Let me put this in context. I am a “Coug” – through and through. I went to Washington State University, getting degrees in Political Science, Economics and English in 1982. I served four years on the Pullman City Council (first student, and at 19, the youngest ever). I received an “outstanding alumni award” in 1996 and served eight years on the University Board of Regents, one as its President. I was even profiled in Washington State University Magazine – “Food Fight.” Although I married a University of Washington Husky, it was only after paying her way through school.
So when I read Kevin Graman’s article in the Spokesman Review – “Regent balks at WSU book choice – Selected book eyed impact of agribusiness,” shock and sadness where my first emotions. Now, I just feel embarrassed – but hopeful – Washington State University – say it isn’t so. Let’s figure out how to get Michael Pollan back on campus.
So, here is what happened according to Mr. Graman:
A book chosen by a Washington State University committee as appropriate food for thought for all incoming freshmen will not be distributed at summer orientation after a member of the board of regents raised concerns about the work’s focus on problems associated with agribusiness.
4,000 books had already been purchased by WSU. However, now according to the WSU Website:
Instead of distributing the current selection, [Michael Pollan’s book] ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ at the Alive! summer orientation sessions as was previously done, program staff will contact faculty to ascertain whether they wish to use the book in their classes, and then will arrange for distribution.
According to Mr. Graman, “[t]he decision not to distribute the book at orientation was made by WSU President Elson Floyd and Provost Warwick Bayly…. We just simply decided to streamline the distribution process,” Floyd said Wednesday. We encourage faculty to use it as part of curriculum.”
However, another reason for pulling the book and the invitation is to be found at A Livable Future Blog:
President Floyd and Provost Bayly also cited the cost of bringing Mr. Pollan to Pullman and the WSU campus: This is just one of scores of hard decisions that have been made in recent weeks to address the $54 million cut in our biennial state appropriation. As you well know, this austerity has forced us to reduce or eliminate a number of programs and positions. Reducing the scope of this program — including not bringing the author to campus and avoiding speaker’s fees and travel, facilities, and event costs — will save an estimated $40,000.
In a slightly different spin on the reasons for not having Mr. Pollan come to campus, Scott Carlson of the Chronicle of Higher Education, cited “Mary F. Wack, vice provost for undergraduate education, [as saying]that the university has taken a $57-million budget cut from the state, which is a reason for a reduction of scope of the common-reading program. She also said that the changes were requested by students, who asked to have the common-reading books integrated with courses.”
However, was there another reason? According to Mr. Graman of the Spokesman Review, the real answer might be political more than financial:
That political pressure apparently was brought to bear by a member of the board of regents, Harold Cochran, who disapproved of the author’s characterization of agribusiness. Cochran owns and operates a 5,500-acre farm near Walla Walla, is a founding stockholder in the Bank of the West in Walla Walla and is a member of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. Cochran did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. But fellow regent Francois X. Forgette said Cochran had read the book and raised concerns, though the topic was never formally discussed at board meetings.
Scott Carlson of the Chronicle seems to support that politics trumped lack of finances:
In an e-mail message to The Chronicle, Patricia Freitag Ericsson, an assistant professor of rhetoric and professional writing who also sits on the implementation committee, said that in a meeting on May 4, an administrator told panel members that the common-reading program would be canceled, in large part because of political pressure arising from this year’s book choice. Members of the committee were upset. She says the committee was also told that potential books for next year’s common-reading program would be sent to the provost, who would make the selection.
So, was it political or was it financial?
I have an idea! To show that it was not political, I will pay to get Mr. Pollan to Pullman and find a place for him to speak – I’ll even introduce him. My hope is that it was not political, because the following quote is what Washington State University – in being a “Coug” – is all about:
“It strikes me that the real value of the university is basically the way it serves the public, researches without fear and favor and being a place where issues can be aired, which are by nature controversial,” said Richard Law, the outgoing director of general education at WSU and a founding member of the common reading committee.
I have my checkbook ready.