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Shepherding in Bruce Shepard, new Western Washington University prez

With last-minute approval of a faculty-union contract, outgoing president Karen Morse leaves the new guy with a crisis resolved. Shepard, of Wisconsin, takes office in September.
Karen Morse, who is retiring after 15 years at the helm of Western Washington University. (Rachel Bayne / WWU)

Karen Morse, who is retiring after 15 years at the helm of Western Washington University. (Rachel Bayne / WWU) None

Bruce Shepard, new Western Washington University president.

Bruce Shepard, new Western Washington University president. None

The last-minute approval of a faculty-union contract eased the way for the transition of Western Washington University's presidency from Karen Morse to Bruce Shepard of Wisconsin. There are sighs of relief on all sides as Morse winds up her 15-year tenure.

"It would have been very bad," is Morse's assessment, in typically measured tones, of how a failed contract negotiation would have affected the presidential transition.

Morse's persistence was a key factor in ending a 16-month struggle between Western's administration and a new faculty union. The negotiations resulted in a favorable contract for faculty and an honorable exit for Morse, and the man who will replace her in September, Bruce Shepard, will not inherit a crisis.

Bill Lyne, the professor of English who used the word "persistence" to describe Morse, heads the United Faculty of Western Washington and was frequently in opposition to the outgoing president. Ultimately, he says, the Bellingham school is a better place because of her presidency, and Shepard will inherit a strong university bearing the indelible stamp of the 66-year-old Morse, who announced her retirement last fall.

Shepard, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, will not inherit a bitter labor dispute, but he will have to tackle the job of juggling Western's budget to accommodate the contract's immediate 4 percent bonus on 2007-2008 faculty pay, followed by a 10.5 percent increase in September.

His biggest challenge? Morse is clear: the economy, and its impact on state revenues that fund the university.

But it could have been much worse for Shepard. Until a frantic last-minute round of bargaining after Memorial Day, the union had planned to picket any activity honoring Morse, including a gala party on June 1. That would have been an ugly culmination to the academic year, as Morse's tenure winds down. The faculty on June 6 approved, by a 98 percent margin, the contract negotiated by the union and administration; Board of Trustees approval this week was expected.

This final struggle, ultimately a victory for all sides, is a metaphor for Morse's 15-year administration, most of which I shared as a professor and department chair at Western from 1990-2004.

Morse took strong positions, sometimes in the face of strong opposition, and ultimately prevailed, often bearing scars as a result. Creation of the faculty union in 2006, by a narrow 300-284 vote, reflected a faculty split on her administration and in particular her relationships with a faculty always jealous of their prerogatives.

Ironically, tensions were exacerbated by one of Morse's strongest suits, raising funds and lobbying the Legislature, which frequently took her off campus in recent years. This type of missionary work is increasingly expected of university presidents, but in Morse's case, she admits a failure to adequately educate faculty on her off-campus accomplishments. Many insiders also blame a dysfunctional relationship with two provosts for allowing faculty relations to drift as the president tended to other priorities.

Presidential decisions brought faculty opposition early in her tenure, even before she arrived in Bellingham. Morse negotiated to bring her husband, a fellow chemistry professor, onto a chemistry faculty without any openings, as a full professor. Faculty anger over the unilateral move was erased when Joe Morse proved to be an excellent teacher and colleague, but she began on her back foot.

A more difficult encounter occurred in 1995 when a tenured professor on sabbatical leave was charged with possession of heroin and methamphetamine, charges later dismissed only after he had admitted to using the drugs. A Faculty Senate committee urged censure and penalties, but Morse fired the professor, who later died of a drug overdose. While there was no sympathy for the professor's drug use, some faculty felt that traditional campus procedures were abandoned with the firing.

These conflicts, difficult at the time, are now largely forgotten on a campus where well over half the faculty has been hired under Morse's presidency, many since 2000. Shepard inherits a young faculty; in some departments fewer than one in five were at Western when Morse arrived in 1993. Faculty arriving during Western's anti-war "party school" era have been retiring at a rapid rate, replaced by younger professors who grew up in a quieter time.


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