A Legacy of Leadership

Executive Vice President and Provost Emerita Deb Harless spent more than 31 years investing in the Bethel community and in the lives of students. She retires on February 28, 2021.

By Jenny Hudalla ’15, lead communications specialist

February 26, 2021 | 10:30 a.m.

Executive Vice President and Provost Emerita Deb Harless retires on February 28, 2021.

Executive Vice President and Provost Emerita Deb Harless retires on February 28, 2021.

Deb Harless, who served as a psychology professor, vice president and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and most recently executive vice president and provost, will retire this month. During her time at Bethel, she worked to enhance the student experience through new programs and opportunities, played a key role in developing leaders on campus, and promoted Bethel’s longstanding emphasis on the integration of faith and learning. Her commitment to positioning the university to thrive in a changing market will serve the Bethel community for years to come. 

You came to Bethel in 1979 as a first-generation college student. What drew you to higher education—first as a learner, and then as an educator and administrator?

I came to Bethel because I loved learning. My high school teachers encouraged me to attend college, and since I had grown up in a Converge church, Bethel was very familiar to me. It was also a remarkable place for me during my college years. I learned more about myself, my faith, and how to think better and more deeply about the challenging issues in our world. Today, I love hearing students talk about how their faith has become their own as they experience that same transformation.

After Bethel, I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota with plans to become a therapist. While working in the learning center there, I discovered I really liked working with college students. One day, the dean from Bethel called me about a faculty position that was open in the psychology department and Bethel’s Academic Enrichment & Support Center. The position combined my doctoral work in counseling with my passion for helping students to be successful learners. I knew how powerful Bethel had been in my life, and I jumped at the chance to come back as a professor. 

After graduating from Bethel, you went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in educational psychology with an emphasis in counseling. How has that background informed your approach to leadership at Bethel?

My training in counseling prepared me to listen well, ask good questions, and refrain from making assumptions. It also taught me to pay attention to diverse voices and perspectives, lead collaboratively, think developmentally, and understand and use data well. 

What has been most challenging and most inspiring about this work?

In terms of challenges, the last several years have been very difficult for institutions of higher education in general. The changing landscape in higher education and questions around affordability and value have led us to think innovatively, and they have also forced us to make some hard decisions. As we eliminated positions and programs, we grieved the loss of valued members of our community. At the same time, it’s been inspiring to see God transform the lives of our students through His work at Bethel and to see Him provide for the university, often in surprising ways. Bethel was founded in 1871 in the midst of the Great Chicago Fire. Since those earliest days, God has been faithful in this place—building it out of the ashes with one teacher and one student into a thriving university that prepares students to make a difference in ways that matter for God’s kingdom.

"God has been faithful in this place—building it out of the ashes with one teacher and one student into a thriving university that prepares students to make a difference in ways that matter for God’s kingdom."

— Deb Harless, executive vice president and provost

Over the years, you’ve made it a point to develop women leaders on campus. What advice do you have for students—in all of Bethel’s schools—who are in or pursuing leadership roles?

First, think about leadership as service. As a Christ-centered university, we anchor everything we do in our commitment to Christ—and now more than ever our world needs leaders who are committed to loving their neighbors as themselves. When you find yourself in a position of leadership, be clear about your motives. Are you motivated to serve and make things better? Second, pay attention to the leaders you think lead well. What is it about them that makes people want to follow them? What are their leadership characteristics? Don’t assume that all leaders must have charismatic personalities—there are a lot of different personality traits reflected in good leaders. Finally, find places to serve. As you pursue the things you’re interested in, opportunities for leadership may emerge—be willing to say yes.

What will you miss most about the Bethel community?

Over the years, there have been many moments where I’ve stopped in the middle of my work and thought, “I just saw the Holy Spirit at work,” or, “I just saw God provide in a way I would never have imagined.” I will miss those opportunities to witness God at work in this community. I will also miss reading the names of our graduates at commencement ceremonies. Seeing students walk across the stage has been a powerful reminder of why this work matters—it’s about our students. And, of course, I’ll miss my colleagues.

Looking back at your service to Bethel, what are you most proud of?

Bethel was amazing when I was a student, and it's even more amazing now. I’m really proud of the way we’ve developed new and exciting programs that prepare students to serve God well wherever He calls them. I’m also really excited about the people here who will continue to impact our students. I’ve been part of hiring many of our staff and about 70 percent of our full-time faculty, and I look forward to seeing the accomplishments of the next generation of students who will go out into the world to lead and serve. 

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