He’s been the president of Seattle Pacific University for a decade and a half, almost double the average tenure of a college or university president. During the course of his presidency, he’s seen, among other things, more than 12,000 students graduate; 500,000 square feet of facilities built or renovated; an increase in the size, selectivity, and diversity of enrollment; and strong, new visibility for SPU, both regionally and nationally.
But perhaps President Philip Eaton is best known as the leader who helped clarify and articulate Seattle Pacific’s deep commitment to education with a purpose. He calls it “engaging the culture and changing the world.”
The simple answer is that I love this place. I love the people. I love the mission and vision that we’ve been working on for 15 years. There have been times along the way when I could have gone somewhere else, but I had no desire to move from this wonderful place.
Several years ago, after we had put a lot of effort into our strategic plan, and we said to ourselves, “Wow, this thing’s done,” I wondered for just a moment whether there was more work for me to do at SPU. But then I pressed us to create the next strategic plan, and I was off and running again.
I believe strongly that a leader’s responsibility is to provide momentum for an institution. People need to feel that they’re a part of something that’s moving forward, that they have a vision for the future that is meaningful to them.
Anybody in this role for this long is constantly asking themselves the question: “Do you still have something to offer?” And you count on the people around you and your own sense of momentum to provide an answer. And I’ve always believed there was more work for me to do at SPU. And still do.
When I came to SPU, I saw that who I am as a person was in tremendous alignment with what this place was and could be.
There was an exciting venture of getting to know the people of Seattle Pacific, what they cared about, what was being done here, and the rich history of the place. At the same time, I was continuing to get to know myself and to grow into who I was going to be as a leader. As those things came together, I found what I believed to be a marvelous alignment.
SPU had a historical commitment to make a difference in the world. We didn’t use the language of engaging the culture and changing the world, but the theological underpinnings and institutional commitments were there: As an institution, we pursued excellence in education so that we could make a difference in the world. And that resonated with everything I believed in and cared about.
And, of course, I loved SPU’s urban setting. Sharon and I revel in the fact that we’re in a dynamic city with all of its advantages and challenges. I think the city is the testing point for all Christians — because the city is the future of our world.
Perhaps most of all there are the people of SPU. We have come to love this extraordinary community of gifted people — from our faculty and staff to students and alumni — all guided by a desire to model grace-filled community. The people are very special here.
All of these things together have made SPU the right place for me to be for 15 years.
"I believe that the Christian university has a very special opportunity because we may be best equipped with the tools to bring about human flourishing."
What are the most important things you’ve tried to achieve in your presidency so far?
My first priority was and is to articulate a sense of vision for SPU. What is the meaning of this place? What is its purpose? That has meant looking at our history, at our culture as a university, and at what is going on around us — and in the midst of that, clarifying who we are and how we can be responsive to the needs of the world.
Our vision is my daily driver. It fills my thoughts. It guides my reading. It shapes my understanding of higher education. It shapes my understanding that the Christian university must tap into a bigger purpose.
I’ve also worked to articulate SPU’s Christian identity. That is not an easy matter for Christian higher education these days, and different institutions strike very different notes.
We asked ourselves how do we express our Christian identity as we exist in this place, at this moment in time, living out our vision? I engaged myself — and continue to engage myself — deeply in that question. Together with the theology faculty and many others, we wrote a faith statement for SPU that clearly articulates the Christian identity of this specific place.
And then, out of all of this, we worked to identify the signature commitments that we make as an institution. It’s thrilling to me to hear the faculty talk about these signatures — knowing and understanding what’s going on in the world, becoming biblically and theologically educated, mastering the tools of rigorous learning, practicing radical reconciliation, or graduating people of competence and character — in the context of their work, because it means these are commitments we hold in common.
I have always asked the question of our faculty and staff: “How do we take things to the next level?” And people have responded. We are a place that believes in ourselves, and any contribution I’ve been able to make to that self-confidence as an institution is huge for me, because when we believe in ourselves, we make things happen.
