By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
You never know which title to use when talking to Gary Locke. Is it governor? Or ambassador? Or is it president—in acknowledgment of his current position as interim president of Bellevue College?
“Each position had unique challenges,” he said in an interview about his current challenges. “I’ve tried to build upon the knowledge I’ve gained.”
In perhaps a similar way, his personality almost seems a zoetrope of elements—the formal, the conversational, the emotional, the stoic, even the parental. In the end, though, he said his values involve elevating “the user’s” experience.
Whether that means citizens or students or faculty or staff members, this involves adapting to the needs of those you are serving, he said.
This may be one reason why Bellevue College (BC) has avoided the worst kind of hemorrhaging of students compared to other similar schools. Coming out of the pandemic, enrollment at technical colleges across the nation was down 27-47%. This included neighboring community colleges.
At BC, enrollment slipped about 20%, said Locke.
“This is a testament to the great quality of faculty and programs,” he said.
But ever the forward-thinker, he added, “But there is always the need to focus on being more adaptable and flexible to meet the demands of the students.”
The “user experience”
Locke would be the last person to take credit for BC’s successful warding off of the serious depredations of post-Covid education slippage.
One reason he took the job, he said, was out of excitement for being exposed to the intellectual rigor of the faculty and the college’s excellent programs.
At the same time, he was thrilled by the energy, enthusiasm, and dynamism of the campus.
Covid-19 put a damper on that, exiling him from the kind of campus-based activities he cherished since he was a student at Yale.
But the vigor with which he has pursued a “hands on” approach to confronting challenges that are devastating the system of higher education in this country speaks to the resilience and adaptability which he has cultivated over a lifetime in public office.
Through a series of initiatives, involving students, faculty, and staff, Locke has sought to keep emphasizing the “user experience.”
Achieving educational goals
In monthly office hours, held separately for students and faculty and staff, he has seemed to absorb the most nitty-gritty issues.
Over cookies or brownies or lemon bars and coffee or tea, students have shared with him concerns about finances, for instance.
“Many of our students are between 25-50, so they’re working,” said Locke. “So they want to move through quickly. Because they’re working, a two-year degree might take three years or a four-year degree five or six years.”
Making sure school is affordable is a priority.
“Students have to buy books, supplies, housing, food.” Other concerns include making material about courses easier to find on the school website. Students want to know, for instance, how they’ll be graded before taking a course.
“Are they graded 50% for the final exam, or for three papers? We have to make that very easy for them to find.” Locke returned several times to the goal of improving the experience of students—“so that they can achieve their educational goals.”
Competition in online learning
Many students, because they are working, or because they have families, need to take asynchronous online courses—prerecorded courses they can access at any time.
During the height of the pandemic, most courses went online, and many of the BC faculty were nationally renowned in conducting them, said Locke.
But faculty members wanted more training. So now, BC requires and makes available to all faculty additional training in offering online learning.
This is important at a time when community or technical colleges from across the country are advertising online courses, for instance with commercials on cable TV.
“BC is now requiring every faculty member to undergo 40 hours of courses on the effective design and delivery in online teaching,” said Locke. “If a student is taking an online course, that faculty member teaching it has gone through that 40 hours or rigorous training.”
The return of students from China
Another development has been the return of international students from China, among a diversity of other international students.
During the worst period of the pandemic, the U.S. embassies shut down in China. The numbers of students coming from the P.R.C. went down to a trickle.
“We have been able to attract many students from Asia. There has been a significant rebound over the past couple of years.” Locke has recently been on many Zoom calls with educators in China.
When asked if he had videos he could share, Locke said they were all live, often occurring around midnight here and early in the morning in China.
“I would talk about the high quality of U.S. education, the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, our proximity to major companies like Microsoft and Amazon, our connections to the University of Washington, although students don’t just transfer there,” he said. Some students have transferred to Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, for instance.
Locke also mentioned the types of programs offered by BC. These include a four-year Computer Science program, the first in the state, as well as nursing, technology, and health care programs, also for that span.
Partially as a result, Chinese students enrolling in BC have chosen diverse majors, with concentrations in business and technology.
Locke said that for younger students, especially, interactions with teachers and each other on campus are vitally important.
Fame vs. values
Still, it’s not clear how much Locke’s notoriety among Chinese parents and educators also comes into play.
One parent, recently arrived from China, living on the Eastside, told me she had chosen University Prep for her son, “because Gary Locke sent his kids there.”
When I shared this with Locke, however, he said none of his kids had attended that school.
So, although this was a single case, it appeared that simply a rumor about Locke’s preference animated a parental decision about education.
At the same time, such parents might, perhaps, consider also asking about the values that Locke upholds.
Locke said he practices the same principles that sustained him in his earlier roles in public office.
“Choosing good people, setting high professional goals, measuring progress and making course corrections, accepting failure.”
Then, he added, “You can’t expect perfection. You set high expectations and if we fall short, we do analysis. You need to support and trust people to unleash their creativity.”
In 2021, a problem with the listing of a course on Asian American Studies, and what appeared to be dismissive attitudes on the part of some administrators, caused an uproar among some faculty members and students.
Locke said the problem had been addressed.
“We did open recruitment for faculty to teach that course,” he said. “And we selected a terrific faculty member.”
With many Chinese and Asian parents now shaking their heads in wonderment and bewilderment at the American educational system, teetering between private and public education, or even questioning what they once believed were the abundance of advantages in the U.S. system, I asked Locke what he would tell Chinese parents and students.
“I would tell them that American colleges and universities are the best in the world and have more international students than any others in the world,” he said with a strong, clear voice. “The American educational system focuses on critical thinking—not memorization.”
Such a focus will allow students to succeed for the rest of their lives, he said.
“Gone are the days when people can work at the same company for 50 years,” said Locke. “Critical thinking is the key to adaptability.”
With training in critical thinking, a student can graduate in one major, then change careers later.
To students he would say, “Don’t be in such a hurry to declare a major or to specialize. Take classes from the most popular professors. You may discover a passion.”
Even if a student is interested in pre-med, “it’s okay to be a history or economics major. You still take the science courses. But you get a broad-based education.”
Many who went to law school, he added, studied music or English.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.