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In the twelfth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Gayle D. Beebe, President of Westmont College. Gayle talks about how his approach to leadership emerged over time along with how leading a community through crises impacted it. They talk about the unique opportunities and challenges that come with leading a Christian liberal arts college in California and how Gayle and his colleagues have fostered a host of third way solutions. They then close by talking about the unique contributions the Christian liberal arts college and the Church make to one another and about the mutually reinforcing benefits of their vibrancy.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Dr. Gayle D. Beebe, President of Westmont College. Thank you for taking time to join us. 

Gayle D. Beebe: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Todd Ream: You’ve served as president of Westmont College for 17 years and previously served as president of Spring Arbor for seven years. And just if I may add one quick side note here, average high temperature in Santa Barbara in January, 64 degrees. Average high temperature in Spring Harbor, Michigan, 31 degrees.

But over nearly a quarter century that you’ve served as a president, what components of that role have changed?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, gosh, that’s a great question. I should add that if they’ve recorded the average temperature is 31, they’ve exaggerated. The first time Pam and I landed in Spring Harbor during kind of the, the stealth phase of the interview, and we landed, it was eight degrees minus five wind chill. And yeah, so that was welcome to Michigan. 

I am so glad we had a Midwest experience. Both Pam and I are originally from Oregon. We had, we were in our 10th year in California at that time. I was Dean of the School of Theology at Azusa Pacific and coming to Michigan was a great chance to- our, our kids were seven, five and one and a half. Uh, we had never lived in the Midwest. The Midwest values are so real and just really impressive, wonderful people, despite how cold the weather is. And Michigan, uh, also gave us our first experience of the, just the variety of approaches to higher education. 

You had research one universities like U of M, you had the liberal arts colleges like Spring Arbor, Albion, Adrian, Alma, Calvin, et cetera. And then there was a good, strong faith-based community and, uh, I think as life has gone forward, the seven years we were in Michigan were just idyllic times in some respects. Faith-based higher ed in Michigan was highly respected and the national movement was very much intact and really robust. 

In the 17 years that we’ve been in California, there have just been both, uh, cultural and geopolitical realities that, that have really impacted all types of, of realities. And one of the books that I read recently by Robert Putnam called Upswing looks at just these dislocations in society that really have a, about 125 year arc to them. It’s very challenging to realize that we’ve gone through this before, and we are in the middle of a downturn and what can we do to try and get it turned back around?

I do think higher ed has really faced some of the most significant challenges in terms of its viability. I was reading the stat recently that said in 2016, 70 percent of all eligible college, you know, college students and is essentially high school graduates and those seeking post secondary education went on for those options. In 2022, it was only 62%. And so the vaunted enrollment cliff that’s coming- I came early, uh, largely because of COVID, and then the great dropout, as it’s being called. And so those have been significant challenges. 

The rise of the iPhone in 2007. We left Spring Arbor to come to a Westmont in Santa Barbara. It was the same year the iPhone was invented. Now it’s hard to believe of life without the iPhone. And, but look at how that has impacted not just us in a lot of positive ways, but, uh, some aspects of the mental health crisis is tied to just the exhaustive use of the iPhone. And so technology has really impacted us both for good and for harm. All of us would have been sunk without Zoom. So the fact that this technology, uh, was brought about and then artificial intelligence, where will that impact higher ed? We’re already dealing with it in terms of automatically generated papers. How do we now discern the real human work and artificial intelligence work where they use these large language models?

So those have been, uh, just realities that, that are top of mind, uh, but, uh, very much, uh, current challenges.

Todd Ream: In what ways has the role of the presidency stayed the same over the course of that time? 

Gayle D. Beebe: I think the president has to set the pace. I think the president sets the tone. Uh, I think that you can’t control everything. And so you have to have a great executive team. Uh, I think we had a great executive team at Spring Arbor. We have a great one here at Westmont. 

I always say you have to have three things in place. I think the president’s responsible for it. Not that you create it all, but you create the atmosphere. You have to have great people at all levels of the organization. You have to have great programs and then you have to have the facilities, the resource base to make all of it work well. And to have excess margins so that you can give raises and actually cover a variety of unexpected expenses. Those things still fall to the president. 

And one of the, uh, aspects of my preparation, I, I did an undergraduate degree, uh, in the liberal arts, uh, history, sociology, and religion, went to Princeton Theological Seminary for my MDiv, pastored for five years, and then came back to California to do a dual degree at Claremont, a PhD in philosophy and an MBA in strategic management, where I worked with Peter Drucker. 

And Drucker said, all of you or most of you are here because you think the mission of your organization is the most important thing. No matter what else, as long as you’re true to your mission, you’ll be successful. Said, I’m here to tell you that if you don’t manage your money, you won’t get do mission. And it was one of those- Todd, it was one of those where you hear something and you’ve thought about it, but never that clearly, and it just clicks into place.

And I, I often think about that, that at the end of the day, part of my work to preserve, strengthen, and advance the mission of Westmont is to ensure that we’re fiscally solvent.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Over that same period you’ve seen, uh, a couple of generations of educators and staff persons that you’ve led, in what ways have they changed and in what ways have they stayed the same too?

Gayle D. Beebe: You know, one of the things that I really do appreciate, uh, is higher ed is committed to stability, and we have traditions that actually ensure that, like tenure. And so, tenure gets a lot of criticism, but one of its positives is it creates a predictable teaching faculty that really are responsible for the core purpose of education, which is the learning experience.

