Q&A: Deborah Sullivan-Trainor

This spring, Deborah Sullivan-Trainor, associate provost and vice president of Academic Affairs for the College of Arts & Sciences, will complete her 21st and final year at Bethel. Here, she reflects on her experience and the characteristics that she believes make Bethel a strong academic community.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, content specialist

January 07, 2020 | 11 a.m.

Deb Sullivan-Trainor

Deb Sullivan-Trainor, associate provost and vice president of Academic Affairs in the College of Arts & Sciences

As associate provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, Deborah Sullivan-Trainor is invisible to the average student—but the primary focus of her work is always the students’ best interests. She oversees all things academic, including curriculum, faculty, student success and retention, and government grants. She works to support students and faculty, ensuring everything runs well behind the scenes from an academic perspective.

Sullivan-Trainor’s connection to Bethel’s academics runs deep. She was hired in 1999 as department chair and faculty member of what is now the Department of Languages, Cultures, and Reconciliation Studies. In 2005, she became the associate dean of general education and faculty development, and in 2014, she assumed her current role. 

We sat down with Sullivan-Trainor to hear more about the growth she’s seen at Bethel over the years and what she believes makes Bethel a great learning community. Here’s what she had to say:


What brought you to Bethel and what do you love most about this community?

The original reason I came to Bethel is twofold. One was location. I had been living in Fargo-Moorhead for several years, and my husband was flying for Northwest Airlines at that time. The ability for us to be living where he was flying out of was a motivator—and it actually is warmer and less windy here than it is in Fargo-Moorhead. 

The second reason was that being part of a deeply committed Christian learning community was attractive to me. Really, what I love most about Bethel is the way faculty are so invested in students. This makes faculty think creatively. We don’t just keep doing things the way we’ve always done it, but we really think about how we could make things better.

What should parents know about Bethel?

We have really solid academics implemented by and through Christian faculty. To me though, the most important piece of that is that we’re not afraid to really look at things and ask hard questions. We think it’s really important for students to be in a Christian environment and say, “I don’t know what I think about this.” Then, when they go out into the world, they’re not wrestling with those questions for the first time. They’re going to ask themselves what they really believe and how it impacts the way they work and the way they think about issues in the world. For parents, that means that sometime during the years their student spends at Bethel, they will be questioning things—and that’s OK. All our alumni data says they come out the other end better for it, instead of being afraid to ask.

In what ways has Bethel changed, and in what ways has it stayed the same?

It’s certainly grown in its facilities and in the types of programs we're able to offer. But what’s stayed the same is what I just said makes Bethel great. We’ve never lost that. We’ve always been willing to keep thinking through hard things together with students. That’s stayed the same, even though there’s been change in faculty over the years. 

Are there any areas of growth you’ve seen or been part of at Bethel that you’re especially proud of?

I’m proud of the work that we did for Moving the Needle which is our student success and retention project. It’s had a positive impact on student retention, and it’s helped reinforce the idea that we need to think about what’s best for students. I’m also proud of how we’ve been moving forward with the expansion of our engineering programs

It has been important to me that, even with additions to the curriculum, the same general education program is taken by all students regardless of major. It is through the general education curriculum that we ensure that all students learn about and through the liberal arts. The communication and critical thinking skills learned through the liberal arts will make a difference in their lives as they leave Bethel to work and serve in their church and community. I am proud that this is still at the core of who we are at Bethel. I am also very pleased to have been a part of making it possible for faculty to apply for and receive federal grants.

Upon your retirement, what will you miss most about Bethel?

It sounds so cliché to say the people, but it really is the people. It’s working with faculty and staff on making things better, and having a group of people who are all bringing their own perspectives and experiences to the table. It’s looking at an issue or a project, and saying let’s turn this upside down, let’s try thinking about it differently, and let’s push back in a respectful way, so we can find the best solution together. That’s the part I will really miss.

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