Perspectives on Evergreen After 100 Days

Yesterday, I offered some initial observations to students, staff, and faculty.  This is the text I prepared in advance of that presentation.

Good afternoon and welcome. I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you about my observations of the College, what I’ve learned from you and others thus far, and my sense of the work ahead. I intend to speak for about 30-40 minutes and would ask that you reserve questions you may have for our reception afterwards. I will answer any and all of them to the best of my ability at that time.

Thank you again for your warm welcome to Evergreen, for your participation in the conversations we are having around race, equity and inclusion, and for the ideas many of you have shared with me about your aspirations our College.

I begin with a question: What do we want Evergreen to be?

This is a question we must discuss and answer in the months ahead. With each passing day we write a page in Evergreen’s history. Our answer will shape our plans for the college and, ultimately, Evergreen’s future.

I joined the campus a little over 100 days ago and have devoted many of those days (and some evenings) listening and learning about Evergreen, our people, our organization and our work. I have met and spoken with many of you here today and I’ve had the good fortune of being joined and assisted by my former colleague Stan Chernicoff, in learning all that I can about the college, your challenges and your hopes for our students. Stan has engaged many of you in lengthy one-on-one conversations – some 160 faculty and staff, 40+ students, and 20+ alumni – and will continue his work this quarter devoting much of his time to students.

I am proud to be part of a community of such dedicated, caring staff and faculty members and talented students. Thanks to each of you for the many contributions you make to the education, welfare and development of our students. They are the reason we are here; they are the focus of Evergreen’s mission, our programs, and our daily responsibilities. I feel privileged to be contributing to their education with you in this important moment in their lives.

What I Have Learned

In the conversations we have held over the past three months, at least three themes have emerged in the many comments and suggestions you have made. One is a strong desire for a greater sense of community on campus. A second is a collective recognition that Evergreen is constantly evolving and must continue to evolve as our society and the interests and needs of our students evolve. And third, there remains widespread concern about finding the resources Evergreen needs to achieve our many aspirations.

I want to speak briefly about each of these themes.

1) A Greater Sense of Community

Your enthusiastic response to our clambake and other public activities and celebrations reflects, I believe, a genuine desire to connect with one another apart from connections we have as a result of our daily routines. We all seek opportunities to enjoy the campus and one another in settings apart from the offices, classrooms and residential buildings in which we work and some of us live.

Many of you have shared with me that your enthusiasm over the celebrations also reflects a hunger by our non-faculty staff and students to feel they are full and equal partners in advancing the College’s mission and work. And I believe your response also derives from hunger by all members of our campus community to have their contributions to the College publicly recognized and valued.

We must create and sustain opportunities for social gatherings in ways that reduce the isolation many of us experience at work or in our programs of study. Institutionalizing these gatherings will enable us to experience a greater sense of community belonging, a deeper understanding of and connection to one another, and ultimately greater knowledge about and pride in Evergreen itself.

2) Accomplishments and Aspirations

Since 2000, the College has accomplished many impressive achievements that build upon Evergreen’s fundamental values, organization and structure. These achievements are critical successes that improve the quality of our programs and facilities and mark the College’s significant advancement.

  • The faculty’s development of our six expectations of Evergreen graduates and the new academic statement our students must prepare establish critical milestones in specifying the goals and outcomes of our programs of study.
  • Michael Zimmerman established and now leads the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts, comprised of more than 40 public and private colleges, universities, and professional associations dedicated to advancing the study of the liberal arts.
  • Stephanie Coontz’ research was cited in and integral to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this past year affirming the Constitutional right of American citizens to same-sex marriages.
  • In our Longhouse Tina Kuckhaan-Miller and her staff have created and sustained an international center for indigenous arts and a welcome gathering place for members of local tribes and our campus community;
  • Our Facilities and Administration team worked with many of you and construction contractors in renovating 13 major buildings at an expense to the state of $210 million and this work is continuing. We will renovate or replace and recreate our student living spaces and residence halls in the very near future.
  • We recently completed the permanent acquisition of our campus in Tacoma at a cost of $13 million, giving us a lasting foothold in the city and Hilltop neighborhood.
  • Our team in Advancement has re-organized and hired exceptional people.  In the past five years, we’ve benefited from the largest commitment from a foundation in Evergreen’s history: $3.5M in support of endowed scholarships, capacity building and the academic statement initiative.  Through a process of rebuilding and pursuing gifts, we recently received Evergreen’s largest gift commitment from an individual donor ever of $2.25M.  The assets of The Evergreen State College Foundation have doubled since 2010.
  • We have just recruited a new and exceptional civil rights officer in Lorie Mastin and have developed a new, full time position for coordinating and administering Evergreen’s response to gender equity issues including sexual violence and harassment on campus. We will fill this position in the next few months and it will report jointly to Wendy Endress our Vice President of Student Affairs and to me.
  • We are advancing our efforts to create a more equitable and inclusive campus, one that welcomes all individuals. I want us to ensure that no one needs to hang his, her or their background on hook just off campus before entering into our community.
  • We have developed a new position dedicated solely to guiding our work on diversity, equity and inclusion. The position will report to me, will serve on the president’s staff and we intend to fill this position by the end of the academic year.

