From Bjug J. Harstad to Allan Belton, it’s been a long, extraordinary journey at Pacific Lutheran University. The Pierce County liberal-arts institution has had only 13 presidents in 130 years, so last week’s announcement that Belton would step up to become No. 14 was a big deal.
Belton, a stabilizing force as PLU’s interim president the last two years, didn’t follow a traditional route to academic leadership.
A corporate banker for 25 years before he was hired as PLU’s chief administrative officer in 2015, Belton is the first president in school history who doesn’t have either “Dr.” or “Pastor” in front of his name. A member of the United Church of Christ, he’s only the second president whose background isn’t Lutheran. (His predecessor, Thomas Krise, was Episcopalian.)
Belton, 52, is in many ways an unlikely choice, though a promising one.
His financial skills steered the 3,100-student university through an enrollment lull that required painful program cuts. He’s also had a hand in some crucial image repair after the clumsy sale of KPLU, the beloved university-owned radio station, under the previous administration.
We wish Belton success, not only as PLU’s figurehead, ambassador and fundraiser-in-chief, but as what he calls the “unofficial mayor of Parkland.” It’s easy to root for someone who was the first in his family to earn a college degree.
Unfortunately, the PLU board of regents, in selecting Belton, took a curious approach not unlike that taken by the Tacoma City Council when it promoted its interim city manager two years ago:
Conduct a lengthy national search. Bring in a handful of well-traveled candidates with deep resumes. Introduce them to stakeholders during public meet-and-greet sessions. Then suddenly close the book on those candidates, turn to a comfortable insider who hadn’t been in the running and ask him/her to accept the job.
Eleventh-hour improvisation is a messy way for a multi-million dollar organization to make its most important hire. (Not to mention an indictment on the value of expensive headhunting firms.)
The convoluted process also meant stakeholders couldn’t properly size up their new leader. There was no opportunity to ask questions, no chance to measure him/her against the competition, no time for pushback or buy-in.
Rather than dwell on the past, however, let’s take a moment to focus on some ways Belton can assure the broad PLU community — students, faculty, alumni, donors and neighbors — that he’s the right person for the job.
* Restore fundraising prowess. Student scholarships, state-of-the-art facilities and other priorities aren’t cheap. Can PLU return to the days of hugely successful fundraising campaigns, for which 20-year President Loren Anderson was known before he retired in 2012? That’s a high bar, but one Belton should reach for.
* Double down on the university’s strengths. Belton has the right idea with plans to expand PLU’s highly regarded School of Nursing. He also knows PLU has a special responsibility to educate students from the South Sound, including through its 253 College Bound Scholarship Program. Those are assets worth building on.
* Affirm PLU’s faith-based principles and Lutheran identity. Belton, a Yakima Valley native whose wife, Melinda, is a Lute alumna, is attuned to PLU’s culture more than any of those three outside candidates would have been. On a podcast last fall called “Because We’re Lutheran,” he stressed the importance of finding one’s true calling, or life vocation, and the “intrinsic value of the whole creation.”
The trick for Belton is to ensure the university remains a welcoming place, respectful of diverse views, while resisting what many long-time supporters see as a steady slide toward secularism. The school’s middle name is worth defending.
Belton is fond of the catchphrase: “Because the world needs more Lutes.” He ends most of his university correspondence with it.
Here’s hoping PLU’s unlikely 14th president lives out that statement with vigor and integrity for years to come.