“It’s All About the Students,” with Provost Laura Hartley

Provost Laura Hartley oversees undergraduate and graduate faculty and academics, working with President Dan Martin to establish and champion an academic and faith-based vision for Seattle Pacific. Prior to stepping into the role, she was the associate provost for student academic success and dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at George Fox University. And in the classroom, Provost Hartley taught linguistics, intercultural communication, and first-year experience courses. Her discipline of linguistics gives her an appreciation for the incredible diversity of the human family.

Amanda Stubbert: Let’s start with that statement that I found in your bio. I loved it: ‘The incredible diversity of the human family.’ What should we, as members of that human family, what can we learn from the fact that it is so diverse? There are so many differences.

Laura Hartley: Yeah. Well, thanks for that question. It is a question that is an interesting one to think about, particularly in the current moment in which we are living. One of the things that I always talk about with my students when we, whether I’m teaching linguistics or intercultural communication, is that each of us as an individual is steeped in a cultural context. We’re raised in a particular place, at a particular moment, a particular family. And that gives us a particular view of the world. And that worldview is great. That worldview is legitimate, but it’s very limited. And one of the things in studying languages–linguistics is the study of languages, human languages–of all different sorts is that we see just how differently languages can shape the way that we view the world.

So one of the things that studying languages or studying intercultural communication does is it creates a sense of cultural humility because it’s very easy to recognize that what I know, what I believe, what I think is only one possible way of knowing or believing or thinking. And that in fact, that if I want to truly understand the cosmos, if I want to understand God, if I want to even understand what it means to be human, I have to hear different perspectives. I have to listen to people who are different from me, whose experiences are different from my own. And there’s an incredible learning that happens when you just listen to people who have different experiences from you.

“One of the things that studying languages or studying intercultural communication does is it creates a sense of cultural humility.”

The other thing that’s interesting, though, is that the study of languages also helps you realize what we have in common with one another. We tend to think of 6,000 different languages roughly in the world. And there’s so much difference from language to language and yet, at the base of all of that, there’s some very similar ways that languages operate. So there’s really a lot of similarity in terms of what it means to be human, that we learn from linguistics as well. So it’s that kind of going back and forth between what do we have in common and then what do we have that’s different? And I think that there’s a lot that we can learn from both of those things.

Amanda: Oh, absolutely. I remember, not terribly long ago, a member of a First Nation tribe, we were speaking about his language, which is dying away and he’s part of the revolution trying to keep that language from dying. And I asked him if he would teach me a few words. My favorite word, and I won’t try and pronounce it now because I will do a terrible job. But the idea was when you say, ‘Thank you,’ we respond, ‘You’re welcome.’ But within his language, you would reply, ‘I am blessed.’ Because it’s so integral within their culture, that if I’m able to help you, it is only because I first was blessed. And to have that so deeply rooted within everyday conversation, I’m saying like that will preach. I was meditating on that for weeks after he taught me that. And I think there’s just so much we can learn. That seems like something little, but it’s the seed of something so much bigger.

Laura: Yeah. That’s a great example. And there’s just so many of those examples across cultures and across languages. The things that we don’t even think about that we kind of take for granted say something about who we are and where we come from. And we can learn so much from others just by learning another language, just by studying those small things. I know that there are different sort of concepts or ideas that get expressed in some languages so easily and other languages, it’s not that you can’t express those things, but it just takes a lot more words. And so across my years of studying some different languages, there’s just a few pieces here and there, a few words here and there that I’ve picked up that you just, you have to say them in the language that you learned them because it just captures something that translation doesn’t.

Amanda: Right. We had, in my household, when my kids were growing up, we had a lot of exchange students who were mostly graduate level that were coming here to learn English on top of whatever their multiple degrees already were. And it was so fun around the dinner table when they would get to their idioms class, because they would come home and say, ‘What does it mean to say open a can of worms?’ And around the table, the four of us, my husband, and two daughters, we would all have a different answer. We all know how to use that phrase in daily life. And we do, but when we tried to define it, we all had different answers and it was just so funny to see us trip over our own language, trying to explain it to other people.

Laura: Yeah. That’s one of the things I love about studying languages.

Amanda: Let’s talk about your own educational journey. Through the course of your early educational years, did you know you wanted to come back and live in higher ed?

