by Kaitlyn Halper
Photos by Scott Peet
This summer Hilbert said farewell to its president of 12 years, Cynthia Zane.
The following day Father Michael Sajda stepped in as interim president for the school as the Board of Trustees continues to search for a permeant replacement. Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Father Michael. He was quick to introduce himself while shaking my hand and was kind throughout the interview. Father Michael, who grew up in Tonawanda, enjoys playing golf in his free time. He is proud of the many communities he belongs to. He has a huge pride in Buffalo and Hilbert that is evident in the way he speaks. Jeff Papia, the director of campus ministry, offered praise for the interim president, saying, “We are grateful to Father Michael for his willingness to serve our community and support its Catholic, Franciscan mission.”
Below is an edited transcript of the Scribe’s conversation with Father Michael.
The Scribe: What are your interests?
Father Michael: Certainly education, sports. I have coached a lot of things in my life as a friar. I’ve coached high school basketball for women. I have coached high school soccer for women.
TS: What is your favorite sports team?
FM: Well its gotta be the Buffalo Bills, unfortunately. I lived in Baltimore for a while. I lived in Florida for a while. But it’s always listening to the Bills, watching the Bills, being disappointed like every other fan in the world. And it’s hard because I am also the president of St. Francis High School so I’m serving a dual role now. And the present Offensive Coordinator for the Bills is a St. Francis High School graduate, so I kind of commiserate with him on his loss. But its only one game and it’s the beginning of the season. No one likes to lose. Everyone wants to win, but sometimes you just have to work harder. I would put a push for Hilbert Students to maybe participate in supporting the teams, but also participate by trying out for a few teams. Walked around campus, drove around campus a little bit. Watched a little of the men’s soccer practices, they could use a few bodies. Hilbert golf team could use a few bodies. Women’s soccer team could use a few people. I think they got twelve, maybe thirteen and that’s tough to run a soccer team on. Might be a few budding athletes that may want to help. Hilbert’s always been known for its women’s basketball team. Certainly, this year is exciting after the success of last season. I think baseball has always done well here. Hilbert is vital for the Southtowns.
TS: What are the most important things to you?
FM: Faith, being a Franciscan Friar. Treating people with humanity, respect, dignity. I see the world a little differently, I see everything as God’s gift. And I guess fortunate to be involved in the lives of many young people that need guidance, role models as we move into the future and I am happy to be a part of that. I served on Hilbert’s Board of Trustees for the past twelve years and I have been able to learn a lot from my predecessors, Cynthia Zane and Sister Edmunette (Paczesny).
TS: How did you become a priest? Why did it interest you?
FM: Probably because of the friars that taught me in high school. I am a graduate of Cardinal O’Hara in Tonawanda, but I guess my Franciscan story goes way back. My mother grew up on the East Side of Buffalo and was a part of Corpus Christi Church in her youth, so she knew the friars. When the friars came out to Tonawanda to take over the school my sister was older than me, she was the first one to go. The rest of us, we had to go. There was no questions about it. But certainly, they impacted my life because I became a friar and I am very proud of that.
TS: You are on Hilbert’s Board of Trustees. how did you get involved with Hilbert College?
FM: I first came on as President Zane became the first lay president of Hilbert College. We met and we talked. Certainly, she was a non-Catholic and very much worried to keep the presence of Catholic and Franciscan values in the school. She said would you be able to serve on the Board of Trustees and I said sure. It’s a good opportunity for me to get involved in the community.
TS: What did the process to name you as interim president include?
FM: Well the Board of Trustees, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, basically got the idea and said yes. The idea was proposed by the Administrate Council of Hilbert College, which is the Vice Presidents. And since it was going to be a brief interim, it made sense. It did not make sense to bring in someone who did not know about Hilbert. They suggested that it made more sense I had been around for twelve years, I know the situation. I had known of Hilbert, I know the values, what people are trying to accomplish. So they presented the idea. I thought about it, had permission from my superiors to do that. I am balanced between Hilbert and St. Francis High School, so it works for now. As I say, you can do anything for three months.
TS: Even though you’re here for only a short time, what are your plans for the semester?
FM: There is a couple projects that are up and coming with the forensic biology lab and I would like to make that a priority, make the funding available so that we can move forward with that program. I think it would be a great assist to Hilbert College and a compliment to the criminal justice, to cyber security. The lab has to be updated and functional for forensic science.
TS: How are you fitting in on campus? What are your thoughts about Hilbert now that you’re here?
FM: I’m trying to walk around, visit a few offices just so they can see there is a Franciscan friar on campus and recognize “oh maybe that guy is the president.” I’m trying to become known and visit the various staff members. I’ve met some of the student ambassadors. Try to be present for as many functions as I can. Just trying to help and work with the Administrative Council, and the Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate to push Hilbert on and in the right directions. And basically making sure things are ready for the new president.
TS: I’ve heard complaints about poor sports fields and equipment, what are your thoughts about that? Do you have involvement with that?
FM: Presently I am not involved, but certainly I would probably agree in the sense of if we can get decent facilities, it’s just gonna help the programs. And certainly, it is something for Hilbert to work on. I know there have been some conversations in the past. Unfortunately, things don’t happen overnight. And to do a new sport complex, well you gotta see where your priorities are and right now mainly because Hilbert serves first generation college students, tuition assistance, scholarships is probably more important than an artificial turf field. But we keep on working. Every institution has to have a dream and the dreams are to expand and to make those things available.
TS: Going forward, what are the board’s plans to name the permanent replacement? What are they looking for in a person?
FM: Well as the interim president I am not involved in that search. There is a separate search committee. That search committee has worked with a consultant on a national search for a president for Hilbert College. It’s a large endeavor because there are applications, resumes, profiles, etc. Then there is interviews, so from larger pool to a smaller pool to seven or eight semifinalists to a finalist list and they will be interview on campus by I believe the Faculty Senate, administrative council to see if there is a blend, a mix. That will be presented to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees who will then make a recommendation to the full Board of Trustees to hire the fourth president of Hilbert College.