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Seattle Pacific University: An emerging community role

In 17 years, the now-retiring president has built a culture of community service while growing enrollment to a record level. His successor looks like someone who might make SPU's work more widely felt.
Dr. Daniel Martin, SPU's incoming president

Dr. Daniel Martin, SPU's incoming president Courtesy of Seattle Pacific University

SPU President Philip Eaton

SPU President Philip Eaton Courtesy of Seattle Pacific University, Luke Rutan

The author is a recent graduate of Seattle Pacific University.

Zen question: If a university president retires and a new one comes in, and no one is around to see it, does it still happen?

Well, yes, but in reading Seattle media, you might have missed the news: Seattle Pacific University’s long-standing president Dr. Philip Eaton, 69, is retiring this year, and a newcomer, Dr. Daniel Martin, 45, from Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio is taking his place starting July 1. But other than a short regurgitation of press releases and a brief ode in The Seattle Times  to a minor sidelight of Eaton’s tenure, annual business breakfasts, little ink was spilled to talk about the first change at the top of the university since the mid-1990s.

The lack of coverage was especially striking in comparison to the attention given the much larger University of Washington’s selection last year of President Michael Young, who became the sixth person to head the school in the same period that Eaton has guided Seattle Pacific. Meanwhile, Martin will be the 10th president in SPU's 120-year history.

Indeed for many in the Seattle area, the name Philip Eaton might not ring a bell. And SPU, which is quietly tucked away on the north slope of Queen Anne, is usually only associated with that one article last year on the cover of the Stranger about college students having sex (insert sarcastic “Gasp!”).

Nonetheless, as Eaton takes his leave of the university, there are a couple of questions left to ask Martin: Will he continue to expand the vision of community service and involvement that Eaton ushered in? And will he have any influence on hot button social issues, which have often been a sticking point of SPU for the larger, more liberal Seattle community?

As invisible as the university can usually be in the larger community, Eaton has not only significantly developed the campus and brought enrollment to record levels, but he has helped SPU make its presence known to the poor and the needy, befitting of a Christian university.

Martin definitely demonstrates energy and enthusiasm. He’s relatively young (45 when selected last month), an extrovert, talks fast, is involved with students, cares about building relationships, and perhaps most impressively he has a clear vision of what he wants to do in his life: be a president at a Christian university — a goal Martin said he’s had in mind ever since he was 20. He himself noted in an interview how crazy that sounds.

A look at his Vita reveals how singular and persistent his focus has been: a Bachelor’s and Master’s in business administration, a Juris Doctorate, and not one, but two higher education-focused doctorates — one from University of Kansas and one from the elite University of Pennsylvania. 

He also has fundraising cred, a crucial part of being a university president. In addition to being the vice president of Advancement at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, where he saw decent success, he has also been responsible for developing the Mount Vernon Nazarene University campus and receiving the largest single gift donation in the university's history, $10 million.

Those interviewed from both SPU and Mount Vernon Nazarene University expressed enthusiasm for Martin. After candidates had been narrowed down and the semi-finalists interviewed, Martin came out handily as the number one choice, according to sources on the search committee. The search committee made a unanimous decision to recommend him, and the Board of Trustees unanimously elected him. Unlike other searches, such as the one conducted at UW last year, or the one recently conducted at Seattle Public Schools, there didn't seem to be a speck of doubt as to whether Martin had the talent and preparation for the position.

Among faculty, who have at times conflicted with Eaton’s administration, Faculty Chair Denise Daniels said that there was a quiet optimism.


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