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Porterfield departs Roberts Wesleyan University ‘a better person and a better leader’

The upcoming spring commencement at Roberts Wesleyan University will be bittersweet for Deana Porterfield.


Porterfield, president of the university and Northeastern Seminary, will once again get to see students celebrate their accomplishments and receive their well-earned diplomas. It also marks the first time that students will graduate under the new institutional name of Roberts Wesleyan University.

Deana Porterfield, outgoing president of Roberts Wesleyan University and Northeastern Seminary. (Photo provided)

It will, however, be the last time Porterfield attends the ceremony in her current role.


After nine years at the helm, Porterfield is leaving the Rochester-area university and has taken a job as the next president of Seattle Pacific University in Washington.


Porterfield was Roberts Wesleyan’s first female president and has served the university and seminary since 2014. She begins her new role in July.


“This is a very special community, and I will miss it,” Porterfield said, referring to both the university and Greater Rochester region. “The history, community and energy that exists here is unlike any other.”

Roberts has roughly 1,580 students and offers over 90 graduate, undergraduate and adult-degree completion programs. Northeastern Seminary is a private Wesleyan seminary founded at Roberts in 1998.


The school has positioned itself as a leading university for character education, a discipline committed to the development of the whole person. It focuses on student growth through Christ-centered education, transformational learning and service to others.


That emphasis on character and service was one of the reasons why Porterfield was drawn to the school initially, as was the fact that it was founded by B.T. Roberts, whom she has long admired.


During her tenure, Porterfield has been an involved leader within the Rochester community and in higher education, making significant contributions to the community and beyond through her leadership and dedication to Christian higher education.

She has served on several boards and has been recognized with numerous awards for community and organizational leadership, including being named a 2021 RBJ Circle of Excellence honoree, which recognizes women of longstanding, notable success in the community who lead the way for other women.


Among her proudest achievements is the opening in January of the $13.9 million Golisano Community Engagement Center, which serves as a hub for connection, community interaction and student life resources on campus. 


Ribbon cutting ceremony for the Golisano Community Engagement Center at Roberts Wesleyan University. (Photo provided)

The 26,167-square-foot, two-story center reflects Roberts Wesleyan’s deeply rooted spiritual and community ties, serving as the first building on campus to provide centralized space for both students and the community to gather and interact, Porterfield noted.

Among the first-floor amenities are inclusive areas for learning and recreational activity, including a gaming lounge and study spaces for students.


Palmer’s Place, a grab-and-go-style café named after Dwight M. (Kip) and Amy Palmer, fifth-generation owners of Rochester-based Palmer Family of Companies, is also located on the first floor, as are offices for Student Life and Spiritual Life and the Rinker Conference Hall named in honor of the Marshall E. Rinker Sr. Foundation.


The second floor houses the offices for Career Development and International Engagement alongside a prayer chapel, commuter lounge, a forensic laboratory and the Clugston Innovation Conference Room.


The second story also functions as a workplace for Roberts Wesleyan’s custom training and certificate programs offered through the Community Institutes.


The new building helps to better position the university for growth, as does the school’s Vision 2030 strategic plan, which Porterfield believes will provide clarity and direction for the new leader during this transition.


Porterfield, who came to the region from the west coast, said her time in the Rochester area will leave a lasting impression.


“I’m thankful for the way the Rochester community has shaped me,” she said. “I’m a better person and a better leader because of being here and for that, I’m thankful.”


Like Roberts Wesleyan, Seattle Pacific is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church of North America.


Roberts was the first educational institution established by the Free Methodists in 1866. SPU – which is undergoing its own transformation – was founded in 1891.


That affiliation, along with the opportunity to be closer to family, influenced her decision to accept the job offer, Porterfield said.


Dean Kato, chair of the Seattle Pacific’s board of trustees, said Porterfield — who was selected after a national search — comes to the school with a lifetime of work in Christian higher education.


“Not only is (Porterfield) a demonstrated leader in enrollment, fundraising and new program development, but she is also passionate about building relationships with students and community partners,” he said.


A national search is now underway to identify the next president of Roberts and Northeastern Seminary.


Terry Taber

Terry Taber, chair of the Roberts Wesleyan University and Northeastern Seminary boards of trustees, is leading the 15-member presidential search committee that is working with executive search management firm FaithSearch Partners.


The goal is to have a new president in place before the start of the 2023-2024 academic year, he said.

Once named, the successful candidate will become the 12th president of the university and fourth president of the seminary.


