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Fred Pestello, first non-Jesuit to lead St. Louis University, to retire in 2025

St. Louis University President Fred Pestello on Thursday, March 21, 2024, at DuBord Hall in Midtown. Pestello announced Thursday he will retire from the post he's held for more than a decade.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
“There is so much I will miss about this magnificent job,” Fred Pestello wrote in his announcement. “But just as I knew 10 years ago that SLU would be my home, I know that it is time for a new leader to take the first step into a new era.”

Updated at 3:55 p.m. March 21 with additional comments from Pestello and other university leaders and alumni

St. Louis University President Fred Pestello, who led St. Louis University through the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple rounds of protests for racial justice, has announced plans to retire.

Pestello, 71, will step down as the 33rd president of the university in June 2025. He is the first layperson to hold that role on a permanent basis in SLU's more than 200-year history.

“There were many times in the last 10 years when the challenges we faced felt insurmountable,” Pestello said in a message to the community. “But together – grounded firmly in our values and trusting in the wisdom of this community – we found more than a way through. We created a new future for St. Louis University.”

Racial equity at SLU

The challenges for Pestello began quickly.

He officially took over as president on July 1, 2014, about a month before Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. His inauguration on Oct. 3 came five days before an off-duty St. Louis police officer fatally shot VonDerrit Myers in the city’s Shaw neighborhood.

Myers was the son of a SLU employee, and on Oct. 12, students began an occupation at the campus landmark known as the Clock Tower.

“As someone new to the campus, new the area, someone without depth of connections, someone who was not well known, it was very difficult to navigate through that,” Pestello said. "We responded by meeting peace with peace and engaging with the group.”

Jonathan Pulphus was a sophomore in the school’s African American Studies program in 2014 and helped lead the protest. He said he appreciated that Pestello chose not to escalate the situation.

“What happened that night with the protests could have escalated to a Kent State,” he said.

Pulphus and other groups worked with Pestello to draft what became known as the Clock Tower Accords, outlining 13 steps the university could take to increase equity at the school and in the community. The university says more than half of them have been accomplished.

Pulphus, now the director of grant initiatives at a St. Louis-based nonprofit, said Pestello is well-meaning and sincere in his efforts to boost equity at SLU.

“But I've always, you know, been in want of more, because that's what the document called for,” he said. “Not for us to lift up programs that are already happening.”

The Black Student Alliance did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the current environment for students of color on campus.

Pestello acknowledged that SLU, and higher education as a whole, still has work to do.

“I think we have made progress. And I take pride in what we have accomplished. But we are far from finished,” he said.

In 2016, the university officially acknowledged the role that enslaved people played in the construction and operation of the university in its early years. Descendants of those individuals say they are owed up to $74 billion for their stolen labor. Discussions are ongoing.

Areva Martin, an attorney for Descendants of the St. Louis University Enslaved, a nonprofit supporting people whose ancestors were enslaved, said the organization saw Pestello’s departure as an opportunity for SLU to “move forward, and act to prioritize the issue.”

“It would be really unfortunate and sad for Pestello to leave without ensuring this matter is resolved,” Marin said. “This could be his most significant legacy.”

Relationships with faculty

Pestello also had to work to rebuild relationships between the president’s office and the faculty at SLU. His predecessor, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, was often at odds with the faculty. In 2012, the Faculty Senate took an overwhelming vote of no confidence, saying Biondi often ignored pressing academic needs and the input of professors to focus instead on building projects.

Chris Rollins, a professor at SLU’s law school and the current president of the Faculty Senate, said Pestello was a 180-degree turn from Biondi.

Pestello attended Faculty Senate meetings and met monthly with its president. Rollins said. He also made sure that Senate members knew the board of trustees and worked alongside its members on committees.

“This was a priority for Dr. Pestello,” Rollins said. “And I think he sets the stage that this is now the expectation, we will want for the good of the university, a president who has both external facing roles and understands the internal facing role as well.”

Pestello also led the university as it negotiated contracts with adjunct instructors, who unionized in 2016 under the umbrella of the Service Employees International Union. The most recent deal, in effect until 2027, sets out yearly increases in the hourly rate for adjuncts and guarantees some compensation if their classes are canceled.

COVID-19 pandemic

Pestello was also at the helm when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down normal life.

“I'm very proud of our institution, how quickly we pivoted to go to online learning,” he said. “But what we also heard very quickly is that our students did not feel that that was anywhere near as satisfactory for advancing and supporting their education.”

Using that feedback from students, SLU resumed in-person classes in August 2020, even as other universities and many K-12 institutions stayed virtual. Plans developed by the medical school and doctors at SLU Hospital kept COVID rates on campus low, and officials never canceled a day of class after returning.

The physical, emotional, mental and economic toll of the pandemic is still being calculated, Pestello said. But he said though they are tough to talk about, there may be some bright spots as well.

“It allowed us to realize maybe we were all pushing a little too hard before COVID, and a little slower-paced life, a little more balanced life, is necessary.”

Pestello’s legacy

“President Pestello’s list of accomplishments is formidable; he has transformed this University for the better,” SLU board of trustees Chairman Joseph Conran said in a statement.

The university was able to increase its endowment by more than 80% over the last decade, and total enrollment was at an all-time high in fall 2023 at 15,204. In spring 2015, there were 12,667 students enrolled. Pestello also led the university’s most successful fundraising campaign.

The costs of going to college have also grown during Pestello’s leadership, from $37,966 in tuition and fees in the 2014-15 school year to more than $53,000 in tuition and fees for the current school year. Neither of those totals includes expenses like housing or books.

Ryan Tisdale, president of SLU’s Student Government Association, called Pestello “a beacon of leadership.”

“I have witnessed firsthand the genuine care and dedication Dr. Pestello has shown towards our student body and SLU in general,” said Tisdale, a junior studying public health. “His passion for student success and his tireless efforts to foster a campus community built on inclusivity and support have and will continue to leave a mark on our university.”

Pestello said his legacy will be most visible to students in the new buildings springing up on both its medical and main campuses, and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“But beyond the buildings, I think that we continue to strive to get better in terms of what we provide those students inside and outside of the classroom,” he said. With each passing year, I think these students will have opportunities that prior students didn't.”

Pulphus, the SLU alumnus who now works blocks from the campus, said he hoped the university was also expanding its investment into disadvantaged communities.

"If that's not happening, then it's all for self-interest, and it doesn’t really fulfill the mission,” he said.

Pestello will take a sabbatical after finishing his tenure as president. He then plans to continue “teaching, writing, and doing what I am asked to contribute to the success of the next leader of this remarkable university.”

SLU will conduct a national search for his successor.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.