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.
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SPU President Philip Eaton

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.

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.

In a phone interview, Martin said that he wants to carry on Eaton’s vision, and has modeled his own presidency in part after SPU’s service-oriented model. "Part of what drew me to expressing interest in the presidency of Seattle Pacific was in fact its mission, and that was perfectly in line with what I see a university can be and do in this world," Martin said.

That mission, of course, was crafted by Eaton.

When Eaton first came in 1996, he came to a tumultuous, troubled university which had experienced quick turnover in leadership. The president before Eaton resigned within a year due to disagreements with the Board of Trustees over leadership style, strategic direction, and philosophy of governance, according to SPU spokeswoman Tracy Norlen. The president before that was an interim who lasted just four years. Eaton not only stabilized the university, but grew it, and crafted a vision to give it meaning.

In an interview in his office — which, for those who have not been, is pristinely immaculate — Eaton explained that when he first arrived he launched a "grand conversation" with the board members, faculty, and students to try and discover what the university should be doing.

"We needed to be focused outwardly. We needed to care about the world," Eaton said he realized throughout the conversations. "This is what a university ought to do … giving (students) a vision that they can make a difference, that they can do something meaningful with their lives, with their talents, their skills."

From this conclusion, the pervasive catchphrase of SPU came into being: "Engage the Culture; Change the World." The phrase more or less litters the campus, on banners and posters, and in every publication the university produces. It is at times annoying, but also undeniably catchy, and before many students can make their first derisive joke of the corny motto, they have already, perhaps unwittingly, taken the words to heart.

The motto has manifested itself in more distinct ways throughout Eaton’s tenure, both in his own actions and in the university’s and students’ actions.

One example is the SPU's John Perkins Center, which was crafted in 2003 in a partnership between Eaton and Rev. John Perkins, a Mississippi-born African American leader in community development and reconciliation. The Center has been responsible for sending out waves of idealistic students to various causes throughout the city and beyond.

In the city, students volunteer with nonprofits like Union Gospel Mission, Mary's Place, and Neighborhood House, among other places, where they serve at homeless shelters, afterschool programs for at-risk youth, and tutor. Many students also participate in one-day service trips, called "Latreia," meaning adoration or reverence, where they take on a variety of menial tasks like packaging food and eliminating "invasive species" (i.e., blackberry bushes) in parks and along trails.

The Perkins Center also organizes short mission trips abroad to nine different countries, helping give students a more global perspective and inspiration to serve more. One student interviewed for The Falcon said she was "on fire for Christ" after she went on a trip to Indonesia. Take that phrase as you will, but there is little question she was moved to help people.

Perhaps a high point for SPU's community role, Eaton agreed to allow Tent City 3 to set up camp at Wallace Field this last winter. What followed was what many of the tent city residents described as their best experience being homeless. Students interacted with the residents, made art with them, provided hot meals nearly every day, and involved them in seminars on homelessness, where students learned and became more aware of poverty. Eaton described with marked joy how the surrounding community became involved, too, with volunteer lists at the nearby First Free Methodist Church overflowing. Essentially, the residents felt and were treated like real people.

The move of Tent City 3 to campus, like many other service projects, was organized and carried through by students. Now-alumnus Chris Kyle, along with other students, had created a proposal and presented it to Eaton's administration about two years ago. It took work and prodding, but in the end Eaton approved.

“What happens, I think, with our students is they catch this vision of engaging the culture and changing the world,” Eaton said. “And they know what it’s all about, and what they do then is really get active, make it practical … make it happen.”

In addition to inspiring students to participate in the larger community, Eaton has also participated on countless local boards and committees, organized annual business breakfasts — where key players come together to "lift up ideas" — and has penned several editorials for Seattle TimesPuget Sound Business Journal, and his own blog, Saturday Morning From My Study.

In his op-eds and articles, Eaton often takes a contemplative approach to such topics as leadership, character, and good manners. When he was interviewed earlier this month, Eaton said he had one last editorial sitting on his computer to submit before his presidency ends, given that he's not too busy to get around to it. However, he does not plan to stop writing anytime soon, he said, and has three book ideas "rumbling around" in his head.

