“Being a college president is probably one of the toughest jobs in our country,” says Fresno Pacific University’s new president, André Stephens, noting the shrinking pool of students, growing skepticism about the return on investment in higher education and fallout from the pandemic. “Who would want to sign up for that?” he asks with a smile.
And yet, after a couple of people urged him to consider applying for the presidency at Fresno Pacific, the Mennonite Brethren university in Fresno, Calif., he felt compelled to explore the possibility.
His roots run deep at Biola University, where he most recently served as vice president for student development. He was a student there in the 1980’s and earned his undergraduate degree in communication. Transformed by his experience, he eagerly accepted Biola’s invitation to become an admissions counselor for his alma mater.
“I loved admissions and couldn’t believe they were paying me to do this,” he says. “It really didn’t feel like a job.”
Stephens set his sights on a faculty role and earned a master’s degree in communication.
“I spent some time in the classroom, but as I grew and people affirmed me in my giftings as an administrator I stayed on that track,” he says.
For 25 years, Stephens, who received his doctorate in education with an emphasis in higher education administration/student affairs from Claremont Graduate University, served Biola in admissions, eventually advancing to associate vice president of university admissions before moving into the vice president for student enrollment role.
“I’ve been at different junctures in my career where the president saw an area that needed addressing and he moved me into that,” Stephens reflects. The most challenging came in 2020 where he oversaw Biola’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That was brutal,” Stephens recalls of his team’s work navigating the complexities of Los Angeles County education mandates and the vitriol of angry constituencies. He found comfort and courage in the Apostle Paul’s declaration in Acts 17 that God has appointed times and places for people in history.
“If God has determined my time to be now, I don’t need to be afraid or try to escape his timing for my life,” he says.
As Stephens explored Fresno Pacific, he saw that the challenge of a presidency could also be part of God’s timing for his life. He recognized a match between his gifts and experience and the needs of the university.
One of the features of Fresno Pacific that intrigued Stephens is its policy allowing admission for students who do not profess a Christian faith.
“You have a ministry to students who have deep faith or no faith and anything in between,” he says. “I believe God is active in forming and transforming hearts, and this is a great opportunity to connect with people who may never darken the door of a church.”
Stephens is quick to point out that he is a firm believer in the church. Both he and his wife, Beth, are pastors’ kids and as a young couple they were part of a church plant. But, he explains, the trend is for students not to attend church. The Christian college is a place where these students can find transformation.
“We have an opportunity, a sacred call, to serve the church by helping students know the love of God and, as a result, become involved in the church community,” he says.
Fresno Pacific’s focus on serving the Hispanic and undocumented population was another factor drawing Stephens to the university.
“We are a border state,” he says, “and Fresno Pacific was among the first Christian colleges to reach out to educate our undocumented students here in California.”
Stephens grew up in an immigrant home. His parents moved to New York from Panama in the 1960’s before he was born, giving him an affinity for Hispanic immigrants. He also learned about the challenges of immigrants at the bilingual (Spanish-English) church they helped plant in South Los Angeles.
“At FPU we have a lot of first-generation college students,” he says. “If someone in your family doesn’t have a college degree, your chance of being stuck in poverty is pretty significant. We have students who are cycle-breakers.”
As to what he sees for the future of Fresno Pacific, Stephens points to demographic and societal trends. He says that the university’s programs for adult learning and degree completion have positioned it to meet that area of growth. He has already implemented some changes based on his background in enrollment management, but he contends that significant changes require collaboration.
“There is a model of leadership that one person has all the answers,” he says. “But my experience as part of Biola’s President’s Cabinet convinced me that better, more sustainable work is done when we value everyone’s voice. The leader has to make decisions, but we’re in an ecosystem together, and together we are looking for what’s best for the whole institution.”
So, with assurance of God’s timing for his own life, encouragement from the trajectory he has seen for the university’s future and confidence in a team’s ability to continue to shape that future, Stephens is ready to tackle “the hardest job in the country.”
For more, listen to the LEAD Pod interview with President Stephens https://www.buzzsprout.com/972541/11361332
Kathy Heinrichs Wiest is a freelance writer who loves the smell of whole wheat bread in the oven, the feel of an orange being plucked from the tree and the view from her front porch in Kingsburg, California. On Sunday mornings you’ll find her in the fourth pew from the front on the left at Kingsburg MB Church, moved by the hymns and praise songs and inspired by the stories of God at work locally and around the world. She and her husband, Steve, own Dovetail Remodeling. They have two grown daughters, one son-in-law and a precious granddaughter.