The State of Western

Aerial photograph of the Western campus. The red roofs all belong to the school which, although it doesn’t show up in this picture, is located on the biggest hill in town.

I arrived in Gunnison in May of 1969, packed alongside my sisters and some of our belongings in a Ford Falcon station wagon. We left Denver where my dad had recently picked up a master’s degree and drove over Monarch Pass in a snowstorm that I have no recollection of but which terrifies my mother to this day, lured to Gunnison for the same reason a large portion of our new neighbors were: Western State College.

My dad had scored his first (and only) teaching job with the history department at what was then Western State, and our new house was slotted between the Bartlesons (geology) and Barils (English). Within a couple of years the house directly across from us sold to the Noxons (football). The Mallorys and the Kifers down the street also owed their addresses to employment at the college, and many of my oldest friends — Dan, Scott, Beth and Doug — had dads who worked “up on the hill” as well.

Back then, I assumed everything in town revolved around Western State College — an assumption that lasted for decades, even after my dad died. A scholarship was established in his name. My mom did some teaching at Western. I did some teaching. Tia took some classes while still in high school. I took some classes. I got a job as a reporter that had me reporting on many things Western, mostly sports and theatre but also an in-depth, extensively researched look into a rather controversial administration.

I’m still connected, even now: a large portion of the Pat’s labor pool over the years has come from the college. Current co-workers James and Vann both have degrees from there. A waning percentage of Pat’s business comes from there, and in pre-pandemic times I enjoyed going to concerts staged by the music department.

These days, though, I feel far more disassociated. Lots of changes have occurred, most notably in the name arena. For 100 years it was Western State College; then a popular school president decided it was important Western become a university. He was not alone — this was quite the craze all across Colorado, and it led to a tussle over which school might get the coveted name of Western Colorado University, which after a torturous and winding path and several million out of pocket in “branding” attempts fell finally on the shoulders of Western Then State Then College.

As often happens, the popular president fell out of favor, and his replacement, still with us, seems to have impressed only one person in the entire world. But that one person was the head of the governing board, who reportedly walked down the street in his neighborhood in Denver to recruit this man from his job at a misogynistic, racist insurance company.

I do not know the outcome of the lawsuits against this insurance company, the name of which escapes me now, and I should note, as the local paper was careful to, that the suits did not specifically name the president other than as a member of senior management creating this work environment that was particularly hostile to black women.

And innocent until proven guilty, they say, but Maya Angelou also counseled that you ought to believe people when they show you who they are, over and over again. This man, who is a social clod in every instance, once felt the need to write a letter to a high ed journal informing his readers that the only reason students “become” transgender is to be able to access twice as many restrooms as any other student. When James was a student up there, he participated in a protest sit-in because the president had said something stupid and incredibly tone-deaf about black students. Now, in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the president appears to have felt it necessary to defend white supremacists.

The thing is, Clod didn’t need to write any of these things, and he could have kept his misogynistic (I’ve heard very disturbing reports, first hand, about the pressure he has put on attractive young women to work in his office), racist, gender offensive views to himself, and continued collecting his annual bonus, even as faculty raises were put on hold and enrollment numbers declined.

He still is collecting his salary and large annual bonus, but this latest need to issue his white male opinion on a matter beyond his presidential scope seems to be sticking more than any of his other frequent missteps.

I will confess I have yet to read the extensive, early reports in the Gunnison paper (someone else’s turn to do the deep digging) other than skimming them, but yesterday’s installment — only one of two major stories about the college, I mean university, in the paper — was about a committee convened to review the president’s words and actions. As well as the trustees’, it sounds like.

This committee includes four trustees, one of whom is local Erich Ferchau, son of a biology professor, alongside a faculty member (from psychology, I believe — I don’t know anyone up there anymore), a student and an attorney.

At least one thing the trustees have discussed is their need to be better, much better, (much, much better) at communication. Both the professor and the student expressed frustration that faculty and student comments to the board of trustees don’t even get acknowledged, let alone responded to.

I personally don’t think Western Whatever You Want to Call It has been particularly well-served under this president, who I understood to be kind of an interim transition sort of guy but who is still here all these years later.

A faculty member I spoke with several years ago said she told him directly that he had zero social capital to expend, either on campus or in the town, and she was right. Sadly, she still is right. I’m quite sure this man has no idea who the majority of people in town are, and I wonder how many faculty members he knows by name.

I have never been passed by him where he makes any effort to make eye contact or try a simple “hello.” I was on a football sideline when he rushed up to the five of us on the chain crew demanding to know where the coach was. “What coach?” one of us asked. “It’s a football game. The place is crawling with coaches.” The president moved right on past us without a response. “Who was that guy?” the chain crew member asked.

At an annual dinner to get scholarship donors and their recipients together, instead of graciously thanking everyone as the foundation director does so well, he excoriated those in attendance for not giving more. Then he went table to table, because the foundation director had already done so, but he couldn’t think of anything to say, didn’t ask for anyone’s name, and merely nodded at the faculty member sharing our table.

I’m sure the trustees will find a way to work this out to leave this racist misogynist with zero social skills in place, probably heaping an extra bonus upon him along the way. But I for one wouldn’t be sad if some of his unwanted, completely unnecessary written words finally bit him in the ass and he went away.

Which really wasn’t what I intended to write about at all — my thought when I set out on this journey was to discuss the changes in the other story in the paper, whereby most of the majors I hold dear — English, history, music and art — are on the chopping block in one fashion or another. Perhaps that’s where I’ll wander tomorrow.

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