Wherefore Art Thou, Western?

This is what $80 million buys you. It’s where Ruland Junior High used to be, blocking your view of the rest of campus. I borrowed this picture from the internet.

As yesterday went on, I found myself contemplating where I have devolved — there might be people who view it as evolving — to in my community life.

I was ruminating on this because the college — I mean, university — did finally rid itself, several years and many hundreds of thousands of dollars too late, of its misogynistic, racist president who had less of a personality than a blobfish. (Which might not be fair to the fish.)

An interim president, perhaps an alumnae, was installed last year. She is still here, and the trustees are just now getting around to lining up what is probably a horrendously expensive company to guide the search for an official replacement. In the interim, I have heard a few good and no bad things about the interim.

(The closest thing I heard to a bad thing came before the start of fall, when someone seemed to find it unseemly that her nephew was the football team’s starting quarterback. Now that the team is ranked among the top 25 and has an excellent record, no one finds this potential nepotism to be problematic.)

But Western Not State is chugging along without me paying much attention to it, and that was okay, but then I started seeing requests for community involvement by this search company. The company is seeking input regarding what sort of person should lead us forward, and they asked the community to weigh in.

There was a day when I was happy to weigh in on anything, whether you wanted me to or not. I felt it was important to be part of the process, rather than whining about it after the fact, which seems to be the preferred methodology. I went to meetings. I filled out surveys. I participated in rallies and walks.

Now I don’t do much of any of that, and the world chugs along without my input. But I did give thought to filling out a survey for the presidential search.

Here is why I meant to fill it out: my family arrived in Gunnison in 1969 so that my dad could join the history faculty at Western. Our house sat between Baril, English, and Bartleson, geology, and within a couple years the across-the-street neighbor was Noxon, football. Others in the neighborhood included Sweetkind, Parsons, McKelvie, Mallory, Randall, Goodman, Longpre, Irwin . . . I’m sure I’m forgetting lots, but let’s just say it was a college confab there in the Palisades.

At some point my mom, who did all of my dad’s colleague Duane Vandenbusche’s typing, did some adjunct lecturing, and Tia took some courses while still in high school in French. I went to work for the newspaper, where my assignments included college sports and theatre. After the paper I volunteered for the football chain gang for perhaps two decades, and helped with volleyball and basketball.

I took a few courses and did some adjunct teaching in the English department, and some day I hope to resume attending music concerts in Quigley Hall. My nephew Justin gave Western a try last year before deciding Starbucks suits him better, for now. My business is the only officially licensed printer in the Gunnison Valley for Western (not that anyone up there pays an ounce of attention to the program they implemented).

I think it would be a fair assessment to say that Western Whatever You Call It has had an outsized impact on my existence, including providing me with almost the entirety of the friend group I still Skype with on a weekly basis.

This association means I have seen a large number of presidents come and go. I reported on one who hated me because of that; I met another when he was just starting on the faculty and as the basketball coach. At one point Western blew through something like eight presidents (some of them interim) in four years. Of all of these mostly men, the president I liked the least was the one who has just departed: he did grave disservices to both campus and the town.

As one faculty member noted, he had “zero social capital” in either place. He did bring in an $80 million donor, which apparently was enough all by itself for the trustees to justify his continued existence, but that has resulted in a Las Vegas light-up-the-night entrance to campus, replete with neon, that I’m not sure serves the campus as well as perhaps paying off all the debt on other buildings, any one of which could have had its name changed to reward the donor with what he seems to crave most: his name in lights.

Since the trustees let this not-missed president fairly obliterate all that campus used to be — now the only thing you see upon arrival in Gunnison is this massive building dedicated to students who will earn their degrees in engineering not from Western but rather the University of Colorado — I don’t know that it matters who might come next.

Despite watching this endless parade of presidents, I have no idea how to get to a successful one. But, while reading the Gunnison paper at 6:15 last night, I learned that only four community members had weighed in so far, and there was one last chance, a Zoom from 6-6:45. I hadn’t been going to attend a Zoom, assuming it would be full of people, but since it said they’d heard from only four, I thought I might get a chance to speak. When I got there, I was the only community member.

So I blithered. When I start speaking off the cuff, I ramble. And, since in this case I mostly know what I don’t want, I had no answers for the overarching philosophical questions the women I was speaking with had for me.

I don’t even know whether I want an academic or a business person to be running the school. They were all academicians, these past presidents, up until this most recent failure, but businessman Bruce Benson, whom I didn’t think much of when he started, steered the University of Colorado quite well for about two decades.

What I do want is someone who understands that Gunnison and Western are inextricably linked, and who makes every effort to become part of the community. Not to change the community, as many people with big aspirations attempt to do, but to buy into what is here — to come in understanding that there are a lot of very smart people here who could be making much more money in places not Gunnison, but who choose to make their home in this remote, financially underperforming valley.

I would like someone who can help the community recognize the asset Western is to us, culturally, athletically, economically. If the school closed tomorrow we would find out quickly that we are not the tourist town we imagine ourselves to be. We are a college town.

But, having been ignored by an ignominious president for several years, we the community apparently are at the point where, when specifically asked for input, only five of us weigh in. And my weigh-in, last-minute, completely unplanned and rambly, probably didn’t assist them at all, although one woman was kind enough to say my input had been “very helpful.”

As long as we cover my basics: not a misogynist (or the female equivalent — we already had one of those, too), not a racist, perhaps someone whose head is not turned by the promise of $80 million in exchange for a liberal arts soul . . . I think we will be off to a good start. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too much to ask for someone who lets the faculty, staff, students — and community — feel heard and respected.

Or maybe we just hang in the interim with a president whose nephew can lead the football team to victory. We could, and have, done worse.

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