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Soul of Whits Lifts Spirits

Whitworth's coveted leader feels right at home on campus

Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001
Copyright © 2001. Reproduced with permission of The Spokesman-Review.

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.

He wore a gray suit and striped tie, but arrived at the meeting riding a Huffy.Whitworth President Bill Robinson is known for riding his Huffy from his home to his office on campus.

"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 goals."

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 2 1/2 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 later.

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 birthday.

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.


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 decades.

"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 and inspire.

"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 from Whitworth.

But Robinson -- the first president since the '70s who has chosen to live on the Whitworth campus -- won't budge.

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 be.

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."