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Higher-Ed Regime Change

Three New Top Executives Here Face Challenging Times

September 23, 2010
Reproduced with permission of the Spokane Journal of Business.

By Kim Crompton

You might call it a changing of the guard.

Through a coincidence in timing, new top executives have taken over this year at three prominent Spokane academic institutions—Gonzaga University, Whitworth University, and Community Colleges of Spokane.

As the school year gets under way, all three will seek to fill the shoes of highly regarded veteran leaders with strong community ties and myriad contacts, and all three face big challenges stemming from a mix of growth pains and near-unprecedented economic upheaval.

On July 1, Beck Taylor took over as Whitworth's new president, succeeding Bill Robinson, who stepped down after 17 years in that position. About two weeks later, on July 16, Thayne M. McCulloh became Gonzaga's 26th president, succeeding the Rev. Robert J. Spitzer, who had held the post since 1998. Sixteen days later, on Aug. 1, Christine Johnson officially became chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane, succeeding Gary Livingston, who had been in that seat since 2002 and had extensive prior experience in academic administration here.

All three new leaders say they feel privileged to be taking over as the standard-bearers for those who preceded them, and are eager to work together where possible to achieve common goals, including by staying in tune with the business community.

"The people who preceded us did such an outstanding job, I think we owe it to the community to do as good a job as they've done," says Johnson, who came here from Denver, where she served in several academic administrative posts. "I'm very impressed with the culture they've created and the standard they've set. There's a sense of awesome responsibility to uphold their standard."

Although McCulloh, a social psychologist, had been serving as interim president at Gonzaga for a year before his appointment and has been working at the Jesuit school for 20 years in various academic and administrative positions, he says he feels a similar sense of stewardship. "I think we were all excited by the opportunity that has been laid before us, by the work of the prior leadership, to continue in that spirit," he says.

Taylor, who came to Whitworth from Samford University, in Birmingham, Ala., where he was dean of the Brock School of Business, says he was awed by the legacy Robinson left at Whitworth, including his leadership role in helping develop closer ties between higher-ed and business leaders here.

"I think Whitworth needs to be very connected to our business community," he says. Noting the universities' intensive focus on helping ensure that graduates find jobs, he adds, "I think we're real natural partners."

Since arriving here, he says he has sensed a strong desire among the other university leaders to work together where possible, despite the schools' diverse missions. He describes himself as "very entrepreneurial," bolstered by a long academic history in economics, and says he's eager to exploit all opportunities here for collaboration.

Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, says he's impressed by the three and adds, "I think there's a real openness on their part to find some synergies with each other as well as their relationship to business and industry."

Hadley says he expects them "to put their own stamp of leadership" on the institutions they head, partly as they seek to formulate new strategies for operating efficiently in these tough times.

McCulloh, Johnson, and Taylor came together for the first time in late July, at a meeting of GSI's Higher Education Leadership Group, which was founded in 1998 as a way to align education and business needs and goals, and they've gathered jointly to speak once or twice since then.

The Leadership Group, whose members also include Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arevalo and Washington State University Spokane Chancellor Brian Pitcher, is relatively unique among business-focused organizations around the country, and has allowed the new leaders to immerse themselves quickly in local issues, Hadley says. It meets every other month, and its next meeting is scheduled for next week.

'Environment of scarcity'

"The environment is different than it was 12 years ago when we formed the higher-ed group. It's an environment of scarcity, obviously," that could make cost-saving collaboration between the higher-ed and business sectors more crucial than ever, Hadley says.

He notes GSI is launching a university-based economic-development initiative as a primary strategy for the next three years, focusing on areas such as the proposed medical school here, and says he expects it to benefit from the fresh input of the new university leaders.

Aside from the sheer numbers of students that Community Colleges of Spokane, Gonzaga, and Whitworth educate each year—a total of about 26,000 are enrolled with them this fall—the universities are sizable employers and contributors to the Spokane-area economy.

