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.
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Bruce Shepard, new Western Washington University president.

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.

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.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.