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Paul Olscamp a savvy administrator as president of WWU

I read the short Bellingham Herald story the other day about the death of Paul Olscamp, who was president of Western Washington University from 1975 to 1982. He died Oct. 14 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the age of 77.

Olscamp’s name rang a distant bell for me, but I didn’t know much about him. He became president two years after I graduated from Western, and believe me, as a young person out of college I wasn’t busy tracking the ins and outs of college administrators.

But after reading the transcript of a 1998 interview with Olscamp in connection with Western’s centennial, I came away with new appreciation for what he accomplished on the hill, and learned some interesting stories about Western.

Born in Montreal, Olscamp was just 37 when he got the job, the youngest president at Western. Prior to that he was a philosophy professor and vice chancellor for student programs at Syracuse University.

Olscamp fell in love with the Northwest in 1973 after accompanying Syracuse’s football team to a game against the University of Washington (UW won 21-7), so he arranged to have himself nominated for the position when Western advertised for someone to replace President Charles Flora.

Olscamp ruled during a period of rising enrollment, uncertain budgets and a name change at Western. When he arrived he was president of Western Washington State College. Western, Central and Eastern later became universities in name, but it took some doing in Olympia.

One roadblock was Sam Guess, a state senator from Spokane who, in Olscamp’s words, “was a strong believer in the view that there was really only one university in the state, and that was the University of Washington, and then there was the agricultural college, Wazzu, and then there were these regional schools.” Then Olscamp learned that Guess hailed from a part of the South where state colleges were called universities. That was good enough for Guess, who let the name-change bill come to a vote.

But Gov. Dixie Lee Ray didn’t like the idea and wanted to veto the bill. However Barney Goltz, a campus planner at Western and Bellingham’s senator, threatened to bottle up her legislation in the Senate if she didn’t let the bill become law. Hello, Western Washington University.

Olscamp wisely visited every legislator in his or her hometown, usually in their homes. You don’t have to be a philosophy professor to know face-to-face visits can pay political dividends, and it did for Western.

A few years before Olscamp arrived, Western had to lay off workers because of a tight state budget. Soon after he became president, he convened a group of faculty members to set criteria for which departments should lose or gain faculty in the event of another budget crunch. Planning ahead is smart, but getting people to decide in advance where heads should roll couldn’t have been easy. Still, they came to an agreement that guided Western during the next cutback, in the early 1980s.

Olscamp also brought student reviews of teachers to Western. He did so by requiring candidates for tenure to include in their file student evaluations of courses they taught. As a former student, I love that idea.

Another step Olscamp took that I like was the way he addressed faculty rumors about who was being paid how much. He simply put a copy of the university budget, including salaries, on an open shelf in the library so everyone could check the facts, not repeat rumors.

Olscamp also initiated “excellence in teaching” awards at Western. Today, two research and scholarship awards at Western carry Olscamp’s name. He established an endowment for the awards the year he left Western to become president of Bowling Green university in Ohio for 13 years.

After Bowling Green he spent one year as interim president of the University of South Dakota before returning to Western to teach.

Olscamp, I learned from his obituary, held a black belt in karate, flew planes, wrote poetry, and liked to ski, parachute, bungee jump and sail. He clearly enjoyed life, body and soul.

I enjoyed learning about you, Mr. Olscamp, and thanks for your work at Western.

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