Allan Belton became Pacific Lutheran University’s 14th president the same way he became the first in his family to attend college: unexpectedly.
President Belton, a humble farm boy at heart, dropped “acting” from his title back in April, after the Board of Regents unanimously voted to appoint him to a role he had been serving on an interim basis. It was an overwhelming vote of confidence, Belton says, in the momentum he managed to build over the past two years — momentum he initially intended to pass along to someone else, so he could step back into his role as the institution’s chief financial officer.
Belton readily admits he’s more comfortable behind the scenes than at center stage. And he spent the bulk of his professional life doing good work that propped up the people around him.
“I love being the numbers geek,” he said, reminiscing about his 24-year career in banking before coming to PLU four years ago. “I’ve spent most of my career making the person in front of me look good. And I’m OK with that.”
Corporate leaders weren’t complaining, either, he joked. But despite focusing on education, nonprofits and health care organizations at the end of his time with Bank of America, Belton’s work felt incomplete. He missed the early days with Seafirst Bank, before the corporate acquisition, when community was king and he was eager to brag — on and off the clock — about customer-first programs that made him proud to work there.
His need for meaningful work prompted him to look elsewhere, just as PLU was searching for a CFO.
It was the perfect fit his wife Melinda, a PLU graduate, says she never thought about until it happened.
So, when the opportunity came for Belton to step out of his role as CFO and into the role as acting president, the Lute in his house helped push him through any hesitancy. “You’re the right person at the right time, and PLU needs this right now,” Melinda (Krotz) Belton ’91 told him. “You wanted meaning. This is meaning.”
Belton knows the broad nature of the job description as president; he says it’s like running a small city.
On an average day, he responds to high-level questions about some of higher education’s toughest challenges: retention of marginalized students, tuition affordability, shrinking enrollment, balancing mission-based values with the bottom line.
“There are, and there always will be, people in higher ed who say ‘We’re not a business,’” Belton said. “But, if we don’t have money, there’s no mission.”
And, at the other end of the spectrum, he responds to calls about locks improperly installed on bathroom stalls. “Which was a real day for me,” Belton said, laughing. “It is a crazy job.”
Still, it’s a crazy job he’s learned to love, even in the face of what lies ahead. Without “acting” hanging in front of his title, Belton acknowledges he’s responsible for following through on some big commitments he’s made, among them developing a strategic plan that delivers on its vision.
“PLU has a history of creating meaningful long-term visions for the university,” he said.” Now, Belton wants to take that visioning to the next level. He wants to promote change in measurable, actionable ways concentrating on identity and messaging, environment and well being, and resources and stewardship.
Belton also wants to build upon the institution’s strengths, such as expanding facilities for all of our programs. He says the facilities need to reflect the quality of the programs, to compete with others in the region.
“We need state-of-the-art facilities,” he said, “ to match the quality of our teaching and the caliber of our students.”
Belton says he plans to boost PLU’s profile in the region by engaging local leaders and talking more intentionally about the institution, including through his work with the Economic Development Board and South Sound Together.
“PLU is this little gem in the middle of Parkland,” Belton said. “Traditionally, we don’t brag about it. My job is to go to the mountaintop and preach that this is an amazing place.”
Currently, he’s talking with employers about what they’re looking for in new hires, and how PLU graduates fit into the mold. “What I’m hearing is really positive, but I’m also hearing at the same time ‘Where has PLU been?’” Belton said, stressing that it’s vital to promote what service-minded Lutes can bring to the workforce.
Belton also wants to boost pay and professional development opportunities for the staff and faculty who support students year after year.
“People don’t stay at PLU for the money. They stay because they love the place and its mission,” he said. “Much the way we want the facilities to match the quality of the program, we want the pay and the professional development to match the quality of the people. Every PLU community member has a role in advancing the mission.”
And, Belton stresses, the university must grow its endowment so more students from diverse backgrounds can access the world-class liberal arts education PLU offers.
A HOME, NOT A PYRAMID
It’s not lost on Belton that he’s the first PLU president without pastor or doctor in front of his name. But he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Instead, he shows “respect for the fact that I don’t know what I don’t know,” he said. He listens, asks questions and engages the community to help connect and build from different perspectives.
