Get to Know George Bridges
What does Evergreen’s new president believe?
On October 1st, George Bridges took the helm as president of The Evergreen State College. He hasn’t been on the job long enough to stack up accomplishments or craft a full-fledged plan for the college’s future, but Evergreen’s community and friends are eager to know more about him.
I drew inspiration for my interview from the 1950s radio program, This I Believe©, hosted by legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. The program was revived in recent years, with “this I believe” essays submitted by everyday people read on National Public Radio.
According to the This I Believe website, executive producer Dan Gediman said of the revival, “The goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, the hope is to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.”
That sentiment sounds a lot like our work at Evergreen: listening and learning across differences. So what does George Bridges believe? What is he passionate about? How will he go about leading the college?
NP: When you announced your plan to leave Whitman, becoming the president of Evergreen was not on your radar. What prompted you to consider this opportunity?
GB: I believe that Evergreen is providing an educational experience that few other schools can. It always has. And this is immensely attractive to me. The prospect of being at a college that places interdisciplinary, team-taught classes at the heart of its identity inspired me to apply.
We tried to create interdisciplinary programs at Whitman, but they were difficult to sustain.
At the University of Washington (UW), I taught large classes—800 students, 12 teaching assistants. I’d give lectures and get to know some of the students, but many in the class were, in effect, learning at a distance. So I’ve become a huge convert of small. Evergreen as a state four-year college is small by regional standards and its classes are quite small.
As I studied Evergreen, I learned that the college faces challenges in recruiting and retaining some students and in staffing levels due to recession-related budget cuts. I see every one of these challenges as opportunities. And I believe we can address them. I want Evergreen to thrive, I want its reputation to be as strong as the school actually is, and I want to contribute to securing its future.
There’s also a personal draw to the place itself. Since I was six, my family has had a small cabin on Hood Canal, built in the 1930s, close to Skokomish tribal lands. Now that I’m closer, I can enjoy those memories and connections to my past that are so important to me. And my family, my adult children, and my grandchild can experience them with me.
Liberal Arts Champion
NP: When you visited campus as a candidate for the job, you made an impassioned presentation about liberal arts. As one of Evergreen’s first incoming students, I was thrilled that what you expressed felt true to the core of Evergreen’s founding. Where did your fire for liberal arts originate?
GB: My passion ignited as I came to understand how Whitman [a small liberal arts college with 1,500 students] educates its students. An education in the liberal arts and sciences at a small college not only encompasses developing a breadth of knowledge in a variety of fields, it also involves the acquisition of skills in writing and speaking through interactions and collaborative work with faculty, other students and staff, in thinking through and debating problems from many different perspectives, and in subjecting ideas to a crucible of analytical tests.
So when students graduate with an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts from a school like Whitman or Evergreen, they are confident in their abilities to communicate and to approach problems creatively, examining them from different angles and perspectives. This is what I think of as a complete education in the liberal arts. It should come as no surprise that people educated in this way are the favorites of employers across the country.
NP: How has your longtime belief in, and commitment to, liberal arts been tested? How has it been vindicated?
GB: It’s been tested and vindicated by the success of our graduates. Parents routinely ask, “Will my son or daughter be able to get a job? Are they going to be successful and fulfilled in their lives?”
My answer is direct. Look at the graduates of Evergreen. They are successful in business, the arts, in many different professions. What did Evergreen prepare them to do? Our college prepares them to learn, to communicate, and to apply critical ideas in the marketplace. You’ve got to love that! What people do with their education is the ultimate test and we prepare our students not just for their first job, but for every job of their career.
Social Justice Has a Face
NP: Your very first words to Evergreen’s incoming students addressed current social justice concerns head-on. Tell me about your belief in social justice.
GB: As a college sophomore, I took a class that included field trips to prisons. The superintendent of one of the prisons asked me to conduct research with an inmate. The inmate’s name was Rick and I worked with him in the prison nearly every week for several weeks. Rick was serving a very long sentence for his involvement in a murder—he was the driver in a drive-by shooting. As we worked together we talked about many things including where we grew up, went to school, and some of our friends. As we talked, I soon realized we had attended the same middle school at the same time. We were the same age. We had some of the same teachers and knew some of the same people. But we grew up in radically different neighborhoods, under different life circumstances, and with different school-aged friends.