Unfortunately, people often get tied up with what are economic cycles. And for example, uh, even board members that come out of private equity or, or somehow tied to the time horizon of the economy rather than the time horizon of higher ed. Uh, I have dear friends that have started companies, grown companies, and sold companies all within about a 10 year period. And their time horizon is 10 to 12 years. 

Well, we’re 86 years old as a college. As a college, that’s incredibly young. As a business, that’s incredible old. And I think that they’re beginning to understand some of those differences that, that kind of go understated or unappreciated are just really important.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. Of course. I can’t help but ask about students too. Uh, in what ways have they changed and in what ways have they stayed the same over the course of, uh, your leadership as president?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, I do think the student life cycle is about five years. I mean, you pick up core trends and then peripheral trends and then migratory trends. I love students. I love interacting with them. I always teach at least one class a year. So I have contact with a defined group. It’s a class that I team teach with Rick Ifland called executive leadership. I’m involved in the presidential fellows. I guest lecture in our Augustinian scholars program. 

And so I want to be close to the students. I I host students. Any student who wants to have lunch with me, they can sign up and Addie goes down the hill, gets lunch for us. We have lunch in my office. Way for me to get to know them, way to get to hear how the how the school, how the education, how their co-curricular experiences are going.

But what’s interesting to me is you also have to remember that some of your most enjoyable students and some of your least enjoyable students are typically only here four years. So the cycle is always in perpetual change. And that brings with it, like I can tell you, on the way in the door this year, you can tell that this year’s incoming class has had more time in high school face to face. They are just socialized at the level that we were accustomed to pre, pre-pandemic. The previous few classes you can tell. 

I mean the pandemic was just disorienting. Whatever else it was, it was also disorienting and the socialization that makes school effective for students just really got thrown off. So I have loved getting back into this cycle. I sense it in this incoming group, and I’m sure we’ll begin to sense it more and more as, as we settle back in both as a nation and as a global community post pandemic.

Todd Ream: I remember when I served as a chief student development officer in a previous sort of iteration of my career, we talked about changing policies. We said worst case scenario, it’s going to be four years. Um, the cultural memory will last four years. Now that four years can be a long four years, uh, you know, to some extent, depending on how they respond to the change. But yeah, yeah, there’s a cycle to it. Some of it is perpetuated by culture more widely, but some of it’s also perpetuated just by the academic course and turn of things there. So. yeah, that’s great. 

You mentioned that prior to serving as the president of Spring Arbor, that you were the dean of the School of Theology at APU, and that you trained at Claremont, and a component of that was in philosophy of religion. How did you discern a calling to serve as an administrator versus, say, persisting as a faculty member in the full-time capacity?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, the, I think some of it started clearly back when I was in pastoral ministry and when I was in pastoral ministry. I was pastoring a church near George Fox, one of the schools I attended, uh, in Newburg, Oregon, a bedroom community in Portland. And we had the president from George Fox, uh, speak at a men’s Bible study and, uh, and he was just making a lot of observations that puzzled me.

And so, I ended up talking to the chair of our elders and, and he, he basically said, you know, the, if those things concerned you, what we really need is we need people who will come up, actually go through the preparation and be able to, to address and answer some of the questions that were raised over the weekend.

And so I, coming out of Princeton Seminary, I had been under the influence of Diogenes Allen. He’s just a fantastic Christian intellectual philosopher, former Rhodes Scholar, and I was just captivated by the Christian intellectual tradition. That motivated and prompted me. And I literally have had an ongoing conversation with the Christian intellectual tradition for over 30 years.

And so what I see in terms of how, how does all of this kind of carry forward, I find just such a great overlap in all of my life vocations activated by trying to serve the purposes of the Christian intellectual tradition. I’m a faculty member at Azusa and I am promoted, uh, to dean, selected as Dean. And it was really, uh, an interesting experience in that I’d been a pastor. I was a professor and then I became a dean. 

And probably, that being a dean is one of the most frustrating experiences because you get squeezed both directions. Squeezed by the provost and the senior leadership. You get squeezed by your faculty. And so I, I know during that time I was reading Plato and he talks about you would only become a ruler king if there’s just so much frustration with the ruler kings that, that you just ascend to that level. I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but essentially makes the case that only do it as a last resort. 

And I don’t think I did it as the last resort. My dad was a public school superintendent growing up. So our dinner conversation often focused on administrative type issues. It was a way in which I could see, I could make a contribution. 

And so when I was dean of the School of Theology at Azusa, uh, I got to see so much of, uh, the works, the inner workings of Azusa. Uh, Dr. Richard Felix was my president at Azusa, wonderful president. Gave me just exposure to so many things. When we visited and interviewed at Spring Arbor, I could tell that what I had been a part of doing at Azusa would really fit and would really work at Spring Arbor. And that was part of the way God called me. 

And then I do have a series of questions that I go through, uh, when I am looking at a life change, or even in this case, vocational change, where I really, you know, want to think through, is this consistent with God’s call on my life? Is it Scriptural? Is it ethical? Is it timely? 

Uh, the call to Spring Arbor was very clear. Westmont initially came calling too early, and I had to say no because we were still in a capital campaign at Spring Arbor. And so you recognize there’s times that are appropriate, times that are inappropriate as you get into this life. 

And then what works best for your family? Well, where will your family have the greatest opportunity to flourish? And, and a key question, where will you get to spend the right amount of time with your family? 

And these were all questions that I was thinking through because as a president, you, you just, your life is not your own, but you have to, you have to be true to God’s the responsibilities you have as a Christian and as a parent. Uh, you have to be available for the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of your children. 

