Upon assuming the presidency of Fresno Pacific University, André Stephens Ph.D., found equal measures of promise and challenge—he chose hope.
“I am called to the promise and renewal of this university,” Stephens said during his inauguration as 14th President of FPU on Friday, March 31, 2023.
Ceremonies began at 10:00 a.m. in the Special Events Center on the main FPU campus, 1717 S. Chestnut Ave., Fresno. The investiture pronouncement and prayer was led by Joshua Wilson, J.D., chair of the FPU Board of Trustees, and Jordan Ringhofer, M.A., FPU trustee and minister of the Pacific District Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, with which the university is affiliated.
Members of the board of trustees and university leadership team were present, as well as faculty in academic regalia, students, staff, four past presidents, community guests and members of Stephens’ family. Following inauguration the FPU community and invited guests celebrated with a picnic on the Campus Green, and President Stephens threw out the first pitch at FPU’s home baseball game against Hawaii Pacific University in the afternoon.
In his address, Stephens recognized those—several by name—who have brought FPU this far since its opening as Pacific Bible Institute in 1944. “You and I sit in the shadows of trees that we did not plant. There have been faithful women and men, servants of FPU who have been obedient to God’s call and have invested not only money, but their very lives to fulfilling the mission of this institution, “ he said. “One of my prayers for FPU is that our imagination for the future would be greater than our memory of the past. Not that we ignore or minimize the past, but that we, collectively, would have confidence in our God who is doing something new.”
“What a difference a year makes!”
The day marked the one-year anniversary of Stephens submitting his letter of interest to the presidential search committee. “What a difference a year makes!” said Stephens, who assumed the duties of the presidency July 1, 2022. “In that letter, I shared that I still believe in the power of Christian higher education. And as a Christian institution, we have an opportunity to help deepen the faith of those who believe in God and an opportunity to show the love of Christ to those who don’t believe or who are curious or questioning their faith.”
The work is to form and transform students’ hearts as they develop both in their faith and intellect. “I have many hopes and dreams for FPU, but they pale in comparison to the one singular vision that I have. That is, we would participate with God by the work of the Holy Spirit, in forming and transforming hearts of the individuals who come to our campuses,” he said. “I believe this is our collective calling.”
A Christian institution must point students to God, he said. “And by that, I mean an increasing capacity to love God and to love one another (the greatest commandment).”
Hearts and heads
The issues of the world are issues of the heart. “We need more kind people. People who have big hearts, not just big heads. I want students to know we have a big God. We make God big and our issues small,” he said. “Our problems call for a God who is bigger. A God who redeems and restores; a God who shows the ultimate grace and mercy by dying on a cross to take the payment of our sin and to reconcile us to himself.”
Stephens’ vision is found in the core Anabaptist distinctives that undergird the Mennonite Brethren and related Christian denominations—Jesus is the center of our faith; community is the center of our lives; reconciliation is the center of our work—and will be evidenced in the lives of students.
Negative views about the current generation are false, Stephens said. “These students are the most transformative, powerful, catalytic generation that we have seen in a long time. You have an anointing on you—the presence of God is on you.”
Affirmations from others
Special guests included speakers Shirly V. Hoogstra, J.D., president of Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), and Barry H. Corey, Ph.D., president of Biola University.
Hoogstra talked about the privilege of teaching students to love God through faith-infused academic study and community life. “And FPU, you are so fortunate that you have this president right now at this time in your history. I have known and worked alongside André and I have seen him in action. He loves Jesus deeply, he serves sacrificially, he leads empathetically, he discerns diligently, he listens patiently, he gives generously and he works steadfastly and believes the best about others consistently,” she said.
Today is evidence that God is with André Stephens and First Lady Beth Stephens, Hoogstra added. “Look around the room at the people whose hearts are beating with these words: ‘We love you. You are an amazing couple. We believe in you. You were made for this assignment at this time and at this place’.”
Corey said he has never known a leader more respected, more admired, more transparent and more energized by challenges. “I commend the board for its selection of you and Beth. You have endeared yourself to this community already. I am not surprised at the excitement I sense here today.”
In everything, students are your sacred trust, Corey told Stephens. “Few universities have the ethnic diversity of the one you lead, and all the more reason why these students need a leader like you with such a wide embrace, arms outstretched to hold them but not coddle them, challenge them but not overpower them, believe in them and not abandon them, see them and not overlook them.”
Watch the inauguration ceremony at youtube.com/watch?v=1mTsV-ItsKc
Becoming FPU president culminates Stephens’ 30 years of Christian higher education in California, most recently as vice president for student development at Biola University, where he led a team that fostered the Christian character of students in many areas of campus life. Before moving into this cabinet role, Stephens was associate vice president of university admissions. A member of Biola’s enrollment team since 1991, he started as an admissions counselor. Stephens has served as the president of the North American Coalition for Christian Admissions Professionals (NACCAP) and received the group’s “Admissions Officer of the Year” Award in 2012. He has also been a facilitator and mentor for the CCCU Leadership Development Institute and is currently chair of the CCCU Commission for Chief Student Development Officers.
Stephens completed his B.A. in Communication with a public relations emphasis from Biola, his M.A. in Speech Communication with an emphasis in intercultural/interpersonal communication from California State University at Fullerton and his Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis in higher education administration/student affairs from Claremont Graduate University. He and First Lady Beth Stephens, also a Biola graduate, have three children.
Fresno Pacific University is the Central Valley’s Christian university, connecting students’ untapped potential with unlimited opportunity for professional, personal and ethical growth. FPU offers undergraduate, graduate and seminary programs that stress solid academic preparation and a strong ethical foundation to more than 3,000 traditional and adult students on the main campus in southeast Fresno and regional campuses in North Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield and Merced as well as online. The university also reaches about 8,000 students through professional development studies.