Among the many hallmarks of Bill Robinson’s presidency – the campus-wide ownership of Whitworth’s mission, the 60-percent increase in enrollment, the building of the science program and the endowment, the name change from “college” to “university” – the hallmark that Robinson-era alumni cite most often is, “He knew me by name.” Robinson’s presidency was indeed characterized by relationships. When he arrived at Whitworth in 1993 with his wife, Bonnie, and their young family, he was the first president to live on campus since the 1970s. He led from the middle and waved from his bike. Students called him “Bill,” and later, “B-Rob.”
During Robinson’s 17-year tenure, Whitworth students, faculty and staff joined with alumni, donors and friends to achieve record levels of freshman applications, enrollment and retention; $83 million in campus improvements; and a $75-million increase in the university’s endowment. In 2012, the year after Robinson left office, a new, state-of-the-art science facility was dedicated and named in honor of Bill and Bonnie.
Buildings and campus improvements are certainly one important way to measure a presidency, at least from the outside. But perhaps Robinson’s most important contribution to Whitworth was helping the campus community to articulate and internalize its unique identity as a Christian university that is open to challenging ideas. He provided language to help explain the paradoxical nature of Whitworth’s mind-and-heart mission, such as the “narrow ridge” (inspired by Martin Buber), and he offered examples from scripture to illustrate how communities of faith live in the tension of grace and truth. In his 2004 Commencement address, he said, “We are first and foremost a community of scholarship. And Whitworth cannot be great if we in any way relax our scholarly pursuit of truth. But the best hope for truth to penetrate our hearts and minds arises when truth is cradled in grace.”