Westmont College President Gayle Beebe has been in office since last July, but he isn’t yet official. That comes today during a host of activities, lectures, speeches and ceremonies, all part of the inauguration of Beebe, the school’s eighth president. Beebe sat down for a quick talk in between meetings earlier this week to talk about where he came from, and where the school is going under his leadership.
Why do you guys wait so long for the inauguration?
Well, they deferred to me. The thing you realize the second time you do this is that falls are incredibly busy. Most of the presidents I know that do a second presidency usually have their inaugurations in the spring because everybody-when you’re a first year president-they’re always anxious to introduce you and so you always do it early in the fall and it’s just an incredible madhouse. And you actually haven’t gotten to know the institution as well as you do. I also wanted to coordinate it so Steve Forbes and Steve Sample could participate and they’re incredibly busy. Their schedule is way beyond mine and to get them both here we had to do some finessing but it worked out. So we’ll have Steve Forbes in the morning and then Steve Sample at night and in the between do the investiture ceremony where I become officially recognized as president. And we’ve great afternoon with our faculty. Our faculty panels, I’m really excited for that as well. I think those will just be outstanding.
You guys have a full day.
We do. Personally, I like content rich days and I like everything done in a day. So it fits kind of the way I am and everybody is kind of willing to roll with it.
Is this your second presidency?
How does it compare to Spring Arbor?
There are a lot of differences, a lot of similarities. The most distinct difference is this is an exclusively undergraduate, four-year, residential experience. Spring Arbor was a regional university, had graduate programs and had adult study programs. Spring Arbor is actually a lot more like Azusa Pacific University than Westmont. At Westmont, partly because of design and partly because of county restrictions, we’re only allowed to have 1,200 on campus and then we’ve got a couple hundred on our international programs. But it has a great faculty. I like to say the big things are right: great faculty, great student body, and a sound financial base. And so those are just very compelling parts; s very beautiful campus, one of the most ideal cities, ideal climates in the world. We just have a lot going for us, a lot of great opportunities.
As we look to the inauguration and beyond one of the wonderful opportunities in higher education is to continually focus on what it means to have become a global community. The theme of the inauguration is the global imperative education, the knowledge society of the 21st century, and the emphasis that we’re making on the day is the central role and importance of education in preparing to be an active and successful participant in the knowledge society. Everything is being driven by a knowledge base. We have moved beyond an industrial base and so even as manufacturing jobs shift either to the southern United States, to Mexico or to Asia more and more we recognize the value add that comes from what knowledge you can apply to different goods and services in order to add value. And it’s in that value add that you actually will make your margins. Beyond that how are we training minds-and this is what I love about liberal arts is it really trains you to discern both the discreet elements of knowledge as well as how you put them into plausible structures. How do the discreet elements of knowledge fit into the grander whole? The liberal arts help you learn how to place very specific things into a general whole so that you can find meaning in life and you can find purpose and you can also see patterns, so that whatever field you’re working in you begin to see patterns develop that help you understand those patterns that help you solve problems. Whether you’re an engineer, a banker, an educator, whatever, you’re role in society might be that you’re better able to figure those challenges out because of the way your brain has been trained. And I’m grateful to be at a place that really values that and just puts a central focus on it.
You mentioned a strong foundation or supporter base, how do you as president interact with that base and keep it alive and well?
There’s a great combination of people here. We have the Westmont Magazine; Nancy Phinney does just superb, it’s just top drawer. I travel a lot. We’ve done 15 alumni chapter events this year, or by the time this first year is up we’ll have done 15. So I probably spend 35 to 40 percent of my time interacting in some way with the external constituencies and then 60 to 65 percent of my time actually working within the college with the different departments, different academic boards or committees and whatnot. Some weeks are more intense than others, but it’s just trying to find a balance in that because you have to maintain both. You can’t be always here and you can’t be always gone. You have to keep focused on the external constituencies and you have to keep focused on the day-to-day work of the college. You can’t take your eye off either part.
What would you say is your favorite part of being here so far?
There really are so many. The relationships you get to build at all levels is my favorite part. I’ve made some wonderful friends with students, faculty, with my president’s team, my executive team, with the board, with neighbors, with friends of the college that are major donors. And so it’s the relationships that are my favorite part. There’s just incredible people doing significant work and then also making a contribution to Westmont and really wanting us to be a highly successful college and coming alongside of us giving time, giving financial support and really helping us think through the best way we can run our college. It’s just really important to have those types of people interested in your work.
