Les Purce, retiring president of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, recently signed an agreement to commit the campus to procure 28 percent of its dining program’s food from local and sustainable vendors.
During the event, he told the students how proud he was of their work to make this happen, part of a national student-led movement to steer college dining service vendors toward humane, fair, ecologically sound, local and community based farms, ranches and manufacturers.
And then Purce gave the crowd a special treat.
“He got out his ukulele and we all sang, ‘Homegrown Tomatoes,’ ” said Emily Dunn-Wilder, 22, who helped organize Evergreen’s Real Food Challenge. “That’s his classic song.”
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Purce is scheduled to work through the end of the summer, but retirement celebrations already have begun. He was honored last month by state lawmakers and his colleagues in the Council of Presidents, made up of leaders of the state’s public colleges and universities. Evergreen’s official invite-only sendoff is set for May 29.
“I think he’s leaving an incredible legacy,” said Maia Bellon, an Evergreen alumnus and director of the state Department of Ecology. “... His passion for higher education is contagious.”
Some of Evergreen’s biggest changes have occurred during Purce’s tenure. For example, $209 million in new buildings and capital projects have sprouted on the largely wooded campus about five miles northwest of downtown Olympia.
“The entire campus has been renovated since he came back,” said Lee Hoemann, Evergreen’s vice president for college advancement.
In recent years, Evergreen has earned national recognition for its environmentally friendly practices, support for veterans, competitive tuition rates and alternative approach to liberal arts education.
“We have consistently, throughout his tenure, had a strong national identity among higher education,” said faculty member Sarah Pedersen.
And Evergreen, Washington’s smallest and youngest four-year public college, has watched its enrollment climb, reaching a record 4,891 students in 2009, thanks largely to the Great Recession.
“There was a 10-year period where we grew by almost 900 FTE (full-time equivalent students),” Purce said.
Purce said he’s retiring now because it “feels like it’s time” for new leadership at the college.
“It’s been 15 years — 15 great years,” he said. “I’ve had so much fun working at Evergreen.”
A LONG, LOVING RELATIONSHIP
Technically, Purce has helped lead the school for nearly half of its 43-year existence.
He was hired as Evergreen’s vice president for advancement in March 1989. He served as interim president for nearly two years, and then its executive vice president for finance and administration for three years.
In 1995, he left to serve as vice president of extended university affairs and dean of academic programs at Washington State University. He returned to Evergreen’s top post on July 1, 2000.
“He has left a very comprehensive mark and legacy on the college as a whole, and it’s reflected in many ways,” said Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia.
In March, the college’s Board of Trustees hired George Bridges, president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, as Evergreen’s next leader, with an annual salary of $300,000.
Purce said the two have already began working together on some projects, and he expects the leadership transition to go smoothly.
“He is relationship-oriented,” Purce said of Bridges. “I believe he will really connect with the community, internally and externally.”
Purce’s wife, Jane Sherman, is retiring from her post as vice provost for academic policy and evaluation at Washington State University. They plan to stay in South Sound. Their plans include traveling, spending time outdoors and spoiling their 8-month-old grandson.
Purce said he also plans to attend guitar camp, perform music, and break in a new fishing rod that he was given as a gift last month during the couple’s joint retirement reception hosted by the Council of Presidents.
“I hope to be able to go to Cuba this fall,” he added. “I hear there’s nothing like Cuban baseball.”
SHAPING AN INSTITUTION
In the spring of 1967, Gov. Dan Evans signed legislation to authorize creation of a new four-year public college in the state.
Evergreen’s founders were asked to design a new option for higher learning, one that wouldn’t duplicate or draw students from existing programs offered at the state’s five other colleges.
“We just didn’t want a carbon copy of all the other colleges,” Evans told The Olympian in 2012. “We said from the beginning we want something new and different.”
Evergreen was designed so students can select an intense, 16-credit program for one quarter instead of multiple classes. Also, they can create their own undergraduate program because there are no majors.
There aren’t traditional grades, either. Purce said he was asked to explain that practice once during a meeting of business leaders.
“I do like you do in business: I evaluate them,” he said.
U. S. Rep. and Evergreen alumnus Denny Heck said he thinks Purce’s leadership has helped strengthen the college’s reputation.
“I think we are now way past any notion that Evergreen’s approach is ‘experimental,’ ” Heck said. “... In a huge part, thanks to Les, we’re way past that. They ought to name a building for him.”
Still, even during the college’s tough times — funding cuts, staff layoffs and tuition hikes — Purce has helped the college maintain its core values, Pedersen said.
“He’s been vigilant and effective in helping us balance those challenges,” she said. “He’s made sure academics remain strong and made sure they not take as many hits as other areas.”
Purce said one of the accomplishments that he’s most proud of is Evergreen’s transfer agreements with about 35 community and two-year colleges in the state. No other college offers transfer agreements that are designed like Evergreen’s, he said.
“Well over 50 percent of our students are transfers,” he said.
He said he’s also proud of the number of partnerships the college has developed with nonprofits, governments, schools and community groups. Evergreen interns can be found throughout South Sound, from the Legislature and state agencies to public schools and after-school programs.
“It’s just been a pleasure the way the community’s embraced the college,” Purce said.
DEEPENING ROOTS AND EXPANDING REACH
In recent years, the number of students hailing from Thurston County has risen dramatically. Its weekend and evening studies programs are popular for working students and those with families. Evergreen’s alumni have gone on to be state workers, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and small business leaders in the community.
“The credibility of (Evergreen’s) graduates and alumni have all gained under Les Purce’s watch,” Sen. Mark Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican, said when the state Senate honored Purce last month with a resolution that recognized his service.
Its most notable alumni include Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” Grammy award-winning rapper Ben “Macklemore” Haggerty, and New York developer Dan Tishman.
“It’s just like the University of Washington — your best and your brightest go out and change the world,” Purce said.
Also during his tenure, Evergreen has expanded its reach.
The Tacoma program, which began in 1982, has grown to serve about 200 students. During the past 15 years, Evergreen has leased the building that it occupies in Tacoma. But if everything goes as planned, Evergreen will soon be able to purchase that building, and really put down roots, Purce said.
“We’re just continuing on a tradition, but this says ‘We’re here,’” he said about the potential purchase.
Evergreen also operates programs in Grays Harbor County and on several tribal reservations around the state.
“We’re a statewide institution,” Purce said.
A PUBLIC SERVANT
Before coming to Evergreen the first time, Purce worked for 15 years in the public and private sector, including serving as director of Idaho’s departments of Administration and Health and Welfare. He was the first black elected official in Idaho, serving as a city councilman and mayor of Pocatello.
“His life is totally dedicated to public service, in a very successful and positive way,” Fraser said.
Purce credits much of his career success to his parents, who were active in human rights issues and “fierce believers” in higher education. All five of their children went to college, Purce said.
His parents also passed on an expectation for public service, supporting the idea that you work, but you also do something for your community, he said.
“That’s why I love Evergreen,” Purce said. “I feel like I was able to put that together in one profession.”
How has Evergreen changed him?
He said it’s helped him see the value of being a lifelong learner, and given him the confidence to weave music into a variety of situations.
“You have to find your joy in things,” he said.
“I always thought I was a psychologist. But I’m an artist.”