In 1971, Tom Anderson finished community college in Vancouver.
He didn’t have enough foreign language credits to get into the University of Washington, but he wanted to stay in college to qualify for a student deferment and avoid getting drafted and sent to Vietnam.
A friend showed him the 168-page catalog for The Evergreen State College, which was slated to open that fall. He was impressed by the unique program offerings – and the college’s plans for a bluegrass festival sealed the deal.
“It seemed like a grand adventure,” said Anderson, 60, of Olympia, a 1973 Evergreen graduate. “New concepts, a new road map, no history. ...And it was inexpensive.”
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Memories of the college’s early days have been a big part of Evergreen’s 40th anniversary celebration, which launched last fall with a convocation address by college president Les Purce and a traveling seminar series that featured events in Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. The celebration continues next weekend with the much-anticipated, three-day “Return to Evergreen.”
Alumni and former faculty members from all over the country are scheduled to fly in to participate in seminars, lectures and panel discussions about everything from sustainability to entrepreneurship.
More than 100 speakers have been confirmed, including numerous faculty members, some current students and many alumni including Anderson, who is a renowned mixed media artist; animator Craig Bartlett (class of 1981), whose work includes “Hey Arnold!” on Nickelodeon and “Dinosaur Train” for PBS; Matt Groening (class of 1977), creator of “The Simpsons;” Calvin Johnson (class of 1985), owner of K Records in Olympia; and Lee Lambert (class of 1987), president and chief executive officer of Shoreline Community College.
Participants also will have a chance to view student projects, tour the college’s Organic Farm and catch up with old friends, sip wine and dance in Red Square.
Why celebrate 40 years of the college? Why not wait another decade for the big 5-0?
“Hey, that’s like asking, ‘Can you have too much fun?’ ” said college spokesman Jason Wettstein. “We certainly plan to celebrate the 50th, too. We also celebrated the 20th and 25th.”
HOW IT BEGAN
Legislation to authorize a new four-year public college in the state was signed by Gov. Dan Evans on March 21, 1967.
The Olympia area was chosen to help even out the higher education offerings, which included the well-established University of Washington, Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, Western Washington University and Central Washington University.
At the time, enrollment was down at all of the state’s colleges. But those numbers weren’t expected to last, thanks to baby boomers.
“That huge group of youngsters was moving into high school and aiming at college, so we needed more space and more room,” said Evans, who will be part of a seminar on Friday featuring the college’s past and current leaders.
Evergreen’s founders were charged with designing a new option for higher learning: a curriculum that wouldn’t duplicate or draw students away from existing programs at the state’s colleges and universities.
“We just didn’t want a carbon copy of all the other colleges,” Evans said. “We said from the beginning we want something new and different.”
New colleges were popping up all over the country. There was “some pretty good research at that time and some advocates of a new style of education,” Evans said. It was a style that broke away from the academic department approach at most colleges.
Evergreen was designed so that students could select an intense, 16-credit program for one quarter, instead of multiple classes. Also, students could choose whatever undergraduate program they wanted to enroll in because there were no majors.
“Life doesn’t come in silos,” Evans said. “Evergreen was designed to have this integrated studies program.”
In May 1968, the state acquired the first six parcels of land to create the 130-acre heart of the campus on Cooper Point Peninsula, about five miles northwest of downtown Olympia.
“Total appraised value of the six parcels including land, buildings, and other improvements is $114,500,” according to a college news release.
In August of that year, Evergreen hired its first president: Dr. Charles McCann, dean of faculty and professor of English at what was then known as Central Washington State College.
“We hope our college will not be a degree mill, but rather, a place of learning, reading, self-expression and doing,” he told the Olympia Rotary Club on Oct. 4, 1968.
The college continued acquiring land until it had nearly 1,000 acres of woods, along with 3,300 feet of undeveloped waterfront on Puget Sound’s Eld Inlet. Evergreen quickly became and remains the state’s largest college campus.
“I think there was good support at that stage of the game because they built in an area far outside of Olympia,” recalls Eldon Marshall, 88, who served as city supervisor for more than 25 years. “There were no utilities out there, so we had long-run discussions with the college people to provide water and sewer services out there.”
Construction delays meant the campus wasn’t ready in time when the college opened for registration Sept. 27, 1971. As a result, Evergreen’s inaugural 59 faculty members and 1,178 students met off-campus at several locations around the state for the first few weeks of classes.
Charles Nisbet, who joined the faculty in 1971 to teach economics, recalled his first class meeting at Camp Robbinswold, near Hood Canal.
“We lived in the cabins and taught our students there,” he said. “There was an air of excitement among the faculty and the students. We were excited about being part of an experiment and trying something new.”