You went to school here for a semester or a year?
Yeah I did a consortium exchange here back in 1981.
What are some of the differences you see now?
I was so focused when I was here. I came because I wanted to study with a specific professor, and I literally went to class and studied. I think I went to East Beach three times the whole time I was here. And, of course, in retrospect do I wish I had sat down and enjoyed life a little more, maybe. But at the time I absolutely loved the intensity of the academics and that is still true here. There’s rigorous academics and a deep love for God that run in unison and I like that combination. Those are the values of my life. How do you develop your mind in such a way that you literally recognize the ways that humans can develop so they can face all these vexing challenges? And at the same time you have a whole spiritual dimension to life that some people try to ignore, but it will always come back up. I love the fact that we not only give space for that learning but we also provide instruction in how can you can understand that part of your life and really make headway. Westmont deeply reflects the values I have and hold dear.
What about Westmont’s interaction with the Santa Barbara community? Do you feel like that’s a strong relationship?
Well, I do and I think a growing relationship. You know we’ve done some really innovative things. The president’s breakfast is a huge outreach, and students ministries groups; we have some students who are doing some work with different aspects of life in Santa Barbara. We have some down on lower Milpas, others with some of the disadvantaged populations, and school education, mentoring, tutoring-type programs. Again that’s an element you always have to be attending to because you could spend all of your time doing it and flunk out. So we want them to do it in the right balance but we do want them to do it. One of the priorities in terms of their extracurricular activities is the service that they provide in a variety of venues to the local community. We also have a lot of missions trips, a lot of short-term missions trips, as well as spring break missions trips that are of a real intense focus. But then there’s a lot that goes on throughout the year that is student driven and really reflects both the depth and quality of the students we have here.
What about-and I know this all was maybe happening while you were coming and it was already headed out-the Master Plan? And the opposition to the Master Plan? I know that you were responsible for a lot of the growth at Spring Arbor and its different here because you can’t grow.
I’m thankful that so much of the campus Master Plan was carried out by Dave Winter, Stan Gaede and Ron Kronk. All three of those guys were great men and what I enjoy doing is building out a campus. I really believe in the providence of God. The people that needed to get the master plan through were here at that time for a very distinct purpose. Part of the reason Stan felt he could leave is that the season he needed to oversee was largely coming to an end. A vote hadn’t been taken but it was headed towards a good outcome. We won, we got a 5-0 unanimous vote and won on appeal just this last December. There’s always going to be this opposition in Santa Barbara and frankly some of the resistance helped us put together a better plan. It’s something I think will make a beautiful campus.
We’re already a great asset to Santa Barbara and Montecito, but we’ll become even better. It will allow us to do our excellence in education even better, but it will also allow the local community to have an incredible, incredible asset in the community that I think adds value to Santa Barbara in significant ways. I think we’re involved so far beyond our academic programs. Just today I was with our arts council, and we were touring a Montecito home that has some exquisite art works. You begin to think about all of the ways in which we’ve reached in to the community; we talk about service projects, well we could talk about for several hours the cultural impact of Westmont on the greater community. So there are just so many ways in which, academically, intellectually, culturally, socially, we really make a significant impact and it’s just really meaningful to get to be a part of that.
Do you see yourself being here for a long time?
A: Yes I do. There’s a lot do to with Phase 1 construction and campus buildout. I’d really like to grow the endowment and build out the endowment both for endowed faculty chairs as well as endowed student scholarships. In the foreseeable future we’ve got to get the campus completed. The buildings the infrastructure but then we need to shift to the programs and we need to get the endowment built and fund the program development.
Do you go to church?
We do. We go to Montecito Covenant. The church that we were attending, Spring Arbor is affiliated with the Free Methodist church. We like the Free Methodist church in town, but Montecito Covenant, a lot of our students go there, a lot of our faculty attend there. None of these churches are affiliated in any way with Westmont, but a lot of our people go to Montecito Covenant and it just seemed to work out.
Do you miss the cold?
No. If I begin to miss the falls I’ll visit. The falls are gorgeous. I love New England or Michigan falls. I’ve just never seen that kind of stunning color, that stunning beauty.