Plus, he says, it’s important for leaders at the top to reflect the student body. With over 40 percent of incoming first-year students who are first in their families to attend college, it’s meaningful that the guy in the president’s chair can relate to their life experiences.
“When I arrived I kept hearing that we need to create ‘a sense of belonging,’ ” he said. “What our students, staff and faculty deserve is a reality of belonging. A sense of belonging isn’t enough. A reality that you do belong here is what we must strive for.”
That reality, Belton says, starts at the top, and not just with him. He said he wants to deconstruct the current structure: a pyramid with a diverse student body at the base, and leadership at the top that doesn’t yet reflect their diversity.
“I don’t want it to be a pyramid,” Belton said. “I want it to be a home.”
Belton acknowledges he looks similar to the 13 white men who came before him. He also says that elevates his responsibility to use his white privilege to push the institution forward.
He started his interim presidency by reflecting on all of the portraits of PLU leaders that adorned the old, paneled wall in the president’s conference room. Rather than add his face to the mix, he had those portraits relocated and instead covered the wall with PLU’s mission statement.
“Truthfully, I just don’t like to have my picture taken, but more importantly, I know that the faces people see on the wall matter. I recognize that the presidency isn’t all about me, it’s about stewardship of the mission. We are charged to build and sustain a community that reflects generations of students — those that came before, those we serve today, and those yet to join us. A university is always evolving and learning, and these words focus on what matters. ” Furthermore, Belton says, PLU must continue to work harder to support equity for all students once they arrive on campus.
“If you’re going to attract students on the basis of being a very welcoming and diverse community, you’ve got to provide the services that are unique to the students’ needs,” he said.
A NEW START FOR PLU
Join us as we celebrate a new chapter in PLU history.
During his four years of PLU leadership, Allan Belton has developed a strong vision for the university — one that focuses on providing the tools students need for success in a rapidly changing, global economy.
Alumni, students, faculty, staff, families and friends are invited to participate in the inauguration ceremony of our 14th president and hear how he plans to walk us into the future.
4 p.m. Friday Oct. 4
REMEMBERING HIS ROOTS
Belton says he still feels like that simple kid from Zillah, WA. He loves talking about his first real full-time job at the town’s only grocery store, his dad driving long-haul trucks, and his mom working “every job under the sun” to make ends meet. While he’s committed to working on his presidential persona, he says he’ll always embrace the roots of his identity. It’s why he cares about the job and why he’s successful at it.
“Some refinement is essential,” Belton said. “But I don’t ever want to lose where I came from.”
Where he came from is a kitchen table in Zillah, doing taxes for his Depression-era parents: a father who didn’t make it past eighth grade and a mother who didn’t make it past 10th.
Belton remembers watching his parents — who called him Harvard because of his smarts — try to make sense of the tax forms. He started to help them.
“The numbers made sense to me. I could track a tax form,” Belton said. “First it was all three of us. Then it was just me at the table.”
Belton Family Photos
Belton says his parents never talked about college. “I think we didn’t talk about it because it wasn’t part of the family’s experience and because they knew we couldn’t afford it.”
One day, during his senior year, Belton opened an envelope from his counselor, Karin Thompson, who had called him into her office weeks before to write a mystery essay. He didn’t know it at the time, but that essay was part of his ticket to any public university of his choosing — tuition free.
Belton chose Washington State University, where he earned a bachelor’s and eventually a master’s degree in business.
The day he got the news that college would be a reality, his parents were moved to tears. “I think it was one of the few times I saw my dad cry,” Belton said, holding back tears of his own.
Belton says his background as a low-income, first-generation college graduate gives him a rare perspective — one that traditional presidents steeped in academia may not possess.
Belton’s dad died 17 years ago; his mom four years ago — just days after he came to PLU. If they were alive today, to see Harvard turned PLU president, he said they’d be overflowing with joy and likely without words.
“I don’t think they would believe it, quite frankly.”