It’s easy for an institution just to hunker down, but that’s not what SPU does. When the recession hit, for instance, rather than hunker down, we went after every possible way we could think of to make a university education possible for students and families, and our application pool has tripled. That’s the attitude I love.
And we’ve worked to be a grace-filled community. It’s a commitment we’ve made, and something we know we must model. People don’t thrive in a negative, bureaucratic, depersonalizing environment. They thrive in a grace-filled community where people care for one another, where people respect and value the gifts of others.
There are challenges in higher education, but I believe that SPU has so many things going for us: a defined purpose, a clear Christian identity, a grace-filled place to learn and work. We’re always innovating and responding to changes in our world, of course, but there’s something solid that is central for us.
Very much so. I believe that the Christian university has a very special opportunity because we may be best equipped with the tools to bring about human flourishing. Across the disciplines, we are trained to engage the culture at the roots. We understand culture. Our training is in engagement.
What I try to do in parts of this book is to go back to some of the early notions of the university. And the early notions of the university so often were to meet the needs of society, to make the world a better place. And how universities ever became ivory towers so separated from the needs of society is baffling to me.
Part of what I’m trying to say in the book is that we had better be meaningful to this society that’s around us, and if we as Christians have an alternative view of what it means to flourish, then that’s what ought to shape our work as a university.
Yes, exactly. You know, I’m very attuned to those people — Stanley Fish, for example — who have a very different view. Fish put out a book right in the middle of my writing titled Save the World on Your Own Time. It’s a very contemporary argument that we exist as universities for ourselves and that universities can’t get into this character-formation thing or world-changing thing. That’s not our job, says Fish. All we are there to do is to teach the material, and all the students are there to do is learn that material, period.
And as I researched for my book, I got so connected again to John Henry Newman’s classic book The Idea of a University — which is the foundational statement of the modern university. I love it. But even Newman is conflicted on this issue.
In part he was responding to Oxford, which was moving in the direction of professional schools. He was saying, “No, no, no. It’s learning, pure learning. It is the culture of ideas, period. That’s what the university ought to be.” But then he makes statements that the world needs graduates of character and not just competence. And he says if you take theology out of the curriculum you have mutilated the curriculum — that’s his word, mutilated. You have rendered the curriculum irrelevant, and it must be relevant to the needs of the world.
So there’s clearly a tension in the university between withdrawing and addressing the needs of the world. Christian universities will sometimes isolate themselves from the world for spiritual reasons, and secular universities will do so for intellectual reasons. Neither kind of separatism will work for us. I take the position that the university needs to address the needs of the world, that that’s what we’re all about.
Early on I decided that I had to speak from the heart as a Christian. And I made that decision that this book would be pretty lifeless if I tried to speak to a secular world without identifying myself deeply, and so the audience who will read it is probably a Christian audience.
Those involved in Christian education will likely be most interested, but I would love for Christians more broadly to read it as well. Because I think Christians, no matter whether they are involved in education or not, have to face the question of how to engage this culture.
Of course, I am speaking to a secular audience as well. I do worry that some things I say may sound like I am taking a competitive posture with the secular university, and that is not what I intend. I believe in the secular university. I believe in a lot of what they do, but I think there’s some hollowness at their core, because they have decided there is no truth and they have adopted a post-modern posture where they call into question all stories of what is true and good and beautiful.
So in some ways the book is a confrontation of the secular university, and yet I didn’t want it to have a negative tone.
The Christian College Consortium presidents were gathering in March and they were asking me about how the book was coming, and I was trumpeting the value of the Christian university, which I believe in so strongly. Then I went back to my hotel room and turned on the Final Four, and I recognized how small we are. Here were these great universities and thousands of students and alumni passionately committed to the Dukes of the world. I said to the presidents later, “You know, we’re really small.” They got a kick out of that, you know, because we were all watching the Final Four.
And that’s something that happens to me in my book: this tremendous claim of the value we have to offer and believing in it so strongly and yet recognizing that the secular university is dominant and will remain dominant. Still, I believe the secular university has in so many ways lost its soul. I think that needs to be said. And I think the secular university needs to stand up to that accusation.
