In the Beginning

Santa Clara’s new President—a Jesuit always in motion—on noticing the things around us, looking into the future, and using tradition as a guide.

In the Beginning
Something old, something new: President Kevin O'Brien stands by the oldest structure on campus, the old adobe wall built in 1822. / Image by Cody Pickens

If you look closely at artistic depictions of St. Ignatius throughout history, you’ll notice a few details most have in common. First, the priest who co-founded of the Society of Jesus is often dressed as a pilgrim, staff in hand. Second, in many of the statues and paintings, one foot is raised in the air, signaling motion. 

This might seem insignificant, but in the story of the Jesuits, it’s an important detail. In his Letter to Mateo Sebastián de Morrano, St. Ignatius writes of “a Society that needs to have, so to speak, one foot in the air ready to hasten from place to place, according to our vocation and the Institute which we follow in our Lord.” Since their founding in 1540, Jesuits have been radically mobile, going where help is needed. So much so that the idea of setting roots too deep—even at first when they set up schools, or in this instance, in the form of a piece of art with two feet planted too firmly on the ground—can be cause for unease.

Santa Clara University’s 29th President, Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is no exception. From Canada to Florida to Syracuse, Philadelphia, Boston, India, Bolivia, Mexico, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and now the Bay Area, O’Brien has stayed in motion, going where help is needed. And that hasn’t changed since starting his new role as President on July 1. His travels in the first months have taken him across the country and internationally to Africa. On campus, O’Brien is known by some as the walking President, moving from meeting to meeting during the day or in the evenings, at a slower pace, enjoying the campus scenery during a stroll or going to a soccer game. He even delivered his first campus communication as President during his walk from the Jesuit Residences to Walsh Hall. 

Fr. O’Brien did, however, take a moment from movement one evening this fall to sit down with Santa Clara Magazine and reflect on the present and future of Santa Clara. Here’s an excerpt from the conversation. 

SANTA CLARA MAGAZINE: Your path to the Jesuits started in the classroom, leaving the law profession to teach high school before joining the Jesuits. You have spent much of your Jesuit life on college campuses. So I wanted to start with a bit of a throwback. In your classes, you were known to show a video of author David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. In the speech, Wallace talks about the value of education and weighs the importance of knowledge vs. awareness. Why did you share that with students?

O’BRIEN: I frequently used it in my class at Georgetown for seniors to frame the importance of a Jesuit education. I actually still use it on the road when I’m doing presentations. What’s distinctive about Jesuit education is three movements: being attentive, being reflective, and being loving. I think David Foster Wallace presents those first two movements in ways that are very approachable to different people, whether spiritual or not. It’s a different way of expressing the importance of being aware of what and who is around you and being reflective, not reactive, about your everyday experiences. 

SCM: Wallace talks about how our default setting as humans is to view the world through the lens of ourselves. “How the line at the grocery store annoys me; How traffic on the highway gets in my way”—oblivious to the experiences of those around us. He explains that it’s hard—but important—work to be a “little less arrogant” and a “little more critical” about our certainties and to try to be aware of the water around us.

O’BRIEN: Right, and that default setting is how we get into trouble. I think that’s the call for all of us, to remind ourselves we’re not the center of the universe. That we’re important, we have worth, and we have something to say, but we are accountable to other people—both those we know and those we don’t. Jesuit education calls us to be attentive to what’s around us and who is around us, to reflect on the meaning of those experiences, so we can respond in a loving way. The movement is extroverted, moving us outward. And that’s what Jesuit education should do.

SCM: That awareness and consideration is something you’ve talked a bit about recently. In your first communication as President, you laid out four priorities. One was building a deeper culture of trust, respect, and shared mission among students, faculty, and staff on campus. That’s important but difficult because you can’t legislate respect. 

O’BRIEN: You model it. Because you can’t change a culture by legislation or by fiat, but you change cultures by modeling virtues, values, and behaviors you hope the culture will itself express. 

What we’ve experienced in this country and even in the Church—the ideological divides, the corrosive rhetoric, the dismissiveness of people who are different or foreign or “other” to us, the labeling and pigeonholing in ideological camps or parties—affects our campus at times. I think other campuses would say the same. We’re not immune to the currents in our world. I think they can impact the way we think of and treat each other. So we have to be very intentional about acting counter-culturally to any current that breeds division or rancor.

