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Californian drawn by founder’s legacy

Deana Porterfield believes she owes much of where she is today to B.T. Roberts.

Porterfield, president of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary, says it was the college founder’s promotion of progressive causes such as abolition and women’s suffrage back in the 19th century that helped pave the way for her to become president in a sector largely dominated by men.

In a more direct way, it was Roberts’ history that inspired Porterfield to move cross-country from California, where she had lived and worked her entire life, to take on the presidency at Roberts Wesleyan.

Porterfield, 48, comes to Roberts Wesleyan with progressive ideas of her own, planning to expand the college’s enrollment and reach new demographics while completing a major capital campaign.

She leads a college with 330 employees, a total enrollment of 1,762 and an operating budget of $34 million. The seminary has an operating budget of $1.6 million.

Porterfield simultaneously is addressing the challenges of changing demographics and rising costs of education.

But in looking forward she sees the influence B.T. Roberts has left on the college.

“Who we are today and the things we advocate for, the freedom to learn and serve in a faith-based way, it all comes back to Roberts,” she says.

Though Roberts initially founded the college in 1866 as Chili Seminary, it evolved to become the private, Free Methodist liberal arts university it is today.

Porterfield was named as the college and seminary’s president close to a year ago and inaugurated in September. She still has a “Just Inaugurated” sign on a shelf in her office among books on education and faith.

California native

Before moving to the region this year Porterfield had spent her entire life, both personally and professionally, in California. Originally from Watsonville near Santa Cruz, she worked at Azusa Pacific University and Azusa Online University for more than 26 years in various roles, including more than 20 years in enrollment management.

After working in the registrar and financial aid offices at the private Christian college, she was set to become the president’s chief of staff at Azusa Pacific when plans suddenly changed.

“I had the opportunity to become chief of staff, and I had a wonderful year of sabbatical to reflect,” she says. “It was going to be quite a change, going from having 165 employees under my sphere to none, but when I was just about to return another vice president had a heart attack, and I moved into a new role.”

Porterfield instead became vice president of people and organizational development, but after three years that too changed.

“I thought I would be in that role a while, but after three years they approached me to join Azusa Pacific Online, which had just launched,” Porterfield says.

The college, now referred to as University College at Azusa Pacific University, is a separate organization that offers online courses while still stressing the college’s Christian ideals.

“That was a great opportunity because it allowed me to see if an online education could have a similar impact on students, not only in their education but also in an overall transformational experience,” Porterfield says. “I saw that and came to learn both the challenges and benefits of an online education.”

She got another call, this time to inform her about an opening at Roberts Wesleyan. The college’s president, John Martin, had announced his intention to step down at the end of the 2013-14 academic year, and the board was seeking a new leader.

Porterfield says she had heard of Roberts Wesleyan College but did not know much about it. As she began to research it, one of the first things she did was look up the history of the college and its founder.

B.T. Roberts’ mission, to promote Christian ideals in a progressive setting, connected with Porterfield, who found herself called to move her family to New York.

“I saw where the college wanted to go, and it aligned well with my skills,” she says. “I had this real sense of calling that we needed to come here at this season.”

On the other end, the search committee was getting the same signal. Terry Taber, chairman of the boards at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary, says Porterfield stood out for her visionary leadership and deep experience in Christian higher education.

But it was more than just her resume that won her the job, Taber says.

“She was just so engaging and personable, and you could really see her passion come through,” Taber said.

Coming to Rochester
When Porterfield arrived at Roberts Wesleyan, she immediately started learning as much as possible about the college, its mission and the people who work and go to school there. Porterfield set up a listening tour with small groups of faculty and staff members, looking to understand the people and their ideas for the college.

“I wanted to know their hopes and dreams, and what they would change or what they would keep the same about Roberts Wesleyan,” she says. “What I saw overwhelmingly was the strong commitment that the faculty and staff have. People really choose to work here because of the work we do and the strong mission of the college.”

Porterfield also has been extending her outreach to the community, meeting other college presidents as well as local civic and business leaders.

In doing so, Porterfield says, she has come to appreciate the way so many interests are pulling together for the good of the region.

“Rochester has such a strong higher education base,” she says. “Other regions have that, but here they do it in such an integrated way that it really is unique.”

