Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001
Copyright © 2001. Reproduced with permission
of The Spokesman-Review.
Soul of Whits lifts spirits
By Virginia de Leon - Spokesman-Review Staff Writer
|Whitworth President Bill Robinson is known
for riding his Huffy from his home to his office on campus.
Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review
PHOTO FOR WEBSITE USE ONLY NO OTHER REPRODUCTION ALLOWED
He wore a gray suit and
striped tie, but arrived at the meeting riding a Huffy.
"I've got a wet butt," said
Whitworth College President Bill Robinson, describing the cold-weather
effect on his bike and drawing laughter from the crowd.
After a prayer during the monthly
staff meeting in the chapel, Robinson answered questions, celebrated birthdays
and delivered the latest Whitworth news -- switching roles from motivational
speaker to stand-up comedian to gung-ho sportscaster with play-by-play
details of the Pirates' games.
"You are the man!" he later
yelled, complimenting a student on the soccer team as he headed to the
cafeteria for breakfast. "Great save. What you did out there was cool."
The spunk is typical of Robinson.
Full of oomph and rah-rah energy,
he's known throughout campus simply as "Bill" -- the guy in sweats who
plays hoops with students, the one with the quick high-five or handshake
for a job well done.
Since his arrival nearly nine
years ago, Robinson's impact on this Christian, liberal arts college in
north Spokane has become evident in the school's booming enrollment numbers,
growing endowment and boost in college rankings. But it's especially noticeable
in the morale among students and employees.
People have great things to
say about Whitworth, and they usually start with its leader -- from Robinson's
openness and verve to his ability to walk the fine line between intellectual
curiosity and commitment to faith.
"He's the best president we've
ever had," said Max Vandiver,
a 32-year groundskeeper. "He'll listen and talk to you no matter who you
are and what you look like."
Robinson was only 36 years old
when he became a college president -- at least a decade younger than most
people who take on the responsibility of a multi-million-dollar budget
and the education of more than 1,100 students.
But being the top dog at a college
was never his goal.
"I really didn't know what to
do," said Robinson, who "stumbled" into the job at Manchester College
after stints as a youth minister, college professor, academic dean and
corporate consultant and trainer.
Raised by Baptist parents who
both taught at the Moody Bible Institute, Robinson studied philosophy
at the University of Northern Iowa, where he played on the basketball
team. He graduated in 1971.
Moved by the theology and the
more formal worship, Robinson became a Presbyterian at 22 and later attended
Princeton Seminary. He dropped out because "I was aimless and had no vocational
So he returned to Chicago, where
he met his future wife, Bonnie Van Laan on a double date. The problem,
though, was that she was on the date with Robinson's roommate.
"I knew her for only 21/2 hours
before I was smitten," he said, almost wistfully. Later that evening,
he told his roommate about his plans to marry Bonnie.
They were engaged two months
Since Bonnie was teaching at
Wheaton College, Robinson transferred there and got a master's degree
in intercultural communication. He eventually earned a doctorate in communication
from the University of Pittsburgh in 1979 -- two days before his 30th
Robinson, who was working as
a corporate consultant six years later, was taken by surprise when he
got the president's job at Manchester.
"When you're that age, you haven't
had time to find out what you can't do," he said. "So I took the job,
but I admired them for taking such a chance on me."
The decision to move his family
from the Chicago area to rural Indiana after the Manchester offer stemmed
from his desire to work with young people.
"I went into higher education
because I love learning and I love students," Robinson said.
He also wanted to move his family
away from all the materialism of Chicago's North Shore, especially after
his son, Ben, asked for a green Rolex for his fourth birthday.
Many years ago, Robinson was
once "conned by the culture that said family should come second to the
job," he said. But he's wiser now, he said, and he understands the meaning
of "enough" and the importance of giving to others.
It's that philosophy of service
and simple living that has kept him here in Spokane, where he's now the
veteran among college presidents in the area.
|After a morning workout, Whitworth President
Bill Robinson has breakfast and conversation with students in
the student union building.
Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review
PHOTO FOR WEBSITE USE ONLY NO OTHER REPRODUCTION ALLOWED
Although Robinson wasn't Whitworth
faculty's first choice for president in 1993, he soon won them over.
It was "a little bit like falling
in love," he said, describing his relationship with the college. "The
instant chemistry wasn't there, but the intellectual connection grew."
It didn't take long for people
to realize that Robinson was the best choice for their school, said Tammy
Reid, vice president for academic affairs and a faculty member for three
"Bill has understood the mission
of Whitworth College from the moment he stepped on campus," she said,
recalling the time that Robinson donned a baseball cap and walked around
Whitworth incognito before his job interview. "He has articulated the
mission of the institution better than anyone else."
Like the name of his monthly
newsletter to students, alumni and the entire community, Robinson understands
the meaning of an education that's "Of Mind and Heart," Reid said.
He has conveyed to the community
that faith and intellect can go hand in hand, she said.
Robinson has also fostered a
sense of openness, students say.
