Outgoing President Marshall Drummond mounted the podium last September to deliver his final address to 600 teachers and employees of Eastern Washington University.
Working the crowd, Drummond used a punch line so loved by Eastern Eagles that, for 67 years, they never cared what the joke was.
“It’s as likely to happen as the Cougars going to the Rose Bowl,” Drummond gushed to the cheers of his congregation.
Drummond picked a poor time to ridicule Washington State University. The Cougar football team went to the Rose Bowl four months later.
When it comes to bad timing, perhaps nobody has done it better than Eastern.
Thanks to a series of ill-timed management decisions - coinciding with a shift in higher education and the economy - the 116-year-old university is experiencing the scare of its life.
A state education board last week called for appointment of an outside chief administrative officer to manage Eastern while officials weigh the university’s future. Under its plan, the Higher Education Coordinating Board would give WSU control over upper division programs in Spokane while studying what Eastern programs should remain in the city.
Eastern officials say the deal is better than a proposal to merge with WSU, an idea that Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, had threatened earlier.
But it could hamper Eastern’s enrollment and financial recovery by denying the school access to the Spokane market, its primary source of students. It also might free WSU to raid Eastern’s bulging ranks of juniors, seniors and graduate students, a group that accounts for 75 percent of Eastern’s total student body.
The HEC Board further recommended that WSU take charge of Spokane’s 48-acre Riverpoint Higher Education Park, a cluster of brick classroom and research buildings on the south bank of the Spokane River along East Trent.
That would boost the presence of WSU’s Spokane branch campus, which currently is tucked inside the Farm Credit Bank building, and remove regulatory hurdles for the Pullman-based school to offer a greater selection of programs. WSU currently serves 280 full-time students in Spokane, but has a goal of reaching 1,500 by 2005.
The deal also could end Eastern’s 66-year reign as the primary four-year university serving the metropolitan area. That would jar the hopes of 1,300 full-time Eastern students such as Tim Collins, who are getting their degrees by taking Eastern classes in Spokane for hundreds of dollars less than what WSU would charge.
“I made a commitment and took out thousands in loans,” says Collins, who last month enrolled in the master’s of urban and regional planning at Riverpoint. “I detest waste and that’s what this is going to amount to if I can’t realize my goals and dreams.”
Eastern blames West, WSU and a group of downtown business leaders for sabotaging its recovery from falling enrollment, failed leadership and a foundered public image. Give it enough time, Eastern says, and the university will heal itself.
“Our biggest problem is 800 students,” says Drummond, who steps down in June. “If we had them, there wouldn’t be an Eastern crisis. I can’t find any major dysfunction on campus. Students are happy and doing well. If I saw everybody packing their bags and leaving, I’d think there was a problem.”
By their own admission, Eastern officials have told the HEC Board that problems began long ago when administrators failed to react to changes in state policy and student needs during the 1990s.
“It’s much larger than 800 students,” says Marcus Gaspard, executive director of the HEC Board. “Those students are just a symptom of bigger issues” at Eastern.
One issue is management. Under Drummond’s leadership, teachers formed the state’s only university faculty union and school deans broke ranks to ask the university board of trustees to remove the president. Shortly thereafter, Drummond and his provost, James Hoffman, both resigned. Drummond leaves office June 30.
Union staff employees called for the resignation of Eastern’s board of trustees and employees say they papered the state auditor’s office with whistleblower complaints.
A spokesman for the auditor said none of the complaints has been resolved, though findings on some may be released later this month.
“Let’s face it: If Eastern had been a business, it would have been placed in receivership long ago,” said one state analyst in Olympia who follows higher education issues.
Eastern officials say that’s an unfair characterization that ignores the university’s rich history of producing quality public school teachers, maintaining a high level of student satisfaction and balancing its budget.
But they agree that Eastern has not always exercised the best timing in making key decisions.
Some of Eastern’s most curious choices included:
Cutting student recruitment and marketing staff just as the state lifted enrollment caps. Eastern believed that a wave of new high school students would make recruiters unnecessary. When the wave didn’t materialize, Eastern was left last in a race for students.
“The administration got complacent,” says Jeffrey Corkill, chemistry professor and president of the United Faculty of Eastern union. “They thought that if we’re open, they (students) will come.”
Adopting some of the toughest admission and graduation requirements in the state, when its student body is, on average, older and poorer than other universities and colleges. The changes backfired as students took the path of least resistance and enrolled elsewhere.