And so those were all things that went into the decision. It was by no means, you know, I’m only doing the presidency, everything else, you know- and I actually have been asked that where it’s like, what were the six moves you made to become a president? I said, well, this is going to be a disappointing conversation. And so mine has been more evolving and at each level, uh, taking on more responsibility and then trying to do it as best I could. 

I, I often think of that passage where Jesus says, he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much. And I think if you are diligent about the little things that nobody notices, you’ll get increasing responsibility. And over time, people will develop confidence in you to really give you big opportunities. And that was true of me.

Todd Ream: Thank you. What elements of the senior administrative vocation do you enjoy or appreciate or derive the greatest satisfaction from?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, I’m very aspirational, so I love creating an aspirational environment. Uh, I always talk about maximizing the God-given gifts and abilities of those under my care and influence. It really matters to me that people who work for me feel fulfilled in their work, that they feel like they’re living into their calling. That they have the right amount of autonomy.

Uh, I tend to let my VP’s, uh, really set the- I mean, we have goal setting and I’m very, uh, deliberate about goal setting. But once we’ve decided on goals, I’m going to give you a lot of latitude in terms of how do you fulfill the goals. We meet regularly. I’m going to ask you a lot of questions. The questions aren’t… Sometimes when people first start working for me, they think, oh no, this is headed towards a no. And it’s actually headed towards a yes I, I really, really tried to, to work diligently at that. 

And so the, I have 15 categories that I keep track of. It always starts with strategic planning so that you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Drucker had this line, you have to say yes to things and you have to say no to things. And you have to understand why you’re saying yes and why you’re saying no, and your strategic plan should tell you that. And so if you’ve agreed on a certain number of initiatives, do those initiatives. And then when new ones come in, determine whether you’re going to throw a previous one out or delay starting this new one that’s come in.

And so teaches you a logical process, then again, you have to have the people, the programs, the property, the plan, equipment, the resources, the relationships, recognize opportunities and challenges and then maintain an aspirational edge. 

And why I put so much on an aspirational edge is I think people, like organizations, stall out and you have to be continually striving. I think it’s God-given actually. And so I think God wants us to always be interested in the renewal of creation. And part of that renewal is personal renewal that continually leads us forward.

Todd Ream: What elements of that, uh, full time faculty, academic vocation, uh, do you sort of draw back to and appreciate most when you teach each semester? I mean, each year.

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, the, the, uh, I just loved the opportunity to put ideas together. I love the uninterrupted time of reading, uh, where you can consolidate your thoughts. What you end up feeling as an administrator is you used to have a brain that, you know, could hold an idea across time and now it’s just cut up into all kinds particulars. 

And so, but I have a discipline. I get up very early and I read every morning and it’s, it’s part of the way in which I maintain my own spiritual capacities. Uh, and I think the job would be totally depleting if I didn’t have time each morning where I could read, pray, think through my day, think through- and I have a discipline where I look back at yesterday: what went well? What do I need to come back to? Is there anyone to whom I need to apologize? What will I face today? And I often say that when school’s in session, the day almost never begins and ends the way you think it will. And so how do you adjust in the moment?

Well, in part, you adjust if you’ve had in your mind, a prayerful moment where you can actually think about what you know, you’ll face. And then when surprises come in, how you’ll actually respond to those. And so it’s a, it’s a variety of, of responses, a variety of disciplines that I try to deploy to, to maintain my effectiveness.

Even though, uh, there is a longing and I love Gregory the Great. He was Pope from 590 to 604 and he has so many great lines. I actually call him the “patron saint of administrators” because he said, you know, “how I long to be back in my cell,” meaning his room, reading and reflecting on the great things of God. Instead, my life is filled with an endless array of useless human activity.” 

You think, okay, you’re Pope. How you say that? So here he is leading the Church and feeling completely demoralized. And I think every administrator feels that sometimes. And so you, you have to find both ways in which you personally can renew, but also you need to be in, in the right types of fellowship so that, uh, the God-given need, uh, for human community, that that is fulfilled in a way that, uh, allows you to honor your responsibilities.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You, you talked about you give the folks who work with you, especially cabinet members, a fair amount of latitude, uh, in terms of how they go about their duties. If you’d unpack a little bit more, how would you describe your leadership style?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, I, I think it’s very interactive. I think it’s very collaborative. I, I think I, I would hope that they would experience me as a, a prompter as there- it’s always clear what I believe the overall objectives are and then what we need from each of their areas. Uh, and then within that, I’m going to have conversations with each one of them as they go about their plans and their execution. What’s on mark? What’s off? 

And then I, we always every week at executive team, we start with essentially, where are we in some of our key areas? And where do we need to make corrections? When do we intend to make corrections? We start with a two day planning retreat, uh, during the summer. 

And then we do, uh, the first Friday of January, we always do what we call a mid year recalibration retreat. And that’s just one day. That’s where what’s on track. What, what needs, what are we watching and what needs correction? And so, all of the VPs get to weigh in. And we have an e-team covenant. I write about it in my book, The Shaping of an Effective Leader, where it basically outlines how we agree to do our work as an executive team, including we’re not going to talk about your area if you’re not at the meeting that week. 

And it just, it keeps you from undermining, rather deliberately or accidentally, the work of your colleagues. It inspires trust, and nobody ever likes the feeling of being in a room having people talk about the one person who isn’t there because they can quickly imagine the day when they’re the one person is. So there’s, there’s some really important, uh, principles that create what we like to think of as psychological safety, uh, that make for a great, productive, uh, leadership team. 

