Sebastián Royo arrived in the United States in 1991 to pursue an MBA at Boston University, and expected to return to his home in Madrid, Spain, after two years. But life had other plans.
Thirty years later, following a distinguished career in academia as a professor and researcher of political science, and most recently as the vice president of international affairs at Suffolk University, Royo has accepted the position as provost of Clark University, succeeding Davis Baird, who retires on June 30. You can read President David Fithian’s announcement of Royo’s appointment here.
We caught up with Sebastián Royo to learn more about his work at Suffolk, his admiration for Clark, and his appreciation for university employees working on the frontlines during the pandemic.
What was it that excited you about the provost’s position at Clark University?
First and foremost, it was the students. I have seen from a distance the amazing work that Clark does with its students — their commitment to service and to the community locally and globally stands out. These values are part of my DNA.
I love Clark’s motto: “Challenge Convention. Change our World,” and cannot imagine a mission that is more relevant to today’s world. We need students who are ready to change the world and address the myriad structural problems that our communities and our countries face.
I have also been impressed with Clark’s record of innovation. We are at a crossroads in higher education, and the solution to the challenges that universities face may not be the same as they were in the past. The education landscape is changing dramatically, so where we are today may not be what gets us through the next phase. It is imperative that we innovate and assume reasonable risks. President Fithian’s “culture of possibility” is opening doors to exciting opportunities that I want to be part of.
You’ve expressed a deep appreciation for the “transformative power of a liberal arts education,” something you’ve noted was lacking in your experience in Madrid. How do you see a strong liberal arts education benefiting a student entering the 21st-century economy?
In law school in Spain I took only law courses for five years and did not have a single elective. I hated it. I would describe the experience as “how not to learn.”
Yes, I am a firm believer in the transformative power of a liberal arts education rooted in experiential and active learning because it is the best way to prepare our students for success in their professional careers and personal lives. It allows for exploration and experimentation, which are crucial in students’ personal and academic growth. When we are 17 or 18 years old, many of us do not know what we want to study. A liberal arts model allows students the room to discover their passions.
A liberal arts education also provides the crucial skills to succeed in today’s labor market: critical thinking, writing and oral communication skills, and creativity, as well as the soft skills that are necessary to succeed in the era of robotics and artificial intelligence. Employers do not care so much about specific majors; they are looking for those skills that will allow our students to create and to discover.
Finally, the key challenges that humanity faces — like global warming, the rise of populism and authoritarianism, inequity and racism — are multidisciplinary problems that require multidisciplinary solutions. A liberal arts education provides that.
Can you tell us about your journey from Madrid to the U.S., and to Boston University in particular? What were the factors that contributed to your decision to study and work in the United States?
I came to the United States to do an MBA as a two-year project. My twin brother was studying at Harvard and that is why I wanted to study in Boston. My wife and I fell in love with Boston and the U.S. We won the State Department Green Card lottery and decided to stay for a few years — it has been almost 30 years now.
As a political scientist, I am most interested in the political system and the political history of the U.S., especially since I grew up in a dictatorship in Spain. I love the diversity, the work ethic, and the opportunities here, and I still admire the promise of this country, despite the shortcomings and challenges. I do realize there are many things I had taken for granted, like the European model for health care and education … and, I must confess, I miss Spanish food and the much milder winter weather!
You’ve led the COVID response effort at Suffolk, which you cited as “unquestionably the hardest challenge in my professional career.” What has this experience meant to you? Were there lessons to be learned from it?
It has been an extraordinary experience, a huge collective effort with incredible teamwork. I have been amazed by the solidarity, the commitment to protect the community, and the support for one other. And I’ve learned that nothing is simple, that things can change on a dime, and that that you need to plan carefully but that it is crucial to be flexible and adaptable.
One thing COVID has exposed is the inequities in our universities, and throughout society, that need addressing. For instance, not everyone had the choice to work from home — janitors, food service workers, first responders. They were the most vulnerable among us, and put themselves at risk every day to come into work — we cannot remain blind to this. For a few days after the holiday breaks I volunteered to deliver meals to students in quarantine in residence halls, which gave me a small window into what our essential workers were doing every day. Their commitment to our students, day in and day out, was remarkable and needs to be recognized.
Diversity, access, and inclusion have been an emphasis in your time at Suffolk. Can you speak to some of the ways in which you have made them a priority?
I’ve strived to make Suffolk a more diverse and equitable community in a range of ways, through student recruitment; developing and implement programs to retain students of color and ensure their success; and placing an emphasis on issues surrounding financial aid and scholarships, academic success, mentoring, and engagement to address the needs and concerns of our students.
We’ve worked to ensure that our faculty and staff reflect the makeup of our classrooms through faculty hiring training programs and a minority scholar pipeline program. I’m also proud of my involvement with the Success Boston initiative, and the development of a dual enrollment program that opens Suffolk’s doors to students from the Boston public schools.
You have deep experience as a teacher, researcher, and administrator. What have you enjoyed most about each of these roles?
There is nothing that I enjoy more than being in a classroom or participating in activities with students where we learn from each other. The energy is extraordinary, especially when we’re learning together. As a researcher, I also welcome the opportunity to learn from others, to contribute to the generation of knowledge, and to help solve problems.
As an administrator, my goal is simple: try to make things better. Power and titles do not mean much to me personally, they are just instruments to help — to work collaboratively and get things done. Sometimes, that can mean helping someone grow professionally to meet their career goals.
What are your passions outside of work?
I have a wonderful family. My wife is also Spanish (but with a much better accent!), and I have three daughters, ages 24, 21, and 14, who are as American as apple pie.
As far as hobbies, I love to hike and read, and I enjoy traveling and learning about other countries, their people, and cultures. I own a Harley that I ride in the mountains and around the lakes of New Hampshire, where we own a condo. I’m also a long-distance runner, and have run the New York City Marathon. At some point, you will see me running around campus.