aerial view of President Porterfield giving her inaugural address in the First Free Methodist Church.

Dr. Deana L. Porterfield was inaugurated as Seattle Pacific University's 12th president, and the University's first female president, on Feb. 23, 2024. Her inaugural address was delivered at the First Free Methodist in Seattle, Washington.

(You can watch the inauguration ceremony here.)

Imagine an emerging city full of innovation and struggling to make sense of cultural change.

Picture an open landscape of rolling hills and the beautiful waterways weaving through them.

Feel the tension of diverse communities intertwining, protecting, and encroaching.

Think about the optimism bubbling up in a new city full of possibility.

Imagine talented individuals with differing gifts from near and far, being drawn to each other to dream about new educational opportunities for the next generation.

This is the setting in which Seattle Pacific University was founded in 1891.

Twenty-five years earlier, the Rev. BT and Ellen Roberts imagined a liberal arts education grounded in Christian faith, and in partnership with the newly founded Free Methodist Church. Together they launched what would become Free Methodist seminaries, colleges, and universities across the country.

In his book Populist Saints, historian Howard Snyder speaks of the original vision for Free Methodist educational institutions, as intended by BT and Ellen and their colleagues. They were to be anchored in faith but not Bible colleges. They were to be liberal arts institutions, with the goal of educating students who “would live out their faith in the world” (p.611).

That vision took hold, and in 1891 five key founders came together with their strengths and resources to launch and lead what is today Seattle Pacific University. These founders brought with them strong business skills, entrepreneurial spirits, passion for world missions, love for the humanities, and previous presidential leadership (Snyder, Rooted in Mission, page 37).

In his book Rooted in Mission: The Founding of Seattle Pacific University 1891-1916, Snyder notes seven things that stood out in the founding of Seattle Pacific:

  1. An explicit Christian commitment
  2. A focus on the Liberal Arts
  3. Personal interest in students
  4. Long faculty tenure
  5. A sense of community
  6. Stress on character development with an ethos of service
  7. A missionary taproot — a vision for global Christian mission

These seven areas can be seen throughout our 133-year history, and they are evident across our campus today.

The rich history and vibrant legacy of Seattle Pacific is a credit to those who have preceded us. We stand here today on the shoulders of those who founded the institution and the faculty, staff, and students who have populated our 133-year history.

Today, we have represented next to me, 36 years of presidential leadership at SPU — years of innovating and moving this university forward. (I also acknowledge the three living presidents unable to be with us today.) Together these Presidents total 56 years of SPU leadership and history.

There are no words to convey my deep respect and admiration for each of you, your spouses, and your families. The seasons of SPU are marked by your leadership, vision, and commitment to our mission. You have shaped who we are today. Thank you.

I am humbled looking across this room and seeing so many old and new friends. Thank you to each of you for making time to be here. I know you have busy schedules and having you here is an encouragement to our SPU community and to me.

To the faculty and staff of SPU who carry out our mission with passion and conviction: Thank you for being here and for welcoming me into this community.

To each president, delegate, and special guest, thank you for modeling a generosity of friendship to our community.

To our faculty emeriti, former staff, alumni, and friends who continue to support the work of SPU — thank you!

And to our students — the heartbeat of who we are. You are why we are here. Thank you for being here during a busy time in the quarter.

Thank you to the board of trustees, past and present, for stewarding the mission of SPU. So many years have passed since our founding, yet we remain a Christian University “fully committed to engaging the culture and changing the world by graduating people of competence and character, becoming people of wisdom, and modeling grace-filled community.”

Thank you to Dr. Jeff Jordan, Dr. Brian Lugioyo, Ruth Jacobsen, and the Inauguration Committee for your work in preparing for today. Thank you to the First Free Methodist Church Team and each campus office who created a welcoming space for all.

Finally, to my family and dear friends who took time to travel from across the country to be here. Your presence is a gift. To our children and grandchildren — who, by the way, are calling this a coronation — thank you for your unconditional love and patience as we follow God’s call. And to my husband, Doug, who stands with me each day and models a deep trust in where God has called us to serve together: I wouldn’t want to be on this journey with anyone else.

As I thought about my comments for this morning, I have been reminded time and again of the tension of an internal community in need of healing, and an external community watching to see who we are and what we will become. That tension is an interesting backdrop for an inauguration, right?

But today is about recognizing who we are and looking ahead to where we will go. It’s about showcasing our students and campus – celebrating the best gifts of this institution. And it’s about proclaiming God’s faithfulness for 133 years. My prayer is for each of you to leave with a deep sense of God’s moving on this campus and a rekindled hope for the future of SPU.

Seattle Pacific is an example of what can be done through people responding to the call to advance the work of God in the world. Each faculty, staff, and student who walks this campus embodies a piece of our community, and when they leave, they leave part of themselves, which continues to shape and mold who we are.

