Sustaining Excellence in Challenging Times
President Beck A. Taylor reflects on his first five years leading Whitworth
By Elizabeth Strauch, '04
Anyone who follows President Beck A. Taylor on Twitter (@becktaylor) or Facebook knows that he is as much an engaged leader as he is engaging on social media. A quick look at his posts over the course of a week will reveal the groups he meets with in the community and across the country, the athletics events he attends, the students who catch him around campus for a quick selfie with the prez, and the family life he honors amid his full schedule (see the slide deck below to check out what the month of October looks like in the life of Whitworth's president). His colleagues agree that Taylor has proven himself to be driven by big university goals, convicted by Whitworth's deep missional values, and, through it all, a leader who is approachable and unafraid to address challenging questions. Over the past five years Taylor has enacted a dynamic strategic plan across campus departments and programs and a $100-million fund-raising campaign, but he attributes Whitworth's success in accomplishing these grand initiatives to its enduring institutional identity and to its faithful community. The Q&A below offers Taylor's perspective on what it means to lead today's Whitworth.
Q. If you could sum up the past five years as a chapter title in Whitworth's history book, what would you call it?
A. Maybe something like "Sustaining Excellence during Challenging Times." I dream about what it must have been like to be a college president in the 1990s and 2000s. Real family incomes were rising, more and more students were headed for college, people were optimistic about the future, and there was no doubt that higher education was an important part of the American experience. There were challenges then, certainly, but higher education was in its heyday. Since the 2008 financial collapse and the Great Recession, real family incomes have stagnated, the number of high school graduates is declining, optimism has been replaced by growing skepticism, and for the first time in U.S. history, people are questioning the value of a college education. My tenure as president began as the U.S. was clawing its way out of the economic sandpit. As an economist, I could see that we might be in for a rough ride for at least the next five-seven years, and as a result, universities like Whitworth couldn't operate as they had the previous 25 years.
Fortunately, Bill Robinson left Whitworth in great shape to tackle these new challenges. So as Whitworth leaned into this new harsh reality, we had to grapple with how to continue the dramatic improvement it had experienced and imagine how to contend with a more austere future. For the most part, I think we've succeeded. Whitworth continues to make important investments in quality while also taking unprecedented steps to maintain accessibility. The road ahead will still be challenging, but I'm optimistic that Whitworth will thrive.
Q. Before you began your work as Whitworth's president, you and your wife, Julie, were able to spend time on Whitworth's campus. What did you know about Whitworth's community when you accepted the position, and how has your understanding of Whitworth developed and evolved in the time you've lived here as a family?
A.Julie and I learned very quickly that Whitworth's people – students, faculty and staff – are what make Whitworth special. I remember losing my voice when we were on campus being introduced to the community. Julie had to stand in for me with the students. They were so generous! They loved her. I could imagine the students saying, "Anyone married to that woman must be all right!" Our five years at Whitworth have only confirmed how our community loves on each other. We've celebrated and wept with colleagues and students. Our children have grown up on this campus. Our love for God and for one another sustains us through thick and thin. We wouldn't trade that for anything.
Q. When talking to people outside the campus community – leaders, prospective students and families – what are you most proud of when you tell them about Whitworth?
A.I love to talk about Whitworth's mission. So many people have preconceived notions about Christian higher education. Some think we make sacrifices in academic quality in order to retain our identity. Others think we must be narrow-minded and unwilling to engage with the culture. Whitworth honors both faith and reason, conviction and curiosity, belief and ideas. We honor mind-and-heart education when we commit to what it means to be a true university, and when we honor Christ by loving him and the world with our hearts, minds, souls and strength. Whitworth is faithful to its mission, and I'm grateful.
Q. In your inaugural address in October 2010, you said, "Whitworth will not change. And Whitworth must change," but you acknowledged that in order for Whitworth's mission to endure, it would need to be responsive to the changing needs of students, outside developments and economic challenges in higher education. You thus developed Whitworth's strategic plan (Whitworth 2021) to address these issues and more, and the university has made great strides as a result. What do you see as the greatest opportunities for Whitworth to stand out in a sea of private and public universities, and in light of the recent College Scorecard program, what will keep a mind-and-heart education relevant?
A.Our society never used to question the "relevance" of higher education. That's changing. More than ever, Whitworth must make a compelling case that the investments in its mind-and-heart education are not only worth it economically, but, perhaps more important, are necessary to build the future we want. "Relevancy" seems like such a low hurdle when I think about it, but I think people want to be convinced that the experiences young people have on our campus will shape them into women and men of character, intelligence and moral courage. In many ways, that's the essence of Whitworth 2021. Building on a strong foundation, how can Whitworth think anew about how a Christian liberal-arts experience can prepare graduates for callings that both justify their enormous investments of time and expense and prepare them for lives of meaning and service? By any measure, Whitworth is succeeding in delivering those outcomes.
Q. How have you grown as a leader during these last five years? What has surprised you?
A.Serving as Whitworth's president is the highest professional honor of my life. I'm so grateful for the experience. There have been no big surprises, but two things immediately come to mind as I reflect on my experience. The first is how gratifying and fulfilling the work is. My days are long, and they are sometimes challenging, but the privilege and joy of walking this important journey with our students makes it all worth it. It's the best job in the world. The second thing is how much I depend upon others to carry out the university's mission. I've learned that no human being can control everything in a complex organization, nor should they, and that I must rely on hundreds of dedicated and talented people to deliver on our promises. I set the tone and the culture and then pass the baton to others. I'll never take those colleagues for granted, but I've learned to lead knowing that there are many people who make Whitworth the special place that it is.