Friday, February 13, 2009

Zonemaven Meeting with New VP for University Relations

Last Monday I met with Steve Swan, the new Vice-President for University Relations at Western Washington University. The meeting was occasioned by my blog of 2 February (click here to read that entry) in which I gave my impressions of the Citizens’ Forum discussion of growth issues the previous Saturday. I lamented the absence of many council (city and county) members, not to mention members of the various planning commissions. I also noted the absence of anyone from the hierarchy of WWU to include Mr. Swan who just recently assumed his duties.

Mr. Swan immediately contacted me to say that he had had a previous commitment and was not able to attend. He also suggested that we get together soon, a refreshing change from the initial reactions I received following my letter to WWU President Shepard last fall (click here to read that letter). I was mildly optimistic that a conversation with Mr. Swan would be useful and I was not disappointed. I found someone willing to listen.

Our discussion was based mainly on the recommendations I had made to WWU President Shepard in my September letter and on the meeting that I subsequently had with Dr. Eileen Coughlin, Vice-President for Student Affairs and Academic Support Services, and Mr. Ted Pratt, Dean of Students (click here to read a summary of our meeting).

Initially, I reiterated my disappointment with the remarks that Dr. Shepard had made to the Bellingham Herald in an interview last September (click here to read the transcript) and that served as a basis for my letter. With Mr. Swan, I sensed openings in several areas. First, a conversation has begun with respect to the appropriateness of the Campus Community Coalition being subordinated (narrowly so) to the Office of Prevention and Wellness Services. The scope of interest of the Coalition has evolved beyond issues of alcohol consumption. Although that subject should remain one of interest to the Coalition, the greater Bellingham community sees the Coalition in a much broader context of relationships between the campus, the city government and the citizenry. This broader scope may finally be recognized.

Second is the waterfront, a subject that has been a prime concern of the university for many months now. At the same time, I told Mr. Swan that there was no concomitant talk of looking to public-private partnerships to ease a rental situation which forces students into creating illegal rooming houses as a substitute for affordable housing. Further talk of Huxley College at the waterfront suggested an increase in 500 students, which, according to Mr. Swan, is no longer the case. He stated that Huxley cannot absorb 500 more students. Nonetheless, I opined that there was still a serious problem in that each year over 8,000 students seek housing and that attempts to engage the university administration about the deleterious effect of this onslaught on the rental market have not met with much success. For its part, the city does not appear to have engaged the university on the issue of affordable housing being overrun by students and, as I have stated many times in this blog, have used the neighborhoods as sponges to take up the slack, even though that means turning a blind eye to its own zoning codes.

Third, there have been suggestions by some, including me, that the student code be amended to include sanctions for off-campus transgressions such as is the case at Washington State University in Pullman. Although Mr. Swan did not believe that this was necessary at WWU, I pursued the subject by noting that, although the university may think that off-campus behaviors ought to be controlled by the city government, there are not enough assets within the police department or other government offices to monitor, control or otherwise regulate thousands of students. Since local citizens often find that the city government cannot always respond to complaints, there ought to be a conduit for submitting complaints directly to the university. I suggested the office of University Judicial Affairs (Click here to see that website) be designated as the office to which local citizens could direct letters pertaining to student behavior which reflects badly upon the institution. This will also serve as a barometer within the university to track student behavior and to call repetitive complaints to the attention of the students involved.

We also spoke briefly about the advertizing of rentals at the Viking Student Union and in the Western Front which violate the Bellingham Municipal Code. I told Mr. Swan that the VU had already taken some actions on limiting this sort of advertizing (Click here and here to read my blog entries) but that I had heard nothing from the Western Front. We agreed that the university ought not be in a position of allowing such advertisements. This sends the wrong message from an institution which should be promoting honesty and integrity. I told Mr. Swan that, since I was already working with Mr. Ted Pratt, Dean of Students, and Mr. Jim Schuster, Director of the Viking Union, on the subject, I would keep him informed.

I also recommended to Mr. Swan that his office reach out to the Bellingham City Council which had expressed last August in a motion by Council Member Jack Weiss its desire to begin a dialogue with the new WWU administration. (Click here to read my blog on that topic) To date, the council has not indicated that a new outreach had been initiated from its offices.

My thanks again to Mr. Swan for his time. I am looking forward to further exchanges with him on the topics above.

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