As Bellevue College prepares this week to name an interim president to guide the school out of a crisis surrounding the defacement of a mural and the subsequent resignation of two top officials, there remains no public explanation for the events that caused the college to conduct a search for a new leader.
College President Jerry Weber and Gayle Colston Barge, a vice president, left the school after revelations of Barge’s involvement in a late February defacement of the artwork depicting two Japanese American children in a World War II incarceration camp. But her exact role in the incident, her motivation to remove some of the artist’s wording and how Weber and other officials reacted have eluded public scrutiny.
College officials have not publicly provided any reasoning behind the mural defacement, but Weber and Board of Trustees chair Rich Fukutaki have said Barge acknowledged it was “poorly thought out,” “stupid” and “an impulsive act.”
“We certainly heard the question of people asking ‘why’ and the only thing we have been able to provide them is what we provided” to media, Fukutaki said in an interview. “Anything else would only be speculation, and we don’t really do that.”
Seattle artist Erin Shigaki brought her art installation “Never Again Is Now,” an 11-foot-tall mural of two children photographed at a California incarceration camp, to the college as it recognized the Day of Remembrance. The day, observed every year on Feb. 19, commemorates when President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans.
At some point between the Day of Remembrance and Feb. 20, the mural’s description was defaced. One line had been removed: “After decades of anti-Japanese agitation, led by Eastside businessman Miller Freeman and others, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans included the 60 families (300 individuals) who farmed Bellevue.”
Emails obtained through a public records request by The Seattle Times from the week after the defacement, coupled with interviews and meeting documents, show several intense days as college leaders debated what to say publicly, while staff members and students increasingly criticized the college’s response, which one professor wrote was worse than the incident itself.
The emails don’t explicitly point to Barge’s or anyone else’s motivation to mark out the words, nor do they suggest outside influences. Included in the messages are concerns about liability surrounding the inclusion of the Freeman name, criticism — and staunch support — from colleagues, and frequent inquiries about what the incident means for the future of the college.
Miller Freeman, who died in 1955, was the father of Kemper Freeman, who built the original Bellevue Square, and grandfather of Kemper Freeman Jr., the founder of Kemper Development Co., which owns and manages the Bellevue Collection. Kemper Freeman Jr. has donated money to Bellevue College. Neither Freeman nor any representatives from Kemper Development have commented publicly on the defacement.
In a message sent in the early morning of Feb. 21, Barge posed a question to Weber: “Do you think that an alternative could be to delete the name, keep the intent of the sentence and have that reinstalled?” She also received an email with links to stories with research on Miller Freeman’s role in Japanese incarceration, which were sent to her by an employee in the institutional advancement office.
Later, in an email to Weber and then-Provost Kristen Jones, she attached a draft of a message she planned to send to the college’s Diversity Caucus. In that statement, Barge wrote that the artist’s description hadn’t been approved by the college, and added there was concern over the accuracy of Shigaki’s artist description.
Shigaki said she wasn’t part of that approval process or at the approval meeting, which was chaired by Barge. Kela Hall, a communications consultant hired by Bellevue College after the mural defacement, confirmed in a recent interview the approval meeting occurred Feb. 11 and the officials who approved the art were not aware of the accompanying description.
Weber and Jones were out of the town that day, the president wrote in a Feb. 26 email to the Board of Trustees.
“For her part, Gayle (Barge) did not interpret the add-on signage as being part of the approval given by the Cabinet, which is technically true,” Weber wrote. “Nevertheless, Gayle didn’t consult with Kristen (Jones), myself or others before taking action to white out what she perceived to be incendiary remarks with the line in the signage.”
David Neiwert, the author of “Strawberry Days,” a book often referenced in email exchanges, said in an interview Shigaki’s artist description is historically accurate. “Strawberry Days” tells the story of the Japanese American farming community in Bellevue, and how that community was shattered by anti-Japanese racism and incarceration.
The Diversity Caucus never received Barge’s explanation about the approval. In yet another Feb. 21 message, Barge wrote to Jones and Weber that her email needed to “be a pure apology,” based on the sentiment of the meeting she had earlier with college community groups.
Hours later, in her message to the caucus, she wrote “upon reflection, I can see that my actions were based on impulse without forethought and for that I ask your forgiveness.”
She received several positive responses, but others wrote that her apology stopped short of explaining the “why” or addressing the impact the defacement had on faculty and students.
“Please understand that as a woman of color, it pains me a great deal to write you this letter,” English professor Nan Ma wrote. “But a true apology encompasses an understanding of what one is apologizing for and to whom.”
Jones replied in a message to Barge and Weber that Jones was dismayed at the responses to Barge’s apology, and that she guessed “nothing more you or we say will be enough for some people.” She wrote that she didn’t think they needed to provide further communication to the group about it.
The intent of the email, Jones said this month, was to comfort a colleague who is a woman of color.
“I intended to be an ally, not knowing the full extent of what happened and how it impacted our college,” she said in an email to The Seattle Times.
On Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, Barge met with several groups on campus and apologized.
On Feb. 26, Jones said, she received a call that day from a member of Barge’s team, who said the vice president was upset. Jones recalled she asked her to go home for the rest of the day, “as I thought it was best for her and the college that she not be present on campus.” The Seattle Times published a story about the defacement later that day.
The college was hit with a flurry of emails in response to The Seattle Times story. Those included a message from Washington state Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, who wrote she was shocked and disappointed to read about the defacing and hoped there would be “serious consequences.”
In a reply, Weber wrote that Barge had “apologized for this senseless act” and that he planned to send legislators a note, but added right now we are dealing with media.”
Barge was placed on paid administrative leave Feb. 27.
“After considering her action, the impact of the defacement and the pain it caused our campus, I don’t believe Dr. Barge’s apology was sufficient,” Jones said in a recent interview. Fukutaki, whose own family members were incarcerated during World War II, now describes the incident as a “deplorable act.”
Barge and Weber resigned in early March. Both Barge and Weber provided statements read by Jones at a news conference, but didn’t provide any specific remarks on the incident.
As part of their separation agreements, the college agreed to pay Barge $16,380 and Weber $140,975. Their agreements also include that neither side — Barge and Weber, and the college and its board of directors — will make disparaging comments about the other.
“I think it was really painful, but I think it was worth it for all the conversation that has happened and the way that Bellevue College has had to look at itself, and the policies for the things they have ignored on campus regarding equity,” Shigaki said. “Despite all the anguish, I think it was productive in the end.”
In an email to a faculty member, Weber wrote Barge wasn’t trying to erase anyone’s work.
“She would have never done this,” Weber wrote, “had she thought it would be perceived this way.”
The college will announce its new interim president during a Thursday evening meeting. The finalists are former Washington Gov. Gary Locke; Yoshiko Harden, a Seattle Central College vice president; and Raúl Rodríguez, interim president of East Los Angeles College.