Ignoring the advice of a 1993 outside advisory commission that Eastern must develop a clear public image to sell itself to students and guidance counselors. An Iowa consulting firm concluded the same thing four years later, and billed Eastern $84,000 for the repeat message.
Moving its business school to Spokane while dormitories in Cheney grew dark. The move in 1996 made it easier for Spokane students to take business classes, but some living in Cheney disliked the “reverse commute.”
The change, which signaled Eastern’s strongest commitment to downtown, gave students another reason to live in Spokane at a time when occupancy of campus housing dropped to 71 percent. Eastern has since reopened its biggest dorms with a $600 per student discount, boosting occupancy to 89 percent.
Promising to enroll 7,740 full-time students in 1996-97, or 100 more than had ever been enrolled. The ambitious dream became a nightmare last year when enrollment dipped and a Republican-controlled Legislature wanted to know how Eastern spent $3.2 million in tax dollars on 800 students who never showed up.
Handing out nearly $500,000 in bonuses to Drummond, Hoffman and retiring board of trustees secretary Kenneth Dolan while negotiating with Eastern’s teachers to sacrifice $550,000 in pay raises.
Dolan got the biggest check - $200,000 - and an off-campus computer, fax, printer and dedicated phone line system to provide parttime services to the board, university documents show.
Welcoming nearly 7,000 students back to fall classes with belching bulldozers and orange construction fencing across the popular center campus mall.
Rather than begin the $2 million reconstruction of the two-acre mall at the end of spring quarter, officials fired up the jackhammers just days before fall classes. The project - and student complaints about it - will be finished later this year.
Not all Eastern decisions have gone awry. Designating the campus as a National Historic District, expanding health and computer science programs and retaining NCAA Division 1 athletic status have proved to be winners. Donors have rewarded Eastern with major gifts, boosting the university endowment 461 percent in seven years to $9.5 million.
Spirits were lifted in September when Eastern won HEC Board approval to spend the $3.2 million on recruitment, marketing and academic program initiatives. The money also helped cover paychecks for about 100 faculty positions.
Union activists made peace with administrators and Gov. Gary Locke promised to infuse the board of trustees with fresh replacements. Board chairman James Kirschbaum began meeting with students, faculty and staff as a sense of hope fell over the campus.
“Some of the pain we’re going through now is going to bear fruit,” trustee and alum Al Brisbois of Renton, Wash., said before leaving the board in December. “The university is about to step up to greatness.”
Brisbois’ vision was short-circuited when West went public with his proposal to merge the Eagles and Cougars. The December announcement came just as high school seniors were deciding what college to attend in 1998.
Eastern officials say publicity about the merger caused students to postpone applications, donors to withdraw checks and employees to panic.
Because it was, after all, bad timing.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Why did EWU’s enrollment fall?
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EWU, WSU TRIVIA Some trivia about Eastern Washington and Washington State universities: Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson graduated from WSU … Seattle real estate developer David Sabey graduated from Eastern. Eastern has a planetarium … WSU has a nuclear reactor. Eastern has an elementary school … WSU has a cheese factory. Eastern novelist Ursula Hegi appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show … 117 members of Cougar football team appeared in the Rose Bowl. WSU operates a golf course … Eastern hosts the Seahawks training camp. Money magazine ranked WSU as the eighth-best Honors Program in the nation … it ranked Eastern as one of the “best buys in the West.” WSU has 120,000 alumni … Eastern has 75,000. National Association for Chicano Studies is based at Eastern … National Journal of Criminology is published at WSU. About half the Spokane Symphony members have ties to Eastern … Six members of National Academy of Sciences are WSU faculty. Eastern has an anthropology museum … So does WSU, as well as a collection of petrified rock. Eastern has 7,400 total students … WSU had that many in 1945 (it now has 20,537 students). WSU President Sam Smith earns $145,000 … Eastern President Marshall Drummond earns $114,000. Students 26 or older account for 36 percent of Eastern’s student body … They total 20 percent at WSU. Eastern undergraduates pay annual tuition of $2,520 … WSU undergraduates pay $3,300. Taxpayers subsidize every undergraduate student at Eastern with $5,055, second highest in the state behind Evergreen College … They subsidize every WSU graduate student with $11,006, second highest in the state behind University of Washington.
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