Parting Thoughts with Whitworth University’s Beck Taylor
~April 8th, 2021
Beck Taylor is leaving Whitworth University after 11 years as president of the private Christian university north of Spokane.
During his tenure, Whitworth has expanded its continuing education programs. It also has started or completed more than $47 million in capital projects, including a $20 million health sciences building to be completed in early 2022.
Taylor is returning to Homewood, Alabama-based private Christian school Samford University, where he was dean of Samford’s school of business prior to joining Whitworth.
His last day at Whitworth will be May 31. Scott McQuilkin, Whitworth’s vice president for institutional advancement, will serves as interim president, beginning June 1.
The Journal spoke with Taylor about his loyalty to academia, the changes and successes he’s seen at Whitworth, and what challenges his successor will face.
What drew you to work in education?
I loved my time as a college student. I often tell people I chose to become a college professor, because I was just trying to figure out a way to stay in college.
I also fell in love with my discipline, which is economics. The idea of going to graduate school and eventually getting a Ph.D. in economics, returning to the college classroom, and being part of the life of a college or university was incredibly appealing to me.
I went to Baylor University. I did my undergraduate work there, then went on to get my master’s and Ph.D. in economics from Purdue University, in Indiana. When I was done with that, I ended up getting hired back at Baylor for my first job as a professor. I really did figure out how to stay at college.
What’s the most significant change you’ve seen at Whitworth in your time here?
The most noticeable and the most encouraging change in the last 11 years has been the composition of our student body. In the last 11 years, we have more than doubled the number of our international students.
Notably, we’ve more than doubled the number of our students of color. That’s been really encouraging to see, as Whitworth has worked so hard for access and affordability for students from across socioeconomic conditions and has embraced the idea that a more diverse learning environment is what is best for our students.
We’ve been very intentional about it. We’ve created both recruitment events and opportunities for students from all backgrounds to experience the university in high school. We’ve worked hard to come alongside families and parents and students with generous financial aid packages, that have opened doors to an otherwise very expensive education to the broadest swath of diversity possible.
Once students arrive on campus, whether they be first-generation college students or students from other backgrounds, we surround them with people and resources to support them so they can succeed.
I think we’ve been very determined to create programs and conversations on campus to be a more diverse and inclusive community. We’ve got some more work to do there, obviously, but I think our students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, find a home at Whitworth and feel like this is a place where they can thrive.
What are the most pressing issues that your successor is going to face?
There will be changes in demographics — in particular, we know that mid-decade, we’re going to start seeing fewer high school graduates across the country going to college. This is a result of the Great Recession. That’s going to be a challenge, because we’re all going to be competing for the same smaller group of students.
Although the total number of students is going to be declining over the next decade, the number of students from historically underrepresented populations is going to be increasing. Those campuses that are best equipped to serve an increasingly diverse student body are going to be those that will weather the demographic storm to come.
We run institutions that are full of bright, capable people, but those bright, capable people often are educated, have doctoral degrees — it’s an expensive workforce. You add onto that the cost of providing excellent facilities and all the other accoutrements to a quality education, and it all makes higher education very expensive. I think my successor is going to continue to have to think about how to increase accessibility and affordability for students.
Colleges and universities have always been the center of dialogue and disagreement. We’re places of learning, first and foremost. In order to create rich learning environments, we have to invite people onto our campuses who think differently about important topics.
In our country today, the level and the health of our civil discourse has decreased dramatically. College campuses are going to have to be reclaimed as places where people can simultaneously think well and critically about difficult issues. Places like Whitworth are best equipped to do that, but it’s going to take effort, and we’re going to have to combat some social trends. We’re going to have to be kind of countercultural in our efforts to do that.
What do you feel has been your greatest achievement while you’ve been in this position?
Continuing to grow and expand Whitworth University during a very challenging decade of higher education.
This has been a difficult 10 or 11 years. We’ve combatted economic crises. I started my tenure at Whitworth in 2010, as we were just emerging from the Great Recession, and I’m ending my tenure during a global pandemic. And in the years in between, we’ve had volatile economic performance nationally. We’ve had a lot of difficult cultural moments, including race relations and increasingly partisan politics. It’s made for a difficult decade.
Despite all of that, Whitworth has thrived. We are experiencing record enrollments and record fundraising. Whitworth continues to grow and expand. We’re building a brand-new health sciences building now that will largely house new doctoral programs. We’ve made over $110 million of capital improvements on campus in the last decade. I feel like I’m leaving the cupboards full for my successor.
What led to your decision to leave for Alabama and return to Samford University?
Many of the things I just mentioned — being able to leave Whitworth in good condition. We really don’t have a lot of loose ends right now. We’re coming to the end of a very ambitious 10-year strategic plan. We’ll be sunsetting that this summer.
The largest-ever fundraising campaign will also be concluding this summer. We’ve just done a major revision to our general-education curriculum. We just launched our new doctoral programs in the health sciences. Looking at the opportunity that came up at Samford, I wouldn’t feel guilty about leaving this place. When the opening at Samford happened — a place I already know and love and appreciate — it just felt like the timing was good to consider that move and get back to Samford.
My son lives in Nashville, and we’ve missed being near him. We’ve got family members up and down the East Coast, and our youngest daughter is going to be starting high school next fall. Our experience in moving to Spokane taught us that the transition from eighth to ninth grade can be a good time to make a transition.
We’re leaving a daughter behind. We have a proud Whitworth graduate who’s going to be starting at the University of Washington medical school here in Spokane in the fall. We feel good about leaving her here. She’s going to be settled.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.