Eaton published his first book last year, Engaging the Culture, Changing the World: The Christian University in a Post-Christian World.

For his part, Martin has also engaged the community during his time at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, participating on several boards and strongly encouraging helping the needy. Last winter, at Martin's challenge, the university  raised enough money to feed 1,010 families for the "Food for the Hungry" drive, translating into about $5,000 and 29 truckloads of food — about double the number from the year before.

Furthermore, Martin said he is excited about expanding Eaton's service model, rather than coming in with an entirely new one, a point that many on the SPU presidential search committee expressed gratitude for.

As far as social issues go, it’s hard to say if Martin will bring in a more open perspective.

Like SPU, Mount Vernon has students sign a lifestyle contract, though the latter’s seems a tad more dated. Drinking, smoking, sexual misconduct, and even dancing are all still completely banned.

In a phone interview, outgoing Mount Vernon Student Government Association President Jameson Seymour said that while students sometimes started dancing (in the “choreographed movement area” he joked), it was not technically allowed.

Seymour also said that the lifestyle restrictions, which resulted in harsh consequences before he helped soften the zero-tolerance rules, were part of an ongoing conversation at Mount Vernon and other Nazarene universities.

At SPU, the alcohol policy was loosened just last year to allow students to drink off campus. Likewise, it was not until recent years that both dancing and off-campus smoking were tolerated.

Homosexuality became a hot topic at SPU last year when an unofficial student LGBTQ club, Haven, was running into troubles with the administration, being told they could not reserve a space on campus to meet in because they were not officially "recognized" by the university.

Administration was unwilling for the most part to budge from its position throughout negotiations, citing the lifestyle contract (in which sexuality is a murky subject), until a flooding of supportive phone calls, letters, and petitions for Haven came through students, alumni, faculty, and the rabid legion of Slog commenters unleashed by The Stranger. Eventually, administration buckled under the pressure and allowed Haven to meet, and eventually even granted them club status.

Homosexuality has also become a topic of conversation at Nazarene universities in recent years, Seymour said, with student leadership coming out as gay or lesbian, though universities have done little to accommodate or engage with any hidden LGBTQ population so far. 

With the selection of Martin, former Haven co-leader Caleb Richmond wondered aloud on Facebook, “It will be interesting to see what this will mean for SPU Haven considering that his current institution has a similar stance on homosexuality.”

The Nazarene denomination does not accept homosexuality and has language detailing it as a "perversion" of God's created order. Though SPU's Free Methodist background has similar language, the school represents over 50 denominations, with many students considering themselves "non-denominational." Opinions are diverse on campus, and students on either end often engage in heated debates about the subject.

One should not expect anything revolutionary from Dr. Martin on social issues, judging from both his Nazarene background, which preaches strict modesty, and his time at Mount Vernon, where little change on these issues has been made. During his six years at the Ohio school, the only barrier he broke, sort of, was dancing — which he himself likes to participate in — and even though it has become more acceptable, it is still technically not allowed.

In a conversation on the phone, Mount Vernon provost and soon interim president Dr. Henry Spaulding seemed to hint that Martin did not have a "narrow definition" of student life activities and was not fundamentalist in nature. Martin himself declined to comment, saying that he did not want to make statements on the issue now but he would be willing to speak more on the subject after July 1, when he officially starts the new position.

One continuing question for the university is how others in the Seattle area will come to view SPU under a new leadership. While speaking of his time at Mount Vernon, Martin noted that as president, "You really personify the institution in a lot of different ways, and you become one and the same in a lot of different ways."

Indeed, throughout Eaton's tenure, SPU has grown to share his quiet but idealistic nature, managing to effect positive change while ocassionaly being scoffed at for maintaining traditional Christian values. Martin, while he wishes to adopt the same vision, is a much more outgoing, energetic man, and so in turn Seattle might  begin to see what has been an otherwise hidden university flourish into something like it’s new leader—more extroverted, and more visible.


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