We have to be more trusting. Coming from the Jesuit spiritual tradition, one of the ways to bridge divides is to presume the goodwill of another as much as you can. There’s a line that opens up Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises that says we should do everything we can to put a positive interpretation on another’s statement. If the statement is such that we are unable to do that, we should correct them in truth and in love. It is easy to label and categorize people, but if you presume goodwill, we’re less apt to do that, and as a result, relationship and community are possible. So we need to give people a break sometimes. We need to be more gentle with ourselves and other people.

Additionally, for St. Ignatius, gratitude is essential to building community. Gratitude has a way of automatically pulling us out of ourselves. Gratitude to God or other people for the gifts we receive. If we are able to instill a habit of gratitude, we become other-centered. And grateful people are usually happier people, as a wise Jesuit once observed!

The Inauguration Of Kevin O'Brien, S.J.
A moment of reflection. SCU President Kevin O’Brien, S.J., pauses for a moment of prayer before the inauguration. / Image by Scott MacDonald

SCM: By other-centered, you mean by being thankful you’re not the center of the universe for that moment? 

O’BRIEN: Exactly. You realize there’s a giver of the gift, that you need other people, and that you need to connect with others to live meaningfully. Our culture often promotes a sort of radical independence, which is not very human. We need community and connection. We’re at a University where we’re benefiting from a long tradition. 

So we should be grateful for those who came before and grateful for what we bring or what we are given now. 

SCM: Another one of your priorities is better engaging with Silicon Valley. I think we’re still trying to figure out what that means here. How will you know if we’re successful?

O’BRIEN: What we need is more strategic outreach in Silicon Valley and the neighboring communities. We have a lot of people doing a lot of great things; we just need to coordinate more. As a Jesuit university, we must also connect the successful enterprises of the Valley with those who have been left behind by the tech revolution. Because when I say we’re in the Valley, it’s not just Silicon Valley. It’s the neighboring communities, as well. So we are concerned not just about centers of influence in tech. We’re interested in communities that have been marginalized even while serving centers of affluence. Part of what we can do is bridge the two valleys, so to speak. 

SCM: At Convocation, you gave the traditional presidential address but also had a town-hall-style question and answer with Interim Provost Lisa Kloppenberg. That’s not been done at Santa Clara in the past. What was the thinking behind that?

Students first: O’Brien and Associated Student Government President Sahil Sagar ’21 snap a selfie. / Image by Scott MacDonald

O’BRIEN: Because I didn’t think at this moment we needed a formal address.

I think people were really hungry for engagement and getting to know me.

We did a PowerPoint presentation for the address, trying to inject some humor into it, and then most importantly we wanted to open up for questions, both in person and online.

I also think it was important that it would be Lisa and I up there together, as President and interim provost, working together and talking as colleagues. 

SCM: What’s the difference between engagement and confrontation?

O’BRIEN: Engagement is about learning from each other. You can be clear about your principles and who you are, and what you’re advocating. But also be open to common ground, or, if not that, at least open to understanding the other. Confrontation precludes such listening. It’s all about scoring points. 

SCM: During the town hall, you talked about admitting when you were wrong or when you failed. Why was it important to say that so early in your presidency?

O’BRIEN: That’s just good leadership. It’s transparency. I want to build a culture of principled, transparent, and timely decision-making, which means I’m clear about who I am, I’m clear about our mission and values. I make decisions in a way that’s based on principle. Someone might disagree with the outcome of the decision, but they know why the decision was made. I think when people have more information they’re less anxious or suspicious. Part of that, too, is when I mess up or get it wrong, when I apply the principle the wrong way, or when I hurt someone or am not thoughtful enough, that I admit my mistake and apologize.

Honestly, I find the act of admitting when I’m wrong to be kind of liberating. As I get older I’m less of a perfectionist. When I spoke to the first-year class at Welcome Weekend, I talked about the need to do that. That it’s okay to combat the culture of perfectionism. It’s okay not to have all the answers or to get it right all the time, and that when we mess up, we learn to forgive each other. We’re so much less forgiving as a society. I think we can hold people accountable without being a jerk. 

SCM: You mentioned at convocation having the four priorities—access and affordability; building a culture of deeper trust and transparency; completing the Campaign; more coordinated outreach to Silicon Valley and our community—written on your bathroom mirror. Were you being literal? 