FINDING ITS WAY
During the first two years, student groups began a newspaper and a radio station and hosted several political events, concerts, poetry readings and art exhibits.
“We had just come out of this period of Woodstock this whole Woodstock nation,” Anderson said. “The younger people were somewhat radicalized and felt like there was a political and cultural revolution.”
But the nontraditional actions of the college especially the decision not to offer a tenure track for faculty, the practice of evaluating students’ portfolios with narratives versus letter grades and the team-taught approach for programs didn’t go over well, especially in Thurston County, Nisbet said.
“Olympia, at that time, was an extremely conservative community,” he said. “They were very suspicious of what was ‘happening out in the woods.’ ”
Evans said the main reason people criticized Evergreen during its early years is because it was different from other colleges.
“They had gone to college, and regardless of where they went whether it was Harvard or a community college it was all essentially the same, and Evergreen was not doing it that way,” he said.
The growing tension between the college and the neighboring community meant Evergreen was under constant threat of being shut down, Nisbet said. At one point, there was a proposal to close the college, and turn the facility into a police academy.
“There were all sorts of crazy proposals in the Legislature like that,” said Tom Rainey, 76, of Olympia, who joined the faculty in 1972 to teach history.
In June 1977, Evans was hired as the college’s second president. It was a turning point for the college, said Nancy Allen, 70, of Olympia, who joined the faculty in 1971 to teach Spanish.
Evans was well-liked, and he helped create many partnerships between the college and local businesses.
“I felt like we were likely to be shut down at any moment by the Legislature,” Allen said. “(But) when Dan Evans became president of the college, I was like, ‘I guess we’re OK now.’”
Today, The Evergreen State College offers five degrees: A Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences, a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts and Sciences and graduate degrees in Environmental Studies, Teaching and Public Administration.
About 4,600 students are enrolled in its programs, and there are nearly 500 staff members.
The college has received accolades from numerous publications, including being named “Best in the West” and “Best Value College” in the 2005 Princeton Review, and No. 1 in the West for undergraduate teaching and masters universities by U.S. News & World Report’s 2009-10 college rankings.
“Evergreen has a very strong reputation, nationally, as sort of the avant garde public alternative,” said David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. “It’s a very attractive school for students from the Midwest and the East.”
He believes the college’s success can be credited to faculty and administrators staying true to its original plan of offering something different from the state’s other, far more traditional colleges.
Evergreen’s nontenure policy has attracted faculty members who aren’t afraid to take risks, and are more apt to embrace a true alternative learning experience for students, Longanecker said.
“They built a campus that was consistent with its vision,” he added. “How many campuses have the side of a building that’s a climbing wall?”
NOT POLITICS AS USUAL
Evergreen has traditionally attracted politically aware students and faculty members. Protests, teach-ins, boycotts and other expressions of the First Amendment are a huge part of the culture at the college. But they’ve also caused some controversy over the years:
• In 1999, Pennsylvania death- row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal delivered the keynote address by audiotape at Evergreen’s graduation. Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the police officer Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing, attended the event in protest.
• Two former Evergreen students, Justin Solondz and Briana Waters, pleaded guilty to their roles in the 2001 arson at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, where a cell of radical environmentalists mistakenly believed that poplar trees were being genetically engineered.
• In 2008, a riot broke out on campus after a concert by hip-hop group Dead Prez. During the violence, a Thurston County Sheriff’s Office patrol car was flipped over and totaled. Three other police vehicles were damaged. Later that year, six people including two Evergreen students were jailed after a May 1 demonstration turned violent, when a group of vandals dressed in black smashed windows at downtown Olympia banks.
In the college’s early days, people worried that Evergreen would be shut down during major controversies, said Oscar Soule, 71, of Olympia, who joined the faculty in 1971 to teach environmental studies.
But those fears have turned into different emotions.
“With any family, we always have a loved one who misbehaves, and we tend to either accept it, or be embarrassed by it,” Soule said.
To date, Evergreen has issued nearly 40,000 degrees.
In recent years, the number of students hailing from Thurston County has risen dramatically. Its weekend and evening studies programs are popular for working adults, and those with families.
“It used to be the further away you got from Olympia, the better the reputation,” Soule said. “Now, the college is better appreciated in the local community.”
Evergreen’s alumni have gone on to be state workers, teachers, scientists, law enforcement officers, farmers, entrepreneurs, artists and civic leaders.
“We have a wealth of graduates who are in meaningful positions,” Soule said.
Olympia isn’t the same conservative logging town that it was when Evergreen opened its doors, Allen said.
“Olympia changed because of the college,” she said. “Obviously, Olympia would have somehow reacted to the 20th century, but I’m sure the college speeded that up a lot.”