And I, these are things that I certainly worked on when I was a pastor, refined some when I was, uh, a dean. Uh, but really the opportunity, this part of what I love about being a president is you actually get to put in place your philosophy of leadership. And, and I have loved getting to do that.

Todd Ream: Wonderful. Thank you. College and university presidents today are called to not only exercise leadership on campus and with their constituents that come through the campus, but also in growing ways, well beyond the campus. What kind of leadership have you been called to exert beyond the campus and what does that look like?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, you get invited into so many things and I try to be as responsive as I can. The- in the local community, I’ve been on the symphony board. I’ve been on a variety of downtown associations. Uh, we have started a Westmont downtown campus. It was very, it’s been incredible, uh, to see the response of the community.

Um, and then, uh, state-wide, on boards that benefit higher education, uh, and also faith-based higher ed. I’ve also been on the CCCU board, uh, the ACE, the American Council on Education board. And so I tried to look at national, regional, uh, local, and, and try and be involved in every level in one, you know, at least in one area so that I can keep track of what’s happening in the sector, because, for example, during the national conversation in the middle part of the 2010s, like around 2015, there was some pretty difficult legislation working its way through the national level, as well as the state of California. 

As the political landscape changed, a lot of that threat went away. But it was, it was interesting to be involved at all three levels. The, the national level, the local, or the regional level, and the local level. And to just feel the different ways in which pressure was mounting. And so, I’m trying to do that. 

And then we’re always involved in the local church. I mean, both my wife and I really believe in that. And we started in pastoral ministry, and we just believe that the Church exists to really accomplish a very unique purpose created by God. And so, we want to, we think, uh, an active, uh, Christian should be an active church person. 

Uh, I know that shouldn’t shock you, but it surprises me, you know, that, um, Christianity Today, the Gallup poll are keeping track of the fact that people stopped going to church during COVID for understandable reasons. And there’s just been a great reluctance to return. And so I think part of the renewal, and this brushes up against other components of faith-based higher ed, we need the ecosystem of the Church to be healthy for the ecosystem of faith-based higher ed to be healthy. 

And I think any place in which I can honor pastors and provide resources that help them is, is a benefit to the congregation and a wider benefit to, to the work God is doing in the world. 

Todd Ream: So when you and your cabinet members take that retreat in January, again, the average high, uh, that you can expect, it’s it’s about, it’s 64 degrees. So I keep repeating that, uh, living here in Indiana cause I know what ours is too.

Gayle D. Beebe: You would love this. We drive two miles to the ocean where a donor, dear friend of the college has a town home and we get to sit, uh, beach side in January, enjoying that 64 degree weather.

Todd Ream: While, while I shovel my driveway. The challenge though, is the, the region’s natural environment there, uh, in that portion of California is quite fragile and it has yielded tragedies such as fires and mudslides during your tenure as president. What did you learn about yourself as a leader during those challenging days?

Gayle D. Beebe: Todd, that’s such a great question. It’s got a long answer. A book that I wrote that comes out in May is called The Crucibles that Shape Us. It’s being published by InterVarsity Press. And it actually was, had a dear friend say to me, uh, you know, a lot of bad things have happened to you during your time here. Why don’t you write about it? 

So I actually started thinking about it and had the opportunity to write about it. But years ago, uh, when I was first starting out as a president at Spring Arbor, I went to the Council of Independent College President’s Institute. Happens every year, January 4 to 7. It’s put on the Council of Independent Colleges based in Washington, D.C., and at that meeting was a guy named David Davenport, who had retired as president at Pepperdine, but had lived through the wildfires that destroyed part of Pepperdine’s campus. 

They’re located right next to the ocean. They’re up against the side of the mountain. They have similar conditions and face a similar threat of wildfire. They have the shelter-in-place plan, which is a plan that you have if you’re in a wildfire area, where you don’t try to escape the area. You try to escape to a building that is safe. And so for us, the shelter-in-place is the gym. It’s completely concrete. There’s no vegetation around it. And that’s where we all fled during our wildfire back in ’08. 

But David, years earlier, had said the number one question he got after things had come under control is where were you? And I thought, that’s interesting. And so the night of our Tea Fire, when our campus, a third of our campus burned, destroyed eight buildings, destroyed 15 faculty homes across the canyon, 231 homes in the, in the neighborhood were burned. I knew I had to be in the gym, even though I was headed to an executive session of our board down, uh, in the, uh, Thousand Oaks Westlake Village area about an hour away. 

I got a call from one of my VPs that the campus is on fire. The whole community is on fire, and they’ve escaped to the gym and they’ve accounted for all personnel and students. And so I was headed to Ventura- I was in Ventura, which is about 25 minutes from campus, turned around and came back. Eventually got back to campus because the fire chief drove me to the gym, but I knew first and foremost I had to get to the gym and then from there we just began deploying all of our strategies.

And what I discovered is you have to, you have to have a plan. We had a plan. We practiced the plan, even though everybody thought it was a waste of time. That night, we were very thankful we’d been disciplined and compliant. 

But what, what evolved from that is we began to communicate with our families. And, and what’s interesting is you’ve got to stay present because you have to be able to adjust as anxiety goes up or eventually they are, they are satisfied. And so we were doing these one way- at that time, the technology allowed you to do one way calls, and then people could send in their email questions to a designated address so that I wouldn’t get interrupted as I was doing daily updates. But we were doing about 1500 open lines for about a week and then it dropped to 900 and then it dropped to 11.

