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WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
An unabashed evangelical on a secular mission
He chooses his words carefully and doesn't stray far from the point. When excited, his voice gets softer, not louder, and when feeling the need to emphasize, he exclaims, "golly!" or "super!"
His office at work is large and sterile, so ordered that the only thing close to clutter are a few lonely piles of paperwork, and even they seem precisely arranged. Books are encased behind glass and wood doors against one wall. He sits on one of two couches by a square coffee table, barren other than a few coasters, sipping water and looking serene.
"I had a doctor's appointment yesterday," says Eaton, 59, "and I told him, 'You know, I am really high-strung.' I think somehow I look calm, but I'm pushing and churning inside all the time. I have a lot to learn about pace and balance."
In fact, by the time he arrived at work, he had already glanced at some of the four newspapers that pile up on his doorstep and worked on an op-ed piece inside his home office. He works almost every Saturday and, despite forcing himself to take Sundays off as part of honoring the Sabbath, he invariably sneaks back to work before dark.
His business is especially complex. The product is higher education, the brand is Christian, and the long-range goal is to change the world. Since becoming president of Seattle Pacific University almost seven years ago, Eaton has faced the standard pressures rising expenses and tuition, squeezed revenues, more ambitious graduation-rate goals, complex relationships with faculty, trustees and donors. Yet, that is not enough.
In fact, the school mantra Eaton has been pushing "engage the culture; change the world" is as ubiquitous as it is ambitious. The words hang on campus banners, syllabuses and university publications, and, lately, on the lips of community leaders, thanks to Eaton's low-key but persistent stumping. When the student newspaper lampooned his high-concept language in a recent joke edition, Eaton grinned, knowing the message had been absorbed.
Setting the tone within a private university of 3,600 students is one thing, but much of Eaton's mission is spreading the word beyond the small campus tucked at the foot of Queen Anne Hill's north side. He has a warm, deferential tone, yet is firm with resolve and careful to neither preach nor soft-pedal his faith. He calls the approach the "radical middle," a path that makes a target for extreme ends of both Christian and secular worlds. But how else, he asks, is the school going to make the world a better place if it doesn't try?
"When you take this posture you're going to get shot at from both sides," he says. "And I've gotten arrows in both shoulders, but that's OK because the worst thing an institution like this can be is irrelevant."
THE JOB REQUIREMENTS faith, education and business shaped Eaton's life. He believes God had a hand in delivering him to SPU, but so did the business challenge.
His father, Ralph, was a self-made man who grew up in a family of 12 children within a small farming community in the Ozarks. He and his brothers left home during the Depression, settling in the Phoenix area. Back then, there were perhaps 30,000 people in the Valley of the Sun.
Ralph became a farmer, but immediately borrowed what he could to buy land. His initial patch led to thousands of acres of farmland along the Colorado River in Texas as well as in Arizona. As explosive growth redefined the Phoenix area, he became one of the first large developers of industrial and business parks.
"Every night around the dinner table Dad would read stories from the Bible," Eaton recalls. "I can still hear the echoes and rhythm of his voice reading Scriptures. It was such a shaping experience. Perhaps that shaped my love of the language, writing, expression and perspective."
While the bookcase in Eaton's work office is inaccessible, the books in the office of his university-furnished home are all within arm's reach. They jam a bookcase that takes up a full wall, from floor to ceiling, and range from poetry to theology to fiction. Classics like "Moby Dick" and "Catcher in the Rye" are there, as is "Leap Over A Wall," a spiritual interpretation written by SPU alumnus and Pastor Eugene Peterson. Eaton's desk is rimmed with more piles of books three- or four-deep and stacks of newspaper clippings that caught his eye.
He reads several books at once rather than cruising from beginning to end on just one, and is a prolific, often lyrical, writer of everything from mission statements to columns to poetry. He has the curious habit of jotting ideas in blocks of words that run uphill on a page rather than straight across. Then he circles the blocks and draws arrows among them as if pasting floating thoughts.
"When I get back from a plane trip I'll tell my assistants, 'I was just thinking on the plane . . . .' and they will roll their eyes and go, 'OK, now what?' "
This is where his education and business sides merge. He left higher education in the mid-'80s to join his father in the family real-estate business. Despite sitting on the college board of trustees at Whitworth, he was entrenched in his new career when a fellow trustee tracked him down on vacation.
"I remember talking on a payphone from a Colorado highway and being asked if I'd be part of a search for a college president. I said, 'I'd love to.' Then they asked if I'd consider being the interim president. I said, 'You've got to be kidding. No way.' "
But he took the temporary job and realized how much he liked the challenge. When the year stint was over, though, he and his wife, Sharon, moved back to Arizona. Their furniture was en route when Seattle Pacific University called, offering a job as vice president for academic affairs. He still doesn't know exactly how SPU learned of him or why it called.
He felt responsibility to take over the family business, but after several months, prayers and a soul-searching family meeting, he realized running a Christian university made sense.
THE FREE METHODIST church kicked off the origins and tradition of Seattle Pacific back in 1891 when it founded Seattle Seminary, a training ground for missionaries. The first class had 34 students. The seminary had one building and five acres, a sliver of the current 45-acre campus. Free Methodists trace their origins to 1860, when they spun off from the traditional Methodist denomination, created by John Wesley. They embraced freedom in several respects, most notably in taking a stand against slavery and refusing to follow the practice of renting or selling pews, which discriminated against the poor.
