Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Father Spitzer departs Gonzaga University; ‘I love these kids very, very much, and I leave them with great reticence’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the May 21, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer leaves Spokane this year after 11 years as president of Gonzaga University. (IR photo)
This year marks Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer’s 11th commencement exercises as president of Gonzaga University. Soon after, he will vacate his office at the top of the wide main staircase on the second floor of College Hall (formerly known as the Administration Building), pack his things, and head for southern California, where new challenges and goals await him.
Last month, Father Spitzer reflected on his past and his future. Black clerical shirt open at the neck, he ushered a visitor from the tidy outer reception area into a small office that could only be that of someone who thinks large but isn’t much concerned with the details: stacks of books and papers cover shelves and desk top, and books and journals are jammed into extensive bookshelf spaces.
The 56-year-old priest seats himself in a chair on the other side of the table and folds his hands almost prayer-like in his lap. He smiles easily. His short, curly dark hair is flecked with gray, and his voice rises and falls from quietly earnest to loudly enthusiastic.
Prior to his arrival to fill the president’s chair at Gonzaga, Father Spitzer taught professional ethics at Seattle University and was the director of Seattle’s Institute of Professional Ethics. Prior to that he taught at the Jesuits’ Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.
Using the language of his professional expertise, Father Spitzer declares that he has learned a great deal during his days at Gonzaga.
“I learned quite a bit about political skills and processes,” he says. “My skill set is entrepreneurial, and so I’m looking for opportunities and to make those opportunities happen in buildings, programs, fund-raising, enrollment, mission – so forth and so on. I’m an opportunity seeker, and I’m very decisive, and I tend to be very quick-moving. I’ve learned that the shortest distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line, (so I’ve learned) to slow things down a little bit, to be very process-oriented, listening to people – (these) are very important things.”
When he arrived, Gonzaga had financial troubles. “We were in a process where we were laying off huge numbers of people just to make salary payments and increases,” he said, “so it was a time when you had to be very decisive. I was very worried about where our credit ratings would be. I was very worried about what this budget reallocation project was doing, and all the lay-offs. It was demoralizing people. It was a time that required decisiveness, and to make a long story short, that decisiveness (led to the university) starting to get prosperous. My plan was to grow our way out, and the way to do it was to quantify our financial aid,” which meant that students had to meet certain academic standards in order to continue receiving financial aid, “get a professional marketing firm to start helping us with our marketing, and to increase our Visit program,” which brings prospective students on-campus to take a look at the university.
“I have to admit that everyone was so responsive,” he said. Thayne McCulloh, who will serve as GU’s interim president after Father Spitzer’s departure, “took over the financial aid program and quantified it almost immediately, which was absolutely essential. We had a consultant by the name of Bill Hall, a very fine fellow, and he was a quantitative, data-oriented person, as am I, and he really helped considerably.”
Father Spitzer describes the Visit program as “our secret weapon; right now, we have 300 kids on campus with their parents, all visiting, and I think they’re about half seniors who are deciding on a college and half are juniors who are looking for the following year.”
“A basketball team will not sell a university,” he said. “You have to have a strong, quantitative-based financial aid program – that’s a huge component. You have to have very good marketing materials that show off the academic, mission-oriented parts of the university. People want faith, and service, and justice, and ethics, and leadership. They do. You have to have a strong Visit program. People don’t know Spokane, so the only way you can get them to see what’s so good about Spokane and Gonzaga is to have them visit the campus. This is a drop-dead beautiful campus. People come here and they go, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a river running through it!’ I mean, honestly! You have to have all these pieces in place, but boy! if you want to add an accelerator effect, the (men’s) basketball team did that. I called my plan Momentum 2007, essentially we were going to put all these pieces in place and make a 72 percent enrollment increase by 2007. It was already done by 2004. Basketball was the great accelerator. In fact, it was almost done by 2003.”
Father Spitzer also singles out the growth in the university’s graduate programs that has taken place during his tenure as president. About 35 percent of those are online enrollments. The online graduate students “come and visit a couple of times per semester,” he said. “The biggest Jesuit college in Florida is Gonzaga because of the online Leadership programs. But what makes Gonzaga get traction in Florida? Basketball, because everybody’s heard of it. It helped with our first capital campaign, too.”
Father Spitzer is most proud of two aspects of GU.
First are the mission programs. “Mass attendance is way up from when I arrived,” he said. “This includes university ministries, but also all the faith and reason things, in the classroom. The retreat program has just exploded,” with each of the year’s 19 or 20 retreats oversubscribed.”This affects the ethos of the campus, and I’m exceedingly proud of that. There are all of these things that go along with it, service, justice, ethics, leadership, that tag in with the faith dimension. We have 120,000 volunteer service hours on this campus. It’s huge. These things make it all worthwhile, and it’s in the atmosphere. One time this girl came up to me after Mass, and this was like about four years ago, and she says, ‘Father Spitzer, you know what I like best about Gonzaga?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ She said, ‘It’s not un-cool to be religious here.’ So that’s the key thing.”
The second thing, Father Spitzer says, that he is most proud of is “growth on a variety of levels – the 72 percent increase in enrollment is important, but more than that, the 18 new buildings has not only allowed us to handle more students, but these are high quality buildings. We improved the quality of the facilities very, very much.”
Father Spitzer declares, without qualification, that he has “really enjoyed this job.” Truly, he says, the only reason he decided to move on was because he was presented with an opportunity that “is too good to be true.”
He will be moving to California, where he will focus his ministry on three main emphases: publishing books, development faith and reason curricula for audiovisual and real-time interactive delibery, and developing ethical and spiritual leadership curricula, also for audiovisual and real-time interactive delivery. He will continue to do some of this work through his Magis Institute and the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership.
“If you had my skill sets, and a bunch of people came up to you and said, ‘Hey, Spitzer, we’ll give you a great salary, we’ll hire you a fulltime secretary, a marketing person, an office and a studio down in Orange County, (and) so on, and you can use one-third of your time for writing’ – I haven’t had that privilege for the past 25 years! What’s not to like? ‘The Spitzer Center of Ethical Leadership. We’ll give you access to gigaPOP,’” which is defined by an online source as “short for gigabit point-of-presence, an access point to [a] collaboration between universities and partners in industry and government to develop advanced Internet technologies and applications....”
The technology now lets him “do real-time interactive with 128 classrooms simultaneously across the nation – no, across the world! They can see me, I can see them. It’s like a real classroom. Of course, I’m not going to do 128 classrooms, but that’s the power of this technology. Somebody says, ‘You get to do this with the dioceses; you get to do this with the hospitals; with parish adult ed programs; you get to do this with business organizations’ leadership programs. You can take your spiritual leadership and your ethical leadership programs, the sky’s the limit, go ahead and do it. Take your Faith & Reason Institute, and do your astrophysical response to atheism, get all the high school honors students you want, get all the college students you want, all the Newman Centers students you want, and all the adult ed students, and by the way, emphasize the seminarians and the deacon (formation) programs across the nation. You can do this fulltime, and we’ll subsidize it all.’”
What, indeed, is not to like? Living at the Orange County House of Prayer, an archdiocesan retreat center with an Oregon Province Jesuit priest in charge, Gonzaga University’s ex-president will have a 10-minute commute to his office and studio in downtown Irvine, Calif.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Father Spitzer said, “and I think the Holy Spirit would view me as a complete idiot if I did not do this. At the same time, I don’t want to leave here. I love these kids very, very much, and I leave them with great reticence.”