Interview by Terry Rayburn Mitchell, '93
Whitworth Today sat down with President Bill Robinson to ask him about how Whitworth has changed during his five-year tenure as president, and to get his thoughts about what's in store for the college as we wrap up the 20th century. Here are Robinson's insights.
We often hear that private higher education is at a crossroads. Is that true for Whitworth?
I don't know about the crossroads, but I think in some ways, it is a defining moment for Whitworth. The reason I say that is that it feels to me as if the college has established itself in a very solid way, that we have put ourselves in a strong position. And now the fundamental decision facing us is whether we continue on this path of being a private, residential, Christian, liberal arts college with the programs that we currently offer and the general climate that we foster, of whether Whitworth should consider being a different kind of college: one that would have the same mission, one that would still embrace the same values, one that would still be utterly student-centered and Christ-centered, but one that would make significant changes in programs, structure and whom we would serve. That's huge, and so I think that as we plan for the next five to 10 years, we are really looking at very basic issues -- and that's why you might be able to claim these next few years as a defining moment for Whitworth.
What about people who would say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Do you think that these changes would make Whitworth better, or would they be made to keep us competitive with other institutions -- based on income and enrollment projections?
I think you can build a strong case that we should stay the course that has been a successful one for us. There are contrasting axioms to that apply. One is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," or, to use the In Search of Excellence version, "Stick to knitting." On the other hand, you can listen to all of the organizational theorists, the business theorists, the higher-ed crystal-ball folks who are saying, "Change or die." In a changing environment, we are challenged to think whether we can get away with the status quo. We have a whole new set of variables that were not present when we built this structure, so it was probably presumptuous to assume that this structure will continue to be effective in a totally new environment.
What would those variables be?
We are in a different technological environment. We will be competing with programs that were not present 10-15 years ago. We'll be competing with programs that students can access without leaving their homes. The demographic environment is a different one. We're all excited about the increasing numbers of graduating high-school seniors in the state of Washington that we're seeing and will continue to see for the next five to 10 years, but the group that's been propping up the numbers is a different population than what we've been serving. It is a group that is less affluent, that is multicultural, and that comes from less-educated backgrounds; so we are going to have to deal with how we can address a new set of needs if we feel our mission compels us to serve those students, and I think most of us do believe that. A related factor is the affordability issue. A college education is more expensive to provide and to access than it was 15 to 20 years ago. It is simply a more expensive product. I believe it is a better product, but when you look just at the technology that we have to support and teach that didn't even exist 10 years ago, that has added enormous expense. Some of those costs are passed along to the students because neither our gift income nor government financial aid for students has come close to keeping up with our rising costs. While Whitworth is very affordable in relative terms, it is less affordable than it used to be in absolute terms for the students who would like to enroll and for their families who help foot the bill.
You were talking about people earning their degrees without stepping foot in a classroom, and there's a big push at institutions around the country to get competitive distance-learning programs in place. Is that our biggest challenge right now?
I don't think it is. I think in some ways the emphasis on technology underscores the distinctiveness of community-based learning. Education that relies primarily on technology does not have the kind of holistic benefits that a Whitworth education provides. It tends to be more information and skills oriented than relationship and values oriented. Whitworth does a great job of providing an education that includes all four of those components. And although private education is expensive, some recent studies have identified independent colleges and universities as the types of institutions that produce graduates achieving the highest salary levels. I hope that word gets out.
Does the higher earning potential spring from the community-based learning? From the liberal arts component?
It probably differs with every student. I'm sure the liberal arts emphasis helps develop more nimble, adaptive ways of thinking that would a "job-training" approach. But the community experience is also very important. One interesting finding in a recent study is that post-college economic success is enhanced significantly by involvement in community activities during their college years. At a private, liberal arts college like Whitworth, the opportunities and support for involvement in all kinds of activities are much greater than on a campus with 30,000 people, where a student can easily get lost in the "bigness" of the institution.
In a 1993 interview with Whitworth Today, you said, "I am very confident that the 21st century will find Whitworth a more visible institution with better resources and a clearer identity." Twelve-and-a-half months short of the new millennium, do you feel that we are moving toward that?
