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.
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.
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, 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.
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