The board is looking for a leader who not only embraces the institutions’ spiritual philosophies within Christian higher education but who will further the 157-year legacy of strategic advancement, Taber noted.


Taber, who was board of trustees’ chair when Porterfield was hired, said she is an innovative thinker who led the charge to establish the identity of Roberts and what it means to be a Christian higher education institute in the 21st Century.


Among her many accomplishments at the school include overseeing the creation of its first Ph.D. program, providing more individualized pathways for undergraduates and spearheading the opening of the Golisano Community Engagement Center.


Additionally, Porterfield excelled when engaging with faculty, staff and students.


Her impact left such an impression, in fact, that a student on the presidential search committee has said the new leader should be as open and engaging as Porterfield was with the students, he noted.


Taber said the positive changes Porterfield has made have created a stronger identity and a forward motion for the university.


“Her legacy will live well beyond her tenure,” he said.


[email protected] / (585) 653-4021   

Three women poised to take first-ever higher-ed leadership roles

On Monday, three women will create history in the Rochester area as each one officially becomes the first woman to preside over her respective college or university.

Angela Sims
Angela D. Sims

As University of Rochester, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School all welcome their new presidents, seven out of 12 colleges in Monroe County and its bordering counties will be led by women and six will be first-female presidents.

The percentage of female presidents locally will be nearly double the national average of 30.1 percent.

“My first thought is Susan B. Anthony must be smiling down on Rochester right now!” wrote Anne M. Kress, president of MCC.

RBJ interviewed by email the Rochester area’s four current female presidents about advice they might have for the new presidents and their thoughts on the wave of women in higher education. They are:

  • Kress, president of MCC since 2009;
  • Deana L. Porterfield, president of Roberts Wesleyan College since 2014;
  • Heidi Macpherson, president of SUNY Brockport since 2015;
  • and Denise Battles, president of SUNY Geneseo since 2015.

The first three were breakers of glass ceilings at their institutions. Battles is the second permanent female president at Geneseo. (A female interim president immediately preceded her.)

The three new presidents reporting to duty Monday are:

  • Sarah C. Mangelsdorf, who is coming to UR from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she has been provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
  • Joyce P. Jacobsen, who has already introduced herself at Hobart and William Smith Colleges through podcast interviews, comes from Wesleyan University, where she served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
  • Angela D. Sims will lead Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School in its new location on North Goodman Street. She was dean and vice president of institutional advancement at Saint Paul School of Theology in Leawood, Kan., and Oklahoma City, Okla. Sims has the distinction of being the first African-American woman to head a local college, as noted by Rochester City Mayor Lovely Warren when Sims’ appointment was announced.
Incoming University of Rochester president Sarah C. Mangelsdorf is pictured during a visit to the River Campus December 17th, 2018. Mangelsdorf will assume duties at the University in July 2019. // photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester
Sarah C. Mangelsdorf

“The fact that these three campuses represent vastly different institutional types – a research university, theological institution and liberal arts college – is particularly noteworthy,” Battles said. “For example, national data show that women are far less likely to lead research universities than, say community colleges.”

Being on the leading edge of a national trend may not be the first thing Mangelsdorf, Jacobsen and Sims deal with Monday morning. Besides familiarizing themselves with the lay of the land, the location of the presidential restroom, and the names of their staff, all three will be in some uncharted territory; none have been presidents before. That’s not unusual for top academic administrators in the Rochester area, regardless of gender. Candidates for these jobs often have their first presidential-level job at colleges and universities here before either moving on or retiring.

Joyce P. Jacobsen
Joyce P. Jacobsen

Those who’ve gained experience on the job locally suggested the three be true to themselves.

“Be yourself; your authentic voice and vision of leadership was central to your selection as president,” Kress said.

“Lead from your strengths,” offered Porterfield.

Another common suggestion was to start off by learning the institution and its culture.

“It is important to value what was done before and also create new strategic pathways for the institution using your gifts and abilities,” Porterfield said.

Kress added, “Honor the past while preparing for the future: As you learn more about the history and culture of the extraordinary institution you lead, you will learn how your unique experiences will help it advance and thrive in the years ahead.”

Macpherson also stressed transparency.

“A successful presidency is about communications, transparency and clarity,” she said. “People don’t have to agree with all of your decisions, but if they understand why you’ve made them, they will accept them. It’s important to establish early on how you work with others, and how you want others to work with you.’

Macpherson also brought up the invisibility that women – even at the presidential level – sometimes experience.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” she said. “There will be times when you enter a room and people won’t realize you are the president. They may even address someone else standing next to you. How you handle those moments will be remembered.”