O’BRIEN: No, no, that was a metaphor, but I do think about them every day. They help me focus my day. These priorities are what I’ve heard during my conversations with people during the search process and the transition. My days are so full that it can be easy to lose focus. These priorities keep me focused for my first year. 

As a president, I need to always frame our work in terms of our mission. That’s why I always talk about the three components of our mission over and over again. As a Catholic and Jesuit university, we are committed to the formation of our students in mind, body, and spirit, which means we’re concerned about all of who a student is.

Jesuit education calls us to be attentive to what’s around us and who is around us, to reflect on the meaning of those experiences, so we can respond in a loving way.

We reverence them, we challenge them, we support them not just in their education, but formation as persons. Second, we support the research and inquiry of our faculty as teacher-scholars. Balancing scholarship and teaching is challenging, but they inform each other. Because we are a Jesuit university, our research and inquiry must address real-world problems and human needs. Finally, as a Catholic and Jesuit university, we serve the common good and the Church by promoting a more just, gentle, and sustainable world. We’re about something more than ourselves. These three components describe who we are and what we do as a university. I rely on them to help me make decisions about how to spend time and resources. If a project or invitation isn’t promoting our central mission, someone else should do it.

SCM: You’ve lived throughout the world in your career. When you’re in a position of leadership, you need to get to know a place quickly. How do you do that? 

O’BRIEN: Well, I think that’s in our Jesuit roots. People didn’t know what to make of the early Jesuits as a religious order because we weren’t focused on a particular place or ministry as other religious orders were. We were founded to meet needs no one else was meeting. We would go anywhere to meet them. People asked the early Jesuits, “Why aren’t you living in a monastery in the hills?” Well, our monastery is the world. Our home is the road. That’s in our DNA. We’re on the move. We’re mobile. We have this radical availability. We still do it today, going anywhere, doing any type of work, for the greater glory of God and service of others. We have Jesuits who are actors, Jesuits who are artists, Jesuits who are lawyers, Jesuits who are doctors, Jesuits who are teachers, Jesuits who are parish priests. 

I’ve gotten used to life “on the road.” I try to be open and available. I’ve learned to put myself out there in different social circumstances, different types of work. I like to get to know the area, whether hiking or restaurants or whatever. I also know I have to be very patient—it takes time to get to know people and a community—so I try not to be hard on myself when it doesn’t immediately fit.

At the beginning of my Jesuit life, it was hard because I really invest in people and I invest in places. I give myself over. It was hard giving myself so completely, knowing I might have to leave. That’s the real challenge of a Jesuit’s life. When I left Florida to join the Jesuits, in the first year I felt my home was back in Florida. After a couple more years, I felt I had no home. I felt so uprooted moving from place to place. A few years later, it finally hit me: It’s not that my home is in Florida or that my home is nowhere, it’s that my home is anywhere—anywhere I’m sent or anywhere people welcome me. That’s when I learned to really invest in the places and people I was sent to. God has filled my life beyond my imagining, including here at Santa Clara.

As we know, getting to know people on a deep level requires time and attention. Gradually that attention turns to reverence, which is a little deeper than respect. I begin to see that God is at work in them, and that God has an invitation for me in that other person. That God has something to teach me through the other person.

SCM: Is it harder to dislike somebody when you approach them through God’s vision for them?

O’BRIEN: Exactly. When we really see the other deeply, we realize they have unexpected talents or gifts. We also realize that everyone carries invisible crosses around. So hopefully we become more patient and understanding. Like anyone, I can easily write someone off too quickly. I can easily get resentful. My challenge is to try to ask, “How does God see that person?” That helps me love them. 

SCM: What about this place feels most like home, so far?

O’BRIEN: Growing up in south Florida, the palm trees! But there is something else. After work, I usually go to Mass and dinner with our Jesuit community, and then l walk back to my office in Walsh Hall to prepare for the next day. I’ll look out my window, at the sun setting over the Mission Church, and say, “That’s why I’m here.” That makes me feel most at home. The Mission Church as an explicitly religious place calls to me to be a Jesuit priest before a president. At the same time, the Mission also reminds me that this place has a mission, a calling for everyone. We have a center here. Our faculty and staff and students express our Jesuit mission in different ways. And that makes our mission come alive in gloriously unexpected ways!

SCM: You wanted to get into politics when you were younger. How does being a university president fit that?