I mean, it just, and you could tell, everybody is satisfied, or relatively everybody, and we knew then we could begin moving to the next phase of recovery. And so the, the terrain, it is gorgeous terrain. It is, as your question notes, it is fragile terrain, and it’s deceptively fragile. And so we literally live right here on campus, on the upper tier of campus. It is gorgeous. 

Uh, the night of the Tea Fire back in 2008, uh, everything around our, our, our house burned. I mean, it was just hard to believe, and as the campus was burning. And so… 

Another thing I learned is you have to learn from each new experience. And so in the ’08 Tea Fire, we learned a great deal that helped us in, uh, 2017 when the Thomas Fire came back. And then two weeks later, when we had the Montecito, which just destroyed, uh, I mean, just to the east of campus, uh, destroyed a hundred homes, uh, seriously damaged 400 others, killed 23 people, uh, some dear friends. I, in a 30-day period, went to seven different memorial services. It was just a really rugged time. 

And now we’re back to, um, just seeing, you know, the, the raw beauty again, uh, uh. Literally five, five years to the day, January 9th of this year, 2023, we had a just another atmospheric river come through and dump 11 inches of rain in a 24 hour period. I mean, it was just like unbelievable. And five years earlier, that would have caused the disaster. This time around, we were all prepared for it. And it went off without incident.

Todd Ream: What did you learn about the, uh, faculty and the staff, with whom you work, too, during those days?

Gayle D. Beebe: I, I think adversity brings out the best in you. And so you just, you rely on each other in ways that really build bonds, really build strong bonds. In fact, some of the, the hardest people to say goodbye to are the ones you got closest to during disaster recovery. 

We’ve, some of them are, are near retirement. Others have retired and it’s, we, you know, we do a kickoff picnic at the start of every year of, uh, end of year, uh, barbecue, or, or all campus, uh, event, uh, and they come back for those things. And then, so you only see them twice a year. And I was so used to seeing them, not just regularly, but daily. And, uh, boy, they’re just- you develop a deep affection for them because of having gone through these calm and hard times together.

Todd Ream: How about the students? What did you learn about students and how they would respond?

Gayle D. Beebe: Students are incredibly responsive during a crisis and, and you, you cannot predict- there’s no monolithic response. That was really interesting. Like during the Tea Fire, after the Tea Fire, two of our dorms had burned. And so smaller dorms, students had lost everything in the dorm. Uh, I was walking up to meet the students, and, uh, ran into one that I actually had a personal relationship with. I said, well, how are you doing? And he said, are you kidding? This is great. I get all new stuff. I thought wasn’t expecting that and then walked into the room and this gal who played basketball for us was just distraught, which was more along the lines of what I thought I would face. And really inconsolable. 

Just a few minutes, you saw that wide of a discrepancy of response. And that’s been true of every disaster that I’ve been through is you can’t predict. Like with the faculty, some lost their home. They lost both cars. They lost their office on campus. I mean, literally they had the clothes on their back. 

We learned something from I think it was Virginia Tech where they’d had the shooting and the recovery was an Ombudsman program. Well, uh, Stu Cleek, one of our associate VPs of student life, had been to a presentation. And so Stu introduced the Ombudsman program for us. It was fantastic. It basically said, anybody who’s been victimized, we are going to give you an advocate. And some of the faculty didn’t need anybody. Others were just completely disoriented by it. And it usually was the event plus everything you didn’t know that was already going on. 

And so the Ombudsman became the person who, you know, bought them clothes, bought, bought them foodstuffs, connected them, helped track down their insurance company and their coverage and everything, and stayed with them until, you know, days on end, until they were comfortable releasing. And we found that very helpful with the students as well. And so I guess one of the learnings I would say is, you know, have a program that you can draft or bring into place that puts advocates alongside victims. And it just is so helpful to the person who has suffered loss. 

Todd Ream: From a sociopolitcal standpoint, serving as an educational leader in California comes with some unique opportunities, but it also comes with some unique challenges. Would you please share some of those opportunities, but also some of those challenges that you’ve encountered over the course of your presidency?

Gayle D. Beebe: I, I think depending what part of the state you’re in, and I’m certainly in a, a left of center part of the state, the, uh, you still find people with a genuine interest in the welfare of their community. And so trying to find where you can, can work together, uh, like, uh, we have some incredibly, incredibly committed neighbors who are high net worth people. Some are people of faith. Some are people of no faith, but both bodies deeply care about the community and want the community to be well run and the institutions that make up the community to be honorable. 

And so getting to interface with that range of clientele, uh, just it’s a- one, it’s a privilege, but it’s also just an amazing opportunity to understand what motivates people who really are concerned for the welfare of their community. The further you get from the local community, the more, the more polarized the politics are, and that becomes more difficult, and so you end up getting drawn into coalitions that aren’t always ones you would naturally choose, but they’re the best option of not very good options. 

And sometimes, uh, that just has a mixed result. And so you, you really, you just are always careful. You’re always, I mean, I mean, literally you just wonder what things are going to take off because every time something has taken off, it’s, it’s been viewed as a possibility, but nobody had put, you know, all their money on, on the ones that actually emerged and thought, oh, this is a sure thing. So it’s, it’s shifting. 

Many respects, California isn’t just a microcosm of the national conversation. It considers itself to have a shaping influence on national conversation. It is the largest state by population. And so it’s natural that, that that element or or that mindset would exist here. And then you also have some incredibly innovative companies and individuals. 

And kind of what’s enjoyable about that, that is the way in which they try to find creative solutions to intractable problems. And I’ve been really impressed by the horsepower and the entrepreneurial energy of some of these individuals and companies that are truly not just changing our experience of life in California, but literally our experience in the world.

