Seattle Pacific University president Philip Eaton cuts the ivy held by students  from the Class of 2012 on June 8. The 90-year old “Ivy Cutting” tradition, held in Tiffany Loop on campus, signifies both the student ties to SPU and the independence that comes with graduation.

Courtesy of SPU 
 

Seattle Pacific University president Philip Eaton cuts the ivy held by students  from the Class of 2012 on June 8. The 90-year old “Ivy Cutting” tradition, held in Tiffany Loop on campus, signifies both the student ties to SPU and the independence that comes with graduation.

Courtesy of SPU 

 

On the corner of West Bertona Street and Third Avenue West, a red sign emblazoned with the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) crest faces the busy, outside world. Written on the back of the sign, less visible in sanctuary-like tree shade, are these words:

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.

  Micah 6:8

The two-sided message is apt.

As SPU President Philip Eaton packs his bags before his June 30 retirement, he can look back on a 17-year tenure that has elevated the private university’s public profile and redoubled the quiet, Biblically based “good works” efforts SPU students and alumni undertake in the world beyond campus.

“We try to graduate people of competence and character, integrity and honesty,” Eaton reflected.

Eaton, 69, came into office in 1996, after the university had gone through two presidents in five years. Those were not happy times.

“You can walk into a community and sense where there is suspicion and cynicism,” Eaton said. “We want none of that.”

Under Eaton, the world beyond campus has also come to SPU. Eaton says a decade ago 6 percent of SPU’s enrollment was made up of students of color; he reports that number is now 30 percent. And applications for enrollment are way up for the school U.S. News & World Report lists as one of best in the west.

The First Free Methodist university, founded in 1891, occupies 43 green acres on Queen Anne’s north slope. Even with a student enrollment of more than 4,000, for most of Queen Anne, SPU might as well be on the dark side of the moon, so relatively quiet is its presence.

There have been the occasional flare-ups over the years, usually concerning land-use. Other contretemps that have made the news reflect the occasional friction between the Christian university’s values and other perspectives. (More on that later).

The university’s mantra, “Engaging the Culture, Changing the World,” is also the title of Eaton’s first book, published last year, which employs the clear-eyed subtitle: “The Christian University in a Post-Christian World.”

Eaton is an intellectual, an academic man of ideas. Among other things, his book is a highly readable take on our culture, past and present. The former professor of English and American literature writes about T.S. Eliot, Frederick Nietzsche, the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and modern author Tom Wolfe with equal fluency. What is less known about Eaton is his extensive background in property management and development. Eaton is at home in town or gown, a necessary attribute for someone overseeing an annual operating budget of $128 million and 600 employees.

“My business instincts are, you grow or die,” Eaton said. “I believe it’s true for universities: You’ve got to grow.”

 

Old-line Phoenix family

 Brought up in a religious household, Eaton was born in Phoenix, Ariz. during the first years of America’s involvement of World War II. Phoenix was a town of some 30,000 then.  His father, a businessman and developer, rode the post-War wave of Sunbelt migration. Eaton’s brother, a lawyer, is part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns. 

After earning his bachelor’s degree in English from Whitworth College in Spokane, Eaton returned to his home state for his master’s degree in English and American literature at Arizona State University. He completed his postdoctoral work at the University of California-San Diego and moved on to teach at Whitworth for 17 years.

Eaton, whose father never went to college, had experienced paternal perplexity when he entered academia. Only when Eaton became president of SPU could his father finally relate: “He understood I was running a business.”

In the mid-1980s, Eaton took a break to work in the family business, which doubtlessly made him the only commercial and industrial property developer in Phoenix with a doctorate degree in English.

Eight years later, after Whitworth’s president resigned, Eaton, on the search committee for a replacement, was asked to serve as interim president.

After balking, he stepped up to the post. When the year was over and the moving van was literally in the driveway for the return home, SPU called.

“This was a crossroads for my family,” Eaton remembered. “I was expected to carry on the business. To this day I still don’t know how they found out about me.”

After serving two years as vice president Eaton assumed the troubled SPU presidency in 1996 and told assembled faculty, “I’m here for the long haul.” He still remembers their applause.

 

Bumps: There’ve been a few

 The administration got off to a rocky start with the flap over Christian poet Scott Cairns, whose invitation to join the university was yanked after a previously published poem in the Paris Review came to light: The poem described a poet’s declaration to his muse in vividly randy terms.

Several years later “Image,” a journal of “Art, Faith and Mystery,” published by Gregory Wolfe, found a home on campus. “Image” carries considerable weight in the literary world; among the poets it publishes is Scott Cairns. Whether inviting Wolfe to take up residence on campus was a form of atonement can’t be known, but Wolfe has gone on to build the university’s MFA program in creative writing into one of the most respected in the country.

There have been other flaps.

Last year, the university’s unofficial LGBTQ club, Haven, was told it was not recognized and, therefore, could not reserve space on campus for its meetings. Public reaction made the administration think again. Haven now enjoys official club status.

Land use, university expansion and neighbor unease have been long-running themes, most recently captured in SPU’s sale of three parcels of land, which included the area containing the Langley Tennis Courts just north of the Queen Anne Bowl. SPU sold that property to Aegis Assisted Living. Money from the sale will help pay for a proposed $74 million music, theater and art center on campus. 

Eaton said the university worked hard to find a buyer whose mission was congruent with the university’s. 

“We have tried to commit ourselves to be good neighbors,” he said.

 

More outreach

 The university’s increased outreach efforts have been less visible to the public.

SPU students are present in various parts of Seattle — working in homeless shelters, tutoring, cleaning parks and trails. Student interns have been a mainstay at the Queen Anne Helpline for years.

The John Perkins Center, founded in 2004, is a nexus for campus outreach, sending students on short missions to foreign countries and across the city in the name of racial reconciliation. The Rev. John Perkins is a sharecropper’s son and evangelical civil rights leader based in Mississippi. Eaton accompanied a group of SPU students who journeyed to meet Perkins on his home ground and to help build houses for the poor.

“I experienced an encounter with John Perkins that changed my life,” Eaton said. The Perkins Center is now a fundamental component of the university’s identity.

Many Seattle’s community leaders know of Eaton through his annual Downtown Business Breakfasts, which attract some 1200 invitees and nationally known speakers.  In April New York Times columnist and radio and TV commentator David Brooks spoke on “The Humility Code,” noting, as he put it, “the shift from a culture of self-effacement to a culture of self-advertisement.”

But perhaps it was last winter’s Tent City 3 experience that best speaks to the school’s strengthened sense of mission.

The tents on Wallace Field were about more than just having a place for the homeless to camp. The university’s committed welcome mat, and the interaction between students and Tent City residents, who were provided with hot meals every day, marked a new level of acceptance for the group.

“We’ve tried to bring the powerful tool of the university to bear on the needs of the world,” Eaton said. “It certainly is a needy world.”

Incoming president Daniel Martin, 45, from Mount Vernon Nazarene University of Ohio will assume his duties July 1. Martin has a law degree, an MBA and a doctorate degree in higher education management.

Eaton and his wife, Sharon, parents of three grown sons, will move to a downtown condo. Eaton says he’s counted 73 boxes full of books.

He loves to read; he encourages his students to read. “We’re giving up something as a society if we give up the riches of the past,” Eaton said. “Civilization will not sustain itself on 140 characters.”