Hundreds of students and instructors walked out five minutes after 10 a.m. classes began Friday on Green River College’s main campus in Auburn.
It was the latest show of growing student and faculty discontent with the college’s administration as it contends with a $4-5 million budget deficit.
Tensions have been high on campus since school leaders enacted a program prioritization process last fall as a tool to rank programs that ultimately might be cut if no other funding sources can be found.
Students are upset because they have not been included in the prioritization, and faculty feel the process lies outside of their contract.
The walkout comes on the heels of a contentious Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, April 21. Faculty, staff and students packed a small board room, forcing many to stand in the hallway. Campus safety officers counted the number of people who entered the room, and two Valley Regional Fire Authority firefighters ensured the crowd didn’t exceed maximum occupancy.
Board of Trustees chairman Pete Lewis said the fire department received an anonymous tip that the building might stretch capacity during the meeting.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t know this meeting was going to be filled,” an audience member directed toward the board.
Attendees repeatedly asked for a change in the meeting’s location to accommodate the crowd, offering a large classroom on campus as an alternative.
Faculty requested a change in location 20 days prior to the meeting and a petition signed by 177 students was submitted 48 hours before the gathering.
“With the option to move this meeting to a location where everyone could hear what is happening and view and participate in, why are you choosing not to do that?” Jaeney Hoene, United Faculty union president, asked the board before delivering her faculty report.
Lewis said he considered moving the meeting but changed his mind.
“When all faculty were notified that program prioritization was not going to be used for budget cuts we were notified of teachers putting statements on the whiteboard about having their programs cut,” Lewis said. “…When those kind of tactics are being used it does not bring an avenue for civil discourse.”
Students responded, saying they – not faculty members – had written the statements.
Students and faculty were vocal throughout the three-hour meeting with such chants as “move the room, move the meeting.” The interruptions prompted the board to recess three times. Boos erupted as board members left the room.
“If this meeting seems disrespectful, it is because we are disrespected,” someone yelled.
At several points throughout the meeting, students and faulty repeated loudly what Lewis and other presenters at the meeting were saying so that those in the hallway could hear.
History instructor Mark Thomason captured the atmosphere of the meeting in a statement he made to the board during the public comment period.
“This has been the most bizarre experience I have ever had on this campus,” he said. “It is absurd what has happened here today. Am I in some giant ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit? Is this a Monty Python movie that I haven’t been told about? I am just awestruck at everything that has happened here. It reflects an enormous vacuum of leadership – of positive leadership.”
Nearly 30 people signed up to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting. The board allowed about 10 to speak before adjourning to an executive session. Five faculty members spoke when the board reconvened before the meeting ended.
Much of the public comment revolved around President Eileen Ely’s leadership.
Seven students each took turns reading from a prepared statement, each saying before they spoke, “We are here as students to demand one thing: that you, as the board, remove Ely from office. This is your job. You, as the Board of Trustees, have the power to remove a president that no one supports. After four years of no confidence, if you are not at least investigating Ely, what are you doing?”
In her faculty report, Hoene asked the board why Ely is still at the helm of the college.
“This college belongs to the students who have come here today, who are trying to build their futures through higher education and who have put their trust in the institution to use their tuition and tax payer dollars, prioritize their education needs,” she said. “They are our mission. Our president – who will sacrifice them to build her own legacy, satisfy her desire for power and control and indulge her animus towards organized labor and the teachers from whom they have come here to learn – does not align with the mission of this college and she must go.”
English instructor Brad Johnson addressed Ely directly.
“Why would you stay in a place you are vilified by faculty, by students, by members of the community, by classified staff who don’t have a chance to speak up and say anything to you because of the fear of retribution?” he said. “… I just really don’t understand what motivates you to stay in a place where you are not welcome, where you are not doing your job.”
Ely did not comment during the meeting, but Trustee Linda Cowan responded after Johnson’s remarks.
“I am very disappointed in the community I have lived in for 37 years,” she said. “… I can take responsibility without a problem, but I want it done with dignity and without personal attack.”
Cowan, who served on the presidential selection committee prior to becoming a board member, said there were no in-state applicants for the position when Ely applied in 2010.
“When I asked (why there were no local applicants), it was because of the culture that exists (at Green River),” Cowan said, adding that presidents of the college before Ely received Votes of No Confidence. The faculty has given Ely two Votes of No Confidence during her tenure.
After leaving their classes last Friday morning, students and faculty converged on Kennelly Commons in the middle of campus. Groups of students went through academic buildings to encourage their classmates to join the protest.
Once gathered, protesters – many of whom wore red – set out to march around campus, chanting and waiving signs. They filed through the Administration Building, where Ely’s office is housed.
On April 8, students and faculty hosted a rally and marched around campus. Earlier last week, faculty had a rally while students took part in a forum with college administration.
Fine arts instructor Sarah Dillon Gilmartin attended Friday’s rally with her husband, Paul Gilmartin, and their 2-year-old daughter, Nora, who rode in a wagon.
Dillon Gilmartin was there not only as a faculty member but as a concerned parent. One of the programs that has been ranked in the bottom quintile through the prioritization process is Early Childhood Education. The program is important to the community, Dillon Gilmartin said.
“All of her (Nora’s) teachers are all educated at Green River.”