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Coffee Break: Father von Arx

President of Fairfield University

Forget a BMW or a Mercedes, Fairfield University’s President, Father von Arx, rides in style. His vehicle of choice? A red golf cart that is often seen whizzing across campus, bringing the President from meeting to athletic game to exhibition opening. It’s all in a day’s work for the 8th President of Fairfield University. 

After graduating from Princeton University in 1969, von Arx entered the Society of Jesus that following summer and was ordained a priest in 1981. He went on to earn an M.A., M.Phil. in history and Ph.D from Yale University, taught History at Georgetown, and then went into administration at Fordham University in 1998. He was selected as President of Fairfield University in 2004.

I meet Father von Arx in his office, a magnificent 17th century-style room decorated with ornate furniture, piles of books, and framed artwork, originally part of the mansion built by the Lashar family in 1921. I sit across from him at his neatly organized wooden desk– no stacks of papers or coffee cups here– and listen as he tells of his busy schedule, his love of opera, and what it was like to house four college seniors after Hurricane Sandy.

Where did you grow up?
Across the Long Island Sound, along the north shore of Long Island in a small town called Locust Valley…opposite Greenwich and Rye, just on the other side of the Sound.

Do you have a childhood memory that stands out?
I used to be a lifeguard during my high school and college years. I would sit in the lifeguard chair where you could see Rye and then you could see Stamford. On a really clear day you could see the stacks of Bridgeport. So little did I know I’d end up here on this side of the Sound!

What was your favorite band when you were growing up?
I was a teenager in the 60’s (graduated from high school in 1965 and graduated from college in 1969) and so there was the Beatles, it was MoTown, it was all of the great 60’s music. I saw the Beatles in Shea Stadium in their first tour of the United States. My sister was a great Beatles fan and she wanted to go and see them so as big brother I had to take her.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I went to college I was interested in International Relations, I thought I might want to join the U.S. Foreign Service. Then I became more and more interested in history as a discipline and so I decided I would like to study and eventually teach history at the college and university level. During the last two years of college, I thought about a vocation to the religious life, to the priesthood, and to the Jesuits. One of the reasons I chose the Jesuits is because I was still interested in scholarly works, teaching at the college level, and the Jesuits did so much of that. They were the obvious choice.

Are you from a big family?
Small family, just me and my sister. My parents are still alive, living in Florida. My sister lives on Long Island, not far from where we grew up. I have one nephew.

How do you see the relationship between the University and the town of Fairfield?
Well, certainly one of the goals I set for myself when I arrived here was to increase the connections between the town and the University. So I’ve made it a point to interact with the city of Bridgeport, and with a number of Fairfield organizations…We’re really trying to be good neighbors and good citizens.

One of my goals is to be a center for arts and culture in the greater Fairfield county area. We want to increase our cultural presence and our cultural footprint.

What are your thoughts about the election of a Jesuit as pope? What does this mean for not only the Catholic church, but the world as a whole?
I think we have to see how the papacy develops. I think the initial indications are very positive. He’s a man of very simple tastes and a simple life. He has toned down some of the ceremonial aspects of things in the Vatican, which I think is good. Clearly he has a commitment to solidarity and to working for peace. There’s a lot that probably needs to be done in terms of reforming the administration of the church and that’s a longer-term challenge. Initial signs are good but he’s got his work cut out for him.

After Hurricane Sandy, Fairfield University asked residents, alumni, professors to house seniors who were displaced from their beach houses. Father von Arx lead the way with offering up his home on Round Hill Road to four male seniors.

Do you miss having the students in your home? What was that like for you?
Yeah sure, they were nice guys. When they left I missed having them around, but it was nice to get my house back! It was a good experience for us and we still keep in touch. They had me over for dinner at their beach house recently. They asked me if I had ever been to the Grape (a bar popular with the students located on Reef Road in the beach area). I had never been to the Grape, so after dinner we went. It was only 9:00pm so there was nobody there, but at least I’ve been in the place now!

If money were no object, what would be one thing you would like to see at Fairfield University?
We’ve got three important projects that are part of the comprehensive campaign. Probably the one that would be most significant and important to the students would be the renovation and expansion of the RecPlex (the University gym), that’s the biggest need we have on campus.

A second project that would impact students would be the renovation of Alumni Field to a stadium that would be used for soccer and lacrosse, in particular.

What’s one thing about you that would surprise people?
I’m not sure that people realize the amount of time I spend on the road for one reason or another, a lot of it is fundraising, but there’s a lot of University meetings and international meetings. I try to visit one of our study abroad sites every year. Last year I went to Africa to visit Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Australian sites­– two very long trips.

How would someone describe you?
Oh gosh, you should ask other people about that! I think I’m a fairly quiet, but in this job you really have to represent the University, so I’ve learned to be a spokesperson. I’ve had to learn the fundraising game and that’s not something I’ve ever done before.

What’s your favorite restaurant in Fairfield County?
There’s a bunch of them but I suppose I like 55 Wine Bar & Restaurant in Fairfield and certainly the new restaurant, the Artisan, in the Delamar Hotel in Southport. But it all depends, sometimes I just like to go to Luigi’s in Fairfield to have a plate of pasta. One thing that has really impressed me is the growth of the number of quality restaurants in Fairfield.

If you weren't President of the University what would you be doing?
I’d still be teaching. I’ve been a college teacher for more of my career than anything else, I taught history at Georgetown for 16 years. To leave full-time teaching for full-time administration was a big important career decision for me. While teaching, I specialized in Modern Britain and Ireland.

What do you do when you aren't fulfilling presidential duties?
I try as much as I can to take time out of my day for relaxation. I usually just go down to the beach to walk, to clear my head, to pray, to get away. I do enjoy traveleing, which is good because I end up doing so much of it. I certainly enjoy spending time with friends, particularly non-Fairfield friends such as former students of mine, collegeaues and good feinds. I enjoy my time with my Fairfield friends as well but its nice to get away from the job as well.

You’ve traveled to many places, what’s the most interesting place you’ve been?
Well, I’ve lived in Australia twice, once for a year and the second time for 6 months. I also enjoyed the times I've spent in Asia, which is just fascinating. I haven’t been to South America much, my first trip there was two years ago when I visited the program in Brazil. I've been in Europe a lot, either for research for my doctoral dissertation, to Rome with the Jesuits or to the study abroad program in Florence.

What’s your drink of choice?
I enjoy wine, especially red wine. I have about 100 bottles down at the house that generous folks and benefactors have given me. Sometimes I’ll have a scotch at night or a martini if it’s a special occasion.

What’s your most prized possession?
A watch my parents gave me for my graduation from college.

Do you follow any TV shows?
I love the Good Wife and Downton Abbey.

What do you think of the History Channel hit series “The Bible”?
I caught some of it, it looked ok. But I always find film presentations of the life of Christ somewhat inadequate.

What’s the last book you read?
It's about how the church became weathly at the end of the classical period by Peter Brown– an historian kind of book.

What’s one talent you wish you possessed?
I wish I could be an opera singer. I used to be a fairly good singer when I was younger, but as you get older the range of your voice diminishes.

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