May 21, 2009

Regent balks at WSU book choice

Selected book eyed impact of agribusiness
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A book chosen by a Washington State University committee as appropriate food for thought for all incoming freshmen will not be distributed at summer orientation after a member of the board of regents raised concerns about the work’s focus on problems associated with agribusiness.

WSU’s president said the decision to halt the “common reading” program was related to the university’s financial crisis.

In “Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” author Michael Pollan discusses the social, political, moral and environmental implications of the food people eat.

A selection committee picked the book for this year’s WSU common reading program, which provides freshmen with a work that crosses academic disciplines and can be incorporated into study throughout the year.

It was to be the third year of the program, which includes several events that focus on the book. Last year, the chosen work was “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” by Mary Roach, about issues related to death. The year before it was “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It.”

By coincidence, Western Washington University also picked “Omnivore’s Dilemma” for distribution to freshmen at orientation next fall.

But at WSU, the common reading program has been halted.

“Instead of distributing the current selection, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ at the Alive! summer orientation sessions as was previously done, program staff will contact faculty to ascertain whether they wish to use the book in their classes, and then will arrange for distribution,” reads a letter posted on the WSU common reading Web site by Susan Poch, associate vice president for educational development.

The decision not to distribute the book at orientation was made by WSU President Elson Floyd and Provost Warwick Bayly.

“We just simply decided to streamline the distribution process,” Floyd said Wednesday. “We encourage faculty to use it as part of curriculum.”

He said the decision to halt the reading program was related to WSU’s financial crisis.

However, the announcement that the book would not be distributed at summer orientation came seven weeks after the book was chosen. In the meantime, the university purchased nearly 4,000 copies.

“Unless they wanted to have a big book-burning in the middle of Terrell Mall, I don’t see how they intended to save money by making this decision,” said Jeff Sellen, a general education professor and member of the common reading selection committee.

Patricia Ericsson, an assistant English professor who recommended the book, said she attended a May 4 meeting of another committee tasked with implementing the program where it was announced there would no longer be a common reading program, at least not next year.

“A substantial part of the reason was because of political pressure growing from the book choice,” Ericsson said.

That political pressure apparently was brought to bear by a member of the board of regents, Harold Cochran, who disapproved of the author’s characterization of agribusiness. Cochran owns and operates a 5,500-acre farm near Walla Walla, is a founding stockholder in the Bank of the West in Walla Walla and is a member of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

Cochran did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. But fellow regent Francois X. Forgette said Cochran had read the book and raised concerns, though the topic was never formally discussed at board meetings.

Forgette also said the common readings committee had failed to get required approval from the provost of the selected book. “The committee had not followed the internal process they were supposed to follow,” Forgette said.

Floyd said he never spoke to a regent about the book.

Committee members acknowledged they failed to get Bayly’s approval, attributing the oversight to the informality of the process and time constraints.

“It was only the third year of the program, and we really didn’t have a routine,” engineering professor David Bahr said.

Current and past members of the common reading committee said the lack of approval was incidental to what they called a political decision.

“It strikes me that the real value of the university is basically the way it serves the public, researches without fear and favor and being a place where issues can be aired, which are by nature controversial,” said Richard Law, the outgoing director of general education at WSU and a founding member of the common reading committee.

Kevin Graman can be reached at (509)459-5433 or kevingr@spokesman.com.

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