Todd Ream: Changing subjects a little bit, you know, Westmont’s longstanding dedication is to the Christian liberal arts. In what way has your appreciation from that, for that focus grown over the 17 years you’ve served as president?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, I came in with a huge love of the liberal arts and the Christian intellectual tradition, which I see much of the Christian intellectual tradition, uh, being, uh, parallel, if not a direct overlap, uh, with the liberal arts. I always go back to Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates in terms of anchoring ourselves to the liberal arts, but then I like to look at the Christian thinkers who, down through the 2000 year history of the Church, have said part of our responsibility as Christians is to become co-creators of, with God in the restoration of creation. 

One of my favorites is a guy named Hugh of St. Victor lived 1040 or 1096 to 1141, so 12th century figure. But he, he talks about, uh, the, the use of the philosophical, practical and productive arts, and he’s very interested in, in both Plato and Aristotle and Cicero and the Stoics. But he’s also interested in how do we come up with new farm implements that actually help with the cultivation of resources? How do we come up with new armaments? How do we actually create things that improve our life? And then you get into Petrarch and others who are looking at, uh, the rise of the humanities and the rise of what we, we would eventually call the natural sciences. What I’ve loved about the Christian understanding of the large is its willingness to recognize all knowledge is God’s knowledge. Therefore, expand the lens so that you anchor yourself to the liberal arts, but that you’re not constrained by it. Every so often I’ll run into what I jokingly call a liberal arts fundamentalist who say can only be the seven and anything outside that. You know, violating the God-given mandate, and I don’t believe that. I do believe in the Christian intellectual tradition that is anchored to the Greek and Roman understanding of the liberal arts, but it was always more than that because of the view like Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, some of our early and best thinkers that really widened our lens.

And one of the things I like specifically about St. Augustine, is he basically says, we want you to learn how to learn. We want you to learn how to think, and we want you to learn how to think about, uh, the natural world so that when you turn to a study of God, you’ll also be able to think properly about God. And I think that part of the argument for the Christian liberal arts is to teach us how to think properly about every area of human learning. But also to teach us how to think properly about God so that we can inspire the confidence of a wider non-faith society, that wonders is God even real? 

Well, as Augustine himself says, if the pagan find you speaking foolishness about things they know, why would they believe you when you talk about God, which is something they don’t know? And so one of our great testimonies, and I think one of the great responsibilities of those of us in Christian higher education, is we have got to be the best scientists, the best writers, uh, the best at everything so that we can inspire the confidence of a wider faith, non-faith based society. So that when we also talk about God, when we’re inviting people to our churches or Bible studies or our religious festivals, that they feel that there is a capacity, uh, and a respect, uh, because we’ve inspired them on things they do know, helping and inviting them into the presence of God, whom they don’t.

And I have just, I have found that such a wonderful justification and, and also wonderful, uh, calling, uh, to really serve God’s purposes through, through the Christian intellectual tradition.

Todd Ream: You mentioned the, uh, liberal arts fundamentalist who, occasionally, you cross paths with. The, the liberal arts and the humanities in particular have also drawn criticisms from a number of folks in recent years about their practicality and usefulness, etc. In your opinion, in what ways can educators better articulate the value of such an education to the public they serve, perhaps particularly to the Church?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, I think it’s a great question. The, the, and I think we have to get better at it. The, uh, we’re writing a book right now as a members of the faculty called Leadership in the Global Arts and Education Last a Lifetime, and it also will be published by IVP. We’re looking at it in terms of how do, how do we actually advance that the liberal arts is the best way to be educated? 

Peter Drucker said, and I love this, love this in him, that a liberal arts education is the best way to get educated because it teaches you how to reach into every area of human learning and find solutions. And Drucker’s big premise was you do not know everything you’ll need to know across the lifetime of leadership, so you have better learn how to learn. And he said the liberal arts actually teach you how to learn so that you can find these resources in in any place. 

Now, here’s what’s interesting. So I’m doing this webinar. I’m trying to get up to speed at a presidential level with AI. And so I’m doing this webinar with two professors from Stanford and the one professor admits, you know, 10 years ago, I told my two kids, no matter what you do, learn how to code. And then he says, so everybody was pushing coding because that was going to be the, you know, the great job market would be, you know, cornered by coders. 

He said, well, AI is showing that certain rudimentary coding and probably more advanced coding by now can just be done by you writing a prompt. And so he said, I’m now emphasizing to my kids, you need to learn the liberal arts. You need to figure out how to put these discrete particulars together into a meaningful whole, which the liberal arts teaches us how to do. 

So I think we have a golden moment. I think there is so many ways which the liberal arts are a- it’s not the only part of our education, but it needs to be the foundation. Like we do our nursing program and it’s embedded in the liberal arts. We do engineering embedded in the liberal arts. These are not conventional traditional liberal arts degrees, but they’re so needed both in our society and, and just to enrich the curriculum and to enrich the overall experience of students at Westmont. 

And so, um, I think the liberal arts, they need advocates. They need people who will defend and explain, uh, why they offer such a unique approach to education. But, uh, we also need the honesty to say we’re at a moment when that’s actually needed.

Todd Ream: Thank you. We’ve talked about the abundance of beautiful natural spaces that Westmont possesses, but it also sits in a space where zoning agreements restrict the number of residential students on the campus. 

Nonetheless, during your tenure, Westmont’s found ways to grow. Uh, in what ways did such ever efforts involve an evolution of thinking, for example, about the Christian liberal arts and what kind of education could be offered and where it could be offered?

