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Can Character Be Measured?

SPU Aims to Examine How “People of Competence and Character” Are Formed

By Hannah Notess (

So many aspects of the university experience shape the kinds of people graduates become: classroom learning, extracurricular activities, and, above all, relationships with professors and fellow students. And all of those influences can help Seattle Pacific University graduates become “people of competence and character,” as stated in the University’s mission.

Employers notice and value that character, says Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Cindy Price. She says she commonly hears statements such as, “I hire SPU students, because they’re just different; I can’t tell you why.”

But how exactly does that character develop? And what does it look like?

Those questions are at the heart of a survey that SPU administered for the first time last year, the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory. The national survey aims to measure five qualities that students could demonstrate: striving for excellence, cultivating academic integrity, contributing to a larger community, taking seriously the perspectives of others, and developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning and action.

“I want to make sure that we’re intentional about character formation,” says Provost Jeff Van Duzer. “We put students alongside faculty who have a commitment to moral lives and thinking about big, deep questions of identity and purpose, and in the soup of mixing all that together, character development happens.”

But if we don’t try to measure what’s happening, he says, “We’re sort of relying on the magic of the soup.”

Price, who ran the survey and is analyzing the results, says initial results appear very positive, which doesn’t surprise her. “We have a student body who thinks that these traits should be reflective of who they are,” she says.

The next step? To develop a plan to further encourage students’ character development. Van Duzer is assembling a task force to pursue this goal in ways unique to Seattle Pacific’s mission. “Not every university would make this claim, that it’s in the business of character development,” he says.

Price agrees, and says that attempting to measure character helps show a more wellrounded picture of the value of a university education. “We are saying here that character development is a mission, and you can teach it.”