Olympia, Wash. — The faint aura of the 1960s permeates the quiet, wooded campus. A ponytailed man in a sparse beard and olive-drab Army jacket spoons yogurt while talking draft-registration politics with a woman sitting cross-legged and sheathed in faded blue-jean overalls.
Pastel polo shirts, pressed khakis, and white-soled boat shoes - the usual 1983 campus clothing fare - are scarce here at Evergreen State College. But it's more than fashion that pulls an observer backward in time: no grades, no required courses, no faculty tenure. The dearth of the usual academic trappings contributes to Evergreen's unconventional image, an image that causes some to shrug off this college as being a throwback to more radical days. An anachronism. Out of date.
Paradoxically, the offbeat rhythm and unorthodox ways may be exactly what puts Evergreen ahead of the pack of colleges competing for the ''new'' college student.
The ''new'' student is anything but ''18, white, and smart,'' as Evergreen president Dan Evans backhandedly describes the traditional college freshman. Women returning to the work force, young adults seeking to change careers in midstream, ethnic minorities struggling to make an economic mark: These are the markets colleges will need to reach in order to survive the dearth of 18 -year-olds here on the downside of the baby boom. Many colleges are struggling to stay open as they puzzle with new ways to draw on the shrinking pool of potential students.
Evergreen is a small, state-supported school born of the same starry-eyed idealistic reforms of the 1960s and '70s and in the same experimental tradition as colleges with more familiar names such as Bennington in Vermont, New College in Florida, and Antioch in Ohio.
Riding, and sometimes leading, the heady rebellion of the '60s and '70s against conventional schooling, the alternative colleges cracked the hardened crust of academic tradition. The academic rebels threw out rules, and often, as at Evergreen, started from scratch.
But times changed: Students began wringing their hands over the tightening job market and started to gravitate away from the ragged edges of social experiment to the economically safer mainstream. Undergraduates demanded more job skills. Experimental education was seen as a frill.
Now, Evergreen flourishes as perhaps the strongest survivor of the now-floundering alternative-college movement. Taxpayer support is one reason.
Another reason is Evergreen's politically savvy president, says Dr. David Riesman, a Harvard professor who is now writing a book about alternative colleges. A trained engineer, Dan Evans is an immensely popular Northwest politician who served 12 years as governor of Washington. He also made a brief national splash when his name came up as a possible vice-presidential candidate in the late 1960s and early l970s. His name appears on a Harvard Institute of Politics list of the ''Ten Outstanding Governors of the 20th Century,'' alongside Nelson Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson.
Evans wants Evergreen to hang on to the best of the 1960s and '70s experimental reform which the college was founded on. Then he wants to parlay the innovations into meeting new needs.
''The needs of higher education are rapidly shifting in terms of age, and that affects how you teach, where you teach, and who you teach,'' Evans says. ''We're positioned to serve the needs of the 1980s, mostly the young-adult students, as they see whole jobs and professions dissolving beneath them.''
Upward mobility and fast-tracking MBA hopefuls do not reign here. According to one forecast made at a recent gathering of Evergreen alumni, the college will see a graduate win a Nobel Prize before an alumnus becomes a millionaire.
But the struggle for survival has sobered the college since the giddiness of earlier days, when brand-new president Evans rappelled down the clock tower that anchors the campus.
From the very start, Evergreen was unshackled.
''It was a chance to start unburdened by the weight of how things had been done for decades,'' says Russell Fox, an Evergreen academic adviser. ''We tried to avoid the entrapments of traditional education.'' Part of the college's original mandate from the Washington Legislature in 1971 was to be innovative and experimental, says Evans. ''[The state] had the ability, the willingness, and the confidence to do something new.''
* The Kelly-green T-shirt that the busy college bookstore clerk is wearing boasts, ''I'm a Greener.''
Thus a term of derision for Evergreen students is quietly transformed into a symbol of fierce pride at being different.
''How can you guys saym that?'' rants the student in the inside-out sweat shirt and sneakers as she sits at a seminar table. She is part of a group of 10 students discussing the Ken Kesey novel, ''Sometimes a Great Notion.'' The back-and-forth among them is easy and comfortable, if not always agreeable.
The seminar is at the core of the Evergreen way of exploring one theme or question for an entire term from the viewpoint of several academic disciplines. For instance, the 10 seminar students discussing Kesey are part of a political-ecology class that is spending an entire term studying acid rain and its political, economic, and social consequences. The class ties together such far-flung studies as aquatic biology, political economics, and history. But they will also read books ranging from Sinclair Lewis's ''The Jungle'' to the Romantic poets to examine views of human nature, and how that relates to the problem of acid rain.
Most universities approach academics through separate, narrow disciplines that they don't try to relate to one another at all, Evans says. The Evergreen approach is more akin to the complexity of real life, he feels.
''And it makes for an activist, rather than a passive [approach],'' says Evans of the seminars. ''Students are not just note-takers and regurgitators.'' It's nearly impossible simply to sit in the back of the class all term and then cram for the final, adviser Fox says.
And writing evaluations of students instead of assigning letter grades ''changes the whole nature of evaluation,'' says Evans. ''It becomes collaborative rather than competitive.''
Lisa Schoening, a freshman from Seattle who transferred here from Washington State University, treasures the absence of ferocious competition. ''Everyone tries to keep everybody else afloat here,'' she says.
