Written by The Business Journal Staff
Stephen Varvis, Provost/Senior Vice President, Professor of History
Fresno Pacific University
What we do: As a Regional Master’s Level University, Fresno Pacific University transforms people, families and communities through higher education that stresses solid academic preparation and a strong ethical foundation. The face of our student body is the face of the Valley—we are a Hispanic Serving Institution and are committed to offering opportunities to first-generation students. And we are successful! FPU has the highest four-year graduation rate of any Central Valley college or university, is one of the top 10 HSIs nationally in graduating Hispanic students and is ranked in the top tier of our category by U.S. News & World Report. We are also accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC). For us, being the region’s only comprehensive Christian university is all about living out our tagline: “Empowering leaders. Transforming lives.”
Education: Ph.D. History, Claremont Graduate University
B.A. History and English, California State University, Fresno
Family: Teri (wife) who teaches in Clovis Unified, Nathan (son) a student.
How did you come to position as Fresno Pacific University’s provost, Stephen?
I was recommended and appointed first by Merrill Ewert, Ph.D., and then by Pete Menjares, Ph.D., former president of FPU, to serve as provost, and then by Richard Kriegbaum, Ph.D., to add the responsibilities of senior vice president. I had previously served as dean and vice president of enrollment management, and in a few other capacities. I try to see the work of the university holistically and systemically, and enjoy the work of bringing together our unique mission and the needs of students and the Valley.
What will be your role as senior vice president of the university and how will you share leadership with new President Richard Kriegbaum, Stephen?
My role is to guide and ensure that the work of university is effective in educating students, and lead in creating an environment where the academic enterprise of the university flourishes and our mission is achieved. This involves everything from our budgets to our facilities, the academic programs, teaching and scholarships, student life and everything in between. I work with a team of vice presidents and deans who are very capable and experienced educators and administrators. President Kriegbaum is the head of the entire university and oversees in particular my efforts, our seminary, the spiritual life of the university, athletics and all fundraising and external relations. The president is both the public voice of the university and the person who guides the mission and vision of the university. He and I work closely together, and I serve under his general guidance.
What are some of the most popular degrees at Fresno Pacific University and why, Stephen?
Education, psychology, business, social work, nursing and kinesiology are some are our most popular and largest, though the sciences are now growing as well. We also have strong ministry programs, and specialized education credentials and master’s degrees. We continue to have strong programs in the humanities, social sciences, art and music. You can a find out more on our web page, from our “quick facts,” https://intranet.fresno.edu/sites/default/files/webformwebsite-feedbackquick-facts-14-fa.pdf
Which degree programs would you like to expand or improve upon, Stephen?
We have plans to expand many of our programs—in health care, business, art and communication, education and Christian ministries. I could go on. We are expanding our honors programs as well. We are not short of ideas, and there is no shortage of need.
How does Fresno Pacific merge academic learning with ethical and spiritual development, Stephen?
We see the two as integrally a part of each other. Our ethical and spiritual or religious sensitivities guide the way we do our work, often the work we do, and the subjects we choose to study, or projects we work on. We think it is a philosophical error to separate the two.
How do you dispel the myth that Christian universities are somehow less credible in academics, Stephen?
This is indeed a myth, and it is one that some elements of Christian churches and Christians themselves have contributed to. We are working to dispel that myth. There are several indicators that this is not the case—the work of many fine universities across the country that are openly Christian (Notre Dame and Baylor to name just two); the contributions of Christians in all professions, from the sciences, humanities and business to health care; and the deep philosophical and theological traditions of the church. No one can come away from reading St. Thomas Aquinas, or John Calvin or Isaac Newton and think that Christian thinkers are not engaged in the issues of their ages at the deepest levels. The same is true of our age. We might say that the other myth is that you have to be non-religious to be a serious thinker. I have my students read the avowed secular and even atheist thinker Jurgen Habermas, who in a 2005 colloquy with Pope Benedict argued that Europe needed to discover its religious roots. At the same time Benedict called for more reasoned understanding of religion. It shakes up the students a bit—things are much more complicated than our myths portray.
How has Fresno Pacific University changed since you first came on in 1985, Stephen?
We are much larger—about six times as large—we’ve grown from about 600 to over 3,600. We are much more diverse ethnically and religiously. Our largest denominational group is now Catholic, and our Hispanic students will soon be equal in numbers to our white students. We no longer have just one campus. We have added four regional centers. Our faculty is more diverse, and of course larger. We have more professional programs. If you walk on the campus you feel the sense of a university. Back when I started we were a very small college with a single community of faculty, students and staff. We are no longer small; we are a community of communities. Our faculty are generally more specialized in their teaching, and more intentionally engaged in research, publication and consulting with other organizations, whether school districts, business or churches. There is a lot more energy and so many events I can’t keep up with all of them. These are all good developments. We continue to be a Christian university that engages in the full range of human experience, including religious and Christian experience—this has not changed. This is at the core of what we do and think this adds great strength to a student’s education.
What are some ways FPU is working to make college more affordable, Stephen?
A university education is still one of the best deals around. At a school like FPU, students graduate much faster than in many others. So they get into their chosen professions sooner, sometimes a year or two sooner. Since this is for The Business Journal I won’t calculate the benefit. We have kept our tuition low to allow more students to attend, and we offer financial aid for merit, performance and need.
What are your roots in the San Joaquin Valley, Stephen?
I have been here since the late ‘60s, and Teri and I have lived in Fresno except for our years of graduate studies. The Valley is our home. It is hard to think of living anywhere else. I want to see it flourish and become one of the best places in the country to live. Education is one of our greatest needs.
What do you like to do in your spare time, Stephen?
We enjoy travel, gardening, reading, cycling, theater and movies, friends and family, involvement in our church and other organizations and all of the events and performances at FPU, not necessarily in that order. Living in the Valley is very rich in opportunities for friendships and interests of all kinds.