by David G. Myers, '64
Looking back on his 42 years as a Whitworth trustee, Arthur Symons notes that each of the university's last seven presidents has faced a challenge. One guided the school through the end of the Depression. One was challenged to build the campus. Others faced crises related to diversity, student unrest, faculty morale or financial stress. Though he has certainly encountered his share of challenges, Bill Robinson has also helped to bring about what Symons calls "the Golden Age of Whitworth."
When Bill was called to Whitworth, Symons recalls being told by another academician that "if you get him, you'll get the best small-college president in the U.S." "After 17 years," Symons says, "I think that gentleman was right."
Many would agree. During Bill's tenure, enrollment at Whitworth has increased by nearly 60 percent, and, with a fivefold increase in applications, more and more would-be students are clamoring for admission. The faculty has grown and strengthened. The campus has splendid new facilities. Morale is sky-high. (To give other schools a chance to showcase their strengths, Whitworth stopped contending for yet another repeat of Christianity Today's employee-surveybased Best Christian Workplace award.) Most important, Whitworth, under Bill Robinson, has embraced a winsome identity, an agreed-upon mission that navigates what Martin Buber called the "narrow ridge."
In Bill's own words, "Off to one side are many fine Christian institutions that have attempted to limit the influence of culture and secular scholarship on their campuses. On the other side are countless institutions, both secular and church-based, that deny any significant role for Christian faith in the pursuit of truth. American society needs the excellent institutions that flank Whitworth, but we believe passionately that our students, the Christian church, and society at large need Whitworth to stay on the ridge."
Trustee Gayle Parker celebrates Bill's guidance of Whitworth along that narrow ridge, veering neither to the right, as have many Christian schools, with "a list of rules, regulations, and beliefs that students and faculty must sign on to," nor in the opposite direction, by losing "anything that marks them as Christian. . . . Rather than shield students from the wide variety of issues, ideologies, methods, and ways of believing and behaving that they encounter in the world," Parker says, "faculty and staff engage those things with them."
Other trustees have mused on the leadership and relationships that brought about this golden era.
Mark Toone recalls "a leadership principle that I learned from Bill and have quoted again and again: ‘Move toward the problem.'" Instinctively, most of us shy away from problems. We let them fester until they demand attention. Not Bill. Toone says, "However nasty or unpleasant the problem is, he moves quickly and courageously toward it." An example from my own experience: Many Christian colleges have preferred not to think about the cultural divide related to sexual orientation until it erupts on campus. On coming to Whitworth, Bill ran toward the issue, engaging an extended campus conversation that defined agreed-upon parameters for open dialogue within Whitworth's free marketplace of ideas. Moving toward the problem exemplifies the familiar Robinson mantra: grace and truth.
Other trustees mention Bill's astonishing capacity for knowing, loving and celebrating Whitworth's people. Not only has he handed out diplomas to nearly half of Whitworth's living alums
-- he knows most of them. And he loves spending time with students, hosting them with Bonnie and attending their events. Jan Skaggs recalls visiting the campus with her daughter, Cameron Gray, a prospective student. They arrived too late for a party, and so they were invited the next morning to drop by "somebody's house" for coffee. They did so and had a delightful conversation, only later discovering that the charming and self-effacing person whose house they'd visited was the president. When Cameron was tragically killed in a car accident after enrolling at Whitworth, Bill, Jan recalls, was grace personified. And to this day, Skaggs perceives Whitworth as "a personal place, largely because Bill himself has remained personable and ‘high-touch.'"
Part of the touch is an affectionate humor. Bill Curry recalls introducing Bill to the parent of a current student at a choir concert. "I just saw [your son] Greg at chapel last week," said Bill, getting a happy chuckle out of Greg's parents.
Whereupon he turned to Greg and said, "You owe me one." As another very popular and caring college president remarked to trustee Anne Storm, "Bill Robinson makes me look like I don't even like students." Storm adds that her mind boggles at how Bill has learned and remembered all those students' names. His capacity for student relationships has become legendary, as was evident from our search committee's interviews with presidential candidates who were contemplating succeeding Bill, yet mindful that his relational skill is unmatched and that their gifts will differ from his. Four other traits mark Bill Robinson. One is his unpretentiousness. "I was a prospective trustee in 1993, in Bill's first year as president," recalls Scott Chandler. "He walks in a few minutes late, wearing a crooked baseball hat and looking like he hasn't slept that well. After we introduce ourselves, I mention to him that he looks kind of tired. He then proceeds to tell me in his excited voice that he was at a basketball game and then had been up most of the night playing cards with some professors."
Another Robinson attribute is his communication skills. Whether in front of a microphone, writing Of Mind & Heart, or working on one of his leadership books, Bill is a spellbinding communicator. Words somehow spill fluently through his fingers and from his mouth. He's a hard person not to like.
One other trait makes Bill easy not only to like but to love. He is so consistently positive, kind, warm and supportive of others. Bill loves Whitworth students, Whitworth faculty and staff, and even us trustees. In his final trustee meeting he expressed profound gratitude for the immense love that the Whitworth community has shown to him and Bonnie, and he told incoming president Beck Taylor and his wife, Julie, to be prepared to be embraced by a loving and grace-filled community. But of course, the love and adoration that Bill and Bonnie receive is simply the echo of the love they project. It's a law of life: What you send out is what you will receive back. Send hostility and expect to receive hostility in return. Love people and they will love you back.
Finally, Bill's winsomeness is accentuated by his self-deprecating humor and humility. Alum and trustee Alan McGinnis, '82, says, "Bill reminds me of my favorite memory from a Dale Bruner class. One day a student asked, ‘What exactly is the Holy Spirit?' Dale went to the ever-present whiteboard, drew a stick figure and said ‘This is Jesus.' He then stood behind the board so we couldn't see him, and said ‘This is the Holy Spirit.' And from behind the board he began pointing emphatically at the stick figure of Jesus. That's how Bill works. He doesn't call attention to himself; he instead points emphatically at Whitworth from behind the whiteboard -- when in fact he is enormously responsible for what is true, what is good, and what is God-filled at Whitworth University."
David G. Myers is professor of psychology at Hope College, in Michigan, and serves the Whitworth University Board of Trustees as chair of its Academic Affairs Committee.