Reflections on a Presidency
There’s a hush in the cavernous lobby of the Daniel J. Evans Library, filled just moments before with boisterous conversation.
President Thomas L. “Les” Purce is softly singing the Evergreen alma mater, a cappella, in a reverent, almost spiritual tone. The eyes and ears of hundreds of prospective students and their parents, gathered for the college’s annual Preview Day, are all focused on him.
“Omnia extares. Omnia extares. Alma mater Evergreen. Omnia extares.”
After the briefest pause, the serious tone vanishes, the infectious smile comes out, the volume goes up, and Les shifts gears. “Boom! Boom! Boom! Go Geoducks go! Through the mud and the sand, let’s go! Siphon high, squirt it out, swivel all about, let it all hang out...”
The laughter erupts, the energy surges, and the audience soaks in the experience—one more tangible example of what makes Evergreen truly special.
It’s a quintessential Les Purce moment.
Les’ ability to shift from thoughtful advocate, mentor, colleague, and listener to enthusiastic participant, showman, storyteller, and lifelong learner has served him, and Evergreen, well.
I have always enjoyed it best when things have been the most challenging.
After 15 years as Evergreen’s president, and six years of service to the college before that, Les will be retiring in September. He has led the college through significant growth and growing pains (at one stage expanding from 3,700 to 4,500 students in a 10-year period), dramatic reductions in state financial support, more than $200 million in building and renovations, the implementation of a new academic statement initiative to support students in reaching their goals, successful efforts to strengthen Evergreen’s local and national reputation, and much more.
While there have been serious challenges along the way, many of them related to state funding, “Stressful times are part of the work,” Les explained. “I have always enjoyed it best when things have been the most challenging.”
One of his earliest challenges demonstrated his inclination to support creative thinking. When he was Evergreen’s interim president, Les negotiated with Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, and Western Washington University (former “normal schools”) to move up the time frame for sharing of revenue from the Normal School Trust Fund (based on timber revenue). “Dan Evans had set things up when he was governor so that Evergreen would eventually share in this revenue, but if we had moved ahead on the original schedule it could have created a sudden drop in revenue for the other schools. By moving the transition up, but phasing in the change, Evergreen started to receive its share of the funds without a big impact on the other schools. It worked well for everyone.”
Evergreen now receives about $2.5 million a year from the trust fund, providing critical support for minor works renovations and repairs and campus maintenance crews.
Not surprisingly for those who know him, however, Les focuses not on buildings, budgets, or enrollment numbers, but on students and relationships. “Without question, what I’ve enjoyed the most is being with students, on fields trips, in their programs, and just out on campus,” he recounted. “I’ve loved doing work side by side with students—in the classroom, the photo studio, the wood shop, or making music.
“After 15 years,” Les said, “it’s also been fun to see these students, now in their professional lives, moving out into the community and becoming leaders.”
Karissa Carlson ’12 met Les when she was an Evergreen student and photography intern. She and some other Photoland staff were teaching Les about studio lighting. As they were talking, Karissa noted that she ran track (she went to nationals in the 800 meters in 2011 and 2012). “He said, ‘It’s you! You’re the runner!’” Les had been at a recent meeting about college athletics and some of the attendees had noted that Evergreen had a really great runner. “He started calling me ‘Bolt’ for Usain Bolt,” she recalled. “When I was recently back on campus for a photography project, shooting in the Longhouse, Les recognized me immediately and said ‘You’re back! How are you?’ It was really nice that he knew me and remembered me personally.”
In addition to his connections with students, Les cited some additional highlights, all of which, he said, were made possible by the creativity, energy, collaboration, and commitment of others. What tops that list?
“I would say strengthening the educational experience for a more diverse set of students. Growing relationships and building support from friends and alumni. Developing relationships with the Native American community, getting a better sense of indigenous life and issues in Washington and internationally, and helping to promote indigenous art and culture through our Longhouse. Strengthening our Tacoma program’s central role in serving Pierce and King Counties, including many older students, active military, and veterans working to finish their degrees; focusing on urban issues; providing opportunities for creative approaches to teaching and learning; and strengthening Evergreen’s political ties and support in the region. Growing more external legislative support—demystifying the college and familiarizing people with what it has to offer.”
Washington Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) has known Les since the late 1990s, when Purce was a vice president at Washington State University. “Les is a warm and caring individual with excellent communication skills,” said Schoesler. “He is also the most multitalented man I have ever met. He has absolutely made a difference for Evergreen at the legislature. Much of his career has been a very difficult time for higher education in the legislature, where just surviving is a remarkable accomplishment. He is such an incredible leader and he has sold the legislature on the fact that Evergreen is an asset to our state system of higher education.”
