishments of our Environmental Studies Institute and our Office of Sustainability. We can strengthen our three centers of distinction to engage us further in national and international discussions about sustainability and the moral imperative of stewardship. We can draw more deeply upon engaged pedagogy and community-based learning that gives students direct contact with people and issues off campus. Such grassroots’ participation enriches Santa Clara’s ability to become a major center for study and debate about development, the environment, and justice.

Let me close with a final reflection, one associated with a prophet. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was killed almost 30 years ago because he spoke for the poor of his country. He took a long view of the issues he faced, a perspective that appeals to my historian’s heart. He rooted that viewpoint in his religious faith, which appeals to me as a priest. He spoke often of what educators know from their experience of teaching, and he echoes Mary Oliver’s reflections on building the universe. I quote from what is known as the “Romero Prayer”:

“This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects, far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This [realization] enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the workers. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.” 

Teachers and students, trustees and alumni, parents and friends of Santa Clara: We can do something here, and we can do it very well. Of that I am certain. Very certain. Thriving in rigorous study, research, dialogue, and reflection, we can lead in creative efforts for justice for all of God’s creation. Santa Clara University can make major contributions for our country, for our world, and for coming generations, for “a future not our own.” Embracing our responsibilities, let each of us “in our inexplicable ways” commit to creating a more just and sustainable world. What better use of our talents can there be than to engage minds, hearts, and consciences on behalf of human dignity and the common good of our planet?

Thank you very much, and God bless Santa Clara. 


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