These are just some of the impressive achievements by individuals and groups on our campus. There are many more that I could name but for the sake of time, I must not. If I did not mention your work, please take no offense. My omission of your success was not intentional.

We should take pride in these and all of our accomplishments, small and large. Even more remarkable is that all of these were accomplished during our nation’s worst economic recession, the single most serious economic downturn our country has experienced since the Great Depression. I acknowledge and applaud all of you for these many successes.

In speaking with many of you over the past few months, I have also learned about your aspirations for Evergreen, your ideas for building upon the college’s current strengths and creating new opportunities for students that would not alter or diminish the fundamental virtues of an Evergreen education.

One among these that many you have mentioned is a deep desire for the College to develop and tell the Evergreen story in new ways. I agree with this and am working with our communications team and others to develop and execute a plan to promote the College in new ways and with new tools. As it turns out, this is not a small task and will require significant investments in our communications. I am excited about this work for many reasons not the least of which is one of my distant relatives made a snide “greener” remark in my presence over the holidays. My passion for the College and anger over his inane comment was perhaps stronger than my other relatives would have liked.

Other ideas you have shared include:

  • Expand student access to academic programs and opportunities for advanced study in areas of concentration;
  • Establishing more opportunities for faculty scholarship, research and performance with students woven tightly into the fabric of the work;
  • Establishing more opportunities for staff to advance, develop leadership skills and additional training in their areas of interest.
  • Establishing a center and gathering place for students, faculty and staff interested in and supporting multicultural issues;
  • Developing new approaches to recruiting and retaining our students, particularly those from underrepresented minorities and the first in their families to go to college;
  • Advancing new applications of technology for the administration of the college and its academic programs to support recruiting faculty, students, and staff.

In every instance, you have conveyed your desire to improve upon our central mission of aiding our students’ learning and personal development. Your ideas are exciting and ambitious. Each represents an opportunity to strengthen Evergreen and improve upon the rich educational experiences we offer.

Finally, an issue that looms in most everyone’s mind is the cost of these initiatives and how Evergreen will find the necessary resources to implement them. Permanent funds for programs and initiatives such as these come primarily from one of three sources: tuition and state funding tied to enrollment, line item support from the Legislature for major initiatives such as the student success funding we received in the last biennial budget, and gifts.

I am working hard to continue the very strong and positive relationship President Les Purce established with state senators and representatives. So far, the response has proven positive thanks in large part to Colleen Rust our new, talented and well-connected Director of Government Relations. Equally important is our work in fundraising. With the change in presidential leadership, I have the opportunity to create a new beginning with alumni and prospective donors. I am devoting my time to building relationships with them and cultivating their trust. The good news is that they are delightful people, want to support Evergreen and in many cases just haven’t been asked. We are asking.

Before continuing, I want to return to the 1960s and take a moment to reflect on the founders’ vision of Evergreen and the aspects of the College that have remained constant over almost 50 years. We must not lose sight of their values and how they viewed the College as we seek to understand Evergreen now and what we want it to become.

Then Governor Dan Evans wanted the college to be “a flexible and sophisticated instrument” not a “vast and immobile establishment.”

The founding faculty and staff wanted a liberal arts college that would, in many ways, be the antithesis of every other college and university in the country. In the words of our first president, Charlie McCann:

“Evergreen endeavors to build a mode of learning that starts from the individual rather than the curriculum. Thus, in the Evergreen learning mode, the line of development is from the individual to the occupation or discipline rather than from occupation to individual or discipline to individual.”

And from then State Senator Gordon Sandison who advised the founders in stating that the college represented:

“a unique opportunity to meet the needs of the students of today and the future because the planning will not be bound by any rigid structure of tradition.”

What all of them sought was a college and curriculum that is flexible, agile enough to adapt and change, and focused on the individual needs of students.

