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A Courageous Vision for Whitworth's Future

After his first 100 days as Whitworth's president, Beck Taylor weighs in on his attraction to Whitworth's mission, his view of the university's strengths and challenges, his vision for Whitworth's future, his family's transition to Spokane -- and his unlikely affection for ABBA.

Q. What impression did you have of Whitworth even before you learned about the presidential opening? What is the university's reputation within higher education?

A. Whitworth is well-known for its unwavering commitments to both academic excellence and Christian witness. Even 1,800-plus miles away, at Samford and Baylor, I was aware that Whitworth's faculty members are actively engaged in their academic disciplines and in serving the cause of Christian higher education. Those commitments resonate deeply with me and drew me to Whitworth.

Q. Since arriving on campus, how have you seen those commitments borne out?

A. I've seen that the commitments to intellectual openness and rigor and to the integration of Christian faith and learning are even deeper and more pervasive than I thought. I've realized how much these dual commitments differentiate Whitworth in the higher education landscape; I don't know of a single other university that is seeking to do education in the way that Whitworth does. Navigating what we describe as the "narrow ridge" between curiosity and conviction creates tension as ideas are challenged, assumptions are questioned, and critical thinking is elevated. It is within that creative and unsettling tension, I believe, that the best and most fruitful learning occurs. Walking the ridge is definitely not the easiest path, but I am absolutely convinced that it's the best path for our students.

Q. As you close in on the end of your first semester as Whitworth's president, what do you see as the university's strengths?

A. First, and perhaps most important, Whitworth has a clearly articulated and broadly embraced understanding of its unique mission. If a university can have a sense of self, Whitworth knows it. This is perhaps Bill Robinson's most important legacy, as he understood and articulated Whitworth's mission in such compelling ways that are now deeply rooted in the university's culture. Having a clear sense of mission provides a strong foundation for Whitworth to now cast a bold vision for the university in 2020 and how we will serve the next generation of students. I get really excited thinking about the strategic planning process we have in place for working to achieve that vision. The other strengths I've observed -- strong enrollment demand, excellent faculty and staff, bright students, a beautiful campus, and relative financial stability -- give me confidence that we can cast a courageous vision for Whitworth's future.

Q. What challenges and opportunities do you see?

A. One of my primary concerns is student access to a Whitworth education. As I pointed out in my inaugural address, the annual cost of Whitworth's tuition increased by a factor of 12 in the 60 years between 1890 and 1950. Over the next 60 years, Whitworth's tuition increased 300-fold, to about $30,000 this year. Relative to other schools of our stature, Whitworth is an excellent value (as confirmed most recently by U.S. News, Kiplinger's and Forbes rankings). Nevertheless, our costs have risen more than we would like and more than many prospective students can afford. While maintaining Whitworth's commitment to excellence, we absolutely must explore ways to rein in the costs that put upward pressure on tuition while we find more student-aid resources to keep a Whitworth education in financial reach of all students.

Another challenge we face actually can be part of the solution to access. We must elevate and then celebrate a renewed culture of philanthropy within the Whitworth community. As a private, faith-based institution, we cannot depend on public funding or on the growing number of charitable foundations that exclude Christian organizations from their grant programs. More and more, we rely upon the financial giving of our alumni and our friends who choose to make Whitworth their university. The world needs our graduates, equipped with an education of mind and heart, more than ever before. And we need our alumni and friends to be Whitworthians for life and to make Whitworth a priority in their financial giving.

Q. Speaking of tuition costs, what would you say to people who wonder whether a Whitworth education is worth $120,000?

A. First of all, more than 95 percent of our students receive financial aid, so I would tell them to consider more than the "sticker price." More important, though, I would say that a Whitworth education is definitely worth the investment. Study after study has shown that graduates of liberal arts institutions like Whitworth are equipped to adapt and change in their careers better than graduates of any other type of institution, and that the associated increase in their earning potential over the long term makes a Whitworth education a great investment. And liberal arts graduates tend to be more fulfilled, more joyful, and more engaged citizens. Another factor to keep in mind is that most Whitworth students complete their degrees in four years; unfortunately, that is becoming harder to do at many public institutions stretched thin by several years of budget cuts.

Q. Switching gears just a bit, are you really a big ABBA fan?

A. Yes. And I know I am not alone in Pirate nation. I have all of ABBA's music on my iPod and listen to it when I exercise. I'll even admit that when I traveled to Stockholm a few years ago, the first thing I did after getting off the plane was visit the ABBA Museum. It was great!

Q. Was there anything in your early years that hinted you were destined to be a college president?

A. You mean besides the briefcase I used for my book bag in kindergarten? Both my mom and my stepdad were committed to education, so when I was growing up, it was a foregone conclusion that I would attend college. Of course, no one could know that I would find my vocation on a college campus.

Q. What drew you to the field of economics?

A. I immediately fell in love with the analytical structure of economics. As a social science, economics attempts to understand human behavior, but it is based upon very rigorous mathematical models that describe that behavior under a number of different conditions. I love math and I love what my wife, Julie, calls "people-watching," so economics was a perfect match. I also benefited tremendously from college mentors who were economists, so I am sure they, too, drew me to the field.

Q. As an economist and a former business dean, what responsibility do you think educational institutions bear in contributing to the economic and financial mess our country is in and cleaning it up?