In a way, Melinda (Krotz) Belton ’91 knew she was meant for Pacific Lutheran University years before it was time to choose a college. She didn’t know it at the time, but her fate was scribbled inside a coloring book.
During a road trip with her family, Belton ran out of pages to color, so she doodled on a blank page in the back. Next to her doodles, she wrote “I like to help people.” That commitment to serving others is something her parents, Bob and Pam Krotz, have modeled throughout her life.
“Looking back, that became a really important aspect of everything I do,” she said, during an interview with her husband, newly appointed President Allan Belton. “If it’s not helping someone, what is the point? I really want to figure out the best way to use whatever talents I have to try to make a difference.”
And she has, in large part thanks to what she learned about service at PLU. It’s also why she encouraged her husband to take a chief finance job at the institution four years ago. Then, when it came time for him to step into an acting presidential role — one neither of them dreamed would become permanent — it was, once more, an opportunity to serve.
“When I was (a student) at PLU, there was a really strong emphasis on service and trying to figure out what you could do to assist other people, figuring out how you could use your individual skills to help someone else,” Melinda said.
She wanted that for Allan, who was searching for meaningful work that he wasn’t finding in corporate banking.
Melinda recalled Allan’s time with Seafirst Bank, before it was acquired by Bank of America. She joked that he did everything short of carrying around a bell and a sandwich board, telling anyone who would listen all about the community-focused bank. It wasn’t until Allan came to PLU that he regained that excitement for his work.
“It’s fun to see some of those parallels,” Melinda said. “When he arrived on campus, he got back to being that kind of person again — who will happily tell anybody how great PLU is.”
And Melinda understands why. As a paraeducator, she works with special education preschoolers in the Peninsula School District. “You have not seen pure joy until you see these kids see her in public,” Allan said of his wife.
“I think they’re just happy to see that I’m allowed out of the classroom every so often,” she replied with a smile.
After working with all ages as a paraeducator, Melinda says her “light shines brightest in a preschool classroom.”
“I like to think that Allan and I serve as bookends,” she said. “I assist students as they are entering the educational system and he assists them as they are finishing up and preparing to head out into the world.”
Melinda studied business at PLU. Her time in human resources right out of college started at a company in Bellevue that sold “amazing, fairly new products called cellular telephones,” she quipped. Later, she took a job at Seafirst Bank. Her husband’s enthusiasm for the place rubbed off on her. There, she worked in staff relations, helping solve problems among coworkers and guiding employees through difficult personal situations.
After that, Melinda joined the recruiting team that screened and interviewed potential bank tellers. She helped place them in teller positions throughout Western Washington, among other duties.
She eventually spent time as a stay-at-home mom; raising kids was, and still is, an important part of her vocation.
“When it was time for me to return to work outside the home, I realized that my vocation had shifted,” she said. “I was interested in work that was more personally meaningful and also allowed me to make a positive difference while serving others.”
Allan says that’s exactly the attitude she employed when encouraging him to consider the PLU presidency. Now that he’s taken office, Melinda looks forward to finding ways to reinforce PLU’s mission in her role as FLOPLU (FLO-ploo) as her kids jokingly refer to her — the first lady of PLU.
“There’s no job description, there’s no user’s manual,” she said. “At this point, I feel like I’m mainly trying to listen. I’m trying to get as much information as I can from the people around me — the students, staff, faculty, alumni and other friends of PLU.”
She plans to figure out as she goes how best to give back to the alma mater that gave her so much, including lifelong friends who introduced the Beltons right after college.
Just as her husband is a non-traditional president, she sees her role as a somewhat non-traditional first lady.
“We’re a team,” President Belton said. “Behind the scenes, she’s helping me succeed. Because for her, it’s personal.”
Melinda says she could have never imagined as a PLU college student that she would one day be married to a PLU president.
“It’s surreal, but in some ways it makes perfect sense to me. Because I know who he is, and I know what his values are,” she said. “I knew that PLU and its mission would really appeal to him.”
She’s had so much fun watching this die-hard Washington State Cougar transform into a die-hard Lute — with a closet full of black and gold to show for it
“What can I say, PLU is easy to love.”