Evergreen still making course corrections

A new crisis is hitting The Evergreen State College west of town. A year after racial tensions and free speech controversies played out on the main Olympia campus, student enrollment is declining sharply.

This decline continues a trend seen since 2009 at the four-year school liberal arts school. But the latest predicted enrollment drop, which is across demographic groups, is 613 students for fall. That is a larger drop than in past years.

This comes after last spring's highly charged confrontations between certain faculty members and students over diversity policies. After an incident with masked students who brandished baseball bats and a counter-rally by a white nationalist's group, Evergreen brought in state police and later relocated its June commencement exercises to Tacoma.

But last year's turmoil - which to a degree mirrored controversy around racial and free speech issues on campuses around the U.S. - is not the only factor at play. A strong economy may also be discouraging enrollments and transfers from other schools.

The result is that college President George Bridges is engineering budget cuts of more than 10 percent to adjust to enrollment.

But it’s safe some effect has come from the bad publicity and eventual cash payouts to former faculty members who filed claims alleging harassment and interference with their free speech.

The downsizing is serious. The Evergreen Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on June 14 to slash the college budget by about $5.9 million for the coming school year and to impose higher fees on students. Bridges says fees are closer to what other institutions already charge.

Smaller spending cuts of $1 million were made a year ago after an earlier dip of more than 200 students was projected for the current school year. The college targeted cuts in positions of staff that was retiring or by eliminating vacant positions, which avoided layoffs.

The college is now basing its budget plans on an expected enrollment of 3,100 – which is more than 600 fewer full-time equivalent students than were originally anticipated for 2018-19. At its peak Evergreen had 4,835 full-time equivalent students.

This time 20 staffers were notified their jobs are on the line, college spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser said. About 24 faculty positions are being eliminated, including several held vacant. Some adjunct faculty contracts are also not being renewed, according to Kaiser.

At a time Evergreen is downsizing, the college is almost paradoxically growing its footprint. On July 1, Evergreen is taking over management of a former state capital museum site in Olympia. That building, known as the Lord Mansion, will be a place for college and community events near downtown and should give Evergreen a long-missing physical presence in our community.

Evergreen, like many colleges, has operated with distance from its home community - in part because its woodsy campus sits on the outskirts of northwest Olympia. That distance led Bridges, when he took over two years ago, to say he wanted to build more connections with the community to better link "town and gown."

The college’s role in managing the mansion near the state Capitol could help with that. The state Legislature approved roughly $500,000 for repairs and upgrades to that facility, spokeswoman Kaiser said this week.

The college is assuming that hosted events and other rentals of the facility can bring in more income than it costs to run it, Kaiser said.

Shrinking enrollment is a reversal for the college, which enjoyed attention nationally as an educational innovator ever since its founding in the early 1970s. That is why Evergreen is right to keep working on revisions to its curriculum to ensure it is relevant to would-be students' needs and also to take steps to build an equity office that deals with diversity concerns.

Bridges and Provost Jennifer Drake say students need a pathway toward a recognizable degree and assurance that courses will be available.

“We are thinking across five years of curriculum so we can make promises to students about the programs and curriculum that will be available to them,’’ Drake said in an interview.

Evergreen has been a launch pad for good local and national careers in business, government, the arts and science. For more than 45 years Evergreen has used interdisciplinary students to encourage intellectually curious students to think about our world in novel ways and respond to its challenges.

Our state needs an institution that can accomplish that. But to move forward, the college must convince the public – including potential students – that its programs are predictable and worth it.