The fear of grades and competing with younger students is also a key reason it's scary for middle-aged workers to return to school, according to Evans. ''Here, they don't have the threat of grades.''
Evergreen has been strengthened for the diverse new college market because it has stayed centered on teaching, says senior academic dean Barbara Smith. Faculty here are not under the same ''publish or perish'' threat, as at major research universities, she says. The trade-off is the average amount of time a professor spends with students: 20 hours a week at Evergreen, compared with 15 hours a week at Washington's regional universities, and 12 hours a week at the state's research universities.
The faculty work in what might be called ''horizontal'' groups composed of instructors from various disciplines, rather than in standard, more specialized ''vertical'' departments. They also work on three-year contracts instead of under the tenure system. Evergreen renews virtually all contracts, anyway, leading some faculty to pine for the days of the definite make-it-or-break-it decision of granting tenure.
The loose academic reins at Evergreen have good and bad effects.
''Evergreen is loosely structured, so there's a lot of room for self-direction to get a first-rate education,'' says Richard DeGay Ernst, who graduated in 1976. He is now projects director for Outward Bound in Portland, Ore. ''But if a person hasn't developed enough to know what he wants, he won't be able to go very far. If a person isn't disciplined, he'll go astray.''
Ernst said he would send his own children to Evergreen only after first sending them to a traditional college, ''where they have to do things whether they like it or not - after they have discipline and know what they want.''
Evergreen needs quality control, according to Ernst. ''If they innovate new things, they need a check and control on them,'' he says. ''They need to allow people to be creative, but direct them toward the important issues. [Evergreen] needs to decide the classic issues, and bring in the Evergreen methodology to learn them.''
A key role for Evergreen, according to dean Smith, is as leader of the alternative-education movement. Ms. Smith chaired a conference of 180 alternative colleges at Evergreen in 1981.
''The time was ripe for the conference,'' she says. ''Enough time had lapsed that we could see what happened to the educational experiments of the 1960s.''
Her verdict on the alternative-college movement: ''in retreat.'' Dr. Riesman says the decline of alternative education is ''not because of stodgy administrations, as much as frightened students who don't want an education unless it gets them a job on Monday.''
As a 1974 Guide to Alternative Colleges and Universities put it, Evergreen is ''a bold departure from the conventional state university.'' And that hasn't won Evergreen any popularity contests with its neighbors.
A gruff Western uneasiness with Evergreen's unorthodox ways hasn't made survival easy. Evergreen staff say that being a public college is both a blessing and a curse: Tax money keeps flowing in, but legislators still fight to squeeze the young campus out, or press it into a more orthodox mold. Washington higher education has been seriously cut back across the board, and some lawmakers consider it a reckless indulgence to fund an experimental public university when the traditional schools are struggling to stay alive. Observers agree that Evans's political savvy has had a lot to do with rescuing Evergreen from being blue-penciled out of the state budget.
Evergreen's unorthodox image and national reputation scare off some of the locals. Rep. Dick Bond, a political conservative from rugged and rural eastern Washington, wants to shut Evergreen down. The school was started partly to serve students in southwest Washington, he claims, but most high school graduates from the area don't want to go there.
''Evergreen is sort of a waste of money,'' Mr. Bond says. ''[Alternative education] is for private schools. Then you don't burden the taxpayer without his approval.'' Why, he asks, should Washington subsidize the education of the many out-of-staters attracted by the school's reputation and cheap tuition? Out-of-state students have made up as much as one-quarter of the college's enrollment.
''The school has changed because of a lot of political pressure,'' says Evergreen graduate Ernst. ''It's become more of a happy medium between mainstream education and the radical experimental, experiential approach they started with right out of the '60s.''
Like most other American colleges, Evergreen continues to search for ways not only to survive, but thrive. A recent report by the Council for Postsecondary Education, an advisory group to the Washington Legislature, recommended that Evergreen be cut loose from its somewhat forced fit as a regional university. So if the Legislature approves the report, as it is expected to do this spring, Evergreen will expand to serve the entire state, and also increase enrollment in an effort to cut costs.
Meanwhile, Evergreen has tapped the state-government employee market in Olympia by offering a new master's of public administration degree. An off-campus program in Tacoma serves mostly middle-aged blacks. It offers a teaching certificate in tandem with the University of Puget Sound.
But Evergreen has hit upon perhaps the most strategic marketing of all in its Vancouver, Wash., program: servicing the high-tech industry in the Vancouver-Portland, Ore., area by providing the liberal-arts side of technical education.
''We don't want to produce people who have been schooled only in technical areas,'' says Rep. Dennis Heck, Washington House majority leader and a fiercely loyal Evergreen graduate.
The point of alternative institutions like Evergreen: to have choices.
''We don't want a homogenous educational system - there's no one best way,'' Riesman says. ''We need black colleges, women's colleges, and Christian colleges.'' But he thinks the alternative-college movement will be ''in retreat'' until people feel more sure of their futures.
''People are going back to conservatism. They can't afford to try something new - they're trying to hang on to what they've already got,'' says Ernst. ''Evergreen is a luxury - but it's a luxury we need to survive. If we don't have the luxury to be creative, we can't solve the problems of tomorrow because we're stuck in yesterday.''