OLYMPIA – Memories are a big part of The Evergreen State College’s 40th anniversary celebration, which launched last fall and will continue today and Sunday with seminars, lectures and discussions about everything from sustainability to entrepreneurship.
More than 100 alumni and former faculty members from all over the country are scheduled to participate in the “Return to Evergreen” celebration.
Among the alumni are Tom Anderson (class of 1973), a renowned mixed media artist; animator Craig Bartlett (class of 1981), whose work includes “Hey Arnold!” on Nickelodeon and “Dinosaur Train” for PBS; Matt Groening (class of 1977), creator of “The Simpsons;” and Lee Lambert (class of 1987), president and chief executive officer of Shoreline Community College.
Why celebrate 40 years of the college? Why not wait another decade for the big 5-0?
“Hey, that’s like asking, ‘Can you have too much fun?’” college spokesman Jason Wettstein said. “We certainly plan to celebrate the 50th, too. We also celebrated the 20th and 25th.”
HOW IT BEGAN
Gov. Dan Evans signed legislation to authorize a new four-year public college in the state on March 21, 1967.
The Olympia area was chosen to help even out the higher education offerings, which included the well-established University of Washington, Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, Western Washington University and Central Washington University.
At the time, enrollment was down at all of the state’s colleges, but the numbers were expected to climb, thanks to baby boomers.
“That huge group of youngsters was moving into high school and aiming at college, so we needed more space and more room,” Evans recalled in a recent interview.
Evergreen’s founders were charged with designing a curriculum that wouldn’t duplicate or draw students from existing programs at the state’s colleges and universities.
“We just didn’t want a carbon copy of all the other colleges,” Evans said. “We said from the beginning we want something new and different.”
Evergreen was designed so that students could select an intense, 16-credit program for one quarter, instead of multiple classes. Also, students could choose whatever undergraduate program they wanted to enroll in because there were no majors.
In May 1968, the state spent $114,500 to buy six parcels of land and create the 130-acre heart of the campus on Cooper Point Peninsula, about five miles northwest of downtown Olympia.
In August, Evergreen hired its first president: Charles McCann, dean of faculty and professor of English at what was then known as Central Washington State College.
“We hope our college will not be a degree mill, but rather, a place of learning, reading, self-expression and doing,” he told the Olympia Rotary Club later that year.
The college continued acquiring land until it had nearly 1,000 acres of woods, along with 3,300 feet of undeveloped waterfront on Puget Sound’s Eld Inlet. Evergreen quickly became – and remains – the state’s largest college campus.
Construction delays meant the campus wasn’t ready when the college opened for registration Sept. 27, 1971. As a result, Evergreen’s inaugural 59 faculty members and 1,178 students met off-campus around the state for the first few weeks of classes.
Charles Nisbet, who joined the faculty in 1971 to teach economics, recalled his first class meeting at Camp Robbinswold, near Hood Canal.
“We lived in the cabins and taught our students there,” he said. “There was an air of excitement among the faculty and the students. We were excited about being part of an experiment and trying something new.”
FINDING ITS WAY
During the first two years, student groups began a newspaper and a radio station and hosted several political events, concerts, poetry readings and art exhibits.
“The younger people were somewhat radicalized and felt like there was a political and cultural revolution,” Anderson said.
But the nontraditional actions of the college – especially the decision not to offer a tenure track for faculty, the practice of evaluating students’ portfolios with narratives versus letter grades and the team-taught approach for programs – didn’t go over well, especially in Thurston County, Nisbet said.
“Olympia, at that time, was an extremely conservative community,” he said. “They were very suspicious of what was ‘happening out in the woods.’”
Evans said the main reason people criticized Evergreen during its early years was because it was different from other colleges.
“They had gone to college, and regardless of where they went whether it was Harvard or a community college – it was all essentially the same, and Evergreen was not doing it that way,” he said.
The growing tension between the college and the neighboring community meant Evergreen was under constant threat of being shut down, Nisbet said. At one point, there was a proposal to close the college and turn the facility into a police academy.
In June 1977, in a turning point for the college, Evans was hired as the college’s second president. Evans was well-liked, and he helped create many partnerships between the college and local businesses.
“I felt like we were likely to be shut down at any moment by the Legislature,” said Nancy Allen, 70, of Olympia, who joined the faculty in 1971 to teach Spanish. “(But) when Dan Evans became president of the college, I was like, ‘I guess we’re OK now.’”
NOT POLITICS AS USUAL
Protests, teach-ins, boycotts and other expressions of the First Amendment are a huge part of the culture at the college. Over the years they’ve caused controversy:
• In 1999, Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal delivered the keynote address by audiotape at Evergreen’s graduation. Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the police officer Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing, attended the event in protest.
• Former Evergreen students Justin Solondz and Briana Waters pleaded guilty to their roles in the 2001 arson at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture, where a cell of radical environmentalists mistakenly believed poplar trees were being genetically engineered.
• In 2008, a riot broke out on campus after a concert by hip-hop group Dead Prez. During the violence, a sheriff’s patrol car was flipped over and totaled. Three other police vehicles were damaged. Later that year, six people – including two Evergreen students – were jailed after a May 1 demonstration turned violent, when a group of vandals dressed in black smashed windows at downtown Olympia banks.
Today, Evergreen offers two bachelor and three graduate degrees, and to date has handed out nearly 40,000 diplomas. About 4,600 students are enrolled in its programs, and there are nearly 500 staff members.
The college has received accolades from numerous publications, including being named “Best in the West” and “Best Value College” in the 2005 Princeton Review, and No. 1 in the West for undergraduate teaching and masters universities by U.S. News & World Report’s 2009-10 college rankings.
“Evergreen has a very strong reputation, nationally, as sort of the avant garde public alternative,” said David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
He believes the college’s success can be credited to faculty and administrators staying true to its original plan of offering something different from the state’s other, far more traditional colleges.
Evergreen’s nontenure policy has attracted faculty members who aren’t afraid to take risks and are more apt to embrace a true alternative learning experience for students, Longanecker said.
“They built a campus that was consistent with its vision,” he added. “How many campuses have the side of a building that’s a climbing wall?”