By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
In a surprising twist to the ongoing conflict at the Green River College, Dr. Eileen Ely has resigned as president, effective June 16.
Though no reason was given for her resignation, it came amid relentless demands by faculty and students for her to leave. Shouts of “Ely lies!” by student protesters, waving signs saying “Ely Must Go” and “Fire President Ely,” had become the norm at the Auburn campus over the past year.
Vice President Derek Brandes will soon be gone, too, leaving to become Walla Walla Community College’s new president. Ross Jennings, Vice President of International Programs and Extended Learning, is also leaving, retiring after over 30 years of working with international students. Sounding vibrant, passionate, and energetic, Ross said he’s hopeful Ely’s departure will allow the long history of labor disputes between Green River’s faculty and administration to resolve. There have been numerous no-confidence votes issued against not only Ely, but against past presidents.
Faculty and students portrayed Ely as mismanaging funds, wanting to do things her way without considering students’ needs, basic programs, and the college’s mission, and shutting down all meaningful communication. From Ross’ perspective as an administrator, he saw the situation as, “not all virtue and vice on either side. There’s been a pattern of rudeness and bad behavior on both sides.”
Many of the faculty refused to speak to administrators, instead focusing their time and energy opposing Ely, said Ross, and he hoped that all ends now for the sake of the students. Ross said the college’s budget staff and faculty have yet to meet and have a real conversation about real numbers and where the money goes.
In a written statement to the Northwest Asian Weekly, Ross said, “This has been a very stressful year for Green River students, both domestic and international. This has been particularly true this spring quarter, when they have been concerned about whether they would be able to finish out the quarter. This was especially distressing to students in their last quarter, who didn’t know if they would be able to graduate and transfer to the universities which had accepted them.”
International student program enrollment down
Ross doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with using funds from the college’s International Program (IP), which amounts to about $20 million annually, to save basic programs at the college. At the same time, because international students pay more, they’re provided with more out of necessity. The students need more assistance with regard to language and cultural barriers, housing, and adapting to a foreign environment. But ever since the turmoil and uncertainty at the college began about three years ago, there’s been a 10 percent decline in IP student enrollment this summer. Students need to know they’ll be able to achieve their transfer goals to four-year colleges, or graduate. If the college is not a reliable place to study, said Ross, both IP and domestic students will be turned off, and won’t enroll.
Colleges throughout the state are “fighting over scraps from the table,” said Ross, due to the serious decline in state funding. To remain viable, colleges need to invest in the programs that benefit students in the future. Recruiting international students is good for diversity and good for funding, and colleges continue to actively compete for IP money.
“Our long college nightmare is over,” said John Avery, an instructor of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), on his Facebook page. Avery told the Northwest Asian Weekly the timing of Ely’s resignation was unexpected, but he’s extremely happy and excited that it’s finally happened. “What’s really important to many of us is not that we were opposed to one person, but we feel like the college has been off of its mission for so long and ill-managed.” With Ely’s resignation, Avery believes the college can get back on track and better serve students.
Avery said the faculty wants to fully fund the programs that are being considered for elimination, using the $20 million the IP brings in annually. Avery speculated that $100 million of IP money is committed to capital projects, while at the same time, basic programs are potentially on the chopping block. He doesn’t think the majority of the faculty are “resistant” to international students. “Many of us enjoy having them in our programs, and all the benefits they bring. But the money IP brings in seems to be like a protected thing that the administration can use any way it wants. We think there should be significant payback.” Avery said the IP money should be used to fund the mission of the college, and make up any shortfalls in the budget.
Avery doesn’t want to focus on the past, and feels it’s a shame so much time was spent opposing one person. Although the board is still considering eliminating what he views as critical programs, such as geography, occupational therapy assistants, and drama, which Avery said are central to the college’s mission, “we feel like we’ve turned a corner.”
“Indeed there are a lot of happy faculty, staff, students, and even some administrators,” said Dr. Stephan Kinholt, a long-time math professor at the college. “Dr. Ely was not a good fit for a college environment. It has been a long journey of unity, courage, and persistence. Together, we kept moving the needle with each action and in the end, the community got its college back. Now it is time for the campus to heal. We wish Dr. Ely well with whatever comes next in her life.”
In its press release on June 16, the college said simply that Ely had stepped down as president, effective immediately. The Board of Trustees unanimously accepted Ely’s resignation, and said it’s working with the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) to identify and retain a suitable candidate for interim president, as the College prepares to launch a national search for a successor. In the meantime, the Board appointed Shirley Bean, Vice President for Business Administration, and Marshall Sampson, Vice President of Human Resources and Legal Affairs, to share the duties of acting president at Green River, until the interim president is appointed.
Arlene can be reached at email@example.com.