WSU brings back reading program

THURSDAY, MAY 28, 2009

Ex-regent says he’ll sponsor visit from ‘Omnivore’ author

Washington State University has reinstated its freshman reading program, including this year’s controversial book selection, “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” after a former chairman of the board of regents offered to pay for the author to visit the Pullman campus.

“I just got off the phone with Michael Pollan, and he is excited to come,” William Marler, former WSU regent and food-borne illness attorney.

“Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a best-selling book, explores the social and moral implications of the food people eat and how it is produced.

While university officials said the reading program cost too much to continue, many on campus believed the book had been suppressed after political pressure was brought to bear on the administration because of its focus on problems associated with agribusiness.

Regent Francois Forgette, of the Tri-Cities, earlier told The Spokesman-Review that fellow board member Harold Cochran, a Walla Walla-area farmer and businessman, had raised concerns about the book’s selection.

Forgette also said the “common reading” committee had not sought the required approval of the book from Provost Warwick Bayly.

Marler, who served on the WSU board of regents from 1998 to 2004, said Wednesday he was dismayed the university had halted the common reading program.

“I certainly understand the financial problems that WSU and other colleges and universities are facing,” Marler said. “However, I also thought it would be important for the public to understand that Washington State University views freedom of speech and academic expression as something that is truly fundamental to its mission.”

He said he sees the book “as far less controversial as it has been portrayed by people who have never read it or read it with a jaundiced eye.”

At any rate, Marler said, “a land-grant university is exactly where these things should be talked about.” WSU plays a leading role in agricultural education and research. In 2007, it became the first university in the nation to offer a major in organic agriculture.

Richard Law, the outgoing director of general education at WSU and a former member of the common reading committee, said he was relieved to learn the reading program had been reinstated. He said he believed the turnaround was the result of widespread reaction to the original decision.

“I was surprised and gratified at how many WSU alums and people around the country let their feeling be known about this interference by outside interests in the business of the university,” Law said.

The book will be distributed to entering freshmen at the university’s orientation, WSU President Elson Floyd said Wednesday.

The announcement reverses a decision to halt the common reading program in its third year. That decision was made, Floyd said, because of budget concerns amid a $54 million reduction in the university’s state allocation over the next two years.

“While it is unfortunate that we now have to rely upon private dollars to support this program, we are most grateful to Bill Marler for his donation,” Floyd said in a new release. “He is an outstanding alumnus and friend of our university.”

A university spokesman said holding an event around a visit by the author would cost about $40,000.

The university had already purchased nearly 4,000 copies of Pollan’s book when Floyd abruptly discontinued the program about a month ago.

On May 20, Floyd told The Spokesman-Review that instead of distributing “Omnivore’s Dilemma” at the orientation, it would be made available to faculty who wished to use it in class.

“We just simply decided to streamline the distribution process,” Floyd said at the time.

Contact Kevin Graman at or (509) 459-5433.

Click here to comment on this story »