Seeking a
Scholarship of

Provost Bruce
Murphy Brings
Life's Lessons
to the Ivory

by Jennifer
Johnson Gilnett


















Last fall's Faculty Retreat at Camp Casey was the scene for Murphy's first official presentation to faculty. The provost is "a deeply caring and wise leader," says Faculty Chair Les Steele.

Sweating in the humid Saigon evening, the American colonel leaned across the table and fixed First Lieutenant Bruce Murphy with a weary gaze: "Why are you doing this?...What in the h--- has happened to my country?"

Sitting back, he added, "And what have your campuses done to my son?"

For Murphy - husband, new father, and recent graduate student at Northern Illinois University - the conversation had an unreal quality. How could he be debating the morality of the war with fellow Ph.D. candidates one minute, and discussing his possible court-martial with a high-ranking US Army officer in South Vietnam the next?

It was 1969 and the world had "turned upside down" in a few short years. The war in Vietnam, race riots, political assassinations and a "general breakdown of the old ways of looking at things" had rattled the fixities of Murphy's life as the son of a middle-class Christian family in Chicago. By the mid-1960s, "It was no longer the world we had known before," he says.

But the new realities also held a "great excitement" for the youth group leader and college soccer captain who, with his wife, Diane, had plans to be a teacher. He decided to enter graduate school at a time when "love-ins" and "sit-ins" were as common as term papers and lab experiments.

"All of the sudden, everything was wide open for me," he remembers. "I was challenged to question my faith, my country, myself. It was a traumatic, but extremely productive, time for me as a Christian. Every day was an adventure."

While he stretched his mind, and his parents feared he would lose his faith, there were two "stabilizing" influences in Murphy's life. One was his wife. "Diane is a very solid person," he says. "She didn't panic when I questioned everything. She trusted me, and she trusted God."

He was also "grounded" by teaching a Sunday School class of adults who were "willing to talk about anything" and with whom he is still in touch today. "They wanted me to interpret what was happening on campus. In the process, they helped me work through both the moral breakdown and the moral strengthening that was going on in the '60s."

Murphy had so far escaped being sent to Vietnam, but as soon as his doctoral fellowship ran out, he was called to active duty. Assigned to Army Intelligence, he reported to his commanding officer in Saigon in the spring of 1969. "I had deep reservations about the war but didn't know what was true and what wasn't," he says. "Now I would see for myself."

It took only 48 hours to grasp the reality of his situation. Murphy was assigned to lead a platoon of soldiers into villages and "capture" the Viet Cong leaders. "But from official briefings we learned we were actually expected to burn the villages, essentially killing everyone. I had arrived at a time in the war when body count was everything.

"It was then I realized that ideas were one thing; real life was another. I had to decide what it meant to act on my beliefs."

Within a week of his arrival in Southeast Asia, Murphy notified his superiors that he could not take part in the raids. Resentment ran high. Why was this "intellectual" rocking the boat? A court-martial seemed inevitable.

Then he received an invitation to visit the apartment of his commanding officer in Saigon. What Murphy couldn't have known and what the colonel confided on their first evening together, was that he had just received a letter from his son, who was enrolled in a Quaker college in the Midwest. The young man whom his father hadn't seen in seven years wrote to say he'd become a pacifist. For the colonel, a career military man, the choice was unfathomable.

"He wanted me to explain the '60s, which he had totally missed; and he wanted me to help him understand his son," says Murphy. "For three days, we talked about what we believed in, about his convictions and mine. It was a wonderful give-and-take that I'll always remember."

After four months, Murphy was sent home from Vietnam with an honorable discharge. The colonel left him with these words: "I need people like you in my country - and you need people like me."

"He was right," says Murphy, "Part of wisdom is learning from each other."

He returned to his former life with the seeds of a new understanding about the relationship between intellect, faith and action. "If I had not had the idea-wrestling on my university campus and with my Christian friends I never would have had been ready to say 'no' when the time came. But I learned that ideas were not enough. There's also a very practical, out-in-the-world, living-life testing of the truth."

He spent the next 28 years pursuing "the kind of scholarship that leads to effective Christian witness and stewardship." After completing his doctoral dissertation in 19th century British history, Murphy taught at two different colleges, headed a lay academy of Christian studies at La Jolla Presbyterian Church in California, and served as pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle.

While Bruce Murphy leads the academic program at SPU, Diane Murphy teaches education across town at Seattle University. The couple has two children: Chris and Karen.

In 1996, a former colleague invited Murphy to consider another avenue of service. Seattle Pacific University President Philip Eaton, who taught with Murphy at Whitworth College in the 1980s, asked his friend to become a candidate for the position of provost at SPU. "We were looking for an academic leader who had a passion for the spiritual formation of students," says Eaton. "I thought of Bruce."

Murphy was unsure he wanted to leave the church, but gradually began to see the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. "From the time I graduated from college, the dream that was in me was leadership in Christian education. I've always had this deep-down way of encountering God and experiencing faith that has been connected to education, connected to thinking. It has been the core of my identity."

In the parlance of higher education, a provost is the chief academic officer of a university. At Seattle Pacific, however, says Eaton, "academics are also informed by our Christian faith. That means the provost is both an academic and a spiritual leader."

It's a role that suits Murphy well. "Bruce is a provost-pastor whose understanding of his role transcends the routines of the academy to include interpersonal concerns," says Professor of Religion Rob Wall. "Faculty trust this man; we believe that our opinions, as diverse as they are, will be considered in any decision he makes."

In his first six months on the job, Murphy has been active in shaping the educational component of Eaton's "Comprehensive Plan for the 21st Century" and has laid out his vision for pursuing a "scholarship of wisdom" at SPU. "I want faculty and students to have a passion for learning and a passion for using their knowledge to change the world - not in a 1960s revolutionary sense, but in the sense of being an agent of God's kingdom. That's what I call wisdom."

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