Father Pilarz: Road to the Marquette Presidency

The Rev. Scott Pilarz stood outside St. Joan of Arc chapel in late August 2011, observing his new home.

“This is a really beautiful part of campus,” he said. “I think this is a surprise to people, too, because they assume that this is an urban campus. … It is a great setting.”

The flowerbeds around the chapel were in full bloom — bright purples, yellows and reds. The sky was clear and the weather was warm for the beginning of another school year at Marquette.

Pilarz, not a stranger to harsh climates, claimed he was ready for his first winter in Milwaukee.

“The weather has been really perfect since I have been here,” Pilarz said. “I am coming from Scranton (Pa.), which is not exactly the tropics.”

First Encounter with Jesuits

Pilarz was raised Catholic. He attended a Catholic grade school and high school in New Jersey and went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. for undergraduate studies. Although Pilarz’s resident assistant his freshman year of college later became a Jesuit and the president of Georgetown University, Pilarz himself did not decide to pursue Jesuit formation until his senior year.

“I went to Georgetown as an undergrad, but I did not know what a Jesuit was, really,” Pilarz said. “It was really just getting to know Jesuits at Georgetown as teachers and as people who lived in residence halls (that encouraged me to pursue Jesuit priesthood). I was really fascinated, too, because I had this experience of Jesuits doing a lot of different things.”

Pilarz met Jesuits who were lawyers, physicians and politicians. At the time, the Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit, was a congressional representative for Massachusetts.

“I did not know priests could do all those different kinds of things, and that was really intriguing,” Pilarz said. “I just got the sense that these men seem really happy and enthusiastic and excited about what they are doing.”

One could describe Pilarz himself in exactly those words.

Jesuit Dreams Come to Life

Pilarz admits he did not consider entering the education profession while he was at Georgetown.

“I was not a real serious undergraduate, academically,” he said. “I did OK, but I would never have imagined that I would grow up to be a professor when I was in college.”

It was when he was teaching British Literature at Loyola High School in Baltimore from 1985 to 1988 as a Jesuit novitiate that he fell in love with the profession. His religious superior at the time, who was guiding him through the process of becoming a priest, suggested he return to school and pursue higher education as a career. Pilarz said he would have considered teaching high school for the rest of his life if he had not received the encouragement to go to graduate school.

“So I did it, and it’s been great ever since,” he said.

Pilarz earned his masters in philosophy from Fordham University in New York in 1985, as well as additional degrees in theology and divinity from Weston Jesuit School of Theology in 1991 and 1992, and in English from City University of New York (CUNY) in 1996.

While president of the University of Scranton, and as a professor at Georgetown, Pilarz taught English. He said he hopes to do the same next semester at Marquette, perhaps 16th and 17th century British literature.

Becoming a Golden Eagle

Pilarz is excited to get to know Marquette, and has already taken many steps to do so. He has had dinner with students and faculty and plans to do this often throughout the year.

Pilarz lives in Campus Town East. He likes living in student housing and has been doing so for almost all of the past 20 years.

“I think I can sleep through anything,” he said.

This is not the first time Pilarz has had to adjust to a new place, though he did say he is not familiar with the Midwest at all.

“I’m not nervous. There’s a lot of excitement about being in a new place and learning a new culture and getting to know a lot of people,” he said.

Pilarz will definitely miss the friends he made at the University of Scranton but said he plans to keep in close contact with them. He also said he has “a real love for the Jersey Shore,” as the place where he was born and raised and has spent much of his life.  

“Jesuits move. That’s part of who we are,” Pilarz said. “One of the earliest Jesuits said, ‘Our home is the road.’ So it’s good for us to pick up stakes and move and start fresh. There’s a lot of energy and excitement that comes with that.”

Many people have noticed the energy Pilarz mentioned. Steve Frieder, assistant to the president and corporate secretary, said he is excited to work with the new president.

“His high level of energy and enthusiasm for Marquette is really infectious. It’s fun,” Frieder said.

Frieder said he respects that Pilarz “takes his job seriously, but doesn’t take himself too seriously.” He said the president has a great sense of humor and is a “vibrant and effective leader.”

Abigail Searfoss, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, volunteered at the inauguration last week. She received an email asking for student volunteers and was excited at the opportunity.

“I had really wanted to meet the president,” Searfoss said. “I felt I really liked the guy.”

Searfoss is impressed with Pilarz’s efforts to get to know students. She likes the many emails he has sent to students already, and that he lives in campus housing. Searfoss also lives in Campus Town East.

“I’ve been tempted to find his room,” she said, laughing. “But that might be awkward.”

“You should ask him for an egg!” said her roommate from down the hall.

“Or a muffin pan. We need one of those,” Searfoss joked.

Though Searfoss was not able to attend the inauguration because she was volunteering to set up the picnic that was held afterward, she said all the student volunteers will have a pizza party with the president next month. She is excited to use that opportunity to speak with Pilarz and get to know him.

Outlining the Golden Vision

There are many things Pilarz hopes to do in his first few months at Marquette. One of his main goals is learning what daily student, faculty and staff life is like at Marquette.

“I’m looking forward to getting to know people and doing a lot of listening and learning,” Pilarz said. “There is no substitute for actually being here on the ground and establishing relationships and getting a better feel for the place. … This is a really thoughtful community, and people are engaged and aware of what is going on. One of the great things about Marquette is that everybody has a sense of ownership about it. I have not met anybody who is disinterested or disengaged.”

He is also excited for basketball season. Though he has been taking hits from some of his Georgetown friends, he laughed when asked which team he will support when the Hoyas and the Golden Eagles face off on the basketball court.

“I know where I live now,” he said.