Posted May 7, 2015 by Cooper Point Journal in News

A Conversation with George Bridges


Illustration by River Gates

By Issac Scott

When George Bridges starts his new job as president of Evergreen in October, the college will be in the midst of some of the biggest challenges in its history. With state funding in free-fall and enrollment on the decline, Bridges will likely be a decisive factor at important crossroads for Evergreen’s future. He’s a seasoned academic leader with considerable political know-how. The Seattle native has already spent a decade at the helm of Whitman College, a prestigious private school in Walla Walla, and a long career working in sociology and criminal justice. With his credentials and connections, it’s no surprise the Board of Trustees picked him for the job. When I talked to Bridges on the phone recently, I asked him about his record on social justice and inclusive governance, and what makes Evergreen important.

Tell me about your work on social justice in the American legal system. When I was a faculty member actively engaged in research at the University of Washington, one of the issues I was studying was racial inequality in the legal system, and the disparities in treatment that minorities have faced, particularly juveniles. I was appalled at the disparities in the number of young men and women of color who were being detained and incarcerated for offences that by any standard seemed trivial. I published a number of research articles on it, and actually the research led to, both in Washington state and in the U.S. Department of Justice, changes in policies in how juveniles are treated by our juvenile courts. And I think the system is better now, but it’s not perfect. Racial inequality, and inequality in general, is of great concern to me, intellectually and politically, and is something that I believe is increasing, particularly economic inequality, in our society.

So this is an issue that I am an activist on, and I have acted very frequently when I was doing the research with the state legislature on changing some state laws, as well as with the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice. And I hope, knowing very well that Evergreen has many students, faculty, and staff equally committed to social justice, that we can find opportunities to work together on issues.

Obviously the school itself is a public institution, a state institution funded by state dollars, and I need to get to know a lot more about the issues that students and others on campus have concerns about before I make commitments on what I will do or how I will act. I think it would be presumptuous of me to make commitments without knowing fully well what students care about, what staff care about, what faculty care about on these issues. And I look forward to learning about that, and learning about how the activist culture plays out in the classroom, how it plays out on campus, and how it plays out in the community.

One of your major accomplishments at Whitman was raising money for the college. What do you think worked so well there, and what are you plans for raising money at Evergreen? Most private institutions, or independent colleges as we call them, have a dedicated commitment to reliance on private funds just to supplement tuition. Despite the very high cost of tuition, that doesn’t cover the cost of an individual’s education. I’m looking forward to working with staff, faculty, and students in seeking private support for the college. I think there’s a real opportunity here, given the decline in state subsidies for the school.

I think it’s important to remember, at least this is how I view it, that fundraising is not the work of an individual, like the college president, but rather entails an effort by the entire college community in order to be a success. My hope would be that there would be conversations about what the priorities Evergreen has for funding and fundraising, and the vision this school has for its needs for the future, and what kind of school it wants to be.

I guess I’m lucky in the fact that I know many legislators and have worked with them in past on other issues, such as the racial inequality issue, and I actually enjoy working with them collaboratively. We don’t always agree on issues, but that’s fine. Now having lived in both western Washington and eastern Washington, I know legislators on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the state.

President Purce is doing a good job of building strong relationships with legislators, as well as working with alumni to see what their connections with the college are, and what their hopes for Evergreen are in the future, and how we can get their support. And I think that conversation about the priorities for fundraising really has to occur on the campus with all campus community members, rather than the president dictating what he or she thinks are fundraising priorities. And I want that to occur in the first six months to a year of my time at Evergreen. Again, I need to learn what students faculty and staff really care about and where the funding would be most critical in supporting and sustaining the college.

Can you give examples of how you have involved the student body in college decisions, like the budget-writing process, at Whitman? At Whitman, what I established the first year was a budget advisory group comprised of equal parts students, faculty, and staff. And that committee would review budget proposals by the vice president and other groups submitting budget requests included in the final budget, and then make recommendations to me about what they felt was important. And then I would make a recommendation to the trustees for the final budget based upon those recommendations. So the students have a very active voice.

That’s what we did and it has worked successfully here. And there hasn’t been a lot of political campaigning, there hasn’t needed to be, because the students have a very active voice, and I listen to students very carefully, and staff, and faculty in this process. This kind of process is hard, though, when you have to make cuts, because ultimately someone’s got to make very hard decisions. You can listen and hear their opinions, and you must, but someone has to make the final decisions on those issues, and usually that ends up being the president. Eventually someone’s always unhappy with those hard decisions. There’s always going to be a group that feels their interests weren’t heard as well as they would have liked, and that’s just the nature of difficult decisions regarding cuts.

One of things I would like to do at Evergreen, once I get a sense of the landscape and the students and their interests is to create an advisory council to president. Ten to 20 students representative of different groups that I would meet with, if not on a monthly basis, more than that, and I would just listen and hear concerns issues and discuss issues with them. I think it’s very important for students to feel they have access to the leader of the college and convey their opinions to them. I believe in working with students in that way is not only part of my job, but is the part of my job I enjoy the most. There may be other ways of doing it, but that’s an idea that I have discussed preliminarily with a few people on campus.

When you spoke at Evergreen you indicated that you believed many other colleges, including Whitman, are trying to move in a direction where they look more like Evergreen, academically. Can you talk about why you’re excited about Evergreen and how you think it fits into liberal arts education around the country? I just think the notion of team-taught classes focusing not on specific content areas, but across disciplines, is visionary. It is the best kind of teaching, because it focuses on issues and problems rather than the domain of a particular discipline.

And what I find so attractive about Evergreen is it has, since its inception, been employing this method of teaching and learning that schools now are trying to do but can’t because it’s too expensive and they’re too tied into departmental curriculums that are heavily structured and don’t really allow faculty to cross disciplinary lines.

What amazes me is how hard the faculty work in creating these kinds of unique learning opportunities, and I think it remains one of the very important virtues of Evergreen’s identity as an academic institution, and a virtue that whoever is president must preserve and strengthen.

And what we find is that Evergreen graduates tend to be extremely creative thinkers, tend to be people who understand the complexity of problems in ways perhaps others don’t. It prepares them, quite frankly, for inheriting the challenges that my generation is leaving you—apologies for that—in the world. And so I’m very much drawn to the model and I think it’s a superb model of liberal arts education. And I just hope I have the opportunity to teach, at least one or two times, in the curriculum, to not only gain a better sense of how the Evergreen model works from the group up, but also to experience it for my own learning. I just think it’s a great, great model.

In the ‘70s, there was a tradition that Evergreen’s president would work for one day a week in the cafeteria. Are you going to work in the cafeteria one day a week? [laughter] I have no idea, but that’s a great idea, that’s a great concept! And I’ve always wanted to be a short order cook. I won’t commit right now to doing that, because there are other things the trustees probably want me to do. But I will commit to being accessible to students in a variety of ways, and I have a few plans of my own for special events that we would have on campus, in which we would celebrate the college in its many ways. You may not want to taste my cooking, so that may be a problem right there. I am very open to the idea, if the idea is to give me an opportunity to see the many dimensions of the campus in new ways.