MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee and New Jersey have two things in common – a body of water lying in the east, and mornings greeted with the sound of seagulls – both of which console Marquette University’s 23rd president.

PilarzJesuit Fr. Scott Pilarz speaks with Marquette students during an evening of reflection that was part of Inauguration Week in August. Fr. Pilarz succeeded Jesuit Fr. Robert A. Wild as Marquette’s president Aug. 1. (Submitted photo by Ben Smidt, courtesy Marquette University)But self-described “New Jersey guy,” Jesuit Fr. Scott Pilarz, 52, is thrilled about more than the presence of seagulls in his new hometown, he told 32 people gathered Oct. 14 at the Milwaukee Press Club’s Newsmaker Luncheon, where, as the newsmaker, Fr. Pilarz answered questions from panelists – Corrinne Hess of the Business Journal of Milwaukee, Steve Chamraz, reporter for Today’s TMJ4, and Karen Herzog of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – about his vision for Marquette and strategies for expanding the university’s impact on the local community.

Fr. Pilarz, who succeeded Jesuit Fr. Robert A. Wild as Marquette’s president Aug. 1, called this “a particularly exciting moment in Marquette’s history.”

Questions surfaced regarding some of Marquette’s recent news, like where it stands in the Big East Conference.

“At this point, I do not see Marquette leaving the Big East,” Fr. Pilarz said, noting that he and other Big East presidents have spent time on the phone and in person re-imagining what the conference can look like by preserving current membership and adding new members. “In fact, it’s very possible that the Big East comes out of this stronger than it’s ever been. I think we have some really interesting possibilities with bringing other programs into the Big East.”

Fr. Pilarz also addressed the university’s search for a new athletic director. Three national experts on intercollegiate athletics on campus are doing assessments, studying documents and meeting and interviewing students, coaches, faculty and administrators “to get a sense of where Marquette athletics has been, where we are right now and where we want to go into the future.”

More awareness of sexual assaults

When asked about issues surrounding the university’s reporting of sexual assaults to police, Fr. Pilarz said the university has made strides in changing its policies and ensuring that any incidents are reported to Milwaukee police.

“We also moved awareness for sexual assault front and center during our new student orientation, and we’ve been working with different student groups very diligently to make sure that they are sensitive and aware of how unacceptable this is on a campus such as Marquette,” he said, noting that he’s in communication with the Milwaukee Police Department’s Chief of Police Edward A. Flynn, and that the university has expanded the zone of control on campus and increased the number of services offered to keep students safe.

“If our students don’t feel safe and, in fact, aren’t safe, we can’t get done any of the work that a university needs to get done,” Fr. Pilarz said.

Marquette’s decision last year to rescind the position of dean of the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences to a lesbian scholar, Jodi O’Brien, also came up for discussion.

The former president of the University of Scranton, a Jesuit University in Pennsylvania, said he was key to the development of the Scranton Inclusion Initiative which responded to the pastoral needs of gay and lesbian students – with opposition from the conservative community.

Fr. Pilarz said he doesn’t know all of the details about what happened at Marquette last year, and wouldn’t second-guess what happened because he wasn’t a part of the process, but he stressed there is no room in the Catechism of the Catholic Church for discrimination or exclusion on the basis of sexual orientation.

“I can assure you, going forward, Marquette will not discriminate in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation,” he said.

Disagreement is part of discussion

He accepts opposition and disagreement on this as part of the discussion.

“Universities are places that are absolutely home to disagreement,” Fr. Pilarz said. “If we didn’t have disagreements, we wouldn’t be doing our job, and I think we’re always mixing it up – that’s the thrill for me and for lots of other people about working at a university – we’re a place of debate and discussion and, sometimes, discord, and that’s the way you move the ball forward in terms of the production of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom.”

Faculty is trained to be critical and ask tough questions, which may look messy at times, but is a sign of intellectual health, Fr. Pilarz said.

“If we were all singing from the same song sheet all the time, we’d be, really, a disservice to our students,” he said.

While he plans to increase the amount of research done at the university, Fr. Pilarz wants to strike a balance between teaching and research “with the goal of transforming the lives of our students, not simply producing knowledge,” he said, calling the classroom a “sacred space.”

