Posted March 5, 2015 by Cooper Point Journal in News

One of these Four People Will Be Evergreen’s Next President

By Issac Scott Josh Wolf

The four Evergreen presidential candidates visited campus in February, and spoke about the challenges and opportunities for liberal arts education at public forums. The Board of Trustees expects to make a hiring decision at their next meeting on March 16. Here’s the highlights the candidates’ presentations.

luis-pedraja-18_webDr. Luis Pedraja

Dr. Luis Pedraja is currently the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Antioch University Los Angeles, a small private liberal arts university known for its focus on social justice. (The flagship Antioch campus in Ohio was the first U.S. university to have gender-integrated classrooms, designate female professors, and in 1863 was the first university to implement racial nondiscrimination policies.)

Pedraja began his presentation by talking about his background. An immigrant from Cuba, he grew up in a poor neighborhood in Miami before getting his Bachelors in Arts from Stetson University in Florida, where has also became a minister and began working with migrant farm workers.

“My father had a sixth grade education. My mother had just made it to high school,” he said. “We left everything in Cuba when I left. I grew up in inner city Miami in a very impoverished and oppressed neighborhood.”

“It is because of my liberal arts education that I am able to be here today—a young Latino immigrant from inner city Miami with non-college-graduate parents to be considered for president of such a wonderful school.”

Pedraja began his teaching career in the mid-90s at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, where he taught religion, philosophy and theology. He has since wrote numerous books and articles that have been influential on the development of Latino/a theology.

A main theme of his presentation was the need to reframe the narrative around liberal arts education in order to communicate what he described as its “transformative” power. This comes at a time when state funding to Evergreen and other liberal arts colleges are at all-time lows, and enrollment is on the decline.

“One of the first things we need to do is make a stronger argument for a liberal arts education, with politicians, with the public, with the media,” he said. “We have not done a good job in the liberal arts in doing so.”

“Liberal arts education allowed me to dream beyond the life I was living in this inner city neighborhood. 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 went on to articulate the need to expand access to higher education to underrepresented populations, such as people of color. The main way to reach underserved populations, he said, is through collaborating across groups and getting Evergreen more connected to the local community. For example, he stated that if chosen as president, he would work on programs to get Evergreen students more involved in K-12 schools and vice-versa.

This connected to his advocacy for constantly reevaluating models to ensure that the college remains innovative, and a strong force for social justice.

“I tell my faculty [at Antioch], We were innovative 20, 30, 40 years ago, what does social justice mean in the 21st century? Does pedagogy remain the same? How are we using social media to engage the community? How are we going beyond traditional models? How are we reaching out to minorities? How are we working to improve our communities?”

He stated that such questions are necessary to ensure the future of liberal arts education, especially alternative institutions like Evergreen and Antioch.

“I believe in what Evergreen is doing,” he said, “and that is one of the reasons I am very excited about this opportunity.”

rhona-free-19_webDr. Rhona Free

Dr. Rhona Free is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Eastern Connecticut State University. Free has taught economics for the past 30 years, and in 2004 she was named National Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement of Support of Education, Carnegie Foundation. She served as chair of Eastern Connecticut State University’s Equity and Diversity Search Committee, as well as the school’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Search Committee. Free has published articles discussing faculty workload, at risk students, and race and gender issues relating to starting salaries for graduating students. Free received her PhD. and MA in Economics from the University of Notre Dame, and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College.

Throughout her talk at Evergreen, Free argued that Evergreen’s structure will enable the school—and the president—to navigate current challenges that public universities face. Free said that Evergreen’s presidency is attractive due to its “distinctive focus on interdisciplinary studies, on applied learning, and innovative pedagogies, and with its unique structure, the college is perfectly positioned to deal with these challenges and take advantage of these opportunities.”

Free quoted the program description for “Entrepreneurship and Economic Development,” which served as her thesis in her presentation: “Organizations fail or succeed according to their ability to adapt to fluid legal, cultural, political, and economic realities…This comment about successful organizations aptly explains why Evergreen has the potential, not just to survive, but to thrive,” said Free.

With a strong background in economics, Free devoted much of her talk to statistical data that justifies higher education. “Over the course of a lifetime, someone with a college degree will earn twice what they would have without a degree,” said Free. She also pointed out that Evergreen graduates “pay an additional $47 million annually in state and local taxes based on that increased income. This is a powerful argument for the need for continued state funding.”

Throughout her presentation, Free argued that liberal arts colleges are valuable assets for both students and society. “Public liberal arts colleges sit in an enviable position, providing degrees that produce outstanding returns of investment, both private returns and societal returns, offering exactly the type of education that employers value.”

Free made strong economic arguments why Evergreen is poised to succeed, and spoke highly of the school’s values. “Evergreen’s culture of innovation, creativity, and collaboration, and the faculty who have been carefully hired to think across disciplinary boundaries, make it uniquely positioned,” to adapt to changing trends in population demographics, and declining state funding.

