Dr. David Sylvester addresses guests at his installation Oct. 4. Photo by Michael Swan

University's new president ponders what's next for St. Michael's College

  • October 17, 2018

David Sylvester was installed as the new president of the University of St. Michael’s College on Oct. 4 at St. Basil’s Church in Toronto. Here is an edited transcript of his speech that day, reflecting on the importance of the school and of Catholic education:

When I walk this beautiful, historic campus, I can’t help but feel the presence of those who came before us ... those women and men who imagined and forged this remarkable community.

St. Michael’s has been blessed for over a century and a half by women and men whose vision, creativity, intellectual fortitude, and sacrifice built a community of faith and learning that has made a difference to the University of Toronto, to this city, and to this country. To them, I publicly express on behalf of all of us gathered here today and those who have been impacted by their work, our deepest expression of thanks.

But, as everyone in this room knows, with these great blessings come great responsibility and even greater expectations. I was reminded of this in a rather stark way on Sunday. I was sitting alone behind the Elmsley pillar just over there at the 4:30 p.m. Mass minding my own business, when I was roused out of my contemplation by the reader of the prayers of the faithful, who invited the congregation to “pray for Dr. David Sylvester as he takes up his presidency.” I learned after Mass that the Parish had been praying for me all week. Thank you Fr. Morgan ... much appreciated. Embedded, of course, in the kind, prayerful expression of support was the very clear message, “and we expect you to do a good job and get it right!”

Walking home, I couldn’t help but ask myself ... and we can’t help but ask ourselves today: “How will we keep faith with the contributions of those who have gone before us? How will we honour, cultivate, and build upon their work? Do we have the necessary imagination, commitment, and resources to respond to the challenges of our day, and do we possess the courage to honour this remarkable living legacy? What will be the fruits of our labours, and what will St. Michael’s look like not only five years from now, but at our bi-centennial and beyond.

To my mind, and in all honesty, St. Michael’s is at a crucial crossroads. This community has changed in important ways over the last decades, and today faces new and evolving challenges, from within and from without. Some are organizational and apply to most Canadian universities: like the mundane but perennial question, how to keep lights on, Or, is the traditional western model of higher education still viable? Is a physical campus and a library with actual books and classrooms even relevant or sustainable in our increasingly digital and global world? Some are more immediate and speak to what programs and pedagogy we offer and need to build in a world that increasingly devalues informed and evidence-based decision making, trumpets fake news, and attacks the very domestic and international institutions of civil society built upon a respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the human person. And some challenges are particular to the role of the Catholic university given the painful reality that the Church itself faces pressures from without and many self-inflicted internal crises, and often stumbles in its responsibilities to address crucially-important issues like the role of women, the need to reconcile with Indigenous peoples, and clericalism and sexual abuse?

These are but a few of the challenges that this Catholic university must take up and, in fact, they provide the very opportunity for a renewal of the mission of St. Michael’s.
The time is right for this community to come together to reflect deeply upon who we are, to examine in what ways are we still fulfilling our original mission and whether we are relevant to the needs of our students, our society and the Church. Only then can we determine how to move forward together. This undertaking requires a recommitment to our historical strengths: the uncompromising search for the truth in all things; the pursuit of excellence in our teaching and research; the nurturing of a campus that is marked by diversity, inclusiveness and justice; the courage to listen to and serve the marginalized and voiceless; and the honesty required to recognized when we must change.

To my mind, the need for what St. Michael’s offers its students, the University of Toronto, Society and the Church has never been more pressing:

• A student-centred community dedicated to the development of the whole person and one that calls all members to seek justice in their work, in their lives, and in the world in which we live;

• An interdisciplinary humanistic curriculum valuing the dignity of all creation that seeks to integrate knowledge and disrupt established ways of thinking;

•   A graduate faculty of theology within a world-class centre of ecumenical research and teaching that can take up the difficult questions of our day, including intercultural and interfaith dialogue;

• A long history of working with community partners, new Canadians, and marginalized peoples ... just to point to a few characteristics of this place.

Not to put too fine a point on this undertaking, but I did not come to St. Michael’s, nor do I accept the mantle of this prestigious office as President today, in order to lead what was Canada’s greatest institution of Catholic higher learning. I am here before you because I believe that St. Michael’s best days are still to come. Forging a new path will not be easy, but I am confident that we have the people, the tools, and the mandate to tackle the very questions that challenge our society. But, as did Charbonnel and the Basilians, we also need your help and your support as we reimagine a new reality for St. Michael’s.

Your Eminence, Chancellor Collins, President Gertler, Fr. Storey, colleagues, alumni and friends, St. Michael’s recommits to working with you and to honouring in gratitude those who have brought us to this place. And, as we begin today this new chapter in the life of this university, we commit ourselves to exploring with confidence and courage new ways of fulfilling our mission of higher education in the service of truth and the common good.

Or, as Fr. Don McLeod, CSB, put it much more eloquently in his homily yesterday on Luke’s Gospel: “No one who takes up the plow should look back.” We’ve spent a bit of time today looking backwards, but now I invite you all to joining me, the faculty, staff, students, and trustees of St. Michael’s as we put our hands on the plow. As we look forward — the fields in which we toil are rich and fertile, and the fruits of our labours together will be a most abundant harvest.

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