President McCulloh Elevates the Conversation

Thayne M. McCulloh, D.Phil.

September 01, 2023
Gonzaga University News Service

Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh joined Spokane Journal of Business Editor Linn Parish Aug. 31 for an hour-long discussion on “the enrollment challenge,” delving into the challenges and opportunities for GU and its students in the dynamic higher education environment.

The discussion was part of the Journal’s monthly “Elevating The Conversation” webinar series, in which community leaders join the publication for discussions on subjects vital to the economic wellbeing of the Inland Northwest. As president of both a major area employer and education center for the region’s workforce, McCulloh has a unique vantage point that differentiates him from area CEO’s or economists, and that came through in his discussion with Parish.

McCulloh’s laid out the crux of “the enrollment challenge” at the top of the hour. Colleges and universities of all sorts have to deal with a lower national birth rate that’s been in steady decline since the financial crisis of 2008, he said. They also have to compete for students on a quickly evolving playing field that includes new options for distance-learning and online education, accelerated master's programs, and an array of new professional certifications.

“What people consider to be ‘education,’ and the forms of education they think will allow them to be successful, has become more diversified,” McCulloh said. “There’s just a lot of different choice for students, and certainly technology has played a huge role in that. We’ve seen that for decades.”

Gonzaga was an early adapter in the distance-education space, he noted, laughing at the memory of the school sending lectures on DVD to nursing students far from Spokane. And part of addressing the “enrollment challenge” will rely on higher education’s ability to deftly adapt to what students are looking for, and what industry and society needs.

The U.S. health care system is one example that is in dire need of qualified workers, even more so than before the COVID pandemic, McCulloh said. And even with several schools in the same region offering similar programs, it might still not be enough to keep up with demand.

McCulloh looked back at how the university responded to societal needs in the past as a way of illustrating how the school is always pushing to provide students with options that remain current. In the 1950s, that meant adding civil engineering options as highways, airports and other infrastructure projects rapidly expanded. In the 1960s, he said, electrical engineering became a focus “directly in response to the needs of Boeing and the aerospace industry, the aircraft manufacturing industry.

“Those programs were developed in direct response to the needs of the time, and that’s still the case today,” McCulloh said. “To the degree that an institution can be paying attention to and building programs that are responsive to the needs of that industry … they’re probably going to fare better than those that are not.”

Fast-forwarding to Gonzaga in 2023, the launch of the Institute for Informatics and Applied Science puts the school at the forefront of addressing tech industry needs like expertise in cyber security and data sciences. And Gonzaga’s leadership in pursuing an Inland Northwest Tech Hub via the CHIPS Act, he added, was both an example of how Gonzaga partners with the greater Spokane community to get things done, and how the school keeps innovating in service of the region.

“Whether we get that funding, or we apply for a different grant and get other funding, we’re going to get funding because we believe high-tech manufacturing is a possibility here in this region,” McCulloh said. “We believe it’s an important next frontier for Spokane and its economy, so Gonzaga wants to be part of that.”

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