A. Unfortunately, our society is reaping the consequences of poor decision-making and improper priorities among those who were or still are in positions of great influence within the private sector. I think higher education bears some of the blame, for not continuing to cast professional education in the context of values, morals and ethics. For several decades now, many in higher education thought that we could simply divorce professional education that prepared students for, say, business careers, from values-based discussions about the broader stakeholders that businesses and institutions serve. That's what is so exciting to me about Whitworth's approach to education. Rooted in a deep commitment to integrating Christian faith and learning, Whitworth empowers its students to think about the consequences of their actions. Society will increasingly value that approach as well, ensuring a strong demand for our graduates.

Q. Can you share how your research applies economics to poverty and early childhood development?

A. My research examines the impacts of poverty on early childhood development, particularly school readiness, although I have also examined some health consequences for poor families. For many years, all researchers could say was that "poverty is bad," that is, children who grow up in poor families tend to have worse outcomes in cognitive, language, and social-emotional areas than their non-poor peers. My research team, which interestingly includes Julie's brother, who is a researcher at Boston College, has extended this research to ask how families who move in and out of poverty are affected, a question that yields far more policy implications because we can track how additional economic resources positively impact children. My research shows that especially young children, from birth to 36 months of age, are very responsive to changes in economic conditions, and despite the disadvantages experienced by these children, quick intervention yields dramatic gains.

Q. Speaking of Julie, how are she and the kids handling the transition to Spokane?

A. They are loving it. We have been so warmly welcomed by the Whitworth and Spokane communities that I'm beginning to think that maybe it's the south that practices northern hospitality instead of the other way around. Julie has had her hands full managing two moves and getting the kids settled. (Maintenance and improvements were being made to Hawthorne House when we arrived, so we lived in another university-owned house until the end of August.) Taking care of the family is still her priority, but she is engaged in the life of the university in important ways. Zach (14) and Lauren (12) are enrolled at Northwest Christian School and are active in athletics and with their youth group at church. Our youngest, Chloe (3), goes to a preschool near campus when she isn't keeping us busy.

Q. How have Bill and Bonnie Robinson supported you in the transition?

A. They could not have been more gracious. From the commissioning service at the end of June, when they prayed for God's blessing on Julie and me as we formally began our service at Whitworth, to hosting us for dinner in their home with Gonzaga's new president and his wife, to providing valuable counsel, they have been unbelievably supportive. We consider Bill and Bonnie to be dear friends.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

A. I am often described by others as being a person of action, having a high energy level and a clear sense of vision. I guess that's accurate -- those are certainly things I see in myself. I like to surround myself with incredibly competent people who know far more about their areas of responsibility than I do -- I don't feel the need to always be the smartest person in the room. That's good, because that would be hard most days. As president, my job is to set a shared vision for the institution and then empower people at all levels of the organization to accomplish that vision. I have the best job in the world. I often say that if any university president tells you otherwise, they're either lying or they're not doing it right.

Q. What role do you see for yourself and for Whitworth in the community?

A. I tell our students that while they are on our campus, they are not only citizens of the Whitworth community but citizens of the Spokane community; that carries both privileges and responsibilities. Our students -- as well as our faculty and staff -- get that. Whitworth is deeply engaged in service, leadership and advocacy in the Spokane community and beyond. Last year, Whitworth students performed nearly 28,000 hours of community service -- just through formal service-learning courses. I am active in Greater Spokane Incorporated (Spokane's chamber of commerce and economic development corporation) and other organizations; I hear over and over again how impressed people are with Whitworth's students, faculty and staff, and alumni.

Q. What do you like to do in your down time?

A. I love to hang out with our kids, which I don't get to do as much as I'd like. It's a treat to drive them to school and connect one-on-one, to attend their athletics events or to read to Chloe. (Her favorite book is Fancy Nancy.) I also like to read. I tend toward nonfiction, especially stuff on leadership, economics and higher-education policy. Yes, I'm a complete wonk. Julie sometimes recommends a good piece of fiction that I work into the mix. And I like to get on the tennis court from time to time.

Q. You're known to send e-mails before 4 a.m. Do you ever sleep?

A. What people don't realize is that I'm gonzo by 9:30 most nights. But it is true that I'm blessed with not needing a lot of sleep. At my previous university I discovered that it was making people nervous to see some of those early-morning e-mails from me -- like maybe I was expecting them to be up to respond to them, which, of course, I wasn't -- so I started batching them to send later in the morning. As a practical matter, I'm pretty heavily scheduled throughout the day and many evenings, so early morning is the best opportunity to catch up on reading, writing and correspondence.

Q. Is there anything that keeps you awake at night?

A. Our dog snores sometimes, but other than that, I'm not an overly stressed-out guy. I feel called by God to this role, and as long as I am faithful to that calling and to Whitworth's noble mission, I can be confident in God's provision.

Q. What do you love about your job?

A. I love spending time with students -- sharing a meal in the dining hall, supporting them at theatre productions, concerts or athletics contests; and having them over to the house. I have a cool red golf cart -- a gift from great donors Frank and Sherrie Knott -- and when I'm driving across campus to a meeting I like to give students rides.

Q. What impresses you most about Whitworth students?

A. They wear the mantle of responsibility so comfortably and so well. That doesn't happen by accident; it's the result of Whitworth's strong commitment to giving students a lot of responsibility and opportunities to make decisions with real consequences. Students are, of course, surrounded by peer leaders and mentors, and supported by a faculty and staff who are fully committed to their best interests. It's an environment that produces graduates who are equipped not only with knowledge and skills, but also the sense of responsibility to honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity.

Get to know the Taylors online! This issue's web extras include links to the Whitworth inauguration page; to a video interview with Julie Taylor as well as one with Zachary, Lauren and Chloe Taylor; and to an article by Beck Taylor in Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Living magazine.

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