A Conversation With President-Elect Timothy Law Snyder

On March 27, Loyola Marymount University announced that Timothy Law Snyder will be the university’s 16th president. He will succeed President David W. Burcham on June 1, 2015. Snyder most recently held the post of vice president for Academic Affairs at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. He has also been dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, and a professor, department chair and dean of science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Snyder earned a doctorate and a master’s degree in applied and computational mathematics from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, and a master’s degree in mathematics, a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

You have spent many years in Jesuit higher education settings. Why does contemporary U.S. society need Jesuit higher education institutions?
Because our education, in its care for each person, helps individuals discover their own strengths; because of our liberal arts program, they become nimble actors; because they learn to become women and men for others, they leverage these personal transformations to help find creative ways to help others and help the earth. We don’t just educate well, we educate with purpose. And we have the incredible academic freedom to think and talk about anything, and to forge faith with reason. Not many places do that, and only the Jesuits do all the above.

What is the greatest challenge facing private higher education today?
Affordability. That’s No. 1 because government funding has decreased. Also, institutions of higher education have allowed tuition to rise too fast for too long. Neither is good, and the two together can interact in ways that end up shutting individuals out from higher education who otherwise would thrive. That’s the challenge of the current moment.

Observers have compared the rising costs of a university degree to the housing bubble of the 2000-2010 decade. Sweet Briar College, a small private college in Virginia, announced just weeks ago that it would close. Do you think higher education is experiencing a bubble that is near the bursting point?
It depends on how you define “bubble.” If the bubble is tuition that rises at twice the pace of inflation, the bubble has already burst. However, I do not ascribe to the notion of the education bubble in the sense that traditional education is about to go by the wayside. That’s just not the case.

Any time a new technology arrives, some say that education will be destroyed by it. But education subsumes and uses that new technology, and as part of that process, new markets emerge as well. Also, people take short-term slivers of data and try to extrapolate long-term future trends from it. This is why we see writers, including luminaries like Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, witnessing the potential of MOOCs [massive open online courses] and concluding kiss your local college goodbye. When we consider a residential education, where students are in constant contact with those from whom they learn, and at a station where they are continually immersed in learning, the value of a private, liberal arts education is a no-brainer.

What aspect of a Jesuit outlook on life, or Ignatian spirituality, carries the most meaning for you?
That we are persons for others, because that aspect of Ignatian spirituality gives us purpose and direction.

To be persons for others drives everything that we do. When it forges with Catholic social teaching and the imperative for justice that emanates from the service of faith that is found, for example, in the LMU mission statement, it becomes much more powerful. If you allow that to guide your discernment as you live as a Jesuit learner and Jesuit thinker, then you become a more effective person for others. I like to use the phrase “We are here to do good for those here, for those to come and for the earth itself.”

Do you happen to have a good, 15-word definition of the Ignatian concept known as “the magis”? No one else seems to have come up with one.
The magis is one of those words that keeps people from understanding Jesuit higher education because it’s such an unusual word. It’s often described simply as “the more.”

The magis is the incessant, restless desire to accomplish more for, ultimately, others. That’s the desire that leads to discernment, and the discernment leads to reflection and eventually to action — again, for those here and for those to come.

What do you see as LMU’s greatest strengths?
The faculty, staff, administration, alumni and students — the entire LMU family — and their collaboration.

I was especially impressed in my visits to LMU with the collaboration among the faculty, staff and administration, particularly with the way the academic enterprise is valued and supported, and brings excitement to members of the community. The Board of Trustees are so knowledgeable about the work of the institution. Also, the collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, and even within the faculty, as seen in the new Core Curriculum — not to mention the wonderfully collaborative strategic plan! — these things do not happen so amply at most institutions.

Your background is in mathematics, but most people probably identify Jesuit education with liberal arts, theology and ethics. What do you bring that you believe will speak to the entire academic community at LMU?
In no way have the Jesuits been limited to the text-and-letters world. We’ve had many great Jesuit mathematicians and scientists through time. I have diverse interests and experiences, and I learn delightfully and quickly. I tend to have a creative and open mind. When working with others, I try to allow them to be their creative best. Those characteristics will help us.

Pope Francis is almost single-handedly reshaping how the world perceives the role of the Catholic Church in the world, and he’s doing it based on his understanding of Jesuit and Ignatian spirituality and service. What opportunities exist for Jesuit education institutions by virtue of having a pope who is steeped in an Ignatian view of the world? And is it sacrilegious to use the word “branding” in this context?
The days of thinking that “branding” and “marketing” cannot exist in the same sentence as “education” are over. We can’t be bashful about that anymore.

Pope Francis is slowly making the Church more exciting and accessible to Catholics and non-Catholics. He’s making the Church more robust in its appeal. It’s less about whom and what we are rejecting and more about whom and why we are accepting. Any organization affiliated with Catholicism will automatically benefit from this. At the same time, if the Pope can draw the Church and society toward a more Jesuit way of thinking, that can only help us.

I have always felt that Jesuit education is the greatest of all time. It is the greatest existing today, and as time goes forward, Jesuit education will become more and more important and effective. When you look at how culture, communication and society are evolving, they are very much crying for the kinds of things we do. We have bonded our spirituality with our ways of learning — we are brave in that, and we do this with purpose. We help develop women and men for others. That’s really cool.