George Bridges: Reflections on a Decade at Whitman

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Serving as Whitman’s president for the past 10 years has been an immense privilege. I’ve worked with extraordinarily talented people, celebrated impressive accomplishments of many groups and individuals, enjoyed unforgettable and joyous moments with students, faculty and staff, and learned much about the College and myself. Leaving is bittersweet. Kari and I have developed many strong ties to Whitman and the people here. We intend to return often. Nevertheless, we are excited about joining the vibrant community at Evergreen State College, a campus different than Whitman but equally steeped in the culture and traditions of a liberal arts college.

As Commencement and the end of my tenure approaches, I could never have predicted what the past decade would bring. Over the course of our “Now is the Time Campaign,” I have connected with thousands of Whitman alumni, parents and friends, all of whom have proven immensely generous with their time, energy and gifts. One was an alumnus with whom I was meeting at the time the great recession was hitting our country, the stock markets were collapsing and thousands people were losing their jobs. This was just as we were beginning our campaign fundraising drive and he stated confidently, this was the “perfect time to begin a campaign to raise funds for Whitman.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying given that the retirement accounts and savings of many alumni were evaporating as we spoke. And yet, by the time we actually started asking people to support Whitman with gifts, the markets had begun their recovery and many people felt secure in giving.

At another point in the campaign, I recall one elderly alumna who, upon making a gift of a lifetime to support scholarships, stated, “I want you to give this scholarship to a student who will change the world.” She meant every word. I was deeply moved by the profound sincerity of her request knowing that many Whitman graduates actually do change the world.

Another alumnus I came to know well expressed, at our very first meeting, immense skepticism about the College and was initially outspoken in his unwillingness to support Whitman financially. Although his initial words were harsh, he has since become one of our most generous supporters. Over time he witnessed first hand the extraordinary accomplishments of current Whitman students. His skepticism turned to optimism and he now is an enthusiastic supporter of the College.

I recall countless occasions in which Whitman students have inspired me with their energy, intelligence and talent. I will never forget one student who delivered a stunning presentation to our trustees about her research examining the development of dendrites, the branch-like extensions of nerve cells that form the pathways of the central nervous system. In revealing that toxins cause retardation in the dendritic development in rodents, she noted many parallels between the toxin-induced retardation in rodent dendrites and the dendritic development observed in developmentally disabled humans. She concluded her presentation suggesting new avenues for developing a deeper understanding of the causes of mental retardation and developmental disabilities in humans.

Finally, Whitman faculty and staff have inspired me on many occasions with their work in the classroom and with their scholarship. Perhaps most memorable are occasions in which they have demonstrated their dedication to students. I recall vividly a faculty member greeting me in the Harper Joy parking lot one Sunday afternoon. He was excited to be finishing a research paper that he was submitting for publication the next day. Fortuitously, I encountered him later that day and I asked how his writing had gone. Without a moment’s pause he smiled happily, stated that he hadn’t finished the paper, and then told me that a Whitman student had stepped into his office for help just as he was beginning to write and the two of them spent the next three hours going over his notes and questions about an upcoming exam.

My memories of these events are just a few of the many recollections I have about Whitman and my experiences. The best of them have almost entirely emerged from witnessing and enjoying the relationships that students, faculty, alumni and staff develop. Through these relationships, people create connections with one another that often last a lifetime. Most certainly, mine will.