Leaning into God’s calling: A Q&A with Seattle Pacific’s new president
On July 1, Deana L. Porterfield became SPU’s 12th president and the first female president in the University’s 132-year history.
President Porterfield has more than 35 years of experience working in higher education, including nine years as president of Roberts Wesleyan University and Northeastern Seminary.
She was raised in Northern California and spent 30 years in Southern California before moving to Western New York. President Porterfield and her husband, Doug, who is a native of Washington state, have two married daughters and five grandchildren.
She spoke with SPU Stories this summer as she and her husband were preparing to move to Washington for her new role.
What are you most proud of from your years leading Roberts Wesleyan University?
When I arrived at Roberts, I did a listening tour with faculty and staff. Two main things surfaced from that: One, we needed a space for students to gather; and two, we had a desire to clarify who we were as a Christian institution.
I’m proud of the fact that today, the Roberts community knows who they are internally and externally. That sounds so simple, right? But it took time to clarify this. We didn’t rewrite the mission. We didn’t rewrite history. We took the time to understand what we were founded on and how the university’s history is relevant to our identity today.
There is a long list of things that came out of that work to clarify Roberts’ identity, beginning with a greater understanding of its covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church. We began to articulate the story of who we are in different ways. We reinforced the unique space we hold anchored in our Wesleyan tradition. We launched a new logo. Roberts Wesleyan became a university and claimed a market position as New York’s leading university for character education.
In January, the university opened the Golisano Community Engagement Center, a 25,000-square-foot building for students. Everything from the building design to the planned purposes for the space inside very intentionally ties into the university’s heritage, history, and identity.
I find energy and hope in helping a community discover who they are and helping them come together over common ground.
It’s a challenging time to be the president of Seattle Pacific. What went into your decision to accept this role?
I am aware of the challenges and the complexities of the role, but as my husband, Doug, and I went through the process, it became very clear that God was calling us to SPU. I know there’s a lot of work we’re going to have to do to rebuild community, but both of us had such a feeling of peace that this is where we are supposed to be. I truly believe that my nine years at a sister institution in New York have prepared me for SPU.
I have a sense of hope that we can be a light in the community, but that light is not us. That light is the light of Jesus Christ.
Can you share a bit about your faith journey? Did you grow up in a Christian home or did you come to know Christ later in your life?
I was adopted as an infant into a family that attended church and was active in church. But like many families, we had some complicated family scenarios with my siblings and parents, and our home life was challenging.
In junior high, I met friends who were active in another church, and they invited me to join them. That church really saved me from some of the complexities of my family life. My friends and I participated in worship at the church, and in high school we started a Christian band called The Overcomers. We toured the local area wearing Hawaiian shirts and sang songs by the Imperials [an American Christian music group].
In a lightning round of questions, President Porterfield shared a few more things about herself:
Introvert or Extrovert?
Early bird or night owl?
Pineapple or no pineapple on your pizza?
Absolutely no pineapple on pizza. Actually, I don’t eat a lot of pizza. When I do, I like a good veggie without olives. And I prefer a white sauce.
Dine at home or dine out?
Which Seattle sports team will you be rooting for?
It’s hard to not be a Buffalo Bills fan… but I love baseball, and we don’t really follow one team, so I’ve decided I will be a Mariners fan.
Is your ideal vacation on the grid or off the grid?
Off the grid. On the water!
Would you time travel to the past or to the future?
I’d probably want to go to the past to meet some amazing historical figures like B.T. Roberts who stepped out in faith and made a difference. I’d like to figure out what helped them do that.
Christmas trees: real or fake?
Fake, because we travel at Christmas.
Do you test the water or dive into the deep end?
I’m kind of a dive-into-the-deep-end gal.
What is something your husband or children would say about you?
I’m not afraid to put myself out there. Whether it’s jumping in to help someone, or joining in as students dance to the latest hit song, I am all in.
The youth pastor asked if I would be willing to play the piano for the church worship service. Although I could read music, I had never used chord charts or played by ear. He spent time teaching me to play for the worship service, and I ended up playing the piano there and at another church all the way through high school. Given all the chaos in my family structure, I would not be where I am today without that connection to church.
My faith was continually strengthened and anchored through those God brought into my life, and I developed spiritual practices that continue today. Looking back, it is clear God was always present and used people to encourage my faith.
Who are some of the people who changed your life?
I’m a first-generation college student. My dad did not graduate from high school. I was supposed to graduate from high school, get married, and get a job.
I was never supposed to get a college degree, let alone a doctorate. It was beyond imagination that I would be the president of a university, let alone the president of two universities. But when my father remarried, my stepmother had a different perspective and began verbalizing, “Of course, Deana is going to college.”
She had worked at Texas Tech University as an administrative assistant and understood the value of higher education. Until that point, I was an average student. I passed, but my priority was everything but academics. By my senior year in high school, I began to think college might be a possibility. I was accepted to several schools, but I was set on Texas Tech.
In the spring of my senior year of high school, an admissions counselor from Azusa Pacific University encouraged me to visit before deciding. My girlfriend and I borrowed my mother’s car, and we drove to Southern California to visit several campuses. As soon as I arrived on the APU campus, I knew that was where I was supposed to be. I enrolled as a music major at Azusa Pacific, and it changed my life.
All the shaping of who you are that should happen in your traditional family setting didn’t happen until I arrived at APU and was surrounded by faculty, staff, and friends who, in the right ways, encouraged me to explore new ideas and graciously helped me understand some of the challenging patterns of my family. Then, I became employed at my alma mater. I worked there for 26 years. My supervisors and colleagues encouraged my gifts and spoke truth that has shaped who I am today.
You are the first female president of Seattle Pacific University. You were also the first female president of Roberts Wesleyan in 2014. What do you see as some of the unique challenges facing female leaders of Christian universities?
I wrote my dissertation on the successful attainment of female presidents within the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We have 12 female presidents in the CCCU in the U.S. If you count the more than 180 institutions globally, there are a total of 17 female presidents, so the numbers aren’t great.
We know from research that women lead differently than men. They are team builders and tend to have more diversity in their teams. We also know that because women leaders have such a strong concept of teams, people may not see a female leader’s vision because she gives credit outside of her leadership.
Women also rally communities in different ways, depending on their gift sets. I’ve learned that you must lead from the gifts that God has given you. If you don’t, you will get caught up in the perceptions of what it means to be a leader and assume you need to do what every other male leader has done.
Historically, most university presidents have been male and have elevated to the position through academic leadership or ascended to the position through fundraising. My trajectory was through enrollment management and other organizational development areas.
As president, I am responsible for all areas of the institution, but I lean fully into who God created me to be and into the gifts he’s given me to lead where I am called to serve.
What are some of the gifts that God has given you?
One of my strengths is being an activator [a person of action who makes things happen]. I think God has also gifted me with the ability to be an innovator and a visionary. I have a strong sense of belief and that motivates me to want to be involved in work that matters and to do that work with others.
I would also say that deep in my heart, I’m passionate about wanting to be the best I can be in my faith to represent Christ in all I do.
What advice do you have for college students?
Be open to all that God has for you. Lean into the gifts he’s given you. Be open to what faculty and staff will offer you in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Be ready to take what you’ve received and put that into action in a way that will make a positive difference in the world.