Fr. Pilarz also said he doesn’t want to lose sight of the realities of students’ lives, which is why he’s continuing the longstanding Jesuit tradition of living in a dorm where he sees them coming and going, and where they’re not afraid to tell him what they think.

“It’s a way for me, especially as an administrator, to have some sense of what’s going on in the lives of our students,” he said.

MU will be place of opportunity

Under his leadership, Fr. Pilarz expects Marquette will continue its legacy as a place of opportunity for people, like a quarter of incoming students who are the first in their families to attend college.

“I’m the first Pilarz ever to graduate from college, and that can really change the dynamic in the life of a family and what that family’s future can look like, and all of us at Marquette are unwaveringly dedicated to make sure that we preserve that tradition,” he said of programs like Marquette’s Educational Opportunity Program that, according to the university’s website, enables low-income and first-generation students, whose parents don’t have a bachelor’s degree, to enter and succeed in higher education. “That means the commitment of significant resources to make sure that Marquette education is available and affordable….”

Ninety percent of students currently receive some form of financial aid – which accounts for about $95 million of the budget each year, Fr. Pilarz said of the university’s continuing commitment.

He also plans to continue Fr. Wild’s fundraising efforts, and has already spent time on the road meeting alumni and benefactors.

“It’s actually part of the job that I was surprised to discover that I liked doing – it’s great to be with people who believe so passionately in Marquette,” the priest said.

The sky is the limit when it comes to raising the university’s endowment fund, currently up to about $400 million, Fr. Pilarz said.

“The goal is to build the endowment as large as we possibly can,” he said.

University expansion always possible

In terms of university expansion and construction for the land-locked, urban university Fr. Pilarz said they’re always looking for opportunities to acquire land.

“We have a never-ending need for space, but we’re going to do that in a way that’s respectful of our neighbors,” he said, noting that it’s something the university has been good at in the last several years.

He also said he’d love to see the home of the university’s men’s basketball team, the Bradley Center, thrive, because it has served Marquette well and is close enough that students can walk to it.

While he’s focused on completing Phase II of the engineering building in the short-term, Fr. Pilarz said Marquette is also planning an expansion of the dental school, but beyond that it’s premature to say what’s next in line.

“Campuses are never done,” he said, but added that he doesn’t have an edifice complex that some presidents talk about – where they spend all of their time building buildings – because of the importance of less noticeable progress.

“There’s an awful lot more to the enterprise than just the buildings,” Fr. Pilarz said, noting the importance of scholarship and financial aid, raising money for faculties for research and programmatic investment in academics. “…I don’t ever want to lose sight of the non-capital side of moving the university forward.”

Hopes to increase MU’s impact on community

He also hopes that the recently formed health care consortium that includes Marquette, The Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee will allow them to build bridges for their faculties to work together and increase the impact Marquette has upon the community.

“Our hope is that we can coordinate intellectual capital on all three campuses and put it at the service of the people of Milwaukee, the State of Wisconsin and the region,” said Fr. Pilarz, who has also spent time getting to know local civic leaders and political officials and looks forward to building those relationships, getting Marquette more involved in the community and looking for new opportunities to engage local leaders and local issues. “That’s our hope – that we’ll be bridge builders.”

Fr. Pilarz loves that the campus is located in the middle of the city, because it’s another way to connect with the community and help solve issues as a university, using its intellectual capital on campus.

“We’re not keeping anybody at a distance. In fact, we want to reach out and we want people to reach in and see Marquette as a rich resource intellectually, economically, culturally,” he said. “There’s a lot that Marquette can bring to the table….”

In the short time that he’s been here, Fr. Pilarz has learned that students, faculty, administrators, staff and alumni feel a sense of ownership at Marquette and want to see the “pretty well-loaded machine” to succeed.

“I feel a real sense that we’re committed to be the best Marquette we can be, and Marquette people are really proud of where we come from since 1881 and the tremendous growth of this institution and its place on the national stage,” Fr. Pilarz said. “And I’ve said before, one of the things that attracted me to Marquette, and that I still find attractive, is that people are comfortable in their own skins. It’s a really good community to be a part of, so I think that is what I’ve learned most – a sense of ownership and that passion for the mission of the place.”