O’BRIEN: Growing up, I always loved politics and social studies. I loved watching the news as a kid. I went to Georgetown and majored in government and history, and politics just always attracted me. Being in Washington only multiplied that. Then I went home for law school—the University of Florida law school was the place where careers were made politically in the state. My interest in politics was based on a desire to serve. My faith and family taught me the need to serve and the blessing of service. Politics was a way to do that. But honestly there was a lot of youthful ambition involved and downright ego, too. I think we’re all people of mixed motives at times! Ultimately God transformed that desire to serve people into a desire to become a Jesuit and a teacher. When I was in Washington for 10 years, I got to know a lot of politicians and public officials. I realized I could have had their life but was much happier doing my work as a Jesuit, helping them and helping them help other people. 

The reason we know so much about St. Ignatius is because he wrote thousands of letters. In his writings, a phrase often comes up: “to help souls,” which really means “to help people.” It’s very simple really. That’s what I want to do every day. By investing in the education and formation of our students and development of our faculty and staff, I can help Santa Clara help the communities of which we are a part. There are so many opportunities to help, in large and small ways. 

When we really see the other deeply, we realize they have unexpected talents or gifts. We also realize that everyone carries invisible crosses around. 

SCM: Do you consider yourself an ambitious person? What motivates you?

O’BRIEN: Sometimes there is unhealthy ambition, when we focus only on ourselves. But there is also a holy ambition. God uses our deep desires and passions to do good. Sometimes I experience that ambition as restlessness for what Ignatius called the magis, or “the more.” What more can I do to be of service? How can I be more generous and loving? This is not about workaholism, which I have to be careful about. It’s really about going deeper in our work, our relationships, our prayer, and our service. My restless ambition now is to help this University become all it can be, to serve our community and the world, and also to help the Church. Santa Clara is an incredible platform to do a lot of good. My job is to harness the good of the people here and unleash it. That’s an awesome thing to do. I think about Welcome Weekend, looking at 1,500 new students and realizing we have the opportunity to harness all their youthful idealism and goodness, and hone their zeal to do a lot of good. 

SCM: In your first few months as president, you made it a point to go out and meet people. What are the conversations you’ll remember in five or ten years?

O’BRIEN: My third day or so, I met with all the facilities workers, landscapers, and public safety officers. We hosted a breakfast for them to just introduce myself. They keep the University running, day to day. Presidents come and go. The workers and landscapers often stay for many, many years. I wanted to thank them.

My walk to work from the Jesuit Community is short, but it’s a beautiful walk. I love gardening and in the mornings I’ll walk by gardeners tending to the grounds or the roses. I’ll often check in and talk to them about what they’re doing and the planting because I just love that. I see the care that they’re taking. Their work is done with love. They make our home so beautiful. I know how much they care for me and others who live and work here. 

When I initially met with the cabinet and deans and other senior leadership, I asked all of them the same questions: “What is it you really find most meaningful about your work here? Why is it you came here? Why do you stay? What most challenges you or do you struggle with?” Those conversations were really engaging, and I was amazed at how much they love this place and care so deeply about the mission. It was inspiring. Also, they could easily name their struggles, yet they cared so much that they wanted to work through them, together. After these conversations, I realized how much I wanted to be with these people, serving a mission greater than ourselves and having some fun along the way. They will challenge me and make me a better person. And together we will make Santa Clara a better place. 

In August, I went to Africa to give the inaugural address at Hekima Jesuit college, which is the Jesuit college in Nairobi, and I was amazed by the reach of Santa Clara. I saw two Santa Clara sweatshirts! I had breakfast with six alums of the Jesuit School of Theology. They were all talking about their time here. On that same trip, I visited sites where students from Miller Center worked over the summer. They had left by then, but the people there told me about the work. The reach, the impact we can have beyond borders—that meant a lot. 

The labor of many goes into building the University. Here the robes of trustees, academics, staff, and others wait for their wearers. / Image by Scott MacDonald

In my first weeks, I’ve also been amazed at the number of students who stop me to just say “Hello.” Even over the summer, people stopped and introduced themselves, which I think is really cool. I remember once I was walking to the dry cleaner on Benton. I passed this young person and I didn’t know whether he was a student or not, and I just said, “Hi,” and he goes, “Oh, you’re Fr. O’Brien. I’m one of your students.” That made me feel so good—“one of my students.” I began to feel at home.

SCM: A lot of what you’ve done in this role is meet and talk with people. What are the areas where you want to stop talking and roll up your sleeves and get to work?