All SPU students must complete the "core curriculum," put into effect in the fall of 1998. Essentially, students must complete the same seven courses no matter what their field is. The subjects include various disciplines, from theology to liberal arts to science, and are spread out through the four years to try to take into account changing levels of sophistication.
Eaton pushed to establish the curriculum requirements soon after he took leadership in 1996. The idea can be controversial among faculty, especially those whose discipline isn't included. Eaton's alma mater did it, and he felt it would unite students and help set the balance the university tries to achieve between faith, intellect and real life. So he sold the idea, pulled together discussion groups, and dug up the extra money it took.
What we ended up with probably isn't exactly what he would have chosen," said Joyce Erickson, dean of arts and sciences, who chaired the curriculum task force. "But he did a great job of building consensus and supporting it."
SPU also requires all students to put in a minimum five hours of community service each quarter, and many do far more. Each year, the total of community-service hours hits 21,000.
The ethic seeps into classrooms.
The Rev. Rick Reynolds, dressed in blue jeans and a cleric's collar, stood at the front of a classroom one afternoon last spring to give students a run-down on his real-world missionary work and invite them to help. Reynolds, who claimed to have been one of "the bad boys" when he attended SPU many years ago, is the founder and director of Operation Nightwatch, a downtown street ministry that helps the homeless find shelter and work. He talked of successes, frustrations and needs before getting to the payoff the surprise of what people in trouble can teach you about yourself.
By 7:30 one morning, nine summer-school students had gathered in the front rows of Don Holsinger's "History of the Modern Middle East" class. The course syllabus promised an examination of the region, the nature of and reactions to 19th-century Western expansion in the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict, geopolitics of oil, the effect of Islamic resurgence on Muslim-Christian relations, and, of course, the post-911 world.
Holsinger spent years teaching in the Middle East, and was part of a Christian Peacemaker Team in Palestine and Israel. He has a clear, laid-back style, kicking off the term's second class with 60 slides of both Western and Eastern culture. After each slide, students would write down whether they were looking at the Middle East or the U.S. It was not a test, just a provocative exercise to help them recognize influences and evolution, but also challenging the stereotypes and fears that have hardened on both sides.
MUCH OF EATON'S energy is spent on building bridges, too. Almost immediately after he took leadership, the school began sponsoring an annual downtown business breakfast, which draws almost 1,000 attendees. Speakers have included national figures from both ends of the political and social spectrum, from William Bennett to George Mitchell.
There is no fund-raising. The goal is two-pronged: to stimulate thought and to create a presence. In effect, to take the university downtown. All Eaton asks for is 10 minutes. He talks about issues like leadership and civility; invariably, he uses a vision metaphor.
Of course, finances are critical. The university's endowment fund of $27.5 million is up $10 million since he became president. The goal, as laid out in the school's comprehensive plan, aims for $100 million by 2008.
The social mission is just as ambitious. At the start of each school year, new students are sent out into the community to explore and learn where they can help. King County Executive Ron Sims has kicked off the rally in past years with a pep talk.
"Phil has a really vigorous sense of mission," Sims says. "He's not a noisy charismatic personality but he definitely is self-assured. He's also comfortable to be around. He gets his point across and sticks to his mission without proselytizing."
A priority for Eaton and trustees is to make the university more racially inclusive. About 85 percent of its student population is white and only about 2 percent is African-American.
Soon after announcing the goal, Eaton was introduced to former CEO and president of US West Communications Gary Ames and his wife, Barbara. The Ameses established a $1 million endowment to help people of color attend and teach at the school. The initial step is not just to change percentages but to find ways to make sure students of color feel comfortable there.
Pastor Harvey Drake, founder of the Rainier Valley-based Emerald City Outreach Ministries, is helping guide the endowment's priorities and monitoring. "I've heard his mantra time and time again, and I believe it is in his heart of hearts," Drake says. "But now we will have to see what that means in the flesh. It has to be more than a notion, and it's going to take gumption on their part. They are going to have to flex some if they are going to live the mission."
SPU's business-school faculty, meanwhile, has been writing a series of columns for Washington CEO Magazine called "Good Business." The recurring message is an extremely timely one: Ethics and human-ness need not be sacrificed for profits and shareholder satisfaction.
Eaton is a prolific writer, too. In addition to a university column, he shops op-ed pieces to newspapers, urging moral leadership and trustworthiness. He pleads for clean politics and honest business. He spotlights alumni who are both successful and ego-less. While Eaton criticizes the tendency of some Christians to be strident and overly judgmental, he also criticizes what he calls the "insatiable appetite for tolerance" in the secular culture. In an op-ed piece published two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the usually deferential Eaton took the offensive.
"For the last three decades, with philosophical foundations that go back for a century, we have built a culture of cynicism, suspicion, dividedness, shrillness and incivility. And our universities, of course, have contributed to making such a culture. So have our media and our entertainment world. We have created a cultural context for our lives that has no moral center, where all authority is under question, where the curricula of our universities have no core. . . .
"As we gazed hour by hour on those two blazing towers, that smoldering pile of bodies and rubble, somehow such a vision of our world seemed so petty, shallow and inadequate."
Terrorist threats, corporate greed and widespread cynicism shake him, but as both a Christian and businessman, he also sees opportunity. What better time for his school's message?
"We try to be as competent and articulate as we can and address the issues of the day," he says. "If we're doing those things, then I think we've earned a right at the table. If you're working to do good in the community why would anyone oppose you because you're a Christian?"
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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