In memoriam: Paul Olscamp

Matthew Anderson
Western Today editor

Former Western Washington University President Paul Olscamp passed away Oct. 14 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He was 77.

Olscamp was president at Western for seven years, from 1975 to 1982, at which point he left the Northwest to become president at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

"I was deeply saddened to hear of Paul Olscamp’s passing," said Western President Bruce Shepard. "President Olscamp not only laid a foundation of excellence that Western is fortunate to build upon today—including Western’s transition from state college to a fully-fledged university—he continued to teach and contribute to his academic field throughout his presidential career. Today and in the days to come, our thoughts and our gratitude for his tremendous service to Western are with his family."

Olscamp became Western president at 37, the youngest in Western's history. He came to Western from his position as vice chancellor for student programs and professor of philosophy at Syracuse University.

During his tenure in Bellingham, the school changed from Western Washington State College to Western Washington University. It was a time of expansion for Western, as enrollment topped 9,000 students for the first time in the 1975-76 year and 10,000 in 1981-82. Times were also rocky financially, though. Olscamp entered Western on the heels of a reduction in force and would face another during his presidency. 

Also occurring during Olscamp's time at Western:

  • The university governance structure was changed. Gone would be the all-university senate, replaced by a faculty senate, Associated Students board, administrators association and staff employees council.
  • The College of Fine and Performing Arts and the College of Business and Economics were created.
  • Funding was secured for Parks Hall, and the building was planned and constructed.
  • The president's house was renamed Canada House and became the home of the Canadian Studies program. Bob Monahan, a longtime WWU geography professor who directed the Canadian Studies program after his retirement in 1993, said that after the move, Canadian Studies shared the house with the faculty club. Canadian Studies had the house all week, but the faculty club was permitted to use if for cocktail hours and social functions on Friday afternoons.
  • Excellence in teaching awards were established (today, the research award is named after Olscamp; he established an endowment for that award in 1982).
  • Student reviews of teaching were begun in 1980. In a 1998 interview with Steve Inge, Olscamp would recall that he "arbitrarily, unilaterally, egregiously, dictatorially and non-consultatively simply said that no one could stand for tenure without a complete set of evaluations for the courses they taught in their file. And now they do have that."
  • He was selected as one of the "One Hundred Leaders Under 46 in American Higher Education" by "Change," a higher learning magazine.

Olscamp earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Western Ontario in 1958 and 1960 and his doctorate from the University of Rochester in 1962. In addition to being the president, Olscamp also held the position of professor of philosophy at Western. He also is a WWU professor emeritus. Upon departing for Bowling Green, Olscamp was named Distinguished Service Professor and given lifelong tenure at Western.

After serving for 13 years as president of Bowling Green and as interim president for one year at the University of South Dakota, Olscamp returned to Western.

A philosopher, Olscamp is the author of several books, including "The Moral Philosophy of George Berkeley," "Descartes: The Discourse, Optics, Geometry and Meteorology," published in 2001, and "Moral Leadership: Ethics and the College Presidency," published in 2003. He was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Aug. 29, 1937.

Olscamp held a black belt in karate, was a licensed pilot, was a poet and enjoyed skiing, parachuting, bungee jumping and sailing. He once participated in a sailing race from Victoria, B.C., to Maui, Monahan said. "But once he left for Bowling Green, I suspect his trans-Pacific sailing days were over," he said.

Surviving Olscamp are his wife, Ruth Pratt; son, Adam Olscamp; and daughter, Rebecca Fry.

Information on an upcoming memorial service for Olscamp will be added when it comes available.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014 - 9:57am