And who are we? One of the leading Liberal Arts Universities in the Country (US News, 2023) with over 2,000 students, both undergraduate and graduate. A world-renowned faculty with more accolades than I have time to list. The only NCAA Division II athletic program in Seattle. And a family of alumni leading and serving around the world; carrying the mission and spirit of SPU with them in fulfilling their calling to make a difference in their communities.

In just a few short months since my arrival, I have learned that SPU is more than a list of recognitions; it is about people. There is not enough time to share all the stories, but I will forever remember some very specific moments:

  • My first new student orientation where a table of students in Gwinn Dining Commons stopped me and asked what concerns I had and then asked to pray for me.
  • The joy and laughter at Hillford House (the President’s Home) when over 130 faculty and staff came together for a Christmas mingle.
  • Support when our campus needed encouragement through unexpected financial gifts, cards, texts, emails, and prayers.

We are blessed, and I have been blessed, with people willing to bring their gifts and knowledge to our community. From our very beginnings, it was not one individual who launched our work. It was a group of men and one woman who, by bringing their own resources — land, financial stability, administrative skills, and a vision for Christian Education in Seattle — set us on an upward trajectory with the understanding that going forward together would bring the most rewarding work.

These individuals also understood their faith was the common fabric and prayer was the thread that would hold it all together.

Today we share in creating the next season of great opportunity for Seattle Pacific University, bringing our own unique strengths and resources, and adding substance to the future story that will be told. Going forward involves each of you — faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends, with faith our common fabric and prayer the essential thread.

What will that look like in our everyday work? The SPU mission statement claims our position as a Christian university, committed to graduating students of competence and character, becoming people of wisdom, who model a grace-filled community.

This mission propels us forward and will shape the strategic focus of SPU. Working together, five commitments will provide an opportunity to find fresh expressions of our heritage and new creativity — combining our gifts, talents, and resources, just as our founders did, to position SPU as a destination for vibrant learning and character education that serves Seattle and the world.

An SPU education will be known for our distinct call, comprehensive growth, embracing of a diverse and global world, character development, and our call to serve.

Let me share how these five commitments that will shape our work:

1. Together we will celebrate our distinct calling as a Christian university in Seattle as we find ways to live out this calling for a new generation. The institutional identity of Seattle Pacific University is grounded in our mission and faith commitments as a Christian university. We are in a covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church, which, simply explained, means we anchor our theological interpretation in the theology of the Church. That anchor frees us up to explore, engage, and serve in the world without reservation.

As a Christian university, we recognize that at times we will be misunderstood, but we commit to engaging in conversations with generosity, grace, humility, and the love of Christ.

Can you imagine how this clarity of faith, coupled with the beautiful city of Seattle, would position SPU to be a destination of hope for students wanting to expand their knowledge, explore and strengthen their faith, and engage in service with others?

2. We will commit to comprehensive growth that invites new students and new partners to join this community and mission. Comprehensive growth is both the reshaping of our offerings and expansion into new opportunities.

Our faculty and liberal arts focus have been recognized nationally, providing direct research and internship opportunities for our students, and providing resources and innovative thinking beyond our campus. There is a need for education beyond the traditional structures, with over 40 million students with some college or credential, increasing since the pandemic. (2021,https://nscresearchcenter.org/some-college-no-credential/).

Using our strong liberal arts foundation, we will expand programs and create educational pathways that support opportunities for adult learners and those with some college, through non-traditional opportunities and delivery models.

Can you imagine how, using our holistic educational model, we could extend our reach with excellence?

3. We will embrace a diverse and global world (access for the next generation) as we create a community that serves all people, modeling the beauty and diversity of life in God’s kingdom. We are blessed to have a beautifully diverse student body. SPU is one of the more ethnically diverse campuses in Washington State (https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/wa-public-colleges-match-private-schools-on-diversity-despite-affirmative-action-restriction/).

Our students also bring with them a rich heritage and deep commitment to moving communities forward with 40% of our students identifying as first-generation. This commitment goes beyond demographic changes.  It is rooted in our deep theological tradition of partnering to create access, avenues of change, and social mobility.

We also live in a global society that calls for global learning, experience, and understanding. Can you imagine how our programs and practices can and will create opportunities for students to explore cultures, examine biases, and embrace the diversity of God’s kingdom? A place of belonging?

4. We will model character development in a grace-filled community as a framework for a divided world.

Character education has been a cornerstone of our founding since 1891, beginning with our first motto, Education for Character shaping our faith and embracing a higher ethic for how we come to our work, relationships, and community. SPU character is more than virtues, it is about the heart and ongoing spiritual formation. Character education produces personal and deep change, and we know that deep change includes God.

Character education models the life of Christ and challenges each of us to approach others with generosity and grace.

