“No decisions are easy, particularly when you are a university president and you are changing an institution.”
More than a decade removed from the presidency of the University of Puget Sound, Philip M. Phibbs remembers the job as tough and demanding. But he loved it.
Many decisions he made, he acknowledges now, were difficult. They affected academic programs and peoples’ lives. Through it all, he’s confident the UPS is better today for his efforts.
Phibbs shared thoughts about his presidency during a late April visit to Washington State University. He and Gwen, his wife of 49 years, returned to Pullman to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their graduation with other members of the Class of ’53.
When he assumed the UPS presidency in 1973, the university’s endowment was “very small—$6 million,” and the budget was “barely balanced.” Facing those challenges, he and the trustees set the school on a course to become one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Toward this goal, human and financial resources were focused on undergraduate education. Off-campus programs were phased out, except for the new law school. Athletics was restructured to provide equal opportunities for women. Recreation courses were expanded to benefit the general campus population. And all graduate programs were eliminated, save those in the School of Education. By design student enrollment was limited to 2,800, approximately what it is today.
“No decisions are easy, particularly when you are a university president and you are changing an institution,” Phibbs said in April. Yet he held out a vision he thought would make for a stronger university. “A lot of the wonderful faculty had doubts, but they had faith in me. They went along. They just had to be convinced this would work.”
Applications for admission soared. So did the quality of students and programs, graduation rates, and donations. UPS’s endowment was $68 million when Phibbs retired in 1992. “The university had something to sell, a quality education in the liberal arts,” he said. “Donors are interested in supporting quality and in hiring our graduates.”
He attributes much of his success as UPS president to Gwen. “I have a great spouse. She believed in what we were doing—and was a partner in it.”
Gwen Willis (’53 Home Ec.) came from Walla Walla to WSU, where she and Phibbs met. She worked in the library while pursuing her degree, and later taught kindergarten at Anne Wright Seminary in Tacoma.
Phibbs found his own undergraduate experience at WSU “invaluable.” Political science professors Dan Ogden, Paul Castleberry, and Howard Payne were, he said, superb teachers, convincing him of “the singular importance of teaching at the undergraduate level.”
Always the scholar, he spent a year at Cambridge as a Rotary Foundation fellow. His master’s degree and a doctorate in politics are from the University of Chicago. He spent 1957-58 as a Congressional fellow in Washington, D.C., where he worked in turn for Washington senator Warren G. Magnuson and North Carolina congressman L.H. Fountain. However, he dismissed thoughts of a political career. Higher education was a more attractive alternative, and he joined the faculty at Wellesley College, progressing through the ranks to executive vice president, and then serving three months as acting president.
Now the Phibbses spend part of the year in Tacoma, in a modest home overlooking Commencement Bay.
What legacy does Phibbs leave at UPS?
He is most proud of helping to transform the university from an institution that left some students unchallenged, into one that emphasizes academic excellence.
“It’s easy to criticize a decision you aren’t involved in making,” he says. “It’s much harder when you’ve shared in the decision-making, and have seen the advantages and disadvantages of it.”