Laura: Absolutely not. That was never my plan. And actually, I love talking with students about the whole idea of vocation and vocational journey and discerning a vocation because of my own experience of never intending, never even sort of knowing that this kind of job that I’m doing existed or was a thing that I could do. I actually went, in high school and through early, actually through my whole college, I was planning to be a missionary and more specifically, a Bible translator. And the reason that I went to graduate school in the first place to study linguistics is because I had that very specific goal. And really even felt it as a call on my life. And I had an aunt and uncle who worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators for 40 years and so that was part of my inspiration for that.

And then, in grad school, it’s a long story, but for a variety of reasons, when the time came to potentially make that move and to go out into the field as a missionary, that door just shut and it shut very sort of decisively. And it was quite confusing for my husband and I. I was already married at the time and we were kind of like, ‘God, this is what we’ve been praying about and working toward, and what do we do now?’ So I sort of joke about the fact, but it’s really true, that I got a PhD because I really didn’t know what else to do. I had finished a master’s degree and didn’t really have a plan other than this missionary thing.

“I sort of joke about the fact, but it’s really true, that I got a PhD because I really didn’t know what else to do.”

And so my master’s degree advisor invited me to stay in the program that I was in and to continue on and to get my doctorate. I loved what I was studying and I really enjoyed it. I got a chance even as a master’s degree student to do some TA-ing and some teaching. So I really enjoyed that. And so I was like, OK, if this door is closed and this door is open, then I think that the next thing to do is to just to take this step of faith and to go in that direction. And didn’t really know where it would lead, but knew that was open to me at that moment. And then that led to a whole series of events, including my husband, who was also getting a master’s degree at that time, discerning a call to seminary education. So then he went and got an MDiv, and then after that, a doctorate, as well.

At each moment, I just kind of took the next step. And so again, I could elaborate more, but I think that my journey is illustrative of, I think, I don’t know that it’s all that different from a lot of people’s journeys. The details, of course, are, but I think at every point in your life, you just take the next step and then opportunities will open up for you, or sometimes they won’t. And there will be just a really clear direction that, OK, I need to go this way. So I did get into higher ed and figured out it was a context where I could really do some of the things that I felt called to, even as a missionary, I could work on building bridges and helping people understand each other better. And I could work in a way that really made a difference in people’s lives. And I’ve even said sometimes that I feel like I’ve lived out my missionary vocation in higher ed, never really having to leave my own culture.

Amanda: And doesn’t that happen to so many of us? We start off wanting to serve God, serve the world, help other people, and we think it’s going to look one way. And then it turns out looking a very different way, even though if you dig down deep enough, it’s pretty similar. Maybe this is too esoteric and you would disagree with me, but going to do Bible translation, that doesn’t seem that different at the very heart of it than teaching linguistics at a university where you’re helping those who want to go and change the world, learn what they need to learn and discern what they need to discern to go out and change the world. It seems like it’s kind of a similar result, even though it may be a very different path.

Laura: Yeah. And I’ve also taught in addition to linguistics, I’ve taught intercultural communication for much of my career, as well. So this notion of being a translator, being a bridge builder is very sort of central to the heart of that, as well. What does it mean to try and to translate between cultures, to live between cultures, to live in these kind of liminal spaces and to bring other people into those places? So, yeah, absolutely. The things that I learned in linguistics that I thought were going to prepare me for a particular career absolutely gave me a great foundation for doing something totally different.

“What does it mean to try and to translate between cultures, to live between cultures, to live in these kind of liminal spaces and to bring other people into those places?”

Amanda: Yeah. Is travel, international ministry, is that something that you’ve had a chance to do still on a smaller scale?

Laura: Certainly I have had a chance to do a little bit of travel and have not done as much in the way of missions trips and things like that, but it’s something that continues to be on my husband and my mind and heart, and we could end up doing something later in our careers. So we’ll see. We’ll see what the next step is.

Amanda: Right. And what, in this path from specific missionary translation work to education, and then onto really the teaching of the teachers and the caring for the teachers, what led you to SPU?