Early in my career, I developed a deep respect for SPU’s ability to engage in conversations around difficult issues.  I observed from afar a community unafraid to discuss the day’s leading topics and reflect on lessons that shape educational offerings and society. Recently, I heard a description of this commitment when someone shared that SPU has always wrestled with deep cultural conversations but historically resisted the cultural pull to lean to one side or another.

This is a lofty goal in today’s world where the constant expectation is a stance of opposition and polarization. The tension in this space is real and pushes our commitment to explore and debate topics of difference.

We must resist the urge to lose our ability and willingness to engage in different spaces. This is who we have been and who we will continue to be as we extend our teaching and research as a leader in Character education and formation.

This commitment to character education leans into what I have been calling “Courageous Conversations.” Courageous Conversations explores our ability to engage in difficult dialogue and invites differing opinions with a posture of humility. It does not shy away from differences. It creates pathways forward, bridging barriers.

Our faith acknowledges that good people can differ on a multitude of topics. This position does not remove disagreement. Instead, it integrates the fruit of the spirit into the dialogue and approaches others with a generous hospitality.

It creates new models of living in community and pushes directly on the divisions of difference around us. It is possibly the most difficult part of our mission statement — “wisdom in grace-filled community,” because it requires personal reflection and a posture of humility to stand with your held belief and love unconditionally.

It requires grace, humility, and a generosity that comes from a deep anchor of faith. This is the strength of our Christian tradition and the promise of our mission — the promise to develop graduates of wisdom who model a grace-filled community. A distinct commitment of our SPU education, evidenced by character formation. Can you imagine what a difference that kind of education could make in today’s world? Can you imagine in this polarized world, our students, our graduates, our faculty, our staff, our alumni, living in a world that brings people together?

5. We will demonstrate our call to serve the city of Seattle and the wider world.

The beginning of our mission statement “engaging the culture” means we unapologetically and unashamedly step out into the world around us ready to serve and work. It means we walk and live within the community, not separating ourselves. And that is important for SPU — we are in Seattle — living here every day, engaged in the vibrancy and complexities of a metropolitan city. We do this not just as an institution of higher learning, but because of our faith. It is our faith that grounds us, inspires us and compels us to serve.

Our denominational founder BT Roberts was driven by a call to share the love of Jesus and elevate the poor. He imagined that Christian education would be a way for that to happen. This is in the DNA of SPU. We are a Christian university called to serve. This means we will continue to partner in the city, extend the love of Christ, and serve in the needed spaces.

Imagine being the people of God in the world.

This fall we began the new academic year with the theme “God is Doing a New Thing” anchored in Isaiah 43:15-19. As Trustee Wilds read earlier, this passage reminds the people of Israel that God brought them through tough times of the past, to forget about the past, and look to something new.

The passage says, “I am about to do something new. It is beginning to happen even now. Don’t you see it coming? I am going to make a way for you to go through the desert. I will make streams of water in the dry and empty land.” (NIRV)

Friends, you know the history of SPU and the journey we have been on. What strikes me in this passage is the reminder that God is present and moving even when we do not see it. Making a way through the dry and desolate spaces, creating a stream of water that brings life to a valley of dust.

We are reminded to forget the things of the past. It’s not about forgetting the journey and what we learned from it, but maybe it’s about not letting the hard things of the past have the last word. God has the last word. And God is always doing new things.

It is in verse 19 that God says, “I am about to do something new. It is beginning to happen even now. Don’t you see it coming?” Imagine God doing a new thing at Seattle Pacific University!

The challenge — to look for it. To listen for the still small voice and the big proclamations of God’s presence. To invite God to do a new thing on our campus and in our lives. Today I invite you to do the same. To look for God in all the spaces — big and small. We should not get distracted by the difficulties but proclaim God’s faithfulness in each situation.

Faculty, staff, and students, join me in embracing the new thing God is doing as we lean into our distinct call: comprehensive growth, embracing a diverse and global world, character development, and our call to serve.

Each of you is invited to travel with us in partnership, prayer, and proclamation of the new thing God is doing.

Seattle Pacific University will stand confidently and boldly in the space we hold as a Christian University, one that is open to all students who are eager to join a community of disciples and scholars, ready to connect their heads to their hearts and engage their hands in service to others.

Imagine an emerging city full of innovation and struggling to make sense of cultural change. Picture a landscape of rolling hills and the beautiful waterways weaving through them. Feel the tension of diverse communities intertwining, protecting, and encroaching. Think about a needed optimism bubbling up in a city full of possibility. Imagine talented and gifted individuals with differing gifts from near and far, being drawn to each other to dream together about new educational opportunities for the next generation.

This is the setting in which Seattle Pacific University will fulfill its mission in 2024 and beyond. To God be the glory.

Amen.

To God be the Glory!

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