Gayle D. Beebe: Oh, you, you ask such good questions. That’s a contested conversation, as you might imagine. And the, uh, the fact of the matter was when you look in it, it’s true. We have a roughly a 50 page conditional use permit, 130 different conditions. It restricts us to 1200 students on our on our main campus on the Montecito campus, and when you look at it, you think, okay, this is really restrictive. This is unfair. This is punitive. All these ideas go through your mind, and then it dawns on you that they only have restricted you to 1200 in Montecito. They haven’t restricted you anywhere else.

And I like to think up third way solutions. And, and this is a third way solution where you say, well, okay, we send, we have a robust global studies program. We have a Westmont in San Francisco. Well, if you can do Westmont in San Francisco, why can’t you do Westmont downtown? And so these became conversations internally. And then we, we reached for community partners, Cottage Hospital. Largest employer, one of the largest employers in Santa Barbara County. Huge nursing shortage. 

We had two major donors who are major donors to Westmont, major donors to Cottage. They both were concerned about how do we help address the nursing shortage and how can Westmont help be a part of that. So they gave us major gifts to buy the building, to renovate the building, to hire the faculty, to scholarship the first four cohorts of nursing students.

And you had all of these different arenas coming together to say, this is a real community need. These are the resources in our community that actually could help solve it if they would coordinate their efforts and it, it worked. And so that was the Genesis then. 

We now own two buildings downtown. We’re looking to add some others and we really do want to grow the enrollment by building Westmont downtown in a way that provides a real time, totally respectful, everything anchored to the liberal arts, but also reaching into the community to solve problems that we’ve had trouble solving otherwise.

Todd Ream: And so you mentioned too that this is what part, partly what allowed for the addition of nursing and for nursing.

Gayle D. Beebe: Oh, absolutely. We would not be able to do nursing if we, unless we were doing it downtown. We have other allied health programs we’re going to be working on, and then we’re going to push into global, uh, global leadership, business leadership, uh, and, uh, some other areas. 

We’re doing a post baccalaureate certificate in theological leadership. Uh, we’ve negotiated agreements with 10 different seminaries. And if you do the eight classes in our certificate program, then, uh, 10 seminaries have actually accepted it as the first year towards an MDiv. And it’s a way in which we can, again, take interested students, but also resource the churches on the south central coast of California. And so it’s, again, us reaching into the ecosystem to try and, and help.

Todd Ream: During your tenure, Westmont also added an institute and several centers that are associated with one another. In what ways do those centers advance Westmont’s mission on and beyond the campus?

Gayle D. Beebe: Yeah, well, I, I always talk about extending the reach and influence of the college in ways that matter. Because we don’t do grad programs, uh, you have to figure out a way that you can extend the reach and influence of the college beyond the 18 to 22 year old. And so, uh, my way of doing that was, uh, to begin, uh, thinking through what kinds of institutes and centers fit our community, fit our, our wealth profile, fit our donor base, uh, what people would want to give to. 

The Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture was made possible by Eff and Patty Martin, and, uh, they were deeply impacted by the work of Dallas Willard. And so it includes a lot of work in Dallas Willard, but it goes way beyond that. Steve Porter’s our new executive director. Uh, he was a student, a PhD student of Dallas’s at USC, a wonderful writer, wonderful speaker, and amazingly gifted teacher. You find resources that go beyond your operation budget in order to do these initiatives and they become generative, they generate other interests.

Then we started the Mosher Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership. That’s the umbrella under which we do our leadership conference. David Brooks is now kind of- he comes the first Thursday of June every year for what we call a Day with David and we have really followed him closely in terms of his, uh, his, uh, progression, migration into being a person of, uh, faith of moving from what he would describe as kind of nominal secular Judaism, uh, into, uh, a follower of Christ. 

And so, uh, it’s just been interesting to have. He, he’ll, he has been here 10 times, uh, he comes every year and then he has, uh, spoken at commencement and at what we call a president’s breakfast. It’s a, uh, community wide breakfast in March, the first Friday of March every year. But, but that’s all to say he has become a really, uh, welcomed conversation partner, and those have been ways in which the community has really benefited from the college and feels that benefit. And so we’ve tried that. 

We do the Eaton Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Hughes Center for Neuroscience and Leadership, the Global Center for Global Learning, um, the Carol Houston Center for Biblical Justice and Reconciliation, uh, the CATLab, the Center for Applied Technology, the Decision Lab, the Center for Technology, Creativity, and Moral Imagination. These are all initiatives that garnered, uh, individual donor support and also helped us advance our mission into areas, into these kind of leading aspirational edges, uh, that have, have both contributed to the, the wider community, but also really helped strengthen our curricular offerings.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Change the conversation again one more time then a little bit. As a non-denominational Christian college, how do you and your colleagues think through the relationship Westmont shares with the Church? We’ve talked about the Church earlier, about the health of the Church and the health of Christian colleges are essential to one another, but how do you, how do you and your colleagues think through that relationship as a non-denominational evangelical school?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, Todd, again, just a great question, and we think about it. It’s not a problem or a challenge that we’ve solved, but we recognize it. Uh, even in our documents where we really talk about, we recognize people are going to be drawn to a variety of expressions of the faith. Everybody needs to be committed to a church. Everybody needs to be active in a church. We do not make a list and say, here are the approved churches. Here are the unapproved churches. Uh, that has become more difficult as, as, uh, denominations have changed. And some of their new positions no longer fit our positions. Uh, but we’ve tried to be generous with that.

We talk about being generous, centrist, evangelicals. And so we, we really want to be, uh, be able to have a variety of conversation partners as we work through things, but we do have a statement of faith and we have a community life statement that are super important to us. 

