ST. LOUIS — Taking over a Catholic university as its first leader to not wear the clerical collar is a familiar challenge to Fred Pestello, the new president of Saint Louis University.
The Cleveland native comes to the 196-year-old Jesuit school after six years as the first secular boss at Le Moyne College, a smaller Jesuit campus in upstate New York. He previously spent nearly 25 years as a sociology professor and administrator at the University of Dayton, another Catholic college. And his higher education journey began at John Carroll University, a Jesuit school in suburban Cleveland.
"Except for a brief time in graduate school, I've spent my entire life in Catholic higher education," he said in an interview at his DuBourg Hall office on July 1, his first official day on campus. "I believe in Catholic higher education, and I believe in our mission."
The 62-year-old Pestello succeeds the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, who over 26 years presided over a wave of campus expansion and sizable faculty and enrollment growth but whose forceful personality and brusque management style also alienated many students and professors. The dissent culminated in the spring 2013 semester with regular demonstrations and a pair of no-confidence votes by a faculty group and student government, followed shortly by Biondi's surprise retirement.
Pestello is keenly aware of his predecessor's sizable shadow — as well as the need to sit back and learn about his new home, and to seek the advice and counsel of others.
"Clearly in the academy you cannot lead without collaboration," he said. "Shared governance is essential. It's part of how we operate."
In Syracuse, Pestello oversaw a tripling of Le Moyne's endowment and a 30 percent increase in institutional scholarships while funneling tens of millions of dollars toward campus renovations. He also angered critics by hiring private consultants to help stem declining enrollment and drew the ire of the school newspaper with a $1.3 million presidential office renovation. Pestello makes no apologies for those decisions, especially the reliance on outside advisers.
"I thought Le Moyne needed to become more professional," he said, adding that previous administrative decisions had too often been made in a "backdoor fashion."
In an introductory video message sent by email to SLU students, faculty and staff members, Pestello vowed to rely on "transparency and teamwork." He also unabashedly declared his excitement at discovering the culinary and recreational staples of his new hometown, from St. Louis Cardinals' games to toasted ravioli and Ted Drewes frozen custard.
Law professor Doug Williams, who has taught on campus since 1991 and is president-elect of the faculty senate, said he was impressed by Pestello's academic background and desire to craft a strategic plan to guide the university's future.
"He seems to be a guy who wants to run the university in a spirit of collaboration," Williams said. "I was very happy to hear him emphasize that."
Williams added that he and his colleagues grew weary of the soap opera that had engulfed the end of Biondi's tenure and look forward to working jointly with the new president to strengthen the school's academics while bolstering its commitment to social justice, a hallmark of Jesuit learning.
"People are just ready to move on," he said. "Close the door on that episode and begin a new chapter."