October 2014 in St. Louis, MO: Reflections from a University President

By Patrick Nolan, Executive Assistant to the President, AJCU

Saint Louis University President Dr. Fred P. Pestello speaks with protesters (Photo by Saint Louis University)


Saint Louis University President Dr. Fred P. Pestello speaks with protesters (Photo by Saint Louis University)

On October 18, 2014, Saint Louis University’s newly inaugurated president, Dr. Fred P. Pestello, reached a thirteen-point agreement, later dubbed the Clock Tower Accords, with protesters on the processes for enhancing racial equity on the University’s campus. This event brought a six-day occupation to an end and was seen in higher education circles as a rare type of win-win for a university and its city. In the following interview, Dr. Pestello gives a first-person account of the events and explains how principled decision-making, guided by the values of the Society of Jesus, transformed an occupation into an opportunity for the institution’s community to flourish.

Patrick Nolan: Starting from the beginning, how did this all play out?

Fred Pestello: I began my work at Saint Louis University (SLU) on July 1, 2014, and in the course of learning the ropes came to understand there had been “bias-related incidents” the spring before. There were tensions on campus on the matter of race, as there were in the local community. Nonetheless, this wasn’t something I was able to address during my first weeks on the job. Things changed, in St. Louis and on campus, shortly after I arrived. On August 9th, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. And suddenly years of pent-up frustration and anger about racial injustice and economic inequity in the region boiled over.

On Sunday, October 12, the University was set to host an inter-faith service on our campus. It was to be part of the Ferguson October Weekend activities that were occurring throughout the region — three days of reflection and activism on the issues raised by the Michael Brown shooting. 

But days before the service, on October 8, VonDerrit “Drew” Myers Jr., the son of one of our long-term and beloved employees, was killed during a confrontation with a Saint Louis City police officer. It was this event that more powerfully focused our campus on the concerns and tensions that were pervasive throughout the region.

I learned about Drew’s death in the early morning of Thursday, October 9. He was shot less than a mile from SLU’s Medical Center, and protests were now on our doorstep. After the shooting of Drew Myers and the protests it spawned, we grew concerned about the inter-faith service. Following prolonged discussion and consultation, we decided to proceed with the program. Some of our stakeholders were opposed to that decision—not an easy one for a new president.

The weekend went as planned until Sunday night’s service, when the national president of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, began to speak. The younger generation in the audience grew agitated because they don’t see the NAACP as representing their concerns and interests. Still, the organizers wrapped it up peacefully, and afterwards I met with about two dozen black ministers who were in turn dismayed at the younger generation’s reactions and worried that the movement was distancing itself from their faith-based organizations. I arrived home by midnight and went to bed relieved that the evening ended without an incident.

At 1:30 a.m. that morning, I received a call from the head of our public safety department, Jim Moran. I immediately recognized his voice and the seriousness it conveyed. Jim said that I had only a few minutes to make a decision. A large, peaceful march was coming up Grand Boulevard — originating at demonstrations near where Drew was killed — and he was pretty sure the group was going to try to turn onto the campus. He estimated at least 1,000 protesters and asked me if police should try to stop them or let them on campus. After soliciting Jim’s analysis and that of his counterparts on the St. Louis Police Department, I decided that we would meet peace with peace. We allowed them on to the campus, and VonDerrit Myers Sr. was among many who spoke to the protesters that night. 

Over time, the rally ended and most left quietly. By morning, however, it was clear that a couple dozen of them — some our students, some not — were going to stay and set up camp at our clock tower. They got on social media and announced the start of OccupySLU. Food, water, tents, blankets, and other items began to arrive from sympathizers supporting the effort. At the same time, angry calls and e-mails immediately began to pour in from parents and others demanding a swift end to encampment. 

We were worried too. An encampment could disrupt our campus for weeks to come. During our internal discussions, concerns surfaced about student withdrawals, and hits to fundraising and future enrollments. But we soon realized that our impulsive leap to the worst case wasn’t who we were. We reflected upon our mission and our values and agreed that they alone must guide our actions. That was a turning point. In the midst of great pressure and lots of noise, we paused and reflected on what we are all about and how that determines our path forward. We asked “What do we stand for?” We started imagining what Christ would do in this situation. Or Saint Ignatius. Or Pope Francis.

The angry calls and emails continued to come in nonstop. We were able to engage some of those who were upset and got them to understand how we were approaching the encampment and why. We were able to make them understand that no property was being damaged and no one was being hurt. A live video stream of the clock tower encampment also helped alleviate concerns. Others were not interested in hearing anything we had to say. We tried listening to them too, although it was difficult with some whose concerns were so strongly grounded in hatred. There was immense pressure on us to end the occupation, but we decided to actively engage the occupiers and work toward a voluntary end of their encampment. 

During the first evening, the protesters hosted a teach-in attended by more than 500 students along with Jesuits, faculty members, staff and community members. These early days were difficult because we couldn’t identify what the protesters wanted, who was leading them, or how we could effectively communicate with them. Making matters worse, some protesters were desecrating the American flag.

