Northwest Finds its Niche
KIRKLAND, Washington — From his corner office with a wall-length glass window overlooking the soccer field, Northwest University President Joseph L. Castleberry is more optimistic than ever. Castleberry, 62 says he’s never seen students who are as serious about their education, students who are hungry for God, than the class of 2022-23.
He notes there is a growing spirit of prayer on the 56-acre campus. Students have four chapel opportunities a week and small group Bible studies are thriving. The chapel is being remodeled thanks to a $500,000 estate gift from the late Church of God in Christ bishop Thomas Lee Westbrook, enabling the building to be open around the clock for prayer.
The Northwest University debt has been reduced to $22 million from $37 million during Castleberry’s tenure. The school has about the same in reserves as indebtedness.
“We will lose money this year, but no one will be losing a job; we’re not in a precarious situation,” says Castleberry, only the sixth president in the school’s 88-year history. “We could pay off the debt tomorrow, but I’d rather have the reserves.”
The tree-lined Northwest University is tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood on a hillside in Kirkland, a growing Seattle suburb. Some of the fastest-growing companies in the nation are a short distance away: Google, Microsoft, Costco, T-Mobile, Starbuck’s, Expedia, and Nintendo of America. Business students are required to complete an internship before graduation, so the multitude of corporations nearby provide a ready-made fit.
“There is not a better place to have a Christian university than in the least-churched place in the country — and also the place with the most innovative business climate in the world,” Castleberry says. “This is the most beautiful place on the planet.”
In addition to high-paying jobs, so many people want to live in the region because of the temperate climate and proximity to hiking, skiing, and boating opportunities. Kirkland more than doubled in size to 92,175 in the 2020 U.S. census from the turn of the century. NU overlooks the eastern shore of mammoth Lake Washington. Thirty coffee shops are close to campus.
It’s obvious in talking to faculty and students on campus that they are pleased to be here. Both sense a mission in their calling. NU is a doctoral professional university with 11 colleges and academic centers. Spirituality remains at the forefront, according to Castleberry.
“Training church ministers is vital to our mission and sense of identity, but we value the calling of all God’s people equally,” Castleberry says. “We want every student, in any field, to embrace Christian ministry.”
The next major projects on NU’s horizon are the establishment of two new medical-related graduate programs: a School of Physical Therapy and a School of Physician Assistant Studies. Both will be first among AG universities.
“In 10 years, Northwest will be best known for its health care in the outside world,” Castleberry predicts.
Although NU has a College of Nursing with a stellar reputation, Castleberry dreams of something grander.
“If I had $100 million, I’d start a medical school tomorrow,” he says.
While two-thirds of Washingtonians are white, the NU student body actually is little more diverse, with 38.5% of students reporting a racial identity other than white.
Castleberry, who grew up in the racially divided South, has become a reconciler among ethnicities. A 20-year career as an Assemblies of God world missionary in Latin America helped. The effort to hire nonwhite faculty has been slower going, although the school has been proactive with moves such as the installation of College of Business dean Rowlanda Cawthon.
“Dr. Cawthon would be a top-priority hire at any institution because of her professional experience, academic achievement, preaching skills, and personal charisma,” Castleberry says.
Castleberry, a former associate dean at Global University, the AG’s distance education institution, pushed the need for computer-focused learning as soon as he arrived at NU.
“Online education is permanent,” Castleberry declares. “There is no such thing as a nonhybrid class anymore.”
Castleberry says distance education students tend to academically outperform their residential campus counterparts.
“There is no back-row seat in an online class,” Castleberry says. Around three-fourths of NU’s students are Pentecostal or charismatic.
An impressive 93% of graduates confirm that NU prepared them for their career. Early on, Castleberry instilled a ready-to-work initiative at the school to teach students the biblical theology of work. The program results in graduates taking a work skills transcript to prospective employers demonstrating what they can do on the job site.
“Generally, employers want Northwest graduates because they know they will be great employees,” Castleberry says.
ON THE DRAWING BOARD
Castleberry hopes to stay as leader of the school for another decade. He concedes it’s a tough time for the school. Largely due to COVID-19 fallout, this marks the first time in his 15 years at the NU helm that the school started with a projected deficit. And for the first time in 12 years, Northwest doesn’t have a consecutive new record enrollment.
In the next 10 years, Castleberry foresees a winnowing of a number of small, private unendowed colleges. The increased fixed costs of running a higher institution show no sign of abating, he believes. The declining U.S. birth rate (down for seven consecutive years) also means there will be fewer students going to college.
“The seas of higher education are exceedingly turbulent in a changing American society,” Castleberry says. “But Northwest University is in a really good boat. I see wide open spaces in front of us as soon as we get through this economic tough patch.”
Castleberry expects NU to spend $50 million in the next decade constructing new business and technology facilities as well as rebuilding dormitories.
“We’re doing innovative things that will help us make it,” Castleberry says, noting in particular the implementation of two new graduate programs. “The need for trained professionals like we’re turning out will be unbelievable.”
Castleberry thinks the 2,400 students at NU can be leaders in ushering in the next great awakening.
“The most important thing is that we keep the living Person of Jesus Christ at the center of our community,” Castleberry says. “If we drift into worldly values, intellectualism, avarice, and greed, we deserve to go out of business.”