Margaret-Madden-7_webDr. Margaret Madden

Dr. Margaret Madden is the provost and vice president for academic affairs at SUNY Potsdam—a public university about the same size as Evergreen. Madden is also a distinguished professor of social psychology specializing in gender studies, and has written articles on higher education administration, as well as many other educator issues. Madden has won various awards for her teaching, and earned a Ph.D. and M.S. in social psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

When she spoke at Evergreen to be considered as the school’s next president, Madden described the role of liberal arts colleges, and the challenges that those institutions face. Many of her comments focused on society’s misconceptions of liberal arts.

“It’s very clear that in our culture today the main objective of higher education is often thought to be to help people get a job. Clearly, that’s an important outcome…We all want to be able to support ourselves,” said Madden. But Madden said that the idea of higher education existing solely to develop the workforce is a “shortsighted” viewpoint. Madden went on to explain that the overvaluing of vocationalism and careerism “poses a particular problem” for liberal arts colleges. “It may not be immediately obvious what kind of vocation follows” from the curriculum at liberal arts colleges, such as Evergreen, said Madden. “But we do know that people who graduate from liberal arts institutions do very well in life.” Madden then went on to say that studies show that liberal arts degrees are actually more valuable, in the long-run, than professional degrees. “We know that liberal arts is a great way to start a career.”

Madden also spoke of the societal value of liberal arts colleges, and how institutions need to debunk preconceptions of the liberal arts, such as a “lack of respect and misunderstanding of the liberal arts.” Madden said that the president needs to be at the helm in arguing for liberal arts values. “We need to make a better case about the value of learning to speak well, learning to write well, learning quantitative reasoning, and most of all, critical reasoning skills.”

Madden seemed enthusiastic about Evergreen’s interdisciplinary structure, and spoke to its values for society. “Complex problems require complex solutions,” said Madden. She brought up her own experience in ushering interdisciplinary programs at SUNY Potsdam, where she worked to integrate science programs with the arts.

She also emphasized that the president should work to accommodate student needs as demographics shift. As the proportion of students of color grow, Madden said that colleges need to make sure that populations of color are served well. More specifically in addressing student needs, Madden stressed the value of supporting students who don’t come from English speaking homes, by having special writing and language programs “to make sure that those students are successful.”

Regarding the decline of state funding for higher education, Madden said that “We need to accept the fact that state support is probably not going to increase,” but that the president needs to work to advocate for public funding so that it doesn’t decrease anymore. “We need to be able to make that case [for funding],” and said that state funding is something the president will have to take on.

She also spoke of her own experience managing college budgets. As provost, Madden manages 70 percent of SUNY Potsdam’s finances, and has had to deal with drastic budget cuts. In 2009, after the stock market crashed, SUNY Potsdam received a 25 percent operating budget cut in the middle of the academic year. Madden said that she had to look at “every penny” in the budget.

george-bridges-7_webDr. George Bridges

Dr. George Bridges is currently the president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, where he has been since 2005. Appearing in his signature bow-tie, Bridges said he was retiring from Whitman after feeling he had accomplished the goals he set out with ten years ago, but was unexpectedly inspired to apply to take Les Purce’s place, saying “this is the only job I’m considering.”

“I am very excited to be here, because I believe the mission and vision of Evergreen is actually the present and future of higher education—in the United States, the very best future.”

Bridges spoke of his desire to make Whitman more like Evergreen, but said that Whitman, like most colleges, faces institutional challenges that prevent them from adopting innovative models.

“That college, like almost every college in the country is trapped. It’s trapped in disciplinary silos that won’t go away. We can only do so much in interdisciplinary work because of those structures that are traditional. What I am inspired by here at Evergreen is there aren’t those structures, there is openness.”

He also spoke of the challenges public liberal arts colleges face, between funding and social changes, and how he sees Evergreen as uniquely capable of tackling them.

“Many of those challenges relate to funding, to money, and to a changing teaching model,” he said. “But the changing teaching model that other schools are trying to do is what [Evergreen has] been doing for 45 years. It’s just taken a very long time for other schools to realize that.”

Bridges, a Seattle native, began his academic career at University of Washington in the early 1970s, before pursuing graduate studies at University of Pennsylvania where he earned a masters degree in criminology and a doctorate in sociology. He later worked as a social scientist in the staff office of the Attorney General of the United States, researching federal law and justice policy. He has testified about legal policy and racial issues before the U.S. Congress, the Washington State Legislature, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

“I see this as a wonderful opportunity to strengthen, with the skills and knowledge I have, in consultation with really smart people here, really passionate, really talented people, to take the institution forward,” he said. “And I think there’s a willingness on the part of the legislators to support that, in my conversations with them.”