BELLEVUE — The president of Bellevue College and one of the college’s vice presidents will be leaving their jobs, the school announced Monday, in response to the vice president’s decision to alter a campus mural of two Japanese American children in a World War II incarceration camp by removing a reference to anti-Japanese agitation by Eastside businessmen.
The college said it has “begun to separate” from President Jerry Weber and Gayle Colston Barge, vice president of institutional advancement. Provost Kristen Jones will serve as acting president, board of trustees Chair Rich Fukutaki announced at a Monday news conference.
“We need to do something to make this better, so an apology, as heartfelt as it has been, is not really enough,” Fukutaki said. “…with that in mind, the board has determined a change in leadership is necessary.”
The trustees of the college — the largest of Washington’s community and technical colleges — held an emergency meeting this weekend, Fukutaki said. The trustees will vote on Weber’s termination Wednesday, and Jones will make the final decision on Barge.
Barge, who last week was placed on leave, acknowledged two weeks ago that she removed a reference in the description accompanying the art installation “Never Again Is Now,” created by Seattle artist Erin Shigaki. The project was brought to Bellevue College as the school recognized the Day of Remembrance, which commemorates the day President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans.
One sentence in a paragraph about Japanese immigrants and their connection to Bellevue was whited out: “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.” Weber sent out a message of apology to the Bellevue College community Feb. 24, but no personnel action was taken until after a Seattle Times story detailed the incident.
On Monday, Fukutaki said leaders now believe Barge did not remove the reference, but told someone else to do so. The college is investigating, said KD Hall, a communications consultant hired by the college last week in response to the incident. There are no security cameras on campus that would have captured who deleted the reference, or the person who soon after put up a laminated description without the sentence over the original.
Barge has not responded to requests for interviews, but those who attended a forum with her last week said she has apologized. The board declined Monday to comment on Barge’s reasons for wanting to alter the art.
More than a fifth of the college’s 29,120 students and 1,508 employees are Asian and Pacific Islander, according to college demographic data.
Fukutaki called the defacing an unacceptable act and one that is personal to him. His family members were imprisoned during World War II, he said, and his grandfather died from appendicitis because he couldn’t get treatment. His father was passed up for promotions because he was Japanese, Fukutaki recalled.
“The recent defacement of the ‘Never Again Is Now’ art installation was a deplorable act that has deeply impacted not only our students, but our staff, our faculty and our board,” he said. “And not only that, it has also damaged the reputation and credibility of our institution, and not just locally, not regionally, but nationally. This has been picked up all across the country.”
The deletion was condemned by the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, which called the act “tantamount to agreement with the hate speech of decades past.”
The artist description mentions Miller Freeman, whose anti-Japanese comments and actions have been documented in newspaper archives and history books. He was active in publishing, politics and development, formed the state’s Anti-Japanese League and told The Seattle Daily Times in 1942 that Japanese Americans came to the U.S. to colonize the Pacific Coast for Japan. He died in 1955. He is 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.
Shigaki, whose father was born in a Japanese American incarceration camp, said Monday after the announcement that she feels Weber’s and Barge’s departures are appropriate. Barge apologized to her, but didn’t tell her why she wanted the sentence removed, the artist said.
“Leaders of our educational institutions are responsible for ensuring that the culture on campuses is equitable and hate-free,” she said. “This needs to be the first step in making major systemic changes at Bellevue College.”
Weber was chosen as Bellevue College president in 2017, and before that was president of College of Lake County in Illinois for eight years.
His salary in 2018 was $267,500, the eighth highest for a college president in Washington.
Barge was hired as vice president of institutional advancement in 2014. In a post from the college announcing her hire, Barge is described as a “subject-matter expert on topics related to African American women and work-life balance.”
She has worked for more than three decades in marketing, communications and public affairs, according to the hire announcement. Her salary in 2018 was $130,200.