Laura: Again, that’s part of that vocational journey, even as I finished my doctoral work and then it was the next step, what next? The question was, do I pursue becoming a full-time faculty member? What should I do here? And again, long story, but I found myself in the kind of dual role with the opportunity to work in administration in a higher education institution, along with teaching part time as well, and found that I really liked both. I really liked the teaching, but I also really liked the administrative work and coming alongside faculty and offering support. So as I moved through some different opportunities in the, I would say kind of the decade after I finished my doctoral program, I really landed on the place that I feel most called and most equipped and most prepared to kind of serve the kingdom of God is in an academic administration role.

So I have done that work in now three different Christian colleges. You mentioned in the introduction that prior to coming to Seattle Pacific, I was a dean and associate provost at George Fox University down in Oregon. And even while I was doing that work, I was continuing to prepare myself for higher levels of leadership. So I did some leadership development programs, tried to develop expertise, kind of broader than just leading the one unit I was in, with the idea that I felt called to leadership.

And so after having done that work at George Fox for seven years, I felt the time was right in my seventh year to look for the next opportunity. So I began to keep my eye open for openings or provost positions. And the timing was such that Seattle Pacific had an opening and there was just so much about Seattle Pacific that felt like such a great fit for me, that when, as I moved through the process, as I got to know the institution a little bit better, as I got to know the leadership and President Martin specifically, it felt like a dream job. So when I got the call inviting me to come and be the provost, I was thrilled. I didn’t even think twice about it. I was so happy to be able to come here.

“When I got the call inviting me to come and be the provost, I was thrilled. I didn’t even think twice about it.”

Amanda: And little did you know that you would be starting your new position.

Laura: That’s right. I got the call in about mid-February last year. So literally, COVID was already happening in the world and we were all living blissfully, ignorantly, in terms of knowing what it was going to do to our work and to our life. So, yes, I signed the contract before COVID hit, but God knew it even though I didn’t.

Amanda: So you’re stepping into a new role, which I can imagine must be huge. You’re coming to a new institution and you are expected to come with new ideas and solutions to current problems. And yet you have this huge learning curve about what SPU already does and what SPU does well. Oh, but, let’s begin your time during one of the biggest pivots in educational history, when you have to also break new ground and solve problems daily. Can you just talk a little bit about just the day-to-day of personally and professionally of trying to do good and solve day-to-day problems, but keep your head above water at the same time? That must have been an unbelievable time for you.

Laura: Yeah. And certainly I think, once I get through this year and we get back to some sense of normalcy, I’ll be able to reflect back on this time, even in a way that I can’t right now. Although I can certainly reflect back to May, June when I joined the community. And yeah, there’s a couple of things I would say. One of the ways I’m trying to think about this time right now is both in terms of what are the challenges, but what, strangely, are the opportunities that have also accompanied starting this job in this way? Because it has been challenging, for sure. But there have been some aspects of starting to work this way that have actually, in some ways I think, helped me move into the job in an intentional way.

So certainly the fact that everybody was working remotely in the months of April and May meant that I got to start joining Zoom conversations even before I was employed, even before I was in the role to kind of hear the institution’s response to COVID and what it was doing. So I got to sort of enter, I would say, gently and before I actually had any responsibility for anything. And I also got to enter with just a great team of people who were already kicked into high gear in terms of planning and thinking and revising. So I just got to step into that. I didn’t really have to initiate that or say, “Come on, guys, this is what I think we should do.” Because there was already a lot of good work going on.

And then, of course, as we moved through the summer and into the fall, I became more part of the decision groups around the decision-making team, in terms of what was happening and got to bring my own perspective and my own experience to that. But it also, the other thing I’ll say is, it gave me the immediate ability to work with members of my team, whether that’s the senior leadership team, President Martin and the rest of the VPs, or with the team of people who were directly reporting to me. It gave us a lot of time together. We spent lots of time in conversation, problem solving, and really there’s nothing that builds a team better than doing hard work together. So those early months of really facing challenges that were unlike anything that any of us had ever faced before, gave us opportunity to really get to know each other, to work together well. And in some ways I wouldn’t have had that much intense interaction with my teammates without that situation. As much as, there’s so much about university life that I miss in terms of events and just the normal rhythm of being in a residential academic community.