The result was and is now an institution and place apart. We offer the kind of education that others wish they could. But because Evergreen is now ours to shepherd, ours to lead, the College will rise or fall with the ideas, dedication and investments we make in shaping its future. And if we intend to remain faithful to the founders’ intentions, Evergreen must focus on the needs of this generation and future generations of students and how it can best adapt to and evolve with the ongoing evolution of our society.

How does all of this shape my thinking about our future after 100 days? What do these ideas imply for our work ahead?  I would like to sketch for you a mental model of the College that helps me grasp its complexity and unique culture and use this model in sharing many of my current thoughts. This model is a mental mosaic, a heuristic, that may to many of you seem overly simplistic. But it is one that may help us frame questions to guide our thinking and planning this year and next.

The Four Evergreens

There are at least four elements in this model. Each represents a defining feature of the College, reflecting Evergreen’s unique structure and values, and a lens through which we can view some of the challenges and opportunities before us. I refer to these elements – these lenses — as the Four Evergreen State Colleges. They are not entirely separate or mutually exclusive parts of Evergreen. All exist to some degree in most aspects of the College and, as I’ll describe later, often operate in fundamental tension with one another.

The first I will call “Evergreen, the College of the Faculty.” The founding faculty members wanted Evergreen to be free of many of the structures that ossify most institutions and suffocate creativity in teaching and learning. They created a living curriculum that changes dynamically each year largely in response to faculty teaching interests and coordinated study partnerships. With no general education requirements, no departments and departmental major requirements, our curriculum today is unique in higher education and affords our students opportunities to learn in newly conceived interdisciplinary programs of study every year. Faculty invent the curriculum in conjunction with the Deans, forming new permutations of faculty trained in different fields each year as interdisciplinary teams. Every aspect of the curriculum is innovative: the range of student experiences, the composition of faculty teams, and the issue or issues on which the programs focus.

The second college I will call Evergreen, the College of the Students. We promise our students the opportunity to shape their own education by selecting programs of coordinated study in their areas of interest. From these programs, independent learning contracts with faculty, and many of the courses offered in Evening and Weekend studies that add breadth and depth, they discover pathways to an area of emphasis in their studies.

Two of the great strengths of Evergreen are its small classes and the many relationships students develop with faculty. These relationships along with the intensive, interdisciplinary work in seminars; workshops over many contact hours on and off campus; and assistance from our academic advisers have positive, life changing effects on our students. They literally transform how they think, write and speak.  They develop a much deeper understanding of themselves, significantly strengthen their analytical skills and improve their abilities in conveying their ideas effectively to others.

The third college I will refer to as “Evergreen: The College of Social Justice.” Since its founding Evergreen has made educating students from underserved populations as part of its mission: those who perform poorly in traditionally structured academic programs, those who are the first in their families to attend college, those who come from families unable to provide adequate financial support, and those whose high school education may not have prepared them adequately for the rigor of an Evergreen education. For these and other students, Evergreen offers an opportunity to earn a four-year baccalaureate degree when other colleges and universities may not.

The fourth and final lens I’ll call “Evergreen: the College on Puget Sound.

Evergreen’s campus and its adjacent land are blessed with the natural beauty of indigenous plants, evergreen trees and marine waterfront. It is unquestionably the largest and most pristine acreage held by any college or university within 1000 miles.

The College was founded as the American environmental movement was flourishing.  Our dense and varied forests and unspoiled shoreline on Eld Inlet offer unprecedented opportunities for academic scholarship, programs of undergraduate and graduate study, and outdoor recreation by students, faculty, staff and community members.

So this is my four part model of The Evergreen State College: The College of the Faculty, the College of the Students, the College of Social Justice, and the College on Puget Sound.

Aspects of all four Evergreens may be evident in many of our academic programs. Certainly, the program taught by Sean Williams, Joe Tougas and Pauline Yu that I participated in last quarter contained each of these elements. Hopefully, many others do also. But the College as a whole is not yet that way because, as I mentioned earlier, each of these elements of Evergreen exist in some measure of tension with one another.

I want now to take a moment to explain what I mean. Each of the four Evergreens operates with different priorities, practices and expectations. They view Evergreen’s its academic programs and mission from fundamentally different perspectives and have fundamentally different needs.