When people complained last
year after a few students accessed pornography through websites, Robinson
encouraged the campus to debate the use of Internet filters instead of
simply installing a firewall like other Christian colleges in Washington
state. The administration ultimately opted for filters, but only in the
dorms and not the computer labs. Students also can have the filters removed
for research projects.
Robinson's push for academic
freedom hasn't been supported by everyone. He recently received anonymous
e-mail that called him an "apostate" and "pharisee" for refusing to take
sides on the homosexuality debate among members of the Presbyterian Church
in the United States.
It would be inappropriate for
Whitworth to take an official position, he explains. "We're a college.
Where better to debate an issue?" Whenever something controversial comes
up, Whitworth's president would rather "err on the side of openness" than
put an end to the conversation.
Whitworth "has been faithful
to our Christian heritage," he said. "At the same time, we have also been
open and inclusive."
Although his school has risen
in the college rankings and is consistently among the top 10 in the West,
Robinson disdains the ratings. The best school for one person may be different
for the next, he said.
He also doesn't want to get
caught up in the enrollment hype. He's more proud of setting a tone of
collaboration among higher education institutions in the area.
Whitworth's current enrollment
of about 2,100 is just the right size for a small liberal arts school,
he said, noting that he would never want to be in the position of having
to lay people off or shut down buildings by growing too quickly then being
forced to reduce once the boom ends. "Growth is a two-edged sword," he
said. "And contraction is bloody."
It takes a lot of energy to
keep up with Robinson, a man who has never taken a sick day in his life.
When he does feel ill, he quickly
pops echinacea and Vitamin C tablets, then goes for a four- or five-mile
run "to cast out the demons.''
His life knows few routines,
with the exception of a nightly sleep of roughly six to seven hours followed
by the blare of the alarm clock at 5:30 a.m. Running or working out is
a priority, and he'll try to get in at least a four-mile dash sometime
during the day.
Strong and wiry, Robinson is
considered an all-around athlete by the regulars in Whitworth's gym. He
can run Bloomsday in under 50 minutes and rarely declines an invitation
to play basketball -- even if it comes at 10:30 p.m. from students standing
outside his front door.
He doesn't see himself as a
perfectionist, he said, but he's certainly driven.
"I'm a whiner, but it's
because I have high standards,'' Robinson said.
People seem to admire him most
for his compassion, his knack for relationships and his ability to challenge
"I see him as a role model,''
said Tony Hoshaw, a 22-year-old senior from Idaho and the student body
president. "He is a person of great integrity. ... His life is one
that I want to imitate.''
His policies and ideas "never
feel like a pronouncement from the top,'' said Reid. He has this way of
making things happen through conversation and collaboration so that everyone
involved feels like they were part of it, she said.
"I don't worry about success
or being seen doing `the right thing,''' Robinson said. "I don't
think my job is significantly more important than anybody else's.''
That may be why he's comfortable
taking a sabbatical next fall and leaving the longer-term administration
of the college to others. He'll skip the traveling, cancel the many speaking
engagements, forgo a few board meetings so he can return to the classroom.
Besides teaching at Whitworth,
he will spend time with every department at school instead of traveling
for meetings and fund-raisers. This past week, for instance, Robinson
traveled to Hawaii, where Whitworth hosted a basketball tournament and
an alumni gathering.
"(Faculty members) are
going to see a lot more of me,'' said Robinson, who spends more than one-third
of his time away from campus. "They'll probably be sick of me by
the end of the semester.''
Fifty-two years old and with
16 years of presidential experience under his belt, Robinson is considered
a hot commodity among headhunters and search firms nationwide. In recent
years, universities throughout the country have tried to woo him away
But Robinson -- the first president
since the '70s who has chosen to live on the Whitworth campus -- won't
He wants a job that supports
his values, he said, and he found that here in Spokane.
Faculty and staff were relieved
earlier this year when the president announced his family's commitment
to the college in the foreseeable future.
"This is my home,'' he
said one morning over a breakfast of waffles, an omelette and a bowl of
cottage cheese in the student cafeteria. "This is where I want to
Robinson, whose salary is $142,000
a year, isn't interested in making more money or running a bigger school,
he said. He's more concerned about the quality of life -- like the kind
he and Bonnie, a classical pianist, have found in Spokane. His youngest
daughter, Bailley, is a senior at St. George's School. Brenna, his oldest
daughter, graduated from Mead High School and lives close by in Stanwood,
Wash., where she works as a youth pastor at a Lutheran church. His son,
Ben, who also went to St. George's, is now a sophomore at Whitworth and
captain of the cross country team.
Robinson's dedication to the
city and college is documented by the many organizations he's been involved
with -- from the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce, on which he recently
served as chairman, to the mayor's board on prosperity, which examines
the issue of poverty in Spokane. Robinson also has pledged a $100,000
donation over five years to Whitworth.
"The object of my life
has to do with my family, faith and integrity,'' he said. "No other
place in the world can help me live the way Whitworth does.''