Bob Withycombe

Walla Walla, Wash. – Bob Withycombe, a 29-year veteran Whitman College teacher and former debate coach, is the 2009 Washington Professor of the Year, award organizers announced today.

The U.S. Professors of the Year program, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), salutes extraordinary dedication to teaching as illustrated by involvement with students, scholarly approach to teaching and learning, contribution to education at the institution and support from colleagues and current and former students. Only 38 such teachers were selected from across the country this year.

Withycombe is in Washington, D.C. today to receive his award and participate in an evening congressional reception sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society.

It is no surprise to Withycombe’s colleagues or his students that he drew national attention for his teaching and professional excellence. He has earned numerous honors at Whitman, including the annual Alumni Association Faculty Award for Service in 2009, the Town-Gown Award for Community Service in 2002 and the Thomas D. Howells Award for Distinguished Teaching in Humanities in 2000. He was named a Paul Garrett Fellow in 1991.

As pleased as he is that the award brings much-deserved attention to Whitman, he is equally shy about the praise heaped on him by colleagues and former students.

“Everyone who teaches has to begin with the assumption that they have the ability to change lives. I’m just fortunate to have a whole lot of successful former students who confirm I’ve been able to do that,” said Withycombe, professor of rhetoric and film study.

He is proud, shocked, humbled and just a little embarrassed to be singled out from the talented Whitman faculty. “Whitman has put together a list of very fine teaching faculty over the years to be nominated for this award, and that’s really as far as I need to go. At a place like Whitman there is a sense that we are all members of a supporting cast, and I’m very pleased (and most comfortable) to be a part of that supporting cast,” Withycombe said.

Lindsey Gehrig ’05 sees it more like the Carnegie Foundation and CASE. “Professor Withycombe, through his service and scholarship, embodies the ideals central to Whitman’s mission of providing an exceptional college experience.”  His commitment to teaching, service and scholarship is blind to conventional distinctions between classroom, campus and community, she said.

“He is without a doubt, the best teacher I’ve ever seen or had the pleasure of working with,” said Robert Sickels, associate professor of film studies. “He has an ease about him that results in students feeling very comfortable in his classroom.”

 Withycombe arrived at Whitman in 1980, fresh from a nine-year career as a high school teacher and forensics coach, with the mission to transform Whitman’s speech and debate team from a small, regional success to a nationally ranked team.

He accomplished that mission, and more, said Whitman President George Bridges, “Bob has elevated the debate program to national prominence and successfully mentored hundreds of Whitman students — many of whom he continues to advise long after graduation. And he served as an administrator overseeing college advising and academic programs. In my 30 years as a professor and administrator, I have never met an individual who contributes more in the classroom and for the campus community than Bob does.”

Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, provost and dean of the faculty, agreed that Whitman is better for Withycombe’s service to the college and its students. “I honestly do not believe that Whitman College would be the fine liberal arts college it is today absent Bob Withycombe’s exemplary leadership as well as his daily acts of service.”


Ruth Wardwell
Whitman College