New Heritage U. president wants more programs

TOPPENISH -- When Heritage University inaugurates John Bassett as its new president Saturday morning, it will be only the second such event in its history.

One woman -- Sister Kathleen Ross -- had led the private institution since it opened in 1982.

The incoming leader said he aims to deepen the university's already strong ties to the Tri-Cities.

Although the university's main campus is 65 miles up the Yakima River in Toppenish, many of its students come from the Tri-Cities. The university occupies a wing at Columbia Basin College, where it offers upper-division courses and dual enrollment.

"This is by far the richest and best relationship," Bassett said, comparing the Pasco satellite location with three others the university maintains around the state. "I'd love to see this become really big."

The university's mission easily aligns with that of CBC. About 90 percent of Heritage students qualify for Pell grants, Bassett said. Those grants are only available to students from low-income families.

Around 55 percent of Heritage students are Hispanic and 15 percent are Native American, Bassett said, adding, "Our undergraduate mission is to educate under-served and underprivileged populations."

The vast majority of graduate students at Heritage are training to be teachers, including many who are preparing to use both English and Spanish in their future classrooms, Bassett said.

A university serving the underprivileged in an agricultural region -- it's quite a change from Bassett's previous posting.

The silver-haired East Coaster with a doctoral degree in English last headed Clark University in Massachusetts for 10 years. Students there weren't rich, Bassett said, but most came from at least middle-income backgrounds and received much support and encouragement at home.

"All I could do was ruin those kids," he jokingly said. "They have a clear sense of what their options are."

Not so with the population now entrusted to his leadership.

"These young people have been beaten up," Bassett said about students in the Yakima Valley. "They've been told they don't have any options. It's a very different kind of culture."

Bassett, 68, was drawn west by that challenge. He's never lived on this side of the country, he said, and had every intention to retire this year.

But a recruiter called him about the Heritage job last year. Not to hire him but to have him refer candidates.

But in the course of that conversation, the recruiter sensed Bassett's interest and invited him to Toppenish.

Seeing the students' diversity and the surrounding agricultural land that is home to most of them convinced Bassett to take the position, he said.

Now, he plans to expand the program offerings outside of the Valley. Students enrolled in Heritage courses on the CBC campus are organized in so-called "cohorts," Bassett said. The teams stay together as they move through their junior and senior years.

Until recently, only education majors could take advantage of the cohort structure. Now social work and criminal justice majors can, too. And Bassett seeks to add more programs.

"We're looking at a couple of science majors (to offer at CBC)," he said.

He also hopes Heritage's role in the Tri-Cities will grow outside of CBC's campus.

"We'd love to be involved in economic development and research projects," Bassett said. "We want to be at the table for community discussions. I hope to spend a lot of time in the Tri-Cities."

* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com