The Interview

June 19, 2013

Whitman College President Emeritus Robert Skotheim recently published “A Memoir,” a look back at his life as a historian, two-time college president and director of The Huntington Library. Returning to Whitman, Skotheim reflected upon the joys, difficulties and “trench warfare” of running a college.

By Edward Weinman

Robert Skotheim
Robert Skotheim

Edward Weinman: Whitman has undergone major changes since you served as president from 1975 to 1988. The science building has expanded. The Baker Faculty Fitness Center, Fouts Center for Visual Arts and the Reid Campus Center have opened, and the Sherwood Center underwent a massive renovation. Whitman is even getting new tennis courts. But as you walk around campus, how has it remained the same?

Robert Skotheim: Whitman is more the same than it is different. What’s the same is the smallness of it. This is still a small campus. Several times a day Whitman students pass all the key parts of the campus: the library, Harper Joy, the sports facilities. The students are basically the same. That is, this is still a student body that is pretty much, in its rhetoric and behavior, plain style.

Edward Weinman: So Whitman is, as the brochures say, unpretentious?

Robert Skotheim: There’s a wonderful story told to me by a rich, old farmer descendent when I was here. His dad was a wealthy farmer who had moved into town in the houses by the YMCA on Palouse Street. In the ’20s, this student came to Whitman, and he drove his dad’s Stutz Bearcat, and he told me that his father got a phone call from President Stephen Penrose. And Penrose told his father that Whitman students don’t show off their wealth, and that his son should keep the car in the garage and walk to campus.

Whitman is still composed of students who do less conspicuous spending, who are more interested in the outdoors, who are serious academically without being bitterly competitive in an aggrandizing way, and these are all countercultural currents in elite colleges today.

Edward Weinman: In your memoir, you write that being a college president is a difficult job. Is this true even at a small liberal arts college like Whitman?

Robert Skotheim: I think that smaller college presidents feel that there is not much appreciation for the complexity of a small place. Americans are much impressed by size, by quantity, so everyone will quickly agree, ‘It must be really hard to be the president of University of Washington. It must be really hard to be the governor of the state.’ Well, former Washington Gov. Daniel Evans once said to me – here, he’d been governor, he’d been a senator – Dan said, ‘The most complex, difficult job I had was being the president of Evergreen State College.’

Edward Weinman: Did you have any training that prepared you to become president of Whitman?

Robert Skotheim: Well, in colleges like Whitman, the pool from which presidents are drawn is not an executive pool. It’s a professorial pool. And there is no ‘training’ that prepares them to be a college president, and that’s unlike executives of corporations who are, in fact, schooled precisely for their jobs. I’m a somewhat extreme example. I had taught only in large, public institutions … in state universities for 10 years. I had never gone to a faculty meeting. The first faculty meeting I ever went to, I ran a chair as the dean of faculty at Hobart College. And three years later, I was the president at Whitman. So that’s admittedly a little extreme, and today nobody would appoint a president who had never attended a faculty meeting or had never been the chair of a department.

Edward Weinman: What are the downsides of running a college?

Robert Skotheim: I used to liken it to being a big city mayor. Any big city major has ideas of what he wants to do, but he’s engaged in trench warfare all the time. In other words, he’s engaged in a trench battle, so his feet are mired in the battle while he’s talking about urban reform, low income housing, a new transportation system, and a clean environment and so on.

Edward Weinman: It sounds overwhelming.

Robert Skotheim: I liken it to that because a campus is its own culture, including its adversarial elements. And it’s a tension, always a tension, between the community building that is so essential and breaking a community down because of interests. And [a college or university] is a constituency that is very high-minded, very articulate, [and] very intelligent, and [they] want a campus community to be its own utopia.

Edward Weinman: What is the role of the college president?

Robert Skotheim: The president is not a corporate executive giving orders. He’s a moderator, a mediator, a conciliator, a minister-cleric-rabbi with the Board of Trustees. One interest, the parents – another interest, alumni who remember a college that was and wonder about the college that is. Staff, who are not faculty; faculty, who are not staff. And then students, all with their competing claims. You’ve got all these competing interests that you’re trying to mediate.

Edward Weinman: What did you enjoy about serving as Whitman’s president?
Robert Skotheim: The enjoyment is derived from being involved in education. Short of the ministry, being a rabbi or a priest or a Protestant minister, I don’t think there is any more moral or spiritual enterprise than to be engaged in education, and you are part of the education process. The satisfactions start with being associated with a fundamentally good thing.

Edward Weinman: You were also interim president of Occidental College (January 2008 to July 2009), coming out of retirement to take the job. So you must have liked being President?

Robert Skotheim: The president is the one person whose official responsibility is to conceive and articulate a vision for the institution. But I think it’s quite important that the president remembers that education is the goal, not the building of buildings and not the specific achievements or accomplishments. It’s education. And the institution is ultimately to be evaluated according to student development. Because that’s what it is about, that you go to college and something happens. Not just, you go and nothing happens and you’re the same person. The job of education, clearly, is growth. You’re not just recruiting talent; you’re trying to enhance people’s potential.

Edward Weinman: What would you say to potential Whitman students interested in a liberal arts education but worried about where it might take them?

Robert Skotheim: I would argue that it is desirable, and you should want to be a part of the continuity of educated people throughout time. We actually share with educated people throughout time a body of knowledge, a way of looking at things, and an attempt to understand continuity as well as change. History is basically the study of continuity and change. It is a privilege, but also if you have the opportunity, you really ought to take advantage of it and be one of those people. I think that to be devoid of that background or awareness or consciousness is like having amnesia. It’d be like a person who doesn’t remember anything from his own life. And to have it is to have that memory, and that is what is shared with other people.