Mayfield: New president deserves space to help SPU find way forward

Feb 23, 2024, 5:00 AM | Updated: Mar 25, 2024, 1:42 pm

Seattle Pacific University...

Seattle Pacific University begins a new era, with a new president. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

It’s inauguration day today. A new president will be sworn in and huge challenges await this new leader. A divisive culture war. A financial crisis. An investigation by the attorney general.

Yet, Deana Porterfield said she is ready to face all of it. Today, she will officially become the first woman to lead Seattle Pacific University (SPU) as president in the school’s 130-year history.

SPU has been in turmoil for years now over the Board of Trustees’ continued decision to ban the hiring of staff in same-sex relationships.

Over 80% of faculty support a change in hiring policy. Students have campaigned for years to overturn the ban. The school has faced lawsuits and now that investigation by the State Attorney General.

At the same time — and no doubt in part thanks to – this hiring ban, the school has seen a huge enrollment drop. The Seattle Times reports the number of students has dropped by 38% since 2013. That, in turn, has sparked deep budget cuts. Last summer, SPU started a three-year plan to cut staffing by 40%.

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When asked about all of this by The Seattle Times, Porterfield was clear-eyed and transparent. Of the hiring rules, she simply says the board has made the decision. As for the other challenges SPU faces, she clearly believes she is up to the challenge. Portfield told The Seattle Times she believes the school needs to be clear on who it is: “A Christian university, located in Seattle, that is in covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church.”

She said they will focus on recruiting from outside Seattle and from Christian high schools across the region. Faculty so far seems open to Porterfield and her new spirit of directness. Students, too, seem ready to listen to what she has to say.

So, what should we make of Porterfield and SPU today? I am a man married to another man. I firmly believe in marriage equality and equity for LGBTQ+ people.

But I also believe in listening to others and supporting their right to carve out spaces for pursuits different from my own. We divide ourselves in this country each time we choose not to truly hear what others are saying. Conservatives certainly do it to liberals, but liberals do it to conservatives as well. We hear the other only as we wait for them to pause so we can jump in and start talking ourselves. When what we really need is to listen to the words, ideas and feelings the others are expressing.

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SPU may be a place that wouldn’t hire me. It may be a place that I would prefer my children not attend. It may even be a place that I hope someday might have a board of trustees that changes its mind about who to hire and why. Yet, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve space to exist and perhaps even thrive.

Porterfield sounds like a president who understands this and may lead SPU in a direction where it can be its own space while also listening to others internally and externally as well.

The truth is that we can live in conflict and tension with each other, but that doesn’t need to divide us. We can find more intellectual freedom and honesty if we allow ideas different from our own to exist. The key is respecting each other as humans with intrinsic rights to freedom, love, and equality. My hope is that Porterfield can listen to both her Board of Trustees and her faculty and students and help both to exist in honest and intellectual dialogue.

Our community is better for having SPU at its heart. We become less as SPU itself becomes less.

So, let’s all take a moment today to congratulate the new incoming president of Seattle Pacific University and listen as she speaks about how her institution may find its way forward in our shared community today.

Travis Mayfield is a fill-in host and guest commentator for KIRO Newsradio.

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