In all-campus Zoom meetings this week, the three finalists for Bellevue College interim president were asked several questions with a theme: Bellevue College is in a crisis, both internally and externally.
The internal crisis referred to the defacement of a mural in February, a controversy that led to the resignations of both the college’s president and one of its vice presidents. The external crisis is the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the Eastside school to hold remote courses for its 29,000 students for the remainder of the academic year.
The three finalists — former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, Yoshiko Harden and Raúl Rodríguez — spent much of their 250-plus participants Zoom meetings relaying how they would guide the college out of these crises.
In wide-ranging question and answer sessions, all three spoke of the healing needed on campus in light of the mural defacement and the uncertainty of the college’s future as it weathers the financial and educational impacts of the pandemic.
But the meetings also contained lighthearted moments acknowledging the occasional absurdity of remote meetings — Locke, who was Commerce secretary and U.S. ambassador to China during the Obama administration, jokingly started his interview assuring everyone that he was wearing pants.
The interim president’s contract will run through June 30, 2021, or until a president is hired and becomes familiar with the position. The interim president, the college has said, will need to listen, learn quickly and manage “in this unprecedented time of turmoil and uncertainty.” The candidate chosen will replace Jerry Weber, who resigned in early March with Gayle Colston Barge, a vice president, as a consequence of Barge’s decision to alter a campus mural of two Japanese American children in a World War II incarceration camp.
During the interviews, both Harden and Rodríguez cited their decades of work in higher education.
Harden is vice president of student services at Seattle Central College, and worked at Bellevue College and Highline Community College before that. She was vice president of diversity at Bellevue College, where she said she led initiatives for diversity and inclusion, including a successful effort for all-gender restrooms on campus. Her previous experience at Bellevue, she said, would enable her to better lead the college out of crisis.
“I know what it is like to be excluded and marginalized,” she said. “I know what it is like not to have mentors. People didn’t naturally say ‘you remind me of me 20 years ago, let me help you.’ ”
Rodríguez has served as interim president of East Los Angeles College since July 2019 and was chancellor of Rancho Santiago Community College District in Orange County, California, for nine years. He said he’s never thought of himself as an inspirational and charismatic leader, but “more of a steady Eddie.”
One example he gave of his leadership style occurred following the election of President Donald Trump, which he said had “a chilling effect on campus” because many students are living in the country illegally. Rodríguez worked to bring in legal experts for free consultations with students and their families.
“The response was tremendous,” he said, recalling that he thought at the time “these are our students and we are going to help as best as we can.”
Locke called himself a nontraditional candidate but someone with a passion for education policy who can provide stability and elevate the college’s stature as it searches for a permanent president. The mural defacement, he said, “impacted the reputation of Bellevue College not only statewide, but nationally.”
The three finalists were asked about their plans beyond the interim period. Harden was clear that she is an aspiring college president and would like to pursue the permanent position. Rodríguez wasn’t as specific, but told The Seattle Times previously that he isn’t looking for a long-term assignment.
The question for Locke was more pointed: If Joe Biden is elected president, would you serve your term as interim president at Bellevue College? Locke said he is committed to staying in Washington state so he can be close to his children.
“If he (Biden) has a second four-year term, then I might be there and I am certainly willing to be an adviser on specific projects,” Locke said, “but this is home for me.”
Bellevue College community members can submit comments about the finalists through the end of next week. The board of trustees will vote on their final choice this month.