Former governor, U. S. senator, and Evergreen president Dan Evans compliments Les as well. “Les Purce has led Evergreen magnificently through a period of growth, stability, and recognition,” said Evans. “He has been an integral part of Evergreen’s leadership for more than half its history and as president he brought accolades to the college for its continued pursuit of quality interdisciplinary education. Les is retiring at the top of his game and I am honored to call him friend, colleague, and mentor.”
Education is both the glue that holds our democracy together and a support for the economy, giving people skills to be paid for their work and to do work they love. We need to preserve that opportunity.
Delbert Miller ’96, a drug and alcohol counselor for the Skokomish Tribe as well as a traditional carver, composer and storyteller, has also seen Les’ contributions first hand. “I have seen Les at many events at the Evergreen Longhouse and the Skokomish longhouse too, including one time where he played guitar for us,” Miller recalled. “Over the years, he has been heavily involved with influential Native American people in our area, including Billy Frank, Jr., John McCoy, and others. He has been very supportive of Evergreen’s reservation-based community determined program, where I earned my degree, as well as arts and cultural events.”
In his roles with Evergreen between 1989 and 1995, Les supported the Longhouse in moving from dream to reality. During his tenure as president, the Longhouse and its related programs have grown substantially, garnering more than $3 million in grants to promote indigenous arts and culture.
From a broader perspective, Les said he is proud that Evergreen has been on the leading edge for so long in terms of social justice and the environment. “Where once that was thought of as being on the fringe,” he said, “now it’s a badge of honor for organizations to be green or socially responsible. Evergreen’s founders were right about those values. I’m proud to be part of that.”
He also noted a number of additional milestones of his presidency, many resulting from collaborations across the college and with the wider community, including:
- establishment of the Geoduck Student Union (student government);
- opening of the Flaming Eggplant student-run café;
- creation of the Center for Community-Based Learning and Action;
- establishment of the Clean Energy student fee (self-imposed by students) and the Clean Energy Committee;
- establishment of the Civic Engagement Institute for incoming students;
- launch of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF); and
- substantial growth in the fundraising capacity and success of The Evergreen State College Foundation.
“What I have admired about Les is that he is always gracious, he keeps a level head, and he can make people of all kinds feel welcomed, liked, and appreciated,” said longtime faculty member and former dean Sarah Pedersen. “I think part of his charm and an important aspect of his effectiveness is that he seems to really enjoy the constant connection with others. He appreciates Evergreen’s quirky community but he can also enjoy working with some of our more conventional external community members and even those who think they are our enemies. I will miss his willingness to support individual students of color, and their families, as they navigate the whiteness of Evergreen and Olympia. I will miss his informal, impromptu performances. Les is a fundamentally kind and generous soul; there will be less sweetness here when he retires.”
Thinking about the future of higher education, Les said that one of the major challenges he has faced will likely persist: defining and demonstrating the role that a public institution and a liberal arts college can play in ensuring access to higher education for the next generation of students. “I believe that education is a public good— from early childhood to baccalaureate—and that we should invest heavily as citizens to ensure that people can afford to go to school and have support in doing that. Education is both the glue that holds our democracy together and a support for the economy, giving people skills to be paid for their work and to do work they love. We need to preserve that opportunity.”
He also sees an increasing role for alumni supporting the college’s mission. “Ultimately, how institutions become stronger and more successful in pursuing their missions is through the longterm support of their alumni. State support and tuition play critical roles, but really successful places find that alumni are immensely important. And it’s not just about money. It’s about engagement, sharing skills and interests, offering internships, and helping current and future students. In the next 15 years, it will be even more critical for Evergreen alumni to be involved in more ways and in greater proportions if the college is really going to thrive.”
Les is not the only family member planning for retirement. His wife Jane Sherman, a widely respected leader in higher education—most recently splitting her time between roles as associate director for Academic Policy at the Council of Presidents (which represents Washington’s six public baccalaureate institutions) and vice provost for Academic Policy and Evaluation at Washington State University—will retire in June. Les and Jane will stay in Olympia and continue to be actively involved in the community.
More than reflections on the past or thoughts of the future, what Les really wanted to share was thanks.
“It’s a privileged life to get paid to do what I love and do it in this kind of environment,” he concluded. “I’m really grateful to have had that opportunity for so long at Evergreen.”
Best of Les Purce
See the best of Les Purce in this interactive slideshow sharing some of our favorite moments with him.