The priest graduated from the university in 1989, during the tenure of its well-known and charismatic fourth president, Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR, who is largely credited with sparking a turnaround in the faith and culture of the university, which was nearly closed when Scanlan took the helm in 1974. Pivonka joined the Franciscans, Third Order Regular, the religious order that oversees the university, and later worked closely with Scanlan in the university's administration.
The university's trustees unanimously elected Pivonka president on May 21.
The priest acknowledged that Scanlan, who died in 2017, has recently faced allegations of improper conduct during his term of leadership at the university.
Scanlan is alleged to have enabled and covered-up sexual misconduct on the part of another popular Franciscan friar on the campus. While Pivonka said he had not seen direct evidence supporting the claims made against Scanlan, he told CNA that he is sorry that anyone might have been harmed by failures on Scanlan's part to respond properly in the face of allegations, and that the allegations - and his responsibility to address them- have been the subject of his prayer.
Pivonka said that as president of the university, he is committed to transparency in leadership, and to facing the past directly.
"We want to make sure that if there's anybody who's been a victim of any abuse or anything that was inappropriate, that we want to make sure that they're cared for and that they're heard and that they're seen, and taken care of whatever circumstances, whoever was responsible for that to make sure that justice is brought about and healing is brought about," he told CNA.
He emphasized the efforts made by the university in recent years, especially under the leadership of Fr. Sean Sheridan, his predecessor as president, to address accountability and assure a safe environment at the university.
Pivonka also emphasized the university's commitment to forming students, to "household" faith communities, to academic freedom, and to "dynamic orthodoxy," a phrase long associated with Franciscan, but attributed to the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York.
"I think that when one experiences the beauty and grandeur and the glory of orthodoxy in right practice and right living, then orthodoxy is life-giving."
"There is a need for an animated orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that's alive, that's fresh, that's engaging. That's really where we see orthodoxy here at the university," Pivonka added.
Pivonka will be inaugurated as the university's president Oct. 4, on the feast of St. Francis. He told CNA that as a leader, he hopes to be an instrument of conversion.
"My prayer is that people will experience conversion. That's continually my prayer in the work that I'm doing at the university," Pivonka said.
Calling a Catholic university a "faith community," Pivonka said that "a faith community needs a pastor. It needs a shepherd, it needs a teacher. I really see my role in the university as that - it's a priest and a shepherd."
As a shepherd, he said he hopes that after they graduate, students of Franciscan University are "engaged in their professions. That they're outstanding doctors and lawyers and engineers and nurses and teachers and catechists and priests. That they are profoundly competent in their field. That they are influencing the people that they work with, to witness to them, to live the goodness of God's love for them."
"That they see the beauty of the Church, are engaged in the life of the Church, participating in their parishes, as lectors and youth ministers and Eucharistic ministers and works of mercy. That they are holy moms and dads that love their kids, that they are raising saints. That they live with hope and joy, purpose."
He added that he hopes the university he leads will exercise a prophetic mission in the world.
God has placed on his heart, he told CNA, that "the Lord wants to do more, to use the university as a prophetic voice to a culture, to a Church, about what is possible. About hope that the situations in which we find ourselves are not the end of the story. About faithfulness."
Ultimately, Pivonka said, he'll measure his success by the holiness of his students.
"I told the students at the opening school year Mass that my goal and my desire is that each one of them hear the Lord say to them, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into joy today.' So, big picture success is that each of the students and everyone associated with the university ultimately inherits the Kingdom of God."
J.D.Flynn served as Catholic News Agency's editor-in-chief from August 2017 to December 2020.