No question about it. I try to call the Christian university and its tendency towards separatism to accountability as well. We need to be reaching out and serving the world, not circling the wagons and turning away from the world.
My older brother, a successful businessman, called me after the book came out and said, “Hey, I just finished your book. It’s fabulous. I ordered 25 copies.”
Then he said, “I’m going to tell my friends that even though this is about the Christian university, and they might not care about that, they should read it as Christians in the world and think about how they interface with a post-Christian culture.”
I was already thinking it, but his comments encouraged me even more to think that there could be another book. I think a second book would address the question: “How do we as individual Christians walk in this culture and speak the truth and live out the truth?”
What has shaped me is the work we’ve done at SPU to carry out a vision for cultural engagement — all within this incredibly dynamic, thriving, and hurting city.
This city has created Boeing and Microsoft and Amazon and Starbucks and Nordstrom and on and on. It’s a vibrant, creative environment that I think requires us to be engaged. I don’t think that’s a cliché. I think that’s a reality.
The challenges of the 21st-century city have shaped my views, but I know that sometimes when I talk to my counterparts from colleges or universities in very isolated places they do not have the same agenda. And yet I believe it has to be every Christian’s agenda, no matter where they are. Right?
You are totally right to say that the value of a university education is being challenged right now. People want to know — is it valuable to go to college?
For their in-service day this spring, the SPU faculty examined a book called Academically Adrift, in which the thesis is that students aren’t learning anything in universities today. Some researchers have measured three main competencies — writing, critical thinking, and marshalling an argument — and their test results seem to indicate that the difference between a freshman and a senior is negligible. It’s a damning indictment against us as the academy.
And this is getting a lot of attention. There’s even a billionaire out there giving money away for young entrepreneurs not to go to college so that they can realize their dreams and create new companies.
I get all of that, and yet I believe so much in the value of what happens on our university campuses. First of all, there’s the fact that college graduates are going to make $1 million more in their career than a high school graduate. That’s one kind of value. That’s productivity, and a decent living. We are graduating students with competencies that work in the productive world.
And we’d better be sharp about that. We’d better provide those competencies. There’s no question about it. If we fail on that and then think that we’re going to establish some other value, it isn’t going to work.
But there is another notion of value as well. I’m talking about the “something more” that universities such as SPU have to offer. We emphatically and clearly claim the Christian story, a story of what is true and good and beautiful — and a story that is contested in the secular world.
True and good and beautiful. Truth has to do with the presuppositions behind what it is you claim, what it is you believe. Good has to do with a moral framework for your life. Beauty has to do with what it is that gives your life joy. It seems to me that the Christian story of what is true and good and beautiful is of ultimate value for a student who will graduate and move out into the world.
I sat here in this office as a young woman about to graduate said to me, “I’m going to medical school. One of the things that I can claim happened to me at SPU is that I have no fear about asking hard questions as a Christian or as a scientist. At SPU we ask all the hard questions, questions that the Christian faith offers to science and questions that science offers to faith.”
And she continued, “I’ve got a friend who’s graduating from the University of Washington, and she’s afraid. As a Christian, she’s afraid to ask questions. And she’s afraid of the questions that science is asking of her faith.”
Talk about value. Here you’ve got a vibrant Christian who has grown in her competency, her character, and in her faith — and who has no fear.
We use the language of character formation at SPU. We believe we have a responsibility to help our students become mature, fully rounded people who are able to shape a vision for their lives in the kind of world they are entering. That’s why we can’t afford to live in an ivory tower where learning is an end unto itself.
I believe they have never been more relevant. I always want people to understand, though, that at SPU we understand cultural engagement in the broadest sense rather than only as service projects. Of course, “service” means contribution to the community and the world, and in that way, all of our engagement is service. We serve the world every day.
When I write and speak about the topic of engagement, I say that we are engaging some of the profound presuppositions of our culture — which tell us that the pursuit of truth is no longer possible. I’m very excited right now about the Lesslie Newbigin book Truth to Tell. We have truth to tell in a culture that challenges all notions of truth.