Yes. We are stronger financially. We are stronger in terms of the number and preparation of the students enrolling here. We have strengthened an already excellent faculty, we have a better physical plant, and we are clearer about our mission. Whether we are a more visible institution is hard for me to say. It feels like we are. Two weeks ago, on the same day, two different Spokane attorneys said to me, "You know, Whitworth is really on the move. We hear more about Whitworth, and our clients are talking about including Whitworth in their financial planning." So I think we're more visible locally, and we have worked pretty hard at that. I think that regionally, there is the same kind of reaction. I recently had dinner with seven alumni who've graduated within the last three years, and they were saying that they can't believe how many people they talk to in Portland who say, "Oh yeah, Whitworth; it's a great school." I suspect that we're gaining ground nationally and internationally as well, but that's harder to measure. Generally, the overused ripple metaphor holds pretty true. The biggest waves are closest to where the rock hits and then they sort of flatten as you move out, but it's still rippling pretty far out there.
What do we do best at Whitworth College? Is it our ability to "walk the narrow ridge" -- the path between Christian faith and intellectual inquiry?
I feel great about how we're dealing with that productive tension, and I'm probably feeling especially good right now because of the feedback from the accreditation report. The accreditation team reported that in every corner of the campus, they found people lifting up the importance of both heart and mind. They found people discussing the vitality of being very Christian in our emphasis and our perspective but very open and unrestrictive in our intellectual inquiry. I feel we do an excellent job of that.
While I don't know if it's what we do best, the scarcity on institutions that honestly embrace the integration of these two values -- a strong Christian commitment and the free exchange of ideas -- gives us an important distinctive. It's one of the things I love most about Whitworth -- that we're navigating a paradox that very few institutions have taken on. Last night a recent graduate who knows our daughter (a junior at Whitworth) asked where our 12th-grade son was headed for college. When I told him the balance our son was looking for intellectually, socially and spiritually, his response was, "Sounds like he wants Whitworth to be somewhere else."
What do you see as our greatest challenge as we head into the 21st century?
I think that probably the biggest challenge is affordability, which is exacerbated by the growing gap between the cost of public and private higher education. The subsidies for public colleges and universities rise every year. It costs Whitworth and the University of Washington about the same to educate a student, but UW charges $12,000 less per year for that education -- $12,000 that's made up by the taxpayer. So as that gap grows, public higher education looks more and more attractive to our prospective students.
And how can we address that?
Well, we are working very hard on building our endowment so that we can hold down costs. We are also looking for ways to structure the college to allow it to operate more efficiently, while at the same time we work to continue to improve our quality -- quite a challenge. But most importantly, we are trying to educate the public on the value of a Whitworth education. I heard a student say to a visitor whom I brought to campus, "I'm about $12,000 deeper in debt than I would be had I gone to a state school, and it's worth every penny of it."
And the campus? What's coming up next?
Our most immediate plans are to improve the classroom stations on campus. We'll spend a couple of million dollars on a renovation of Dixon this year, and then our goal is to raise money for a new academic building. Also, the athletics facilities are rapidly becoming inadequate, so we have work to do there. We've four 25-year-old temporary residence halls that we need to address, and then we've got some other buildings on the north end of campus that we need to tear down and replace.
You once said that being a college president was a tough job, but that you were happy to be doing it in this particular place. Do you still feel that way? Has it gotten tougher?
It's always been kind of hard, but it's a very gratifying type of work. I love Whitworth College. I love the campus environment, what we stand for in our mission, and the people of Whitworth. I like the variety of my job, and the range of people that I encounter. I like problem-solving, and there are many opportunities to do that. I like representing Whitworth; that's something I always enjoy. As I said, the range of activities in the course of a week is very wide, and I think that for someone who's kind of a darter, that's probably a good thing. But I sometimes wonder why, after I've spent nearly 13 years as a college president, my skin isn't getting any thicker. It should be. In some ways I handle stressful situations a little better because I've become more skilled at predicating how they're going to come out, and I use the predictability to calm myself. On the other hand, I sometimes find myself getting stressed out over small issues. I get demanding and whiny and someone needs to stuff a sock in my mouth. But Whitworth's a great school, and this is a job in which I feel I can take advantage of some of my strengths while working alongside people who can cover my weaknesses.
What do you want to do when you retire? How do you want to spend your time?