O’BRIEN: The challenge with that question is that a major part of my job is to talk to a variety of audiences! 

(Laughs). What I quickly realized is that so much of this position—which is different than others—is how much public speaking I do. To welcome groups to campus, to share our Santa Clara story with others, to talk about our mission, to give public addresses on campus and off. I’m amazed at how often I have to speak publicly. 

In one sense this is a position you can never fully prepare for. You have to start doing the job and learn along the way, relying on other people to help you do it. I love empowering other people to do their job well and help them find meaning in it. I want to provide direction and guidance but to then step back and not get in the way. I also need to make decisions in a timely and transparent way, so that people are clear about what the decision is and can help move us forward. 

I should also say, I need to stop talking and give myself time for reflection and prayer. We all need that in some way.

SCM: Obviously in the middle of a $1 billion campaign, there’s going to be talk of money and what can be done with it. One is supporting people—scholarships, endowed chairs, salary. Another is capital projects. When Steve Nash was on campus for his Hall of Fame induction in 2017, he mentioned how little the Santa Clara today resembled the one from his time on campus, but that this place had good bones. For those who long for the days of that Santa Clara, why are the new buildings so important to our future?

O’BRIEN: Buildings certainly serve a function, but they’re also descriptive of who we are. Look at the buildings we’ve done for the last 10 years. They reflect our priorities. We have big academic buildings: Dowd Art and Art history, Charney Hall of Law, Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation, and the renovation of Bannan Alumni House and Benson. Then, we have Finn Residence Hall, the Athletic Excellence Center, and we did the restoration of the Mission Church. These are all expressions of who we are academically, artistically, spiritually, athletically, and socially. But I think what’s most important is what takes place inside them, because it’s the people and the work that gives them life. 

SCM: There’s a conversation on campus, among alumni: the role of religion in this institution. Is it where it should be. How do you approach that?

O’BRIEN: As a university, we are committed to excellence in teaching and learning, research and scholarship. But as a Jesuit and Catholic university, we do that in a distinctive way, or with a distinctive accent. We care for each other inside the classroom, outside the classroom. That’s what we call cura personalis—caring for each person in their uniqueness, in mind, body and spirit. For many, religious or spiritual development is part of that caring. Our commitment to justice and ethical reflection also reflects our identity as teachers and learners. 

Another way we reflect our Jesuit, Catholic tradition is in the breadth of our tradition. Sometimes we equate “Catholic” with ethical or moral questions, and certainly these questions are central. But the Catholic intellectual tradition is so much broader. It’s artistic. It’s liturgical. It’s philosophical. It’s theological. It’s literary. The Catholic intellectual tradition tries to bring together faith and reason, and encourage dialogue among religions and cultures. Our tradition is always trying to reconcile what others consider opposites. And we are at our best when we are radically hospitable and inclusive. 

The Catholic intellectual tradition tries to bring together faith and reason, and encourage dialog among religions and cultures. Our tradition is always trying to reconcile what others consider opposites.

A wise Jesuit, who was a former president of another university, once said that tradition is not an anchor that fixes us in place or holds us back. Rather, it’s a rudder that guides us on to the future through the ups and downs and different currents the river might present to us. There is a tendency for any of us to use tradition as an anchor. It’s safe and secure and familiar. We need to be grounded in that way. We need to know who we are. But ultimately, we need to also let go a bit, so that we can become the people—the University—that God is summoning us to be. God has something in store for Santa Clara that we are not fully imagining now, so we can keep our hands on the rudder but lightly enough to go where the next frontier is. 

One example of our living tradition is the decision in the 1960s to admit women to Santa Clara. Thank God! That was a big change, but we’re better for it, we’re still who we are, but even better. Curriculum changes, buildings are built or renovated. But the mission remains and guides us on the river of our distinguished history. 

SCM: You talk a lot about being aware and reflective. Do you think much about legacy?

O’BRIEN: I’m reading The University of Santa Clara: A History, 1851-1977 by the Jesuit professor Gerald McKevitt. He taught in our history department. As I’ve been reading the book, I think, “Oh my, what is someone going to write about me one day?” I just want to be worthy of the trust people have placed in me here. I want to make sure that when I leave here, I’ve left the University, and above all, the people, better than when I arrived, and that somehow, with the help of God and others, I contributed to the good work that this University has done for a very long time. 

Matt Morgan is the Director of Storytelling at Santa Clara.

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