That’s the underpinning for engaging the culture and changing the world at SPU. I know it’s philosophical; I know it’s theological. But I think it’s very important, because everybody’s doing service projects. The question is why? What drives us? Why do we want to change the world? What is the gospel reason for changing the culture ?
Some of SPU’s greatest scholarly work comes when our people challenge cultural presuppositions from a Christian perspective. Whether it’s through scholarship, or social ventures in the city and around the world, Christians are called by the gospel to change the world, to make a difference for good.
Where do I start? There are so very many. Let me give you a faculty example. I just adore the work that Professor of Physics Stamatis Vokos is doing, along with his colleagues. With the highest level of preparation in his discipline — a Ph.D. from Cal Berkeley in physics — he could be doing research that is self-focused, an end in itself, but instead he’s saying: “I want to talk about how kids learn physics in a radically new way that can change the way we teach elementary, middle, and high school.” He’s attracted major grants for his work, and he’s getting recognition all across the country, but most importantly he’s transforming education. And the lives of kids — some of them in inner-city schools — are being changed. I love that. I just love that.
And Stamatis is just one of many faculty members who have a vision for how their scholarly work can change the world for the better. All of our faculty members have a vision statement related to engaging the culture on their syllabi.
And then there are our students and alumni. They are out around the globe, serving in some of the most important leadership positions in industry, science, arts, world relief, and more. I love the moments in the springtime, before graduation, when students make appointments to come to talk to me. They want me to know that they get it, that they understand engaging the culture and changing the world. They can talk about it clearly, because they’re going to do it. They take it seriously, and they take it as a calling on their life. That thrills me.
There have definitely been moments — you might even call them turning points — that influenced me and SPU in significant ways.
Of course, the John Perkins connection is magical to me as I look back. I don’t want to overstate it, but it literally came just at a moment when I was convicted by violence in our streets in Seattle, some of it with racial undertones, that SPU needed to try to speak into that. We couldn’t be marginalized, but what could we do?
These students came to my door day after day — asking me whether I would go to Jackson, Mississippi, with them. “Will you go?” “Will you go?” It was right before Christmas, but they were going to spend part of their vacation working with and learning from the great reconciliation and community development leader John Perkins.
And so I went. And I met with John, and through his Bible studies with our students, I caught a vision of reconciliation informed by a gospel of joy. That’s John’s vision. And then we sat down in Jackson that December, and I said, “What can we do together?” “How could we adopt the teaching and legacy of the great John Perkins for our work at SPU?” And John said, “I love your students. That’s a power you have as a university to make a difference. And I think things are happening in Seattle, and at Seattle Pacific. And so maybe we could create something together.” And that was the birth of SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation.
The campus community was tremendously receptive to the initiative, and the results have been thrilling to me: the leadership of Perkins Center Director Tali Hairston, the outreach into the city, the tremendous growth in ethnic minority student enrollment, the strength of the student leadership on campus, the new reconciliation studies program. It’s reshaped us, you know?
And then there was the moment when Christian Smith, author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, spoke on campus for our Day of Common Learning. I’d already read his meticulously researched book. But when Chris laid out so clearly the biblical illiteracy and theological shallowness in the younger generation and in the church generally — it was extremely powerful. Devastating, actually. I told him right on the stage, “As a Christian university, we’ve got to do something about this.”
I had no idea what I was saying, but we talked further and some great people at SPU began to develop a plan. I made a trip to the Murdock Trust and asked “Can you help us?” and eventually they provided significant funding to establish the Center for Biblical and Theological Education on campus. The new online Lectio: Guided Bible Reading and conferences for church leaders such as this fall’s “Scripture as Formation” with Eugene Peterson are just some of the efforts aimed at helping to provide solid biblical and theological resources for the church.
Along with the kinds of high moments I’ve just described, there are points where you have to grip down. I think that September 2008, when the recession went off like a bombshell, was one of those. We were afraid, along with everybody else, about what would happen in the world, and for the University.
And while I don’t consider that a turning point, I do consider it a very significant challenge for the leadership of the institution. We had to do some critical soul searching about our responsibilities as leaders in the situation. And we did.
