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Actually, Huxley has changed over 42 years. The original idea of a seamless program linking scientists, educators, and social scientists broke down 15 years ago when the college in essence split into two separate departments under a single dean. But it remains a home for committed environmentalists and, despite the internal split, remains vulnerable to traditionalists in science research.
The crux of the matter is familiar to any campus: a turf war that has gone on for as long as Huxley has existed. Professors in the "pure sciences," such as biology, geology and math, have often disparaged Huxley's activism and the inter-disciplinary nature of its faculty. Huxley is a rare creature not found on other campuses, and although its mission fits well in the Northwest, it would not travel well outside the region. If Shepard is suggesting simply moving the boxes around within Huxley he will have little opposition —and little cost reduction. But if he is thinking about putting Huxley under the College of Science and Technology, which would be more in line with other universities, he may step in a bear trap of his own design.
Huxley alumni are numerous, vocal, and often well placed. A new history of the college, written by former Seattle Times reporter Bill Dietrich and due to be published next month, focuses on prominent graduates; Dietrich is quoted on the Huxley web site, "Huxley College has staying power. One of the questions we ask in the book is 'was the experiment successful and should it continue?' The answer is affirmative."
Dietrich is leaving his position as part-time Huxley professor and advisor to The Planet, an award-winning student environmental magazine, to return to fulltime writing. The Planet's last issue is this month; the environmental journalism major is being eliminated, falling between the two stools of Huxley and Journalism, neither of which was willing to carry its small budget (the program was dear to my heart, and home for some of my best students in the 1990s; much will be lost).
Regarding Fairhaven, Shepard told the Western community: "Fairhaven has been a leader in attracting students from across the country, around the world, and from diverse backgrounds. It is also true that, because of the nature of the pedagogical approach, Fairhaven is one of our most expensive programs on a cost per student basis. . . . We must continue the special Fairhaven approach and, consequential, must critically examine ways to bring costs per student closer to what is found across the university — e.g., further recruitment of non-resident students, further administrative reorganization, and possibly further concentrating on the upper division level while drawing upon the special expertise in Fairhaven to enrich the general education of all Western students."
As with Huxley, it is the uncertainty beneath the president's proposal that will concern, in particular, Fairhaven grads who fondly remember the Outback Farm and the quirkiness of the college, which shaped a lot of lives in a positive way. Much of the success of Fairhaven, and a great deal of its charm and appeal to young people, is its ability to live outside the box and outside at least some of the academic rules that govern more conventional programs and students.
The full title of the school, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, echoes the concept of a holistic rather than segmented learning environment. Like Huxley, Fairhaven is vulnerable to seeing its special niche eroded by traditional departments that would like the extra student credits that could be obtained by pulling Fairhaven students into their majors.
Fairhaven is the living reminder of campus ferment in the 1960s; the college, founded in 1967, is unabashedly liberal and the most diverse on campus in many ways. It still likes to made waves; its mission statement contains a challenge, "The college assumes a responsibility to provide leadership for Western Washington University in diversifying the curriculum, faculty, and student body, as well as demonstrating models for alternative curricular forms and course structures." Not everyone on campus is comfortable with that, but the college has been a magnet for students who want to make a difference.
If Fairhaven is unabashedly liberal, the Department of Liberal Studies is decidedly not, at least in the political sense that most people associate with the term "liberal." The very first "commonly asked question" on its web site brings this response: "No, we do not just 'study liberals'! 'Liberal Studies' is a name for interdisciplinary departments that focus on the 'liberal arts', and the 'liberal arts' refer to the kinds of skills and the areas of knowledge which all educated people should have, before they begin specialized training for their career or profession."
Liberal Studies is much closer in concept to classical studies than it is to political science, and as a discipline is unique to Western, at least in Washington state. Its 10-person faculty have doctorates in history, religion, medieval studies, comparative literature, and art history. Most of their teaching is in the important General University Requirements (GUR) classes, fulfilling the need to bring to undergraduates a broader sense of the world and its cultures than might be found within a traditional discipline.
Shepard proposes to close the small department and shift its tenured professors to departments that can use their expertise. This would be less controversial than making major changes at Fairhaven or Huxley; it would also produce less savings.
Liberal Studies is the third program remaining from Western's educational ferment of the 1960s; the program opened in 1970, shortly after Huxley and Fairhaven. The programs have been part of the unique appeal of Western to students who choose the school over more traditional institutions. No one I talked to expects Huxley or Fairhaven to be disbanded like Liberal Studies; the concerns I hear center on possible loss of Western's approach to interdisciplinary or holistic education.
Western certainly could function and even excel without its unique programs, as a standard, discipline-based university delivering basically the same education as other regional comprehensive four-year universities, and doing it in an attractive setting close to thousands of prospective students. There is always support for basics, and controversy over innovative and unconventional approaches that some will always see as frills.
The remaining "experiments" from Western's 1960s era have weathered critics for four decades and in the current budget climate they may seem to some as a frill; but the programs have been a successful frill, and if lost or substantially diminished will not be easily recovered.
Preserving that particular aspect of Western's history while attacking serious financial challenges is not an easy task for Shepard and his colleagues and it may not be possible. Western certainly will continue to attract its large share of Washington students and they will get an excellent education.
But it is also dicey tinkering with icons; there's a reason why they became icons.
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