The Evergreen State College in Olympia will hold an inauguration ceremony and some other special events this week for president George Bridges, who has been at the liberal arts college’s helm for about six months.
Bridges sat down with The Olympian’s Editorial Board to discuss his first few months. Here are excerpts of the conversation.
Q: How are you settling in, and what kind of agenda do you see shaping up for yourself?
A: In a way this is a coming home for me, having grown up in Seattle, but more importantly growing up on Puget Sound, on Hood Canal. Father and Mother bought a very small cabin, when there were only small cabins, on the south shore in 1956, and that’s where I grew up. And so to have the opportunity of being around the marine air again, after 10 years in Eastern Washington, and being close to my childhood good memories. It’s a privilege to be here.
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I’m so profoundly impressed with what goes on at the school. It’s very different than the schools I’ve been a part of, and I think in many ways offers a far superior education than I had at the University of Washington or that I delivered at the University of Washington. Or, in a way, that we delivered at Whitman College, which is a very good school but a different kind of setting.
The students are amazing. At a public institution you get a wide range of students. Evergreen has a high percentage of students who are very poor. These are students who have overcome enormous obstacles get into college.
And those are the students who I love most to teach. They know why they’re there, and they know what the possibilities are that can come from a four-year education.
The school has challenges. Part of the reason why I wanted to take this position was, I learned an immense amount at the small private, at Whitman, about how a college can be administered maximizing efficiency, minimizing costs, delivering a very personal education. Every dime is counted, every student is weighed as a person, as an individual, and the president plays a very active role in every aspect of the college from recruiting students to fundraising to overseeing programs.
One area that I’d very much like to see happen is for Evergreen to expand its service to the community. How can we enable this college to serve Olympia and Thurston County better?
What more can we do? And that’s a question I’m asking community groups. I’m asking faculty and staff.
Q: What are some of your ideas?
A: They’re in the early stages. I’d like more community members to come onto our campus. I’d like to find ways to bring more people for academic and nonacademic activities.
I’d like to see more people use our resources. We don’t do a good job publicizing all of the visitors we have who come and give great talks, in my opinion.
But I’d also like to see whether there’s ways in which the college can not only serve in that way but reach out and have our faculty and staff and students do more in terms of volunteer service, in terms of internships.
Evergreen is a really integral part of this community, and yet sometimes it doesn’t feel like that. It feels distant. It’s off in the woods, and I’d like to change that. There’s some conversation about a possible Evergreen presence in downtown Olympia. It’s been a conversation for a while.
Q: What do you think about that?
A: I like the idea in concept. I don’t know how it would be executed. It might be an art facility, I just don’t know what it would look like.
I’d like students and faculty to be downtown working. They’re downtown doing other things sometimes, and that’s good too, but I’d like them to have that kind of a presence there. But not sure how to get there. I’d like our students to connect with businesses. We have a number of businesses located here that could provide career transition for our students.
There are lots opportunities here, and I see those opportunities for partnerships with businesses and with government.
Q: Are there issues at Evergreen that you feel need to be addressed? What are the ones at the top of your list?
A: One of them is communications. I think the college can do a better job telling its story. So I’d like people in Olympia and Thurston County to know what activities are going on on campus, and the ones that they are welcome to and invited.
I’d like people to understand Evergreen as not an alternative college or alternative school, but a school that offers an exceptional education that addresses the complexity of the problems that my generation is leaving this generation of students, and I’d like people to know that Evergreen graduates are very successful in careers.
That stated, Evergreen is not a school for everyone. I think part of the communications challenge we have is that even though we describe it as I’ve described it to perspective students, some believe it’s going to be just like their high school experience or like an experience at another college and it isn’t. Unless they are flexible, unless they’re really driven to pursue ideas, it may not be the right school for them, and we lose students. That’s the institution’s challenge, it’s not the students’ challenge. And I’m going to use a very strong word, I believe it’s a failing of the institution on those students because we haven’t prepared them, or communicated effectively to them.
Q: Is Evergreen’s drop-out rate higher than other colleges?
A: Yes. Most colleges and universities lose the largest share of students at the end of the second year.
We lose ours at the end of the first year, when they discover that, “Gosh this isn’t what I thought it was; I should go somewhere else.” But it’s unacceptably high. Depending upon the year, it’s somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, which is just unacceptable to me. Now public liberal arts colleges, like Evergreen, all have similar rates of attrition. That doesn’t mean we can’t correct them. I’m dedicated to work on the issue. It is both an ethical and professional issue in my mind. When a student comes, we must do everything we can to help them succeed.
And then transition to career: How do we transition Evergreen students to the workforce? Most of them have jobs, good, decent jobs within three years of graduating. We’d like to see that happen sooner.
Evergreen has internships, but I’m not convinced our career counseling center is adequately staffed, and part of that has to do with the budget cuts that public institutions have taken over the years, and Evergreen took a number of hits.
The last piece of my concern is fundraising. Evergreen has not pursued assertively its alumni (for donations); 40,000 alumni and just haven’t really invested in development. I think we have to go to alumni who are committed, and many of them just aren’t believers in the school and the experience they’ve had, and some of them have significant wealth, and encourage them to reconnect with the college and if they’re so inclined share in gifts that would advance the school.
We had a big fundraising campaign at Whitman and raised a significant amount of money. It’s something I enjoy doing — not the asking for money, but telling the story.
Q: It strikes me when you talk about the retention rates, that you have multiple visions as a public liberal arts college, and one of the only colleges available to people in this part of Washington state, as well as being affordable of the four-year schools. … How do you balance that?
A: I think there are two things we need to do. We need to reach out to the local high schools, the local school districts, North Thurston, Olympia, all the local school districts, and say, “Send us your students, and here’s what we’ll do for them.”
Secondly, I think we need to probably find a way to prepare students for the kind of experience they will have prior to stepping in the classroom. And we can do that. We’ve not invested I believe historically, because there hasn’t been much money, to socialize students, new students, to Evergreen’s model.
And I think we need to do a better job communicating what the model is and is not. And saying to students, ‘Look, this is the model, if you’re not interested in this, don’t come.’
When I was at Whitman, I would say, “If you’re not interested in living in a small, rural community, and an intensely academic setting, don’t come. This is not New York, this is not Seattle, this is not Tacoma. Don’t come.” I was very explicit about that. I think you have to be honest.
Q: Are you doing any big administrative changes?
A: My first year is to listen and learn. I think if there are any administrative changes, it would be in the areas I’ve described, and it would be beefing up, trying to add staff where staff is needed. I learned some lessons in my career about turning places upside down before you know where you’re living.
Q: Are you living in the president’s house?
A: We are, and it’s got a beautiful view. I have acrophobia a little bit, and there’s a very steep drop to the water, so there are certain parts of the property I just don’t visit very often. Other than that, it’s just dandy. We feel very fortunate to be there. The neighbors have been great.
Q: It wasn’t lived in for many years. Was it maintained or did you guys have to do any work on it?
A: There was some work done on it, but nothing particularly elegant. It’s the kind of house we want an Evergreen president to live in. No fancy finishes. New paint, carpet, that type of thing, but not much more than that.
I’ve been having people over, faculty groups, student groups. It’s a comfortable setting. People feel at ease there.
If you go
An inauguration ceremony for George Bridges, president of The Evergreen State College, will be from 1-2:30 Friday at the Costantino Recreation Center, on campus at 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Olympia. Seating is limited, so RSVP is recommended. For more information on the ceremony and other events, go to evergreen.edu.