And I believe we have flourished through it all. I look at the major growth in our applicant pool and overall enrollment and just say “thank you.” I thank all of those who have worked so hard to meet the needs of our students and families, and I thank God, because I truly believe his blessing is on this place. There are also cultural challenges — on any number of issues — that can cause sleepless nights. For instance, the gay community, challenging where we stand as a Christian institution on human sexuality, forces me, as almost no other issue, to the Scriptures and to the theologians and to the ancient teaching of our faith tradition for wisdom — especially because it involves the lives and well-being of our students.
But I think those kinds of challenges are important moments in my leadership. They intensify things, because we are doing what a Christian university ought to do: engage the culture in so many ways. We can’t take to the sidelines, and we have to know where we stand and why.
Well, I do think there’s something I discovered very early on as president, and that is that I’m a person driven by ideas. I’m enlivened by ideas and by thinking, reading, and writing, and I need to devote time to those things in order to be effective as a leader. The pressures are on a president to be active, moving, and speaking — and I love all those things. But time in the study means that I have something of substance to communicate.
Leading with ideas is important to me. I have been inspired recently by the author and poet Wendell Berry’s new book on the poet William Carlos Williams. Berry rediscovered Williams and that prompted me to go back and rediscover him as well. And you can’t believe how many books I‘ve pulled out that I once taught in the classroom and that I think can be relevant to what we’re doing at SPU.
Williams has this great line that’s often quoted: “no ideas but in things.” And that’s the poet in me, too. Ideas have to connect to concrete things. I have to spend time in the study, and then put ideas into action.
I gave an interview recently to a reporter from The Seattle Times who was writing an article about why Christians are beginning to emphasize the arts when they never have before. That was her assumption. And then I went that same weekend to the 50-year anniversary celebration of the SPU Theatre Department, and I thought, “This reporter just doesn’t have the whole story.” SPU has been producing quality theatre for half a century, and our graduates are leaders in theatre in the community.”
In fact, Christians have been working at the arts from the very beginning. Throughout history, some of the world’s greatest art comes out of the Christian church. Whatever the reporter’s assumptions about Christians and the arts, there’s no doubt that it’s absolutely essential for Christians to express themselves with excellence through the arts. It’s critical to the life of the church, and it has a tremendous role in shaping culture. That’s why the arts programs at Seattle Pacific are so important.
On campus, there is much that artists and the artistic process can teach all of us. They teach us about creativity and beauty and the joy of discovery. They teach us ways of paying attention. They teach us new ways of understanding
One way for me to answer that question is to talk about Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom, which I’ve just finished reading and wrote about on my blog. It’s acclaimed as a great American novel. But it’s art that, no matter how beautifully crafted, in my opinion has no redemptive purpose in the end. I have impatience anymore when I engage with art with that kind of flatness of utter cynicism or despair.
Finishing that novel helped me think about what I require of an experience of art or literature at this stage in my life. I guess ultimately, for me, some kind of redemptive purpose is essential. So that even if it’s art about darkness, I think it should help us understand the darkness, or point a way to the light.
I suppose there are artists who will sneer at me for saying this, but I guess I don’t see the value in an esoteric, self-indulgent kind of art. I hope artists who are Christians will think through, as I know they do, “How can my art make a difference for people? How can my art make things better, make things more beautiful, make life more meaningful?” I know this kind of language is out of vogue, but that’s my notion of art.
To do this, artists need freedom to flourish, and I believe that’s something so important for us at SPU and in the church. Ancient Christian history tells us that. The open expression of the Christian experience through art is one of the rich, rich parts of our heritage.
I’m reading of all things right now St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s amazing. He was living in a time when the Christian faith was losing its grip on culture — first there was a collapse of classical culture, then a collapse of Christian culture. It was the 13th century.
Aquinas was a master teacher, and committed to scholarship with a redemptive purpose. There happened to be a lot of skepticism and horror at the time about the possibility that Aristotle had been focused too much on the physical, the senses, the body, and Aquinas redeemed that as well. He said, “No, looking at the physical, what is in front of us, is a way of seeing the luminous presence of the spirit.” And I love that. I love that idea, and I think that’s what real artists do. They discover the luminous in the actual.
