With talons outstretched, Eastern Washington University’s board of trustees sent Cougar fur flying Friday with a resounding rejection of a proposal to let Washington State University take over the Cheney school.
The board said a proposal floated by Spokane Sen. Jim West earlier in the week was premature and disruptive, causing Eastern to lose students and donations at a time when it is attempting to recover from slumping enrollment and a lack of direction.
“It may take five fingers to make a fist, but it only takes one to send a message,” Brian Levin-Stankevich, vice president of enrollment services, told the board moments before it voted.
Unfazed, West said he will proceed without Eastern’s support and ask the Legislature to consider a WSUEastern merger in January.
“It’s unfortunate that they won’t be involved in the discussion,” West said. “This isn’t helpful, but it’s not fatal.”
Gathered before a packed room of 75 people, Eastern’s seven-member board unanimously agreed to ask West to withdraw his merger proposal.
It also refused to release Eastern president Marshall Drummond to carry out West’s request to jointly design a merger plan with WSU president Sam Smith.
WSU, with 19,000 students in Pullman and three branch campuses, supports a merger. Smith said the university will honor West’s request to compose a plan for lawmakers.
Eastern’s monthly board meeting was the first in seven months where all members attended.
Their action was endorsed by the Associated Students of EWU, Eastern’s Faculty Organization, the United Faculty of Eastern union and the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 931.
“Floating this idea wasn’t in the best interest of Spokane and EWU,” said LaShund Lambert, president of the 6,900-member student body. “It was malicious.”
West said a merger is one option to remedy Eastern’s loss of 800 students in the past four years and end confusion over the providers of college courses in downtown Spokane. Both Eastern and WSU conduct classes in various Spokane buildings.
In light of Eastern’s rejection, West said he may ask the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board to help develop a merger plan.
HEC Board executive director Marcus Gaspar said his staff would not start working on a plan until there is clear consensus in the Senate, or a demand from the nine-member HEC Board.
On Thursday, Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, said he would fight West’s proposal. Prince serves the Ninth District, which includes WSU and Eastern.
Eastern’s decision was unusually bold because it may offend West, the powerful chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. That committee holds the keys to millions in tax dollars, setting priorities for where the state spends its money.
“It was a risk,” said trustee Michael Ormsby of Spokane. “We’re just suggesting that we step back and diagnose the issues before coming up with a solution.”
Levin-Stankevich said Eastern’s student recruitment was improving until the merger proposal became news.
Since that time, he said, two athletes recruited to the Eastern Eagles have threatened to go elsewhere and some high schoolers have called with questions about Eastern’s future.
Stacy Marsh, director of annual giving, said alumni have warned that they will stop making donations if a merger occurs.
“They’re grads of EWU, not WSU,” she told the board. “They’re not going to give to WSU.”
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