Fr. Scott Pilarz took the stage as Marquette’s official 23rd president to a standing ovation from a near-full Al McGuire Center.
Among his first official words as the new president was a reference to Bruce Springsteen, whose Sept. 23 birthday fell on the same day as the inauguration, saying, “Marquette, baby, we are clearly born to run.” The crowd laughed with the new president. Though light hearted, those words rang true throughout his speech in which he alluded often to not only Marquette’s illustrious history, but also its bright future.
Pilarz spent the first part of his inaugural speech on Marquette’s past successes. Pilarz said he has an “incredible sense of gratitude for how far Marquette has come since 1881,” praising Milwaukee’s first Bishop for having the vision of a Jesuit university in the city. He made reference to Père Jacques Marquette’s difficult journey away from family and friends to explore North America and find the Mississippi River, similar to the journey Marquette students make when they leave home to attend MU.
Fr. Pilarz gave the past presidents in attendance, Fr. Albert Diulio and Fr. Robert Wild, rounds of applause, recognizing them for their important roles in “Marquette’s momentum right now.”
He mentioned Marquette being the first Catholic university to admit women. The new President called the Marquette community “remarkable,” saying, “Marquette has been blessed with a spirit unique amongst Jesuit schools.”
For the balance of the speech, though, he discussed his immediate and future plans for Marquette. He stressed the importance of Marquette’s success at present, saying, “together we stand at a critical junction for Catholic and Jesuit higher education.”
Fr. Pilarz described looking into the future as “daunting” and said, “the work ahead may be arduous.” But he mentioned “hope” as the only way to combat a “(future) colored significantly by mystery.”
Despite facing uncertainty in Catholic education, he is confident Marquette can thrive in these difficult times. “There is no blueprint for Marquette complete in every detail. But our love for this university will work its way.” Pilarz is confident Marquette’s past success indicates more of the same in the future. “Marquette has always made strides in the direction of excellence.”
Although impressed by Marquette’s current standing as he begins his presidency, our President gave Marquette two goals: “Access and a new excellence.”
Pilarz proudly stated nearly 25 percent of the class of 2015 is the first in their family to go to college, noting he himself was the first in his family to earn a degree. He is committed to maintaining that level of access to Marquette.
He spent a significant amount of time on Marquette’s presence in the Milwaukee community, but hopes Marquette will earn “a new excellence” under his guidance, noting, “Marquette has important work to do on the national and global stage.”
The President wants Marquette to strive for a new excellence outside the classroom as well as inside of it. He asked the audience, “How do our students and faculty become the voices for the voiceless?”, “how do they become persons of solidarity for the poor?” and “how can we re-imagine ourselves in this globalized world?”
Events at the inauguration preceding and following the speech indicated Fr. Pilarz would not settle for the status quo. Before the speech, a video was shown with students reading Mary Oliver’s poem “What I Have Learned So Far,” a poem with the ending words, “Be ignited, or be gone.” After Pilarz finished his speech, the Marquette Gospel Choir sang a song titled, “New Direction,” which included lyrics like, “I’m headed in a new direction. I don’t want to go the same ole’ way.”
Around campus, the general feeling surrounding its new leader is that of excitement. Arely Flores, a senior, said, ““I’ve gotten a very good vibe from Fr. Pilarz. I’ve heard him speak twice, and both times I felt his energy and his enthusiasm. I think he was a great choice.”
Students believe Fr. Pilarz’s youth will help him lead students in his quest for “a new excellence.” “He’s going to strive to keep Marquette ahead of the game. I think it’s important for him to be pushing the envelope for us and not just coming in and learning the ropes. He’s going to take an active role,” says senior Molly Gilmore. “He’s living in Campus Town, and a lot of students relate to that.”
Pilarz’s visibility around campus is popular as well. Freshman Matt Marhefke says, “I look at Madison, and you never see any of your faculty or administrators. And here you see them everyday just walking down the street. It’s that kind of closeness that really sets him apart.”
Also resonating with students is his humor. Sophomore Joanna Tulachka simply said, “He’s funny…he doesn’t seem like an old guy.” Freshman Tim O’Connor likes how Pilarz combines humor with a serious message, “[the inauguration] is the fourth time I’ve heard him talk and every single time he always has something new to say. It’s always interesting, it’s always funny, it’s always entertaining, but he still gets a good message across.”
Students believe in Fr. Pilarz’s idea of “a new excellence.” “As a senior, I’m taking it as “don’t become stagnant,” said senior Brad Tharpe. “There’s a lot of ‘cruising’ that goes on senior year so to me personally it’s go out and tutor at the community center, or go out and find a new service project or just recommit myself to academics.”
Marhefke believes Fr. Pilarz’s new excellence seeks the continued growth of Marquette’s academic prestige. “He wants it to be a pillar of the Jesuit foundation of education,” he said. “As an engineering student, I picked Marquette because their engineering curriculum is very hands-on… Here it’s a brand new way of thinking, of tackling these problems and changing the world around you.”
On a day meant to celebrate the present, Fr. Pilarz took a hard look at the future. He concluded his speech with a famous quote from St. Ignatius, telling Marquette to “go set the world on fire.” If Fr. Pilarz’s speech signified anything, it is that Marquette will likely face challenges in his time as president, but Marquette is “ready, ready to run.”
by Ben McCormick