Shepherding in Bruce Shepard, new Western Washington University prez

Bruce Shepard, new Western Washington University president.

Bruce Shepard, new Western Washington University president.

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.

With the retirements go some of the collegiality of a time when the school was smaller and departments more intimate. Faculty preference for a “bottom-up” management style may be traced to that time, and it was veteran professors in the College of Arts and Sciences who caused Morse’s most-serious confrontation in 2002.

Western as Morse inherited it really had two academic power centers. The provost is traditionally the primary academic officer of a university, but at Western the size and power of the College of Arts and Sciences, graduating over 60 percent of Western students, rivaled that of the provost. Morse decided to split Arts and Sciences into two new colleges, a direct challenge to Dean Peter Elich and associates, and the battle played out over two or three years before she inevitably triumphed. Whether the split was good for Western or not depends upon to whom one talks, but it took its toll on Morse’s presidency.

Those battles are over, however, and Shepard will not face the divisive issue of dual (and dueling) power centers in academic governance. The new arrangement is familiar to the younger faculty, and with the retirement of Morse and Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Ronald Kleinknecht, all the major players in the dispute are gone.

Kleinknecht’s retirement leaves three deanships open, as well as the provost’s office and several non-academic executives, giving Shepard an opportunity to build his own academic management team. Morse inherited most of her major administrators, including Elich and Provost Larry DeLorme. In both cases, the end game went badly, Elich retiring after a bitter struggle with the president’s office and DeLorme departing shortly afterward, also under unhappy circumstances. DeLorme’s successor, Andy Bodman, resigned in 2007, again after disagreements with Morse. So many positions are currently filled on an acting basis that Morse jokingly describes it as “thespianism: everyone’s acting.” But Shepard will be able to build his own team, a luxury denied to Morse.

Faculty may be divided on some aspects of Karen Morse’s presidency, but there is universal agreement that she is a tireless worker totally dedicated to the university. The school is more visible than it was in 1993, and Morse cites Western’s stature as a major accomplishment. “We are seen as a player in higher education, a premier comprehensive undergraduate school,” she states.

Much of this is due to Morse’s ability to advance Western’s cause at the Legislature and among donors. She increased the Western Foundation’s assets from about $9 million to $47 million over her tenure and boosted alumni giving and scholarships as well.

Morse is low-key, a mediocre public speaker but convincing in small groups. Colleagues also describe her as “compassionate,” and Morse’s concern for students has never been questioned. Western’s enrollment has grown from 9,300 full-time equivalent students in 1993 to 12,100, double that of Bruce Shepard’s last post, with 6,111 students. Although the student body is primarily white, minority representation increased from 5 percent in 1993 to 17 percent in this year’s freshman class.

Morse oversaw half a dozen new buildings and total renovation of the library; she will dedicate the $64 million Academic Instruction Center this summer. Western’s hillside campus is nearly built-out, and this has led the university to look at Bellingham’s waterfront, now being completely redeveloped as Georgia-Pacific withdraws from the city. Huxley College of the Environment figures to move most of its work to the waterfront, and there is active discussion among senior administrators of moving Western into the ever-developing field of health care, probably with a link to the university’s health-education program.

The waterfront location poses logistical challenges, but it is only a few minutes from campus by bus, about the same time as it takes a student to walk from one end of the present campus to its opposite end. And the new location frees the school from the topographic barriers of its present campus.

Western’s new president brings a reputation as a good communicator and fundraiser. At Green Bay, Shepard met with more than 2,000 people on campus and off, when he assumed the helm in 2001, and built strong financial and community support, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Few Western administrators and virtually no faculty have spent time with Shepard because his hiring was essentially concluded by the time he had a public meeting on campus in April; most give a cautious assessment: nice guy, we’ll see. The new WWU president is not new to the Northwest. He taught political science at Oregon State University and was provost at Eastern Oregon University prior to going to Green Bay in 2001.

His former dean at Oregon State, Bill Wilkins, describes Shepard as an excellent teacher who went on to become assistant provost, where he had to administer a large budget cut due to an Oregon initiative measure. He handled that task “with sophistication and heart,” recalled Wilkins. It’s certainly not a task Shepard hopes to encounter in Bellingham. Better to be building that new waterfront campus.

That opportunity, and others, will greet Shepard in large measure because of the things Karen Morse did well. Other than creation of a faculty union, her stumbles in areas of personnel and communication will be blips on Western’s history. Shepard will be hard-pressed to match her more permanent legacy.

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