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Leaders embrace roles at faith-based universities

Thayne McCulloh and Beck Taylor may be separated by denomination, but the new leaders of Spokane’s two dominant private universities share more similarities than differences in matters of leadership, educational mission and family.

Taylor, of Whitworth University, and McCulloh, of Gonzaga University, will both be inaugurated in the coming weeks. The ceremony at Whitworth will take place Friday, while Gonzaga’s inauguration will be Oct. 22.

Recently, the two presidents were interviewed together at The Spokesman-Review.

“I think we have the best job in the world,” Taylor said. “I’ve often said, if a university president tells you he or she doesn’t have the best job in the world, they are either lying or they aren’t doing it right because I really do think we are in privileged positions.”

Both said they must make sure faith remains an integral part of their institutions’ academics, maintain their colleges’ niche while responding to the needs of students, engage the Spokane community, increase endowments and attempt to keep private higher education attainable to students of all backgrounds.

Leading a faith-based institution, in particular, said McCulloh, is “very important work, and it’s also very challenging. And I think it gives rise to potentially a different set of issues as a result.”

On participating in the broader community

The former presidents of Whitworth and Gonzaga held community leadership roles in addition to their duties at the universities, in Greater Spokane Incorporated, for example, the Higher Education Leadership Group and the Spokane Symphony.

The new presidents say participating in community organizations is important, but determining where they are needed takes careful consideration.

McCulloh has served as interim president of Gonzaga since July 2009, and as a longtime resident of Spokane, he’s already involved with the Spokane Human Rights Commission.

Taylor, on the other hand, is “just learning how to be the Whitworth president. Speaking for myself, I don’t know what roles I will play in the future, other than to say I’m committed to making sure that I’m available as needed to other leaders, other community organizations.”

McCulloh said his fundamental obligation is to his job, to students and to faculty. But, he added, “Gonzaga, like Whitworth, would not be here without the community. There’s an interrelationship between the universities, the city of Spokane, the community of Spokane, that’s a really tight, interwoven fabric. So I don’t know that either one of us have the ability to abandon that … without significant consequence.”

One example of that interrelationship came recently concerning Spokane Public Schools’ 28.7 percent dropout rate. Faculty at Gonzaga’s School of Education applied for a grant offered by a local foundation earlier this year to study best practices for dropout prevention at the middle-school level.

Their study suggested an early warning system for identifying potential dropouts, a bigger variety of academic opportunities and more rigor and additional funding for community-based social support programs.

“As president, our role is to facilitate connections,” Taylor said. “I think one of the roles of a president is to be that networker, or that broker, that puts the needs of the community together with the passions and energy of the campus.”

On higher education’s rising price tag

Tuition at public universities in Washington has shot up as much 28 percent since 2009. McCulloh and Taylor think that’s one reason more students are finding a private education viable.

“The relative cost of a private education has come down. And particularly compared to the state schools,” Taylor said. That makes “what we offer – residential, highly relational, experiential, liberal arts education – an easier sell to parents and students. I think the latest round of economic turmoil has only highlighted what’s been true for many years: that private education is a wonderful alternative for many of our state residents.”

Said McCulloh of cuts in state funding for those seeking higher education: “I’m horrified by what I’m seeing, I really am. And it is true that private education, because it does not depend on subsidization by the state, is somewhat insular. But a private institution will quickly sink, as well, if further encroachment on state aid and other types of support for students and family are eroded.”

On Thursday, the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board announced another drop in state aid with a nearly 6.3 percent across-the-board reduction in state spending. The cut means 25,000 eligible students won’t receive a State Need Grant this year, which is for the neediest students.

“I worry a lot that as the state continues to pull back, a substantial number of people will not be able to access (higher education),” McCulloh said.

Leaders at public and private institutions are thinking about the same issues, McCulloh said. “How is that we can become as cost effective as possible, so that we raise our tuition as little as possible?”

Meanwhile, enrollment is at historic highs for both private universities. Taylor and McCulloh say that’s good news, but that the schools need to keep student numbers at levels that prevent overcrowding.

“We have a very distinct niche within the education system,” Taylor said. “And classic business theory would tell you that those institutions that can maintain that would survive changes in demographics as well as a sour economy.”

On the future

Bill Robinson was president of Whitworth University for 17 years. The Rev. Robert Spitzer led Gonzaga for 11 years.

Taylor and McCulloh now have a chance to make their own marks, but say they will honor their schools’ legacies.

Whitworth is in the midst of a big expansion of its science programs as well as a $55 million capital campaign. “A yearlong process has already started that will determine what the future will look like,” Taylor said. “But I would not be too much out of bounds if I were to say we will maintain our commitment to very high quality academics, recruiting very fine students into our environment that is informed by, motivated by, our Christian worldview and Christian faith with academic pursuit.”

At Gonzaga, “We have not only a responsibility, but a tremendous opportunity to do some work in explaining what it means to be Jesuit and a Catholic today,” McCulloh said. To survive, the university needs to compete academically and financially.

“It’s quite scary at times to be the president of a private, nonsubsidized, nonstate institution. We are heavily dependent on tuition dollars, we don’t have a lot of liquidity, and our endowment is not huge,” McCulloh said.

Taylor added: “I often say that higher education is an arms race, in many ways. In the sense that institutions like Gonzaga and Whitworth are competing for the same bright students, the same fantastic faculty, the same dollars to build the same great facilities and programs, and then our community is just a microcosm of the larger industry.”

On balancing work and family

Both men, who are in their 40s, struggle to carve out time for their families. Each has three young children.

They laughed when asked how many hours they work each week.

“When are we not working?” McCulloh said. “I think that’s one of the realities, especially at the front end. I can’t identify a time when I am not thinking about something that relates to work. … It becomes hard to define where the work begins and ends sometimes.”

Taylor is usually scheduled four out of seven nights a week, he said. But Wednesday is usually family night, with dinner and games, while other free time typically is dedicated to his kids’ activities.

“When I’m not working, I’m usually following them around,” Taylor said. “I enjoy driving them to a sporting event. Sitting on the sidelines and watching them compete, that’s a luxury.”

McCulloh says he has work activities two or three nights a week, depending on the time of year. As with Taylor, “when it’s not work, it’s with the kids.”

“But I’ve also sort of depressurized by reading unauthorized biographies … or authorized biographies, I read those too. But I tend to detach (that way).”

An annual vacation is also important, he said.

“To take time as a family away and for some time – it doesn’t have to be someplace exotic – just concentrated time away together.”

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