And they kind of form what I like to think of as the banks of the Mississippi River at its widest point. If you stay in the middle of the channel, you’re not going to get any negative attention. If you start running close to the two banks, you’ll probably get attention that you don’t want. 

And, uh, that’s where the conversations happen, is if you stay in the channels, uh, you’re going to have great, robust conversations. If, if you begin to dabble with, uh, either undermining the community life statement or, uh, somehow getting out of sync with the statement of faith, uh, those are just going to become problematic. And being at Spring Arbor, Spring Arbor was denominationally affiliated, there were just certain areas you could just say the church has said this is what the boundary is so we could defer to it and made it easier in some respects.

In our case, uh, the we have self-defined and it gives us the latitude we want. And then it’s actually up to us to, uh, both live within the boundaries we’ve established and, uh, honor one another enough to insist that all members of the community live within the boundaries that we’ve established. And that is sometimes that latter priority is sometimes a harder one to fulfill.

Todd Ream: In your estimation, what does the Church need from the Christian college, especially in the present cultural season in which we find ourselves?

Gayle D. Beebe: It needs positive engagement and resources. And it, it needs us, uh, the Church doesn’t need us to stand off at arm’s length and critique it. Uh, it’s getting enough critique. Uh, they’re both pundits inside the camp and animosity outside the camp. And so, uh, there’s a lot of, I wish every person would be a part of a local Christian community, defined as a church and that they would be seeking the will of God for their life. And the will of God for their community. And, um, I wish many of those, uh, many of the best examples of that were coming out of our faith-based, uh, uh, colleges and universities. 

People change for the good, for the better when they come to Christ and when they learn to grow in Christ, uh, through participation in some form of Christian community. And I, I just wish that our colleges and universities would actively support pastors in doing that.

One of the best proponents of pastoral ministry was Dallas Willard, and, uh, he writes a, uh, a, one of the chapters in his, one of his latter books, the, uh, about roles that pastors could play if essentially society would accept them playing that role. And I think one of the reasons society has been hesitant to accept the role of pastors includes, uh, some of the critique they’ve taken from, uh, Christian intellectuals within the camp.

Now there’s reasons to be suspicious or derogatory when you have these scandals, but there’s millions and millions of pastors and parish priests that have served faithfully in, uh, and, uh, so there’s plenty of reasons to actually partner with them in ways that are constructive rather than just sit and critique.

Todd Ream: What does the Christian college then need from the Church?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well, I think it also needs respect. I think it’s the, the, the churches that have great partnerships with our college are ones where we have faculty that have very meaningful lay ministries there, including a pulpit supply. And in turn, uh, the people of the church feel very drawn to the intellectual approach, uh, to the faith. And part of the beauty, if you’re, if you enjoy the intellectual life and find nourishment in it, uh, as both of us do, uh, you, you want that both respected, accepted. But you also want it, uh, uh, embraced. 

And so, uh, part of the, the, you know, edges of evangelicalism can sometimes be criticized as anti-intellectual. I, I think we have a great opportunity to kind of push back against, uh, that critique and just say, uh, no, there’s a vast, life, uh, Christian intellectual life that should be nourished. And, uh, we want to help the Church nourish their life. And the Church in turn wants to welcome us into that. So that through the community you have highly educated lay people and highly educated professors who actually are in fellowship with each other, furthering the work of God in the world, uh, through their common endeavor.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. So one last question then is, and sort of along these lines, in what ways can the Christian college contribute to an enhanced public understanding of the evangelical Christian tradition?

Gayle D. Beebe: Well again we need more positive, positive representatives. I think it was hard when Jerry Falwell, Jr. referred to himself as an evangelical because those of us who are old enough to remember his father know that his father never would have admitted that. His father would have insisted on being called a fundamentalist. And so it caught, I mean, it caught many, uh, kind of off guard. 

And so it’s in this kind of sociopolitical conversation, people haven’t known, okay, what exactly is evangelical? And so, and, you know, how do we know? So actually Putnam’s work from 2010, Saving Grace, or pardon me, American Grace, uh, he actually identifies, uh, who are basically evangelical, uh, congregations or denominations and who are mainline. And I think it’s actually helpful to look at a socio sociologist. He’s a very positive person, but the as a sociologist, you often think of them as kind of dour. Uh, he actually gives a very helpful understanding of what are what makes for an evangelical.

And I find it, uh, uh, when a person of his stature is actually willing to say there is this group, it turns out they’re the largest single religious group in America, highly autonomous, but roughly 100 million Americans would, in 2010, would identify in some way as evangelical. That’s significant and should be paid attention to.

And so I think we, we shouldn’t give up, uh, really working to do a better job of defining ourselves, but also recognize that there’s resources coming in from non-evangelical sources that are actually super helpful and deploy them. Like, uh, David Brooks, having him come to campus, I get criticized periodically for it, but most of the time people are so appreciative because he is giving a language to so many things that we hold in common that really help advance, uh, people of faith getting to live their faith in the public square.

I think that that’s just been a huge help. Robert Putnam, I mean, he was raised Methodist. He now identifies as Jewish. His wife is Jewish. And, uh, again, just the most generous person in terms of spirit and his willingness to look at all of these dimensions of life and help us understand them, uh, while basically extending respect to us and allowing us to live according to our own conscience.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Our guest has been Dr. Gayle D. Beebe, President of Westmont College. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us today.

Gayle D. Beebe: Todd, my privilege. Thank you so much for having me.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven. 

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).