National Catholic Register

Education

Gonzaga President Steps Down and Into New Life

BY Anthony Flott

July 26-August 8, 2009 Issue | Posted 7/17/09 at 10:03 AM

 

Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer leaves behind a Gonzaga University dramatically different than it was when he became the university’s president. He also leaves behind his share of detractors and unwavering supporters, some of whom are bankrolling his future endeavors.

After 11 years leading the Spokane, Wash., university, Father Spitzer stepped down as president on July 15. But the 57-year-old has ambitious plans — and financial backing — to spread the gospel of life and his views on ethics and leadership to a wider audience.

During the Spitzer years, Gonzaga’s enrollment jumped from 4,507 to 6,923 students. SAT scores and GPAs of incoming freshmen are up, as are annual gifts — tripled to $15.4 million. Campus upgrades have totaled $200 million.

Looking back, Father Spitzer mentions such growth — as well as the addition of ethical and leadership programs for students and a jump to 120,000 volunteer service hours.

But he talks most extensively about a mushrooming of faith. Unlike his first days on campus in 1998, he said, students are packing the Sunday Masses — 1,500 attend each week. “They come in droves,” he said. And the 20 faith-based retreats offered typically attract waiting lists.

“There’s just been a tremendous spirit that’s happened over the last 11 years,” he said.

And it’s a moment of faith that Father Spitzer cites as his most memorable moment while at Gonzaga (not, as some might guess, a Bulldog victory from the nation’s best Jesuit-branded basketball program). He recounts the time a co-ed approached him after students shuffled away following a 10 p.m. Sunday Mass.

“Father Spitzer,” he recalls her saying, “do you know what I like best about Gonzaga? It’s not uncool to be religious here.” The sentiment, she added, was shared by others.

“It made my life,” Father Spitzer said. “It was just so great. I’ll never forget it. It just seared into my mind. I just love these John Paul II kids.”

Father Spitzer is widely published on topics such as ethics, leadership, metaphysics and pro-life issues. He gives more than 100 presentations annually to a gamut of audiences. He’s a TV regular, with multiple series having aired on Eternal Word Television Network. He has founded or co-founded five institutes of higher education; he’s been a teacher for 30 years.

But it’s as president of Gonzaga where he’s had his greatest influence — and fittingly so. It was there, along the banks of the Spokane River, where he discovered his career path. Hawaii-born, he came to Gonzaga as an undergraduate, earning a degree in public accounting and finance in 1974. Along the way, he cast aside plans for a business career to become a Jesuit priest.


Personality, Principle

That a student would feel comfortable approaching GU’s president is no surprise to Michael Patterson, a 1969 Gonzaga graduate who has worked with Father Spitzer as president of the university’s board of trustees and in other organizations.

“As many accomplishments and as brilliant as this man is, he is self-deprecating and has this humble ability to relate to just about anybody,” said Patterson. That includes his habit of referring to himself in the third person as “Spitzer.”

Even his detractors find themselves giving Father Spitzer credit.

“He’s charismatic and very persistent,” wrote philosophy professor Mark Alfino in an e-mail. “He’s a really good businessman. He knows how to engage donors in new enterprises and secure facilities development and program development.”

Alfino has described himself as among Father Spitzer’s “harshest critics,” clashing with him for, among other things, the president’s ban on a campus performance of “The Vagina Monologues” and Church teaching on homosexuality. Father Spitzer also prohibited a Planned Parenthood representative from speaking at Gonzaga.

“He’s always had low ratings with faculty because of his conservatism but also his management style, which is modeled more on a family business than anything as diverse as a Catholic university,” wrote Alfino. “He had some pretty famous impasses with faculty until the trustees advised him to be a more external president. It was great advice, and he followed it, reducing resistance considerably. It’s a credit to him as a leader that he has been able to grow from advice since becoming president. He’s got a healthy ego, but he also learns from setbacks.”

Patterson admits to bumps in the road. “I don’t think he recognized the complexity of a university, especially in dealing with tenured faculty, for example,” Patterson said with a laugh.

There also have been troubles within the Society of Jesus, he said.

“There are people that do not appreciate his ideological stance on various Church issues, including his own fellow Jesuits,” said Patterson. “I have spent a great deal of time defending his positions because I believe that they are accurate and correct, and I believe the vast majority of ordinaries, bishops and cardinals agree with him. Yes, he is orthodox, but he is very much committed to ensuring that Catholic identity and Jesuit tradition are coincidental and not contradictory.”


Future Plans

Expect more of the same going forward thanks to Patterson and other supporters.

About two years ago, Father Spitzer said, he had the opportunity to take another university presidency. But he also had the option of leaving Gonzaga and devoting himself to writing and work with the Magis Institute and Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. Magis and Spitzer Center board members would support him with a salary, living expenses in Orange County, Calif., a full-time secretary and marketing support.

He chose the latter.

“It’s a dream job,” said Father Spitzer. “And I know the Spirit is doing this.”

Already well-inked — since 1999 he has published two books — he will complete work on and publish three academic books. One, New Proofs for the Existence of God, is due this year.

But he talks more excitedly about his efforts with the two institutes. The Magis Institute, a sort of “spiritual think tank” located in Irvine, Calif., founded in 2002 by Father Spitzer, develops spiritual and intellectual resources to help Catholic business leaders transform culture. He plans to deliver his curriculum on faith and reason to four audiences: honors classes in Catholic high schools, students and faculty at Catholic colleges, Newman Center groups on public campuses, and adult education classes in parishes.

With the Spitzer Center, which he founded in 2003 in Ann Arbor, Mich., Father Spitzer will expand his leadership curriculum delivered to business and religious communities.

Technology is a major component of his work with the two institutes, especially through the use of broadband technology called GigaPoP (Gigabit Point of Presence), which provides highest-speed access to current state-of-the-art Internet. With it, he could give a single lecture to 128 audiences at once in real time.

He hopes to reach a quarter million people within two years.

“The possibilities are so enormous,” Father Spitzer said. “Imagine if you could get a lot of people’s hearts on fire and they started going out and teaching these curricula and just started getting the word out everywhere. Can you imagine? I mean, it could really have a cultural impact. And that’s very exciting.”

Said Patterson, “I think his finest years are ahead of him — communicating what he’s all about and what he believes the Catholic Church is all about.”

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.