Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Dr. Thayne McCulloh to serve as GU’s interim president
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the June 11, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
Dr. Thayne McCulloh is the interim president of Gonzaga University. (IR photo)
Upon the recent departure of former Gonzaga University’s president, Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, the university’s board of trustees named as interim president Dr. Thayne McCulloh, a Gonzaga alum.
Beginning in 1990, Dr. McCulloh worked in various positions in Gonzaga’s Student Life Department. Later, he moved into the area of academic administration where he has worked ever since, most recently as assistant to the president.
Dr. McCulloh, 44, has been married to Julie McCulloh for 16 years, and together the couple have three daughters ages 11, 9, and 4. He and his family are members of St. Aloysius Parish. He has one brother, a lawyer in Seattle, and one sister, a Discalced Carmelite nun at a monastery in Arlington, Texas.
After graduating from Blanchette High School in Seattle, Dr. McCulloh spent three years in the U.S. Army. He then attended Gonzaga University and completed a bachelor’s degree in Psychology in three years, graduating in 1989. Subsequently, he earned a doctorate in Experimental Social Psychology at Oxford University, in England.
“My appointment, and the board’s assumption,” he said, “makes clear the expectation that I will serve as the university’s president until a successor president is identified and comes on board. The bar that I have set for myself is exceptionally high, and I think where that comes from is that having served at the university for 19 years, almost, and having worked for Father Spitzer for nearly his entire tenure, I’ve come to have a good sense of our internal community. I think that I have been the beneficiary, in a very humble way, of so many wonderful relationships with people who bring meaning to our environment. I have participated in the formation of things like our strategic plan. So I have a pretty clear sense of what our institutional priorities are and how the role of the president needs to be informed by, and to in turn inform, those priorities.”
Specific goals the new interim president has in mind include supporting, nurturing, and maintaining “the effective work that has been done as a Jesuit, Catholic mission; that’s an imperative. Who we are as a Jesuit, Catholic institution guides everything else we do, so that’s a first priority.”
At the same time, Dr. McCulloh said, “it is imperative that we continue to accentuate the academic quality of our programs. We are in many of our programs exceptional, and we want to do everything that we can to continue to support that as a distinctive characteristic of our institution. That is a little bit more complex than it may appear because the operation of a university is a complex enterprise, and there are many, many obligations that we have that pull at resources, and if that pull occurs in too great a measure it can really impact the lifeblood of what it is that students enroll for, and what families support their students to do here, which is the academic work of the institution.”
The third priority uppermost in his mind is to continue taking seriously the need for Gonzaga University to remain financially healthy. “We want to do all we can to help people understand how critical their support of the institution is, financial and otherwise,” he said, “and to continue to show that Gonzaga is worthy of that support.”
There is a special added imperative that comes with being an interim president, he said. “(My) additional obligation is to do everything possible to prepare the university well for its next president... and so there’s almost an additional layer of responsibility, or an imperative, and that comes with being, as ‘interim’ means, ‘the one between.’”
No timeline has been set for hiring a new president for Gonzaga University. “The presidential search committee has effectively been put on hiatus,” he said. “The board of regents, in its next meetings is, I am sure, going to undertake the question of what it feels needs to happen in terms of preparing for the search process next time, what kinds of activities it wishes to conduct before doing so, and so forth.”
His tenure as interim president “will probably be defined as we move forward.” The by-law requirement for a Jesuit to serve as president of Gonzaga University has not been eliminated, he said, “but it has been suspended, so the expectation is that we will rejoin and go forth, and that for me is part of that preparation process. What do we need to do as an institution to prepare for a successful search process?”
Gonzaga University is one of many medium-size, private, universities in the country that talk about “being communities,” he said. But Gonzaga “really is one.” Many people find it to be “a unique experience to walk onto this campus and to actually begin to interact with the people who work here, with the faculty who teach here, with the students who go here, and to come to truly understand how invested people are in the mission of the place and in the common purpose around that mission.” He called an “important distinctive characteristic” of GU, “because at a time when higher education is going through many changes, where people can get information any number of ways, the sacredness of a college campus as it once was, in terms of being a provider of intellectual information and capital, is no longer the way that reality forms itself. But we remain a place dedicated to true care of the individual person and true care of people as part of a larger community. And that really does matter because while students are being exposed to concepts, and while they’re being taught, and while they’re trying to engage in the process of learning, they are ... in development. The kind of people they become, and the kind of people the Jesuits, and the church, want them to become, is a really critical part of that process.
“There are many institutions that talk about it, but there are relatively few anymore that make it, front and center, a part of their identity,” he said. “That remains for me why I am here” and what drew him back in 1990. “I’m very, very pleased to see that this is a big part of why Gonzaga remains so popular as an institution. That care, that concern (for the individual student) is very real.”
Soon after he was named Gonzaga University’s interim president, Dr. McCulloh and Bishop William Skylstad met to “catch up.” “That was an opportunity to be reminded, once again, of how close-knit we are, Gonzaga and the local and regional church,” said Dr. McCulloh.