Well, a lot of that has to do when and how I retire. The average tenure of a college president is six or seven years. If and when I've served 20 years as a college president, I'll be 56. And I'll probably be in need of a stomach-lining transplant, but I won't be ready for a rocking chair. What I dream of in retirement is spending more time reading and writing and perhaps trying to consolidate some of the things I've learned in a way that would be helpful to others. Probably what I fantasize about most is not having responsibility for anybody except my family. I'm a pretty skilled worrier. I worry about our 300 employees, and I worry about our 2,000 students, and when I drive by the campus the day after we've gone on when we're in session -- and I never notice how it feels when we're in session: I only notice the change when we're not. So I internalize some of the responsibility that I have for the people of Whitworth, and I look forward to giving up those responsibilities. I'll lose some of the joys, but I'll also lose some of the tossing and turning.
What is the biggest difference at Whitworth since you came here in 1993?
Stability. I think there have been periods in our history when we have been tugged toward our Christian commitment, and there have been periods when we have been tugged toward our commitment to openness; and I think in recent years we've embraced the two values and taken advantage of the healthy tension they can create. So this ethos has stabilized. Our enrollment has also stabilized. Our retention has gone up every year and our new-student enrollment is right where we want it, so that's good. Our reputation has stabilized. People understand who we are and what we are trying to do. Whitworth has always been a great place; it's been a place where students have grown in heart and mind. But I feel that right now we are in a particularly stable position in a whole host of ways.
What's the biggest difference between you five years ago and today?
Oh, man. My hair and memory are just mocking me as they depart (laughs). And if there are more than about 10 words on a page, the print is too small. But I guess I feel a little smarter. There are certain things about running a college that I've learned how to do. Being president at more than one school has helped me accept that I'm not just in a situation where I got lucky and pressed the right button, but that I actually understand this stuff and have a pretty good set of skills to do it. On the other side, I've noticed that a few areas where I struggled when I was president at Manchester College are still struggles. Where I might have been tempted to blame those problems on the Manchester situation, I've changed my thinking. I find that I'm no good at those things here, either. So I think I've made peace with what I know, with what I do well, and after five years here and nearly 13 as a college president, I want to improve at both the things I do well and the things I don't do well. And this is where I want to do it.
Quotes about Bill featured throughout the QA:
Professor of Philosophy Forrest Baird:
"Bill loves Christ, loves his family, and loves Whitworth College -- and generally manages to keep those in the right order.... He also loves his students.... He had to good sense to marry Bonnie.... You can bet that if someone tells him something good about you, you will hear about it from him....And you can rest assured that if he hears something negative about you, he will make sure you have a chance to answer it.... He refuses to follow a script -- a sign of independent thinking, but nerve-wracking for anyone who has to perform with him in a skit.... He seeks and is open to advice from all sorts of people, but he never blames anyone else if he makes a mistake.... This, of course, makes others more willing to be honest in their advice.... Despite his considerable efforts, he is aging."
Kyle Forsyth, class of '99:
"Fall semester of my freshman year President Robinson directed his convocation address specifically to us students, saying that Whitworth must be a student-centered institution. I knew he was serious about this later that month when our paths crossed just outside the HUB. He stopped, called me by name, and asked how my first few weeks of college were going. It felt pretty good to think that the president knew who I was, and cared enough to ask how I was doing."
"Bill Robinson has been blessed with many gifts -- none more important than his knack for fishing out no-look passes on the basketball court."
"The relationships built between students and faculty are really one of the hallmarks of our college. There's no denying that Bill Robinson helps set the tone for the campus. He's available to students and genuinely interested in their lives."
Carol Wendle, Trustee:
"Bill has a tremendous love for his family, and he takes great pride in their accomplishments."
"I've worked with Bill in the higher education and business communities in the greater Spokane area. Bill is the higher in our higher education community. He has played a huge role in shaping education in Spokane."
"Bill is a tremendous example of leadership in action."
Sarah Snelling, Class of '94:
"More than just wanting to know what is going on at Whitworth, he IS at Whitworth. He goes to games, he attends plays, he talks to students. I've even hear a rumor that he occasionally participates in Frisbee golf in The Loop. And he has boundless energy, which translates into a contagious enthusiasm on campus."
"Bill remembers everyone's name. More than that, he remembers details about their lives. He is interested in what is happening to me even thought I graduated four years ago."