COVID has really stripped away a lot of the extra events and things that I would normally attend in my first year and has really let me focus just on the core things that I need to focus on. So in some ways I’ve had more time than I would otherwise because of COVID than I might have otherwise had. And so I think, when I get to year two and we begin to add all those things back in, I’ll already kind of know what I’m doing in terms of the job and at least having begun to know the institution to really be able to add those things back in.

“Those early months of really facing challenges that were unlike anything that any of us had ever faced before, gave us opportunity to really get to know each other, to work together well.”

Amanda: Yeah. It’s what I personally refer to as the summer camp phenomenon where you could work for someone for two years, but you don’t necessarily have a lot of personal interaction. And you look back to, for those of us who went to Christian summer camp every summer growing up, you may have only seen them one week per year, but it was 24-7 for that week. And there’s something that just binds you together. So I absolutely see that, that when you go through something this challenging and where a team must rely on each other so heavily that you’ve probably in hours worked as a team, you’re probably in about year five versus just finishing up year one.

Laura: Yeah. That’s what I say. One day in COVID is like a thousand days elsewhere.

Amanda: Yes. Exactly, exactly. So speaking of that, here you are coming into a new city, a new university, a new job, a new team, and then you also, part of that job is to support and take care of so many trying to take care of so many others. How do you take care of yourself in these trying times? And then part two of that question is, then how do you use those things to take care of those educators around you?

Laura: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think it’s a really important question for all of us to be asking, not just in trying times, but at all times. The truth is that I can only do this job well, in terms of leadership of this community, if I am taking care of myself. And so I’m very conscious of that. And I’ve had the advantage, I think, moving into this job of knowing a number of people in this type of role, watching them closely, seeing what they did, that was good and not so good. And so I knew coming into this role, that that would be a really important question. How am I going to take care of myself? So part of what I try and do is to be really protective of my Sabbath time, which tends to be Sundays for me. And really trying to kind of disconnect from email, from normal activities in life. I try and get errands run and bills paid and everything on Saturday so that Sunday is just truly a day of rest.

It depends on what crisis we’re in at the moment. So I can’t always do that, but I find if I’ve set up that rhythm, then I have a little bit more freedom to actually enter into that. The other, again, sort of odd thing about right now is that Sundays don’t have the same sort of time committed to going and being in church. And while I really, really miss that, and I’m really looking forward to getting back into a faith community, it has also given me time and space to really be intentional with that extra time on Sundays. And so we might attend an online church service, but that’s only going to take literally whatever the 50 minutes is that the service is running and not all of getting ready time and getting there time and the fellowship time afterwards.

So that’s part of it. Being really protective with my Sabbath. I think on a more sort of psychological or mental or emotional level, I think I’m really trying to focus a lot on just being patient and having a lot of grace for myself. And by that, I mean, just recognizing that this year is just hard. And so just when things are hard, just saying, you know what? It’s OK because this is a hard year and I’m going to make mistakes or I’m going to be lonely, or I’m going to miss normal aspects of life and that’s going to be maybe mentally challenging, emotionally challenging. And part of that is just to say, it’s OK to feel those things. It’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to be tired and to just give myself the grace to feel those things.

And then also just to hold onto, I think, there’s a hope piece of that as well, that it won’t always be this way. It is this way right now, but this isn’t forever. And when you’ve lived as many years as I have, I have hopefully a few more left to live, but I think there’s wisdom in just knowing that whatever you’re experiencing at the moment is not going to be forever.

“I think there’s wisdom in just knowing that whatever you’re experiencing at the moment is not going to be forever.”

Amanda: As my mother used to say to us constantly, ‘This too shall pass.’ And occasionally, it’s so simple and it’s a phrase we’ve all heard. And yet there were times, especially when I had two very young children where she would say that, and I would just go, ‘But it won’t, though.’ Like, but it won’t pass soon enough, I think is what we really mean when our brain says that. But I definitely know that feeling of convincing yourself, this won’t actually last forever.

Laura: Yeah. And I have two young adult children, one who’s in college, one who just graduated from college. And so we’re having these conversations with them about this time and you just got to realize, this period of time, seven months or eight months or whatever it’s been now, that’s a much more significant percentage of their life than it is of mine. So I have this perspective that a year is not that long. Whereas for them, so much happens developmentally in a year at that age that I think that’s part of the wisdom that comes from age, as well.

