By Jennifer Johnson Gilnett
"Character" is a word Seattle Pacific University President Philip Eaton uses often -- whether orienting new faculty members, addressing community leaders, writing an editorial for The Seattle Times, or meeting with a potential donor. Over and over, his message is the same: SPU will engage the culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ, in part by teaching and modeling character.
It was fitting then that the John Templeton Foundation named Eaton one of 50 U.S. college and university presidents who "are setting the standard in higher education for what a leader can do to . . . prepare students for lives of personal and civic responsibility."
At the same time, SPU was named to Templeton's list of 100 "Colleges That Encourage Character Development," and four of the University's programs -- the Common Curriculum, the Center for Relationship Development, student leadership and Christian formation -- were cited as "exemplary" in terms of character development. Only four other universities nationally were commended in as many different categories.
The recognition of Eaton's contribution to character-building comes after four years as president of Seattle Pacific, during which time he has seized every opportunity to communicate the University's vision. Most recently, in speeches to the Seattle and Bellevue Rotary clubs, he spoke about the requirements of leadership in the 21st century, including "clarity of moral vision."
"I don't think we can afford much more confusion on these matters," he said to 800 businesspeople. "Truthfulness, integrity and honesty matter. Character matters greatly. . . . We say at SPU that we are preparing graduates of competence and character. We say we are providing for them the resources of wisdom and discernment, that we are giving them the model of grace-filled community. These are big aspirations -- but absolutely essential for the future health of this community and our world."
The message has had an impact. Bruce Walker, CEO of Valco Graphics in Seattle, joined a standing ovation for Eaton's Rotary speech. "The whole basis of our society is trust and honesty, and that's why SPU's vision is critically important. Phil believes very strongly that character development can be taught. It's not something you either have or don't have. It's something that can and should be developed. Believe me, he is held in very high regard."
One of the University's most prominent forums for exploring character in public life is its annual Greater Seattle Community Breakfast. Respected thinkers -- including Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will, international journalist David Aikman and, in May 2000, former Senator George Mitchell -- challenge community, business and government leaders with a variety of principled ideas.
Aikman, speaker at the breakfast in April 1999, says Eaton is the right man to facilitate a discussion about character. "The thing that distinguishes Phil as a character-building president is his Christian witness. He is bound to build character because of who he is. . . . A civilization doesn't prosper without being moral. Some good-hearted people say that if you have passion, that's all you need. But you have to match competence with character. They build on each other."
For all the talk about character, it is Eaton's own character that speaks the loudest. Max De Pree, nationally acclaimed CEO, best-selling author of Leadership is an Art and one of Eaton's mentors, says this about SPU's chief: "The most impressive thing that Phil Eaton tries to impart to students is personal integrity. He is very much the person he projects. There is no gap between his public persona and what he is. Students appreciate that. They have an incredible nose for hypocrisy."
Seattle Pacific's message, delivered with Eaton's easy, personable style, has reached across religious and cultural divides. When novelist Chaim Potok spoke on campus about the importance of values in modern life, Eaton invited local Jewish leaders into his home to meet Potok and talk about common concerns. When the ACLU took on the Washington Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (WAICU), challenging state funding to private institutions, Eaton worked hard to convey SPU's vision for Christian higher education to its most ardent detractors.
"What Phil does every day is engage the culture, sometimes in ways nobody ever sees," says Vice President for University Relations Marj Johnson. "He cares genuinely about communicating Seattle Pacific's distinctives in a way that is winsome and relevant. Driving back to campus after a particularly difficult grilling from an ACLU lawyer, I told him: 'You wanted to engage the culture -- and that's what you're doing. You're helping people to understand that we're not a narrow, self-absorbed institution, but a university with something important to say to the issues of our day.'''
For Eaton, "engaging the culture" is as intensely personal as it is communal. "I believe in it, not just as a slogan on paper, but as a way of moving forward with integrity and great effectiveness in the new millennium. Character comes down to the individual, to the choices we each make in daily life. I want students to understand that means living in the world with our eyes on Jesus Christ. If we do that, we can change the world."
Though Seattle Pacific's message is what De Pree calls "unusual, even for a Christian college," its power is clearly evident. "I believe that President Phil Eaton sets a standard that is unparalleled here in the Pacific Northwest," says Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro. "When we interview applicants from Seattle Pacific University, we know we have a better quality graduate on our hands. These are young people who know and understand values and character and working toward a positive future. Much of this is to the credit of President Eaton.