While Porterfield says many of the issues she faced in California are the same in New York—things like addressing the rising cost of education and making it more accessible—she has learned some of the unique challenges of the area.

Demographics are one of the most important challenges the college will face, Porterfield says. The region is seeing a decline in the number of high school graduates, she notes, making the college’s goal of growing enrollment more difficult.

Porterfield, who lives in North Chili, also has been learning about Rochester itself, taking the warmer months to explore what the region has to offer. Her family enjoyed going to the beach in Southern California, and Porterfield says they already found some nice places in the Finger Lakes and along the Lake Ontario shoreline.

The pace of Rochester is also different from California, Porterfield notes.

“I commuted the freeways in Southern California, and as I drive here I’m struck by how open it all is,” she says. “There’s just a chance to breathe and such a space and beauty. I really love the quality of life here.”

Now Porterfield and husband Doug are preparing for the upcoming winter with a bit of excitement. Porterfield was upset she was out of town when Rochester got its first snowfall this year.

“Everyone is telling me I’ll have plenty more chances to see it,” she says.

Looking ahead
Though Porterfield still numbers her time at Roberts Wesleyan in months, she has worked to create a vision for the college that includes both growth and deepening commitment to its mission.

Goals include growing enrollment and expanding programs to reach new audiences, Porterfield says.

She also wants to emphasize the college’s goal to be a transformational experience for students—academically, socially and spiritually.

“We want students to leave different than when they came here, and if we are going to graduate men and women who will have an impact on the world then this needs to be a transformational experience,” she says.

Engaging service is an important part of the approach, Porterfield says. The college aims to deepen the connection between students and the region.

“We want to take the mind and connect it to the heart and engage the hands,” she says.

Academically, the college will branch out to reach some largely untapped demographics. Roberts Wesleyan already offers programs for adult learners, and Porterfield says it is poised for even more growth.

One of the biggest goals is to increase the college’s stature within the region. Though Porterfield acknowledges the challenges of demographics that show fewer graduates coming from the region, she believes Roberts Wesleyan still has room to grow locally by gaining more name recognition.

“A lot of people know of Roberts Wesleyan but don’t really know who we are,” she says.

Porterfield says this could include expanding beyond the college’s presence on the west side of Monroe County, possibly bringing programs or a larger presence to the east side as well.

The college has some built-in advantages for these growth plans, she notes. Roberts Wesleyan recently moved from NAIA to NCAA Division II athletics—the only Division II institution within the region. The college already has seen success at that level, with both men’s and women’s cross country teams competing at the national championships.

In the fall, Roberts Wesleyan also welcomed the second-largest class in its history and is 29 percent ahead of where it was at this time last year for applications for the coming year. As the application base expands so has the academic quality of the class, with a 10 point increase in SAT scores among applicants.

The college will receive a boost from some other ongoing efforts, including a capital campaign to raise $42 million that is more than 70 percent toward its goal. The college also has its 150th anniversary coming in two years and just has finalized a strategic plan.

“The two main phases of that plan are enrollment growth, looking at what it means to be a thriving community, and shaping that enrollment by promoting new programs,” she says.

Porterfield has been successful not only at understanding the college’s mission, but also in getting others on board with her plans for the future, says David Basinger, the chief academic officer at Roberts Wesleyan.

“She’s very collaborative, and by that I mean she really wants all stakeholders to be given appropriate input and time with her,” he says. “When she does that, it helps everyone understand and accept her decisions and also work harder to implement them.”

All of these plans for growth come back to one common theme, Porterfield says—helping students to leave the college changed from when they first came and to bring that change to their own communities.

“We believe so strongly in that community experience and in everything we do we’re trying to promote that transformational idea,” she says.

Deana Porterfield
Position: President, Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary
Age: 48
Education: B.S. in music education, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, Calif.,1988; M.A. in organizational management, Azusa Pacific University, 1996; Ed.D. in organizational leadership, University of La Verne, La Verne, Calif., 2013
Family: Husband, Doug; daughters Rebecca and Allison
Residence: North Chili
Activities: Travel, going to new restaurants, biking
Quote: “I wanted to know their hopes and dreams, and what they would change or what they would keep the same about Roberts Wesleyan. What I saw overwhelmingly was the strong commitment that the faculty and staff have. People really choose to work here because of the work we do and the strong mission of the college.”

12/26/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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