I had a moving experience recently. I drove to see a longtime friend of mine and of SPU, who’d been through some real physical suffering. He told me that in the darkness of that near-death experience — you should have heard him, it was unbelievable — he said, “I discovered the heart of the gospel, and in what could have been separation from God, I discovered a closeness to God.”
The he said, “Phil, that’s the Cross. Is there any chance that we could discover what the gospel is really all about in need and in suffering and in loss?”
I think that that’s the way I would answer your question. In the heart of darkness is the cross. And out of that shines God’s glory and gift and grace and graciousness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
I am certainly no expert in art, but in the spirit of someone who has been influenced by painting in particular, there are two pieces that have influenced me greatly, and they’re very, very different. I’ve been blessed to see the originals of both of these, and I have reproductions of each in my study.
Hanging over my desk in my study at home is Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It is the father standing over the son, who has just returned, and the son is kneeling, and the illumination in that picture, Rembrandt’s beautiful use of light, we catch a glimpse of the father’s love and grace. It is all just so powerful to me.
Part of my attraction, I suppose, comes from that fact I had a very strong father in my life who was not always grace-filled. This picture is so meaningful to me because this father is loving — and, oh, what a beautiful piece of art. And I have actually seen it in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in Russia.
The other piece is an Edward Hopper painting called “Early Sunday Morning,” which also hangs in my study. I’m a big fan of Hopper’s. I carry him everywhere I go, that Sunday Morning painting.
The painting is so wonderfully peaceful, and dazzling in its understanding of light and shadow. It is early morning, the light is coming up over a deserted cityscape. It could be a small town, the feel for me is city. And I just love it. I saw the original too in a Hopper show in San Francisco.
Yikes, this is a hard question. Of course, like anyone, I’ve changed a great deal since I was in college, though I still love the things I studied back then. For me that was literature, economics, and theology. But I think I might take Greek — New Testament Greek and perhaps classical Greek — if I were to go back today. I have this deep desire to study great and meaningful text, especially the Scriptures, in the original language. Maybe someday.
I probably would also take theology classes. I’ve read a great deal of theology, but wouldn’t it be great to get some real training from the wonderful people we have on our faculty, people for whom I have such enormous respect?
I told [Associate Professor of Music] Stephen Newby one time that I wanted to play the piano like him when I get to heaven. So I might get started with piano classes.
Ever gracious, Sharon and Philip Eaton have hosted many thousands of people in their campus home. One year, Sharon planned receptions for more than a thousand guests at Christmas alone.
Sharon has been a vital partner with me every step of the way. I can’t imagine doing all I am called upon to do without her: the long processing discussions over dinner; the constant companion at the zillion events we attend; the encourager when the going gets tough. She loves this school and our people and our students as much as I do, of course.
And can you imagine me throwing a dinner with the kind of graciousness she always pulls off? Not a chance. I’m proud of the grace and the beauty she brings to the party over our 15 years in this role.
I am always thinking about momentum. Where are we going? How can we strengthen what we are doing now? Where will the resources come from? How will we ground whatever we do on our clear vision and purpose?
But what’s next for SPU? As always we have building projects on the drawing boards, but the buildings or resources are never ends in themselves. It is about truly engaging the culture and making a real difference in the world. That’s what drives me.
When I hear the stories of our faculty and our staff and our students and our alums out there — living the vision, that’s what gets me up in the morning after 15 years. I want to support that in every way I can. That’s what I want to do as well, to live the vision.
It’s those stories that make up the life of a place. We all have individual stories that shape the overall story of our lives, and an institution does as well. SPU has its storytellers, and their stories are resonant, meaningful, even artful. It’s through these storytellers that the vision of this place lives.
As I talk about my 15 years here, it so often comes out through story, of people — amazing people — I‘ve known here, conversations I remember, experiences I’ve had with the gifted people of this place. There are just too many stories to tell here, of course, but that’s the anchoring center of the meaning of my life at SPU.