By Issac Scott
Evergreen’s new president will take office next year during a time of major transition for the college. Les Purce’s successor will be asked to steer Evergreen out of a multifaceted quagmire. Enrollment hasn’t been this low since the 1990’s, and needed state education funding is tangled in a political fray that may only grow deeper.
In many ways, Evergreen is approaching a crisis. Its identity is threatened with erosion from years of economic recession and concessions to the forces of conservatism.
Stepping into this situation, Evergreen’s next president will be be a decisive factor in how the college succeeds or fails to right the ship. They will need to make tough decisions, but more importantly, they will need to bring the energy to move the school in an exciting direction.
At the beginning of February, the four candidates, Dr. Luis Pedraja, Dr. Rhona Free, Dr. Margaret Madden, and Dr. George Bridges, spoke about the challenges and opportunities confronting Evergreen.
Among the four, Luis Pedraja stood out as by far the most compelling candidate. The Board of Trustees should hire him.
Pedraja’s inspiring story parallels the trajectory of many of Evergreen’s students, who care passionately about the world and strive for social justice, and desire education that goes beyond normative college experiences. Evergreen has never been about the safe obvious choice or the clear next step, it’s about taking a leap and empowering people. What makes Evergreen special is that we make bold radical choices and do exciting things.
In his presentation, Pedraja spoke with an enthusiasm that he would bring to his presidency. In comparison, the other candidates smacked of calculated professionalism.
His animated and engaging style of speaking starkly contrasted the other candidates who stood flatly behind the podium, looking like generic politicians. From the start, he took the microphone off its stand to walk about the stage, gesticulating confidently.
Liberal arts education is “transformative,” Pedraja said, and can empower people with the skills and knowledge to improve their lives and the lives of others. These convictions are firmly rooted in his own story.
“Liberal arts education allowed me to dream beyond the life I was living in this inner city neighborhood,” he said. “It instilled in me a desire to make a difference in society. Because I am a first-generation college student, and because liberal arts education transformed my life, I believe strongly in it and I want to be able to provide that to others.”
He has since come to be a leading thinker and writer in the field of Latino/a theology, and has founded nonprofits, worked as a professor and minister, and has advocated and organized with migrant farm workers.
His inspirational presence is what Evergreen needs to reach its full potential as a transformative and empowering institution.
In this regard, all the other candidates failed to measure up.
Madden delivered astute theoretical analysis of the challenges facing liberal arts colleges, but failed to inspire real confidence in her as a leader or organizer. As far as money, she said, it’s gone and it’s not coming back. Not the kind of thing you want to hear from a president tasked with advocating for the college. Free’s remarks were so generic and profoundly uninteresting, and is a clear last-place.
George Bridges on paper may look like the most ideal candidate. He meets many specifications that will unfortunately make him the first choice for the administrators in charge of deciding. He has already been the president of a liberal arts college in Washington. He has a background that can be branded a “social justice,” while remaining bland and noncontroversial. And he has the political connections in state government to advocate for the college.
But while Pedraja seemed genuinely inspired by Evergreen’s possibilities, Bridges came across as more interested in capitalizing on Evergreen’s brand. One can imagine that for Bridges this is an opportunity to do something ambitious, after a decade at the helm of a rather straight-forward institution. For George Bridges, Evergreen would be a nice next line on his resume, but Pedraja would be a choice that goes back to our radical roots.
We don’t want Evergreen to be more like Whitman. We want someone who has a new vision. It’s for the best Pedraja has never been president of a traditional school, and can bring a fresh perspective to governing our highly unique college.
We can’t let new struggles take away from the mission that created Evergreen. Our alternative style has proven it can adapt to new landscapes and challenges, and Luis Pedraja is the best person for the job.