A Conversation with President Ferguson

by University Relations

An experienced and acclaimed administrator and educator, Paul W. Ferguson, Ph.D., DABT, became the 17th president of Azusa Pacific University on June 3. A Southern California native, raised in Hacienda Heights and now residing in Azusa, President Ferguson is known for spurring academic innovation and improvement, fostering effectiveness in administrative practices, and building a strong bond with students, faculty, and alumni. Most recently the founding dean of the School of Science, Technology, and Health at Biola University, President Ferguson served with distinction in leadership roles at five universities, including as president of Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, and president of the University of Maine. Reflecting on his first semester, the President sat down with APU Life to share his thoughts, insights, and enthusiasm about the future of Azusa Pacific University.

Where did your spiritual journey begin?

I came to know Jesus Christ at seven years old. My mom was a believer. In fact, she led my dad to the Lord. I was blessed to grow up in a home where Christ was honored and where I had the wonderful freedom to explore, learn, be curious, and develop a strong biblical foundation. I was able to mature in my faith through fellowship with believers at a number of Christ-centered churches during my life. I even met my wife, Grace, in our college group at church just a mere 45 years ago.

What influences did you have to integrate your faith with your professional path?

I was very fortunate to have a number of wise mentors in my life. Early in my career development, a Christian biology professor at Whittier College beautifully integrated the concept of academics and faith. From his example, it was evident you could have both. You can love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. During my undergraduate years, I really began a commitment to learning. I pursued a career in higher education, so I could fully share my love of learning with my students. There is no greater joy for a professor than to see a passion for learning in your students, to see “the light to turn on” in them.

How do you plan to expand faith integration at APU?

One of the things I am very excited about coming into the APU community is having the opportunity to deepen and extend the integration of faith and academics. How do we accomplish Christ-centered academic excellence? How do we show our light to the world with very strong academic performance?

We want our students to graduate with a wonderful integration of their faith and their discipline, with each having learned how to love the Lord with their heart, their soul, and their mind.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Seeking truth should not be fearful for any student or faculty member at APU. So our goal is to ensure that we are providing that kind of university environment for our faculty, staff, and students.

What is your guiding philosophy of leadership?

My passion for and commitment to leadership started as a university professor mentoring graduate students in a research group. I learned the concept of servant leadership early on, and I remain fully committed to it. The servant leader leads by serving others first. How do you help those you lead to do their jobs well? How do you structure the organization for the success of each team member? This requires an investment in the individual. The most successful leaders are really attuned to listening, to understanding, and then to implementing. Vision is merely a dream if it doesn't get implemented for the betterment of the organization. An organization only thrives if its people are thriving. In my experience, the servant leader model has a proven record for transformative leadership and thriving organizations.

How do you view the transformational impact of higher education?

My greatest time of personal transformation was in college and graduate school. I became focused on my career path of becoming a public health scientist as a biology major and later as a doctoral student in pharmacology and toxicology. I grounded my spiritual development as a student of God's Word. I met my wife in college. Most of the foundation for my life’s journey was solidified through higher education. There is no question that my personal academic experience shaped my love of and commitment to university life and the power of higher education to impact society.

After nearly 30 years in public and private higher education, what current trends do you see and how might they affect Christian higher education?

We have reached a point in our national conversation where the role, scope, and impact of higher education, in general, and Christian higher education, in particular, is clearly under scrutiny. Our society is asking for more evidence that the investment of time and expense committed to a degree path has measurable outcomes of improving the quality of life for all of our citizens. This justified scrutiny will require all of us in higher education to ensure we are operating our institutions by best practices of the highest quality and that we are insightfully preparing our students in such a way that they graduate equipped to succeed in their disciplines of choice.

How is APU equipped to thrive in the changing climate of higher education?

As we work to enhance the operational and academic excellence of APU, we will be positioned to provide the most contemporary and relevant courses of study addressing our society’s myriad expectations. With diverse degree offerings from the baccalaureate to the doctorate, study opportunities on campus and online, and professional development opportunities locally and globally, APU is prepared not only to continue to meet a variety of student needs through a number of learning platforms, but also to grow in innovation and impact. This is evidenced by APU recently receiving national recognition as a Carnegie Classification R2 Doctoral University with high research activity consistent with excellent faculty scholarship.

APU has also been nationally classified as a Community-Engaged University. This is the direct result of providing an excellent education with a Christ-centered focus. When our students go to Skid Row in Los Angeles to provide care to its residents or minister to the victims of last year’s Paradise Fire, society sees a real passion and capability to change the world through God’s strength. APU Difference Makers are not simply philosophical caregivers who merely study and hope that everything will work out. Difference Makers are on site, engaging the world.

I have been blessed and motivated to know that APU will continue to lead the higher education community by creating an environment of Christ-centered excellence that provides not only outstanding scholarship from our faculty and students, but also the fulfillment of the greatest commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourself (Matthew 22:35-40). With this as our spiritual framework, I believe APU will continue to grow in stature and impact.