2023 Business Icon: Whitworth University’s Bill Robinson
Lifelong education advocate helped private Christian school flourish, remain within its own identity
Samantha PeoneMay 11th, 2023
William “Bill” Robinson’s position as a Spokane-area leader began in the early 1990s, when he met with multiple panels of students, staff, and faculty as he interviewed for the position of president of Whitworth University.
Although that leadership that started 30 years ago now puts him among regional business icons here, Robinson says he fell into the field of higher education that led him to Spokane accidentally.
He earned his master’s degree at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois, at the same school his wife, Bonnie, earned her degree in piano performance, Robinson says.
“Bonnie was teaching little kids in the conservatory, so I decided to get my master’s degree there, because I didn’t have anything else to do,” he says.
Robinson later took a part-time job in Pennsylvania, where he got his doctorate in organizational communication and research from the University of Pittsburgh. After their first child was born, the couple moved back to Illinois, where Robinson was hired by a private teachers’ college in Chicago, he says.
In 1986, he became president of Manchester University, in North Manchester, Indiana, where he worked until he joined Whitworth in 1993, at age 43.
Now 73 years old, Robinson says Whitworth seemed a perfect fit for him. He loved the college’s size, its affiliation with the Presbyterian church, its strong Christian emphasis, and the fact it was a solid school, academically.
“It just seemed like a great move,” he says.
During his 17-year tenure at Whitworth, the university purchased houses near campus and constructed several facilities, including three residence halls, a sports complex, Weyerhaeuser Hall, and other facilities.
Roughly $100 million in capital improvements took place, he says.
Student enrollment also grew during the years Robinson was president, to about 2,000 from about 1,200 students, he says.
Robinson attributes Whitworth’s growth to a variety of factors, including larger demographic pools to draw from and a strong student-centered culture.
“Everybody on campus was into how to help students succeed, and that rippled through the campus,” he says.
Of all the accomplishments that took place during his time at Whitworth, Robinson says the most important aspect to him was clarifying the university’s identity.
“We try to be uncompromisingly Christian and, at the same time, pretty courageously open to ideas that would not necessarily align with all of our sacred beliefs,” he says. “We really felt, and I still feel, that Christianity doesn’t need to be protected.”
Robinson believes Christianity can not only withstand, but also can be informed and enlightened by intellectual challenges.
“We would bring in people with opposite points of view on an issue, and then we would process that with a student,” he says. “That became a mark of who we wanted to be and our identity.”
Robinson says that Christian and secular education can be complementary. That involves walking a “narrow ridge” between Christian beliefs and intellectual curiosity.
Robinson’s faith informed a book he penned as well. “Incarnate Leadership” is a small book, he says, “It focused on the characteristics that Jesus showed in leading his disciples.”
He also wrote a secular work on leadership, “Leading People from the Middle: The Universal Mission of Heart and Mind,” which Robinson says discusses “being deeply engaged with the people who you were responsible for leading.”
Aaron McMurray, chief strategy officer with Spokane-based Innovia Foundation, was a student leader at Whitworth when Robinson was interviewing to be president.
McMurray, a sophomore at the time, sat on one of the several panels Robinson faced before his hiring.
“Fast forward five months later, when I returned to campus for the beginning of my junior year. I bumped into (Robinson), and he remembered my name,” says McMurray. “That’s the kind of leader he was—so intentional about the way that he invested in people and cared about the organizations he served in.”
McMurray says Robinson’s impact went beyond the college he led.
Robinson “is one of those university presidents who was intentional about getting off of campus, getting out into the community, bridging the gap between town and gown, and really involving himself in a number of ways to bring his excellent leadership skills to the larger Spokane community,” he says.
For the 17 years he was with the university, he was also on the board of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, which later became Greater Spokane Incorporated.
Robinson says one priority of the board at the time was engaging with the Spokane region, including all of Spokane County and maintaining a closer relationship with the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce.
“We wanted to support and represent the region,” he says.
That effort, led by the late Rich Hadley, helped lay the foundation for GSI, which was formed when the Spokane chamber merged with the Spokane Area Economic Development Council.
In addition to the regional chamber, Robinson has been appointed to the boards of several organizations. Most recently, he’s served with The Stewardship Foundation, of Tacoma, Washington; and Princeton Theological Seminary, of Princeton, New Jersey, he says.
Since stepping down from Whitworth’s presidency in 2010, Robinson has continued to engage in the community through different avenues.
He has worked with a variety of companies and organizations, including Moss Adams LLP, Kiemle Hagood, and Hoopfest, he says. Most recently, he’s been working again with Whitworth and its current president, Scott McQuilkin.
Each contract involves different responsibilities, he says. For example, Moss Adams called for Robinson to sit in and observe the accounting firm’s executive committee meetings, while other contracts might involve public speaking, or related work.
Robinson says his family strongly impacted his leadership.
When Robinson and his wife moved to Spokane, their children were 9, 12, and 15 years old, he says. Now, the kids are grown, and the Robinsons have seven grandchildren.
Bonnie Robinson “is an insightful adviser, so what I did would have looked different had Bonnie not been my partner,” he says. Their children brought perspective to his work and are his highest priority, he says.
“The joy of my family made me, probably, a more sympathetic leader, and hopefully a more generous one,” he says.