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Educator Breaks the Chains of Ignorance : The Journey From Lawbreaker to College President

December 29, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

What kind of future would you predict for a 17-year-old kid who at that tender age already was involved in an alleged organized crime ticket counterfeiting scheme? A kid whose future seemed so assured that his priest, high school principal and district attorney conspired to get him out of town?

The right answer isn't prison. It's president--college president.

That is the unlikely story of Joe Olander, who since early this year has been head of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., a 15-year-old school that has thrived by being unconventional and earned high marks for its innovation.

In Island Exile

Instead of jail, the teen-aged Olander was exiled from northeastern Pennsylvania in 1957 to the Air Force and Baffin Island in the Arctic, where he served at an isolated radar station. His main diversion there was teaching himself to read via a 378-volume library consisting mainly of auto repair books and science fiction and fantasy anthologies. Inspired and motivated by this ice-bound bout with books, he went on to the University of Maryland and to Indiana University, where he obtained his doctorate in political science.

Now 45, Olander looks back on those days with a certain detachment but also as a period of personal transformation that gave him "a utopian vision" for higher education in this country.

In Los Angeles earlier this month to promote Evergreen and to meet with some of the school's 400 alumni in the region, Olander took time out for an interview about his own turnaround and his perspective on higher education.

Although he was somewhat elusive about his own religious values and faith, Olander used religious analogies throughout his remarks, creating the impression that, to him, education is next to godliness.

'Few Sacred Spaces'

"There are very few sacred spaces left in American culture," he said. "Everything is being secularized and, indeed, made profane. Evergreen is as close as you can get to a sacred space. By that I mean a place with a sense of wonder and awe and excitement. . . . I have a utopian vision of higher education, that it can really transform people if it's done the right way. You're looking at a guy who was transformed, basically, because I was in a lot of serious trouble when I was very young."

Olander believes that change in higher education will be sparked by places like Evergreen, which last month was rated one of the best colleges in the United States in a poll of 788 college presidents conducted by U.S. News & World Report.

The 3,000-student college was singled out partly because it emphasizes close student-teacher contact and dispenses with the usual academic majors in favor of such interdisciplinary subjects as political economy and social change, environmental studies and Native American studies.

Heavy emphasis is placed on communication skills and students are required to write often and well. Teachers have no tenure but sign three-year renewable contracts. Instructors give long evaluations of student performance rather than grades. The faculty is also evaluated by students.

"If you look at national higher education issues and look at where they're being resolved, it's places like Evergreen," Olander claimed. "So I like to call it a prismatic college through which national issues are refracted like light and we become the beacon for the things that have got to be done."

Not So Unusual

But Olander doesn't believe that Evergreen is as unusual as it might appear at first glance.

"Evergreen's classified as an alternative institution, but I raise the question--alternative to whom?" he said. "If you go back and look at classic education, you're talking about an education that was framed in great ideas, great books, writing, reading, political thinking. And that was based, by the way, on broad disciplinary perspectives. Then came World War II and the rise of the multiuniversities with academic departments, hyper-specialization and going away from the classic tradition to crass vocationalism. So they (other colleges and universities) are alternative to Evergreen in my judgment."

Among other things, Evergreen expects strict ethical behavior from its students and staff.

"When you enter the college, you agree to a social contract which is formally spelled out," Olander explained. "A social contract with a set of constitutional prescriptions and proscriptions about what is allowed and what is not allowed. Indecency to somebody else is not allowed. Aggression of any kind is not allowed. It's not only an academic community, it's an idealized social community."

However, Olander was quick to say that he isn't self-righteous about his college or unwilling to admit it has imperfections. "Now I'm not suggesting that we don't graduate a few jackasses or we don't have a few jackasses on the faculty or, in fact, a few jackasses in the administration." After a pause, he added with a laugh, "I may be the biggest jackass of all."

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