The College of the Faculty provides Evergreen students with perhaps the most creative interdisciplinary programs of study found in higher education. The great strength and emphasis of this college is its dynamic model of instruction. In Coordinated Studies programs, groups of 2-4 faculty members shape academic programs each year that align well with their creative and disciplinary interests. In the ideal, each program enables students to develop foundational knowledge in each faculty member’s area of specialty while also synthesizing knowledge across the disciplines as it relates to the program’s central question or theme.  Most programs are taught just once or, if repeated, taught irregularly. Thus, the curriculum changes annually as faculty members’ teaching interests and partnerships change.

Similarly, instruction in Individual and Group Contracts occurs when a student or students establish and complete independent projects or studies with faculty. Obviously, the contracts vary with the students’ and the faculty members’ idiosyncratic intellectual interests.

At the heart of the College of the Faculty is the expectation that in creating new interdisciplinary programs and learning contracts each year, Evergreen faculty provide fresh and inspiring opportunities for students. Obviously, this dynamic approach to the curriculum carries its own set of challenges. Developing new program partnerships each year requires flexibility in faculty collaborations in designing the programs and identifying topics of common interest. Further, a program’s faculty team must establish their respective teaching roles in programs within a schedule of lectures, seminars and activities that align with the program’s learning outcomes.

A recurring challenge voiced by many students and some faculty and staff about the dynamic and ever changing programs is the unpredictable – some would say uneven — nature of the curriculum itself. Because Evergreen’s curriculum varies from year to year, many students have significant difficulty identifying and planning their studies. And even if they identify programs in which they wish to enroll, there is no guarantee that space will be available. The sizes of programs are restricted. A related concern students have raised is once they are enrolled in a program (particularly if it runs the entire academic year), there exist few alternative opportunities for obtaining academic credits if the program does not meet their expectations or if their intellectual interests do not align with those of the program’s faculty. Finally, once a student discovers an area of interest, there may be few programs or courses for advanced work in the subject area.

The view from the College of the Students differs from that of the College of the Faculty and often exists in constant tension with it. Among the many attributes of Evergreen about which alumni speak with praise are the freedoms they experienced exploring their own intellectual interests and the inspiring relationships they developed with faculty. They describe their education at the College as “personal,” “customized to their interests” and “self-directed.” They also expressed praise for the professors with whom they studied and with whom they remain in touch many years following graduation. The genuine fondness they harbor for their Evergreen education is borne from these relationships.

The tension between the College of the Faculty and the College of the Students lies herein. Whereas faculty interests and partnerships direct the content and structure of the curriculum (Faculty), Evergreen promises our students that they may choose their own course of study from a wide range of offerings (Students). This promise is predicated on the assumption that many options exist from which students can freely choose. But as noted earlier, the options of programs from which students may actually choose and the availability of open spaces varies widely each year and may often fall far short of the College’s implicit promise.

Many students with whom I spoke find this tension immensely frustrating and want more options or, at least, greater flexibility and consistency in curricular offerings over time. To them this means that a number of programs should be taught with greater regularity, space in popular programs should be expanded, and more 1 and 2 quarter programs and stand-alone courses should be offered (in the Day Program), and access to more programs with advanced work in areas of concentration should be offered.  Overcoming the challenge of our curricular structure is particularly difficult for students whose only academic experience is the traditional curricular structure of most public and private high schools. I believe this may contribute to (but is not solely responsible for) our high rate of attrition in the first year.

These areas of tension between the Colleges of the Faculty and Students and the ensuing difficulties for students gives rise to many questions. How severely do these challenges affect Evergreen’s retention problems? As we seek to become more student-centered, how can Evergreen preserve its commitment to curricular innovation while also providing students with a more predictable set of program and course offerings? What additional alternatives can we make available to students when programs are not repeated or there is no available space? Do our published descriptions of the College’s curriculum and opportunities for study misrepresent the curriculum’s actual complexity and very real constraints on student choice? These are all questions we must answer.

I have spoken thus far about the academic assets of and tension between the Colleges of the Faculty and the Students. Of course, transformational learning also occurs in non-academic settings. Students and non-faculty staff also play integral roles in the experiences students have on and off campus that often are life changing. Students living on campus learn in interaction with their roommates, residence life staff, campus advisors, work study assignments and partners, and from members of clubs, sports, and recreation programs in which they participate.

However, a bright line often divides non-academic programs that involve life-changing learning from the academic programs. Indeed, most colleges keep separate students’ co-curricular student life experience from their academic work and experience. Ironically, this occurs even though non-faculty professionals in student affairs administer many of the services directly supportive of and critical to students’ success in academic programs. The result often is a gaping divide in knowledge about students’ academic challenges and performance between line faculty and student services staff. Of course, the result is another tension between the expectations of the two colleges.