Amanda: For sure. For sure. So recently this summer, as you were coming on, we had a couple of longtime professors and at that point in time, deans, that were retiring, and through the course of our conversation, each of them had pulled out a letter written to them by a student that they had saved over the years, that when they hit those low moments of ‘Why am I doing this?’ they would pull out the letter and read it. And so I thought it would be interesting to just kind of do the intellectual exercise of saying, if five years from now you had a letter from a student that you had saved for a while about getting through this particular time and feeling that you had helped them succeed. What would you hope that letter would include?

Laura: That’s a really great question. I think what I’d want that letter to say is that in this really difficult time, and particularly in this really difficult way of trying to do college, that the way that I had led in this institution had helped faculty and staff do their jobs in a way that helps students feel loved and supported and ultimately, helped students learn even with all the challenges of this day. So, this is one of the things about being a leader, about being an administrator. Ultimately it is about, for me, it’s all about the students. And yet my job, in my job, I don’t interact a lot directly with students. What I do is I support the faculty and staff, try and really ensure that their lives and that their work is such that they can really do the work of directly teaching and working with students.

So if a student were to say to me, ‘It wasn’t the best way to learn it. It wasn’t a great way to learn. It’s not my preferred way to learn. And yet I was able to learn that year. I was able to make friendships. I was able to build a sense of community, a sense of belonging at SPU, even in the midst of all the challenges.’ If we can do that in this context, then we should be able to do that in any context, under any circumstances. And so if there’s anything that I’m doing this year that’s helping to get to that end, then that would be a great thing to hear from students.

Amanda: Because as you said, when you look back at life and it felt like you were in turmoil over decisions, and I’ll speak for myself and others, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but we all look back and we say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know God was preparing me for this.’ Or, ‘I just thought I was making decisions, twists and turns. And yet all along God was preparing me for this.’ And you look at this very unique time in history, and it’s hard not to say, God was preparing you for such a time as this. Like God had you in mind for this position, for right now. And that can be a heavy weight to bear. On the other hand, it can be what keeps you going, knowing that, ‘Well, if God had me picked up for this, clearly, somehow some way I can get this done.’ So I just want to thank you on behalf of our whole community for stepping up to that.

Laura: Well, thank you. I have felt that, both as a weight and also as a gift of affirmation. I don’t feel like I’m doing that alone because I have been really well received by the community. And I do feel incredibly sort of welcomed and supported in this place. And again, I think it’s all about what we’re doing for the students. So I want to make sure that the students who have just this really small amount of time here are really feeling like they are getting the most possible out of it. So that’s what keeps me going every day.

“I want to make sure that the students who have just this really small amount of time here are really feeling like they are getting the most possible out of it.”

Amanda: For sure. For sure. Well, let me wrap up here with the last question that we like to ask all of our guests, and that is, if you could have everyone in Seattle wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?

Laura: Well, first of all, we have to open up the coffee houses and the restaurants, I think. But I do think, it’s hard to think about, well, what is one thing that you could have everybody do? But I actually think that find someone who comes from just a totally different background or experience than you do, sit down for a cup of coffee, sit down over a meal, and just share your life story with one another. And then listen, be curious, ask questions, and don’t try and fix that person. Don’t try and change anything about them. Believe their story and ask what is it that I can learn from this person’s story? So I think that’s what I would do. It’s what I try and do when I meet new people is your experience, your story, is different than mine. What could I learn from that? And then what might I be able to share with you about my experience that might enrich your understanding?

Amanda: Well, thank you so much for that. And we usually end with a prayer of blessing, but as a linguistics professor, I wonder if you have a prayer of blessing that is close to your heart?

Laura: I do tend to think that some of the benedictions that we find in Scripture are helpful. So the Lord bless you and keep you, make his face shine upon you, be gracious unto you, and give you peace. That’s one of my favorites.

Amanda: Yes. And our prayer of blessing, I took that very one and just adapted it a little bit for our storytelling and to say, may the Lord bless you in all you put your hand to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May he bring unity to our community and peace to us all.

Laura: Thank you so much, Amanda. This has been a delightful conversation.

Amanda: Thank you, Laura.


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