Kress, the most experienced female college president in the area, also suggested the newbies reach out to their colleagues. “The depth and diversity of leadership within the Rochester region is powerful, and your new community stands ready to support your success.”

According to a study by the American Council on Education, though the percentage of female presidents across the country is growing, the rate was slower between 2001 and 2016 than it was in the previous 14 years. And upon closer examination of the 2016 statistics, when 30.1 percent of colleges and universities had female presidents, the study found that women are more likely to be presidents at community colleges and limited-scope institutions than universities with greater resources, as Battles pointed out.

Private nonprofit colleges had a female presidential rate of 27.3 percent while public institutions were at almost 33 percent and community colleges hit 36 percent, according to the June 20 edition of Inside Higher Ed.   

The article also reported that public colleges and universities are about twice as likely to hire minority presidents as are private ones. Perhaps surprisingly, while many African American administrators are trained at historically black colleges and universities, the percentage of those institutions that have black presidents is declining.

But with seven out of 12 –  58.33 percent – colleges in Monroe County and its bordering counties now having women at the helm, Rochester is certainly ahead of the curve.

“It is extremely exciting to think that the Rochester area is leading the way across the country in female presidents of higher education institutions,” Porterfield said. “It is fitting that in the birthplace of women’s rights that we would be a model for women leaders.”

Several of the current presidents said the wave of female presidents can only inspire other women to do the same. “If she can see it, she can be it,” Macpherson said, echoing the motto of the Geena Davis Institution on Gender in Media. “I like to think that motto works for higher education, too.”

Women now in presidential seats owe a debt of gratitude to their female forebears, Kress said. “Their success in the face of great odds opened the door for us. We need to do the same.”

Macpherson said concerted efforts to mentor women, along with the American Council on Education’s “Moving the Needle” campaign, have helped move the percentages in the direction of parity, even though they haven’t reach the goal yet.  Moving the Needle has set a goal of parity by 2030.

“Women in positions of influence can and should help with this; we recognize the barriers that women might face (both internally and externally,) since we faced them ourselves. And we can purposefully offer women opportunities to demonstrate their ability to success,” Macpherson said.

Battles added demographic shifts are playing a role, too.

“Part of that increase is no doubt attributable to greater numbers of women in the higher education pipeline,” she said. “As more women enter academia, those qualified for the role of president also increases.”

Indeed, “women make up the majority of students pursuing undergraduate degrees in the U.S., and the same is true in our region. Yet, only about a third of college presidencies are held by women, so it is powerful and empowering that women studying in the Rochester area can look to the leadership of their college or university and see themselves,” Kress said. “In turn, the women leading these institutions will undoubtedly reflect back on the challenges they experienced in reaching these positions and work to remove them for the next generation of leaders.”

Last week, as outgoing UR President Richard Feldman bid farewell to many of his colleagues, he took pains to note that he has faith that Mangelsdorf will be a great president and said she was hired because she was the best candidate.

But two local female presidents said woman also bring unique gifts and challenges to the presidential suite, too.

“Research shows that women lead using different gifts and skills in building teams, creating vision and moving communities forward,” Porterfield said. They create “robust community engagement and communication,” she said.

And they disproportionately face family responsibilities that conflict with career progression, Battles noted.

“Data show that women presidents are twice as likely as men to have altered their career progression to care for others. Those life choices can influence a person’s desire or opportunities to pursue, assume or continue a presidency,” Battles said.

[email protected]/(585) 363-7275


Other women have served at area colleges

It should be noted that the MCC, Roberts, Brockport and Geneseo presidents are not the only female presidents who have served in the Rochester area. Nazareth College, founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph as a college for women, has had six female presidents, starting with Mother Sylvester Tindell in 1924.

Three of the last four presidents at Nazareth have been men and all of them came after that school went coeducational in 1971. President Daan Braveman plans to step down in 2020, so it’s possible Nazareth could return to female leadership then.

St. John Fisher, which started as a college for men, also went co-ed in the early 1970s and more than two decades later was led by Katherine Keough from 1996 until her death in 2006.

And Finger Lakes Community College was the first community college in the area to hire a female president: Barbara Risser, who served from 2007 to 2016.

The first woman to be president at Geneseo was Carol C. Harter, who served from 1989 to 1995, when she left to become president at University of Nevada, Los Vegas. There she became that institution’s longest-serving president.

Of 12 local schools, only Rochester Institute of Technology and Genesee Community College have never had a female president.

Diana Louise Carter