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President Father Engh: Staying One Step Ahead

Father Michael Engh is the president of Santa Clara, a position he has held since 2009. He’s on a wide variety of boards and committees both within the university and on several boards across the nation. Fr. Engh started out as a history professor, and spent many years at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.


In this episode, we discuss Fr. Engh’s time working at the Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, what his daily schedule looks like and how he communicates with University when things go wrong. We talk some about most challenging and rewarding parts of his job, what he would do with a $10 million dollar check and what programs he is most excited about moving forward.

Selected Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: You took a two-year break from teaching at Loyola Marymount to work at the Dolores Mission in Los Angeles. Why did you choose to work there, and were there any experiences during that time that shaped the rest of your life? 


Michael Engh: Every day I would go to the research library and work on my book, and then come back and help out at the parish. Twice a week I worked at Juvenile Hall helping students get through their GED’s. These were people who didn’t have anyone to pay attention to them, so it introduced me to a whole new reality. These were young people between 13-18 awaiting court date or awaiting transfer or doing their time there.


Since I was doing work on social justice history in Los Angeles, this was grounding me in the reality of people. The parish was an activist parish, so there was a lot of concern for protecting neighborhood and making it safer, and the beginnings of concern for immigrants.


It changed my teaching, and it kept my research on social justice highly focused. On the one hand I could see modern examples, but on the other hand I could see historical roots and the evolution of progress.


GC: What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of your job?


ME: The most challenging part of the job is always around planning so that we can manage our budget and stay in the black. It’s challenging to handle personnel issues. Issues that come up in the university in terms of racial bias—those things come out of the blue. You have to drop everything and paying attention to this issue at the time which impacts my schedule.


There’s a proposal to have a bias incidence response team, so that when issues do come up, there’s a group that can meet immediately, assess it and give me advice. With social media, the need for that is so much greater. Ten years ago when I started as president, we didn’t have the degree of social media like now. Everything is instantaneous and universities are not instantaneous institutions. We’ve had to adapt.


A rewarding part for me is either hearing about faculty success for a grant or publication, or when students are recognized. My conversations with individual students are probably the most rewarding experiences I have because all of us faculty and staff are here because of students. Talking with students makes all the difference in the world in terms of how my day is going.


GC: One of the main ways that students hear directly from you is through emails after a major national or on campus event. What do you view your role as when something goes wrong, and how do you decide what to do next?


ME: If there’s been an incident, I need to be notified, then I need to know to whom to delegate for the quickest response possible. My principle of organization is that you handle issues at the closest level to them. Not at the top, but at the closest level, it’s called subsidiarity.


There are people at each level that know their jobs and are professionals, and I don’t have to know their jobs. I have to have the best possible people and they have to step up at that time, keeping me in the loop.


GC: One topic that you talked about in your State of the University Address is stress. Why is stress such an important topic right now?


ME: It’s not just the university, it’s a national problem. When I cited the American Psychological Association (about 2017 being a record-breaking year in terms of stress), it was to place our situation in the larger national context. The whole country is stressed because we have a presidential administration that is provocative, challenging and combative. We haven’t faced this before. When you add in social media, it’s a very different scenario.


Universities are highly concentrated areas of population where students and faculty interact on a daily basis. When you add then students trying to discover what their values are and embrace their ideals, then you add in a combative situation and social media, it’s a mix that we haven’t seen before. 


There’s a much greater consciousness of human rights than 50 years ago as well. People are very cognizant of infringements on rights.


GC: What university programs are you most excited about or interested in moving forward?


ME: The program I’m most interested in is the LEAD scholars program for first generation college students. Presently we can’t handle all the first-generation college students; about 10% of our student body are the first in their family to go to college. There are very particular challenges those students have.


Then we have our undocumented students, and we have a long tradition of assisting undocumented students. The needs are much greater because of the threat that comes from the federal government and the amount of fear these people are carrying. There’s the immediate undocumented students, then students who are legal but their parents are undocumented. How do those students manage their fear of their parents getting deported while going to college. That’s a real concern that I have in terms of how to best support them when we’re fairly budget constrained for what programs we can fund. How do we re-appropriate funding to support them?


Another issue that’s frustrating is how to deal with the rising costs of housing for faculty and staff. We’re talking with mayors, city councils and developers about how to deal with that. That’s the biggest question facing Silicon Valley right now.


GC: Are there any books that you recommend that every students should read?


ME: I’d recommend both of Father Boyle’s books. “Barking to the Choir” is the most recent one, and “Tattoos on the Heart” is the previous one.


GC: If you could send a message to every person in the U.S., what would you say?


ME: I would quote Kamau Bell: “Shut up and listen.” Listen to other people with different opinions. Listen with the ears of the heart. Don’t be judgmental. Listen to the burdens other people carry to understand what they’re struggling with then reflect as to how best to live.

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