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Staying the Course: Academics at SPU

Les Steele, Vice President for Academic Affairs at SPULes Steele, vice president for academic affairs, has been at Seattle Pacific for close to 25 years. Sixteen of those years were spent in the School of Theology, where he ultimately served as dean.

He got his start in Christian higher education at Illinois' Wheaton College, followed by work at Azusa Pacific in Southern California. Prior to that he spent a number of years in the church.

When he's not balancing the needs of faculty members and students through his work, Steele can be found reading everything from classic literature to the latest in educational trends. And he and his wife walk nearly every day. He says it’s a great opportunity to converse with neighbors and connect with what’s going on around him.

Let’s get right to the point: The economy has fallen off a cliff. How does this affect academics at SPU?

Whatever changes and challenges these economic times bring, we’re not compromising on the importance of the faculty and students interacting with each other in the classroom, in laboratories, and the like. We’re making sure that class sizes are appropriate so the students can get close academic attention from their professors.

In other words, we are staying the course on one of our core values: to ensure meaningful faculty-student encounters around learning. It’s the key to an SPU education and a core part of our educational philosophy.

Students are going to do better in life with a higher degree, so we continue to do what it takes to help them achieve it. Our faculty members are prepared to be advisors, to help students make decisions, and to track their academic progress — all to get students graduated.

Being in relationship is key at SPU.

Will students have to stay at SPU longer? How will that affect families who are wrestling with keeping their students in college?

Across all academic programs, SPU remains committed to getting students graduated. SPU reviews its curriculum to make sure that the right courses and times are being offered to serve the greatest number of students. We are committed to students graduating on time.

We do curriculum review often. For instance, at the end of this past Autumn Quarter, we reviewed the number of seats needed for Winter Quarter. We discovered not as many students as expected took classes offered Autumn Quarter, which meant that Winter Quarter classes would be overloaded. So we created class sections to accommodate the number of students requiring each course.

Our faculty members have been great to work with in these cases. All SPU classes are taught by core faculty members – not by teaching assistants – so adding sections can be a challenge for their schedules. But the faculty members are committed to helping students keep on track.

Bottom line: We are very intentional about our faculty-student encounters and about keeping students on track to graduate as soon as they can.

SPU has a strong academic reputation, especially among employers in the Pacific Northwest. From your perspective, why is SPU worth the investment?

We focus on learning more than teaching. We are a community of learners.

We work hard to assess whether students are learning or not. Good learners are good employees. We seek to develop students who are capable of critical thinking, communicating, and acquiring knowledge.

We also believe active learning is essential. In the natural and social sciences this is done through faculty and students doing research together. We believe it is important for students to work side by side with their professors. Learning by doing is powerful. And experience doing research makes students more marketable. If a student knows how a lab runs and can handle various lab functions, he or she will be steps ahead of graduates from other programs.

Prior to your role as vice president, you spent 16 years in the School of Theology. How does that inform your role today?

I believe it helps me to reflect on a theology of education. We seek to foster a learning community that is in line with why we were created as humans: to love, to do, and to learn in the world God created.

It’s important that we get an appropriate idea of who our students are. They aren’t just vessels waiting to be filled. They are active learners seeking to find ways to love God and neighbor. Learning can be an act of worship. We get to study this wonderful creation and celebrate together in what we discover.

How do young people learn? What does it mean to be citizens of God’s kingdom? SPU needs to be careful not to build walls. I think students grow in their faith in a community that asks hard questions. It’s important to allow space for discovery and growth to occur. But the community needs to be supportive. This informs the way I think about the curriculum.

Read other stories in the Staff Story Archives