A student introduced himself to Whitworth University president Bill Robinson on Monday. Tuesday morning, before Robinson’s surprising announcement that this school year will be his last, Robinson ran into the student on campus and greeted him by name.
The student was impressed, but Robinson is well-known for making all feel welcome at Whitworth.
“He’s so important to everybody on campus – the board, the students, the janitors – everyone,” said Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated. “He has set a high bar. It will be very difficult to replicate that kind of leadership.”
Robinson, who turns 60 on Sept. 30, said the timing feels right.
“We’re starting another five-year strategic plan,” he said. “The question is whether I have another five years that would be good for Whitworth and good for me. It’s just one of those intersection points. I feel confident (Whitworth) would benefit from new energy and some fresh eyes.”
Whitworth University has grown in students and stature during Robinson’s 17-year tenure. Under his watch, the Whitworth campus spent more than $83 million on campus improvements, its endowment reached nearly $75 million, enrollment grew 60 percent and the number of freshmen applications increased more than 500 percent, according to a university news release. The private, liberal arts university has 2,675 students.
Robinson also reaches out beyond campus. He served as chairman of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, now called Greater Spokane Incorporated.
“Bill is so woven into the fabric of Spokane,” Hadley said. “It used to be that the 10 miles between Whitworth and the center of the city was a long distance. Bill made that a smooth trip by bringing the campus and the community together.”
Robinson and his wife Bonnie – principal organist for First Presbyterian Church of Spokane – plan to stay in Spokane. He hopes to do more writing. His monthly newsletter, “Of Mind & Heart” circulates to 20,000 readers, inside and outside Whitworth.
He’s written two books on leadership, and he hopes to focus in his third book on how organizations, in these cost-cutting times, can be both “productive and life-giving.”
In a message to the Whitworth community Tuesday, Robinson wrote: “I’m sure you know that we consider Whitworth to be the embodiment of our most deeply held spiritual and professional values, but we sense the time has come for me to step away. You have made me a better leader than I was ever meant to be. Thank you. Now, please join me in getting back to the good work of helping our students fulfill our mission to ‘honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity.’”
Robinson is known for his accessibility. He walks or rides his bike everywhere. The Robinsons live in a home on campus and routinely open it up for receptions and meetings.
Robinson said he’s proudest of the connections he made with the young people educated at Whitworth.
“I deeply care for the students and I think they all know that,” he said.
The search for his successor will begin immediately, and the new leader will likely be in place by July 2010.