Although Evergreen has positioned a faculty member in Academic Advising to help bridge any divide, one faculty member among many advisors and student staff members may prove inadequate. Questions about these issues are abundant: How can student academic advisors, writing center staff and tutors work in greater collaboration with faculty and their academic programs? What partnerships between student life staff, faculty program teams and our students can Evergreen create to improve learning and student success in our programs and classrooms?

For our third college, Evergreen, the College of Social Justice, the paramount challenge is creating a campus culture that welcomes, supports and sustains all students we enroll. In particular, how can we ensure that Evergreen is open, attractive, and supportive to students from groups that typically are marginalized in the larger society?

In a society with rising economic inequality and an increasing large segment of the population with few financial resources, many prospective students will have received an inadequate secondary education. How can we ensure the success of those we enroll who are poorly prepared or who have no way of paying for the education we offer? And how can we work with K-12 schools and community and technical colleges to help all the state’s students, young and old, achieve their aspirations?

As I noted earlier, I am immensely proud of the work we have underway to change and improve the racial and ethnic climate and culture of our campus. This work will inevitably extend to religious minorities and our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and allied students, faculty and staff. All must feel welcome, safe and fully supported. With the addition of a member of the senior staff guiding this and related work, I believe we will make significant progress.

Evergreen, the College of Social Justice must continue to seek new ways to serve people and missions that have not always been a priority for us or for others. From my earliest conversations with many of you, I have felt an abiding and authentic commitment on the part of Evergreen to pursue an agenda of social justice by affording opportunities for education to those less fortunate than we and those who other schools eschew.

Finally, there is Evergreen, the College on Puget Sound. The perspective from this fourth college differs from the rest in so far as it focuses not on academic programs or people but on place. Some academic programs have focused their fieldwork right here on campus. Although our students and alumni have shared little with me about this particular conception of Evergreen, it strikes me as an underutilized and exciting consideration. This is not a criticism of the programs and activities that embrace and use our remarkable land and marine shoreline. We all are immensely proud of our environmental studies programs, our organic farm, our commitment to sustainable agriculture, sustainability in prisons, and last but not least, our shellfish club – seriously, how many colleges have a shellfish club with their own shellfish?

And yet I’m not sure that we fully appreciate how particularly special Evergreen’s Olympia campus is. Our forested and shoreline spaces and our location on Puget Sound can attract students, faculty and staff for our instructional programs, research opportunities, and recreational activities. Without changing the landscape, can we incorporate it into more of our academic programs? Are their new recreational programs we seek to create for our students and our campus community?

My four-college model of Evergreen depicts its constituent parts and some of ways in which they lie in tension. I believe that if we are to attract the resources we need to build a stronger campus community, to achieve many of your aspirations and mine, to enhance the personal and life changing learning that occurs here, and to support all of our students more fully and effectively, then the four colleges I’ve described must converge and co-exist in less tension.  We must all support and embrace their convergence. The College of the Faculty must adapt to the present needs and interests of our students. The College of the Students must keep the promise we make to students that they can create their own course of study. Otherwise we should abandon the promise and present our curriculum to students as it actually exists.

The aspirations of our College of Social Justice can only be realized if we honestly work together as a community on issues of student preparation, financial support and academic assistance for those less well prepared and who lack the financial resources they need to complete college. As individuals and as a community we also must acknowledge and address the existence of many forms of bias on our campus.

What do we learn from looking at Evergreen State College through this set of four lenses – four constituent colleges? Here are my takeaways. First, we must recognize that the current and future needs of our students must be the singular focus of our energy and work. All else should follow. Second, we must identify immediate and concrete ways of achieving greater convergence of Evergreen’s four colleges. Third, we must continue to nourish, support, and acknowledge the many contributions of staff and faculty at Evergreen.  The recession and ensuing cuts had a devastating impact on our collective morale and individual workloads. We must continue to nourish, support, and acknowledge you! Fourth, we must own our individual and collective responsibility for our shortcomings and successes in in the area of Social Justice. Finally, we must think creatively about how we can more effectively use our capacious and stunning landscape for the betterment of all.

I believe that if we do these things, we will create a much stronger, exciting Evergreen State College that will have a bright and promising future. Evergreen’s future must always be firmly grounded in the vision of its founders:  a public liberal arts college unlike any other with a curriculum that is flexible, agile enough to adapt and change, and focused on the individual needs of its students. And with our collective commitment, it must can become a College that supports and affirms every individual regardless of position or standing, and one in which we routinely ask how can we better serve our students, now and in the future.

Thank you.