Oct. 24, 2014 — Dr. Fred Pestello was still learning the names of faculty, staff and students at Saint Louis University after little more than three months on the job as the first lay president of the Jesuit school when hundreds of demonstrators marched onto campus around 2 a.m. Monday, Oct. 13 to protest the police killings that have made St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, front page news.
Students from dorms swelled the crowd to an estimated 1,500 but by morning the protesters dwindled to 25-30 who set up an encampment that lasted a week and became known as Occupy SLU.
"It was unexpected. It was a difficult week, but I am proud of how people rose to the challenge," Pestello said.
On Sunday, Oct. 12, the university hosted more than 1,800 people on campus at Chaifetz Arena for an evening of speeches and discussion about the issues and ongoing protests in St. Louis since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson on Aug. 9.
Later that night, demonstrators started south of campus in the Shaw neighborhood where an African-American youth was shot by a police officer on Oct. 8, then marched toward the university. Pestello was notified as they approached the main Saint Louis University campus. He had to decide whether to allow the protesters to enter the campus or try to stop them.
The protests were part of a city-wide day of protests that led to more than 50 people being arrested around St. Louis.
"It was clear in our decision-making that there may have been a violent confrontation if we would have tried to stop it," Pestello said. "We thought it better to allow the protesters to come onto campus."
The next morning the new president faced a decision about forcing the occupiers to leave. Pestello wanted to avoid violence and said that he preferred "to let it play out in terms of trying to understand the motivations behind the protest and engage in dialogue about the core issues over which the demonstrators were upset or concerned or distressed."
His restraint led to a process of peaceful dialogue between the protesters and the university community. Roughly 500 students and faculty, including Jesuits, sat with the demonstrators for several hours one evening talking about the issues. As the week went on, university leaders met with people within the university, with community representatives and with the demonstrators. By the end of the week, Pestello was meeting with a small group that included SLU students from the Black Student Alliance, protesters known as Tribe X and the Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity.
"What were the core concerns? They were issues of race, inequality, poverty, discrimination, violence," Pestello said. "So we started talking about what could we do? It was a respectful dialogue about things that Saint Louis University was doing, was planning to do, could do or do more of. We came to agreement around 13 points that we would work on, a combination of internal things and things in the community to help address these challenges."
Action points included internal measures such as increasing the university budget for the African American Studies program and increasing financial aid resources for African-American students. The university agreed to establish summer programs in the neighborhoods where the murders occurred to help increase the numbers of college-bound students from them. Pestello said he would hire an administrator to oversee diversity and community empowerment efforts at the Jesuit school.
On Oct. 18, Tribe X issued a statement that said, "It was after these discussions and seeing the earnest way that President Pestello engaged us that we decided to end the occupation."
In a letter to the university community, Pestello said that the initiatives spelled out in the agreement are "completely consistent with the mission of this university. They are just the start of what I had announced in my inaugural address: That this extraordinary university bring to bear its creative, intellectual and economic energy and help lead St. Louis to a better place."
Pestello pledged that the university would work in partnership with other educational institutions, community organizations and businesses that are making investments. He hopes that the university will play a significant part in the process.Not everyone was pleased with the new president's approach, but Jesuit Father Ron Mercier, provincial of the Central and Southern Province, wrote a letter of support, citing the September message from Jesuit Father General Adolfo Nicolás to all Jesuits saying that "reconciliation and bridge building represent contemporary ways of deepening our mission." Fr. Mercier continued, "I commend the SLU leadership who are responding to that pain in a way that Fr. Nicolás requests. SLU is helping bring alive in a tangible way the mission of the Society of Jesus to serve faith and promote justice for all."