Why Rick committed his crime became a question that fascinated me and inspired my interest in criminology. What in Rick’s background led to his criminal behavior? And what aspects of my background led me to college?
These questions ultimately led me to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and from there to the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., to work in the staff office of the Attorney General. There I witnessed how justice was administered at the federal level and the role of politics in the development and enforcement of laws.
My career turned to teaching, a professorial appointment at UW, and research on racial inequality in the administration of justice. The research uncovered some egregious cases of injustice that ultimately led to many publications in professional journals and activism to change laws in Washington State and the federal legal system.
My belief in and commitment to social justice grew from this sequence of events that comprise important parts of my life story.
Getting to Know Evergreen
NP: What were your first impressions of Evergreen? What have you learned and observed about our community so far?
GB: The faculty and staff impress me. They are talented and very hard working. Among those with whom I’ve spoken, many view their work as a mission. I sense a deep desire and willingness to work closely with students and to advance the college.
The students here are engaging, creative, and very direct. Many bring extensive life experience to their studies. And many have overcome significant obstacles just to enroll in Evergreen. Their life stories inspire me.
NP: What kinds of things might you initiate to build awareness of Evergreen? Does coming most recently from Eastern Washington, where Evergreen is less well known—and sometimes less well supported—help you?
GB: One of the challenges Evergreen faces involves reduced state funding and the pressing need to work closely with the Legislature—Les [Purce] did a great job in cultivating relationships there and it’s critical that I work to sustain those relationships. Living in Walla Walla for 10 years provided me with the opportunity to develop relationships—friendships—with many state representatives and senators from Eastern Washington who know relatively little about Evergreen. This will help.
Right after my appointment was announced, my friend Adam Falk, president of Williams College (in Massachusetts) told me, “I am so excited you’re going to Evergreen. It is a great school.” I was struck by his response and the fact that Evergreen’s reputation in the East is stronger than it seems to be here in the Northwest! Obviously, we need to tell the Evergreen story in different and more effective ways here at home.
NP: What would you like alumni to know about your plans for Evergreen? How will you come to understand Evergreen, a school that is so different from both the UW and Whitman?
GB: It’s still early, but my plan for the year is to devote much time in getting to know Evergreen, its people, programs, and relationships with the greater Olympia and Tacoma communities. During fall quarter, I will listen and learn as much as I can from students, staff, faculty, and alumni. Then, I intend to give a state-of-the-college address early in 2016, describing what I’ve learned and what I believe the college needs. Finally, in April I will share my vision for Evergreen’s future—a vision to be fully vetted by the trustees and many faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
This approach is deliberate and seeks to respect the many virtues and traditions of an Evergreen education. Only after I understand much of Evergreen will I feel comfortable proposing or launching major initiatives to advance its programs and approach to educating our students.
Retaining the virtues of an Evergreen education—interdisciplinary, team-taught classes, close relationships between faculty and students—is a priority. These are the hallmarks of the Evergreen experience.
Leading From the Middle
NP: You now lead a community of nearly 5,000 people. What drives your management approach and style? What’s your guiding philosophy?
GB: Some college presidents lead by telling others what to do and how to do it. I don’t manage this way. My approach is to lead from the middle—to support the faculty and staff in their jobs and listen to their ideas and varying perspectives. Evergreen people in general have many great ideas. I want them to have a significant voice in the school’s future and how it pursues its mission. I have great respect for the faculty and staff in their commitment to our students.
Accessibility is critical. Often students are reluctant to voice their concerns or take advantage of the college’s many resources. And with more than 4,000 students, we can’t expect them to come to us. We must go to them or create mechanisms for routinely gathering with them. For example, this year I am establishing a President’s Student Advisory Group of 10 to 15 students to meet regularly with me and share our mutual concerns and questions. Doing so opens a dialogue that will keep me in closer touch with the student body and also give them a chance to learn how Evergreen’s president contributes to the college.
Evergreen faculty and staff occupy positions of great privilege. We have the opportunity to work with and help shape the development of talented men and women at critical and, at times, fragile points in their lives. At least for me, the greatest reward is witnessing their accomplishments in college and afterwards, knowing that we have helped them achieve fulfilling and successful lives.