Community Colleges of Spokane, which operates Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College, and the Institute for Extended Learning, has about 3,600 full-time equivalent employees, including around 600 full-time faculty members, and an annual operating budget of about $90 million. It started classes on Monday, with record overall enrollment of more than 15,200 students.

Gonzaga, located northeast of downtown Spokane in the University District, has roughly 7,800 students in all, more than 1,100 full-time equivalent employees, including about 360 full-time faculty members, and a budget this year of nearly $222 million.

Meanwhile, Whitworth, a 3,000-student Presbyterian school located on Spokane's North Side, has about 480 full-time equivalent employees, including about 180 full-time faculty members, and an annual budget of $57 million.

Over the last 10 years, their campuses each have seen tens of millions of dollars in new construction, which has supported hundreds of additional jobs. Some sizable projects still are under way or planned, such as a $32 million science building being constructed at Whitworth and a $30 million chemistry-and-life-sciences building being erected at Spokane Falls Community College, but higher-ed capital spending overall has declined here due to recession-caused financial constraints.

To be sure, while there are areas where their interests and programs intertwine, such as in providing needed graduates in an array of health care-related disciplines, they face different challenges, due to the differences in their missions, student populations, and funding sources.

Gonzaga's McCulloh says, "We're in a very good situation here. It is, at the same time, a very challenging time for education in general. It cuts in different ways for the sectors."

He says, "The demand for a Gonzaga education continues unabated. There are no enrollment challenges. We've had more interest in Gonzaga this year than we've ever had." There remains, though, intense competition for students and for donor support, he says.

"In the short term, our biggest challenge is we still have an imperative to have some facilities on our campus that will more appropriately meet the needs of the population we now host," McCulloh says.

Specifically, he says, "What we have not achieved is an appropriately scaled student union, or student center," which is sorely needed to promote important social interaction on campus. Also, he says, "We don't have an adequate dining hall, we don't have adequate meeting space. Where we don't have adequacy is in support of the nonacademic residential activities."

After completing a string of projects in the last decade, Gonzaga had nothing major planned this year. It said it would hold off on a couple of large, earlier announced projects at least until the economy picks up. One of those projects was a new student center that it envisioned would be about four times the size of its current 35,000-square-foot COG building and would cost $40 million to $45 million. It later said that those size and cost figures would be reviewed once the recession begins to lift and could change.

"We have the ability to grow, we have the space to grow, but we need to have the major components in place," McCulloh says. Until that happens, he says, "I don't know how to answer the question, 'Are you going to grow anymore?'"

Taylor says that in terms of maintaining financial stability amid this slow economy and enrolling the best students it can attract, "I don't think Whitworth faces any challenges that aren't common to universities across the country."

Nevertheless, keeping tuition relatively affordable, maintaining a strong focus on philanthropy, and finding ways to adapt to a student population that's shifting from high school graduates to adults already in the work force are key issues for the university as it looks ahead, he says.

The Community Colleges' Johnson, whose hiring was part of what's been described as an unprecedented level of turnover in key leadership posts in Washington's higher-education system over the past year, might face the toughest immediate challenge.

The community colleges here are in great shape in terms of facilities now, she says, but the community-college system gets the bulk of its funding from the state, which is looking at imposing across-the-board budget cuts of 6.3 percent effective Oct. 1 due to weaker revenue projections.

Part of the dilemma, Johnson says, is that, "As higher-ed funding declines, you still have the demand," driven even higher by people who have lost their jobs and are returning to school to learn new skills and increase their employment prospects.

"I think community colleges are known for being very efficient," but the state budget woes still can't help but create added "unfunded enrollment" challenges, through reduced tuition subsidies, that ultimately will limit access and reduce school affordability for some students, she says.

"We have more demand than we can accommodate without doing additional hiring. The demand has exceeded our capacities, so—in some respects—programs have enrollment caps," even before the schools have implemented the looming cuts, she says.

The philosophy of community colleges is about keeping an open door and providing a comparatively inexpensive education, so it's tough to be turning people away at a time when many of them are out of work and looking to "retool" for a different career, she says.