Social media heated up — on both sides of the issue. Some were threatening to come in to aggressively confront the protesters, while others were promising to come in and show them how to “do it right.” Against intense external pressure, we decided that as long as no property was being damaged and no one was hurt, we would persist in trying to engage the demonstrators.

Thanks to [African-American Studies professor] Dr. Stefan Bradley, on the fourth day of the occupation, we were able to arrange a meeting with two of our students at the center of the protest along with a few other significant individuals, particularly local community organizer Romona Taylor Williams. We began the conversations that quickly created what we came to call the Clock Tower Accords — the agreement that quietly, peacefully and permanently ended the encampment and began our ongoing engagement with the issues at its heart.

PN: There is a recurring inter-generational theme comparing Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. What do you see as a difference between then and now?

FP: The big difference is social media — no question about it. It takes on a life of its own. Information, true or not, spreads quickly. Reaction time is immediate. Mobilization is swift. It must be monitored. One must do the best they can to share the facts, quell misinformation, soften hatred and drive to a positive outcome. 

PN: You have studied racism as a sociologist and have now consulted with a range of civil rights activists, public safety experts, and religious leaders. Which individuals or tactics have been useful?

FP: I’ve learned that you have to actively listen, sincerely try to understand what is at the center of the hurt, and then authentically respond to it. 

We’ve hired a Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Community Engagement, Dr. Jonathan Smith, who has continued the direction we began in the midst of the crisis. He continues to push us to speak and act not from places of fear but instead with an open heart. This has made a big difference to our internal community and to those at the center of the discontent. I am also indebted for the strong support of the St. Louis Archbishop, the local Jesuit Provincial and the SLU Jesuit community, all of whom issued clear and firm statements of support for the path SLU took in dealing with the occupation. As the University’s first layman in this job, their continued vote of confidence has meant a great deal to me. It also helped to have the local media understand and support what we did. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Business Journal published editorials endorsing our actions. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent us a letter praising our handling of the encampment, and other institutions have looked to us for guidance.

I’ve also learned a lot from our students, faculty, staff, and alumni that this has been an opportunity for making SLU stronger and a better Jesuit university. People are having conversations now that weren’t taking place on the campus before. Sometimes these are difficult conversations. At the end of the year, when I met with groups of seniors to talk about their experiences at SLU, several of them said that the clock tower encampment was the single most important learning experience they had at SLU. They talked about how the topic spread from the classroom to the dorm room and to the dinner table back home. It was inspiring to see just how impactful and transformative what took place was for many of our students.

Student protesters at campus teach-in (Photo by Saint Louis University)


Student protesters at campus teach-in (Photo by Saint Louis University)

PN: Not everyone agreed with what you were doing, not the protesters and sometimes not even members of your own community. How did you speak authentically to such different groups? How did you leverage the support from those that did agree with you?

FP: We communicated frequently, but with a lot of thought and refection. For those who didn’t agree with us, we tried to listen to them and understand them and explain our thinking and actions. The messages we gave were the same to all groups: we’re living our values, and above all, that is what we are called to do. You might not agree with our approach, but we believe that’s what our Ignatian mission compels us to do. Internally, there was tremendous support. Not 100 percent, but close. The split on what we did was external — some applauded us, others were extremely displeased with our path.

How we handled the occupation brought the community together under a new president in a way that would have been unlikely without a crisis of this magnitude. Support from the faculty, staff, and student body was overwhelming. Every faculty assembly from every school and college wrote a letter of support for the path we followed. The University faculty senate wrote a unanimous letter of support. Students made a video called “I Stand with Pestello.” Staff groups also wrote in support of our approach. Those statements and others reinforced our method of making strong decisions on the basis of Jesuit values. 

PN: What has been uniquely Jesuit about this experience?

FP: When we were defining the values on which to base these decisions, we started with the concept of Cura Personalis and the ideal of forming men and women for others. We talked about the faith that does justice. In practice, we re-examined what it is we find at the heart of this institutional charism, and we asked what it means for how we are called to respond to and engage with protesters. How do we affirm them, and ourselves, as being created in the image and likeness of God? How do we see God in them? This was no light challenge. Some of the protesters were not our students. Some were pretty angry. We tried to be compassionate and in the end, that’s why we were so quickly able to trust each other.

PN: What are the concrete outcomes, particularly relating to access, that you are most proud of?

FP: I’m pleased that we haven’t come out of this and said, “OK, that’s over, we’re moving onto the next thing.” Largely through the leadership of Dr. Smith, along of that of many others, we now meet regularly in what we call the Access and Success Group. We continue to monitor progress with the Clock Tower Accords. We’ve drawn more people into the conversations. Dozens now serve on the Access and Success Group subcommittee. We have regular reports back to the Saint Louis University community on our progress. While it is good to have so many involved, progress is slowed by the length and breadth of academic conversations. I feel that pressure of balancing inclusion and thoughtful deliberation against swift and meaningful action. This has become a tension with which we are now struggling.

We are having important conversations on difficult topics — conversations that an institution like ours should have, must have. We are also more engaged in the serious challenges of our time — racism, injustice, poverty, and violence. I am proud of how our faculty, staff and students have taken our values and turned crisis and conflict into an opportunity for growth and the promotion of justice.