Eastern Washington University officials began talking with Washington State University nearly a year ago about merging Spokane operations.
Richard Albrecht, president of WSU’s board of regents, said EWU President Marshall Drummond sought out WSU President Sam Smith in early 1997 to discuss ways to cut EWU’s operating costs and boost enrollment.
James Kirschbaum, chairman of EWU’s board, confirmed that the presidential talks were held.
The talks centered around consolidating operations in Spokane, where both schools offer courses, but included discussion of a complete merger of the two schools, said Albrecht, retired executive vice president of the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group.
That contradicts a position held by Eastern’s board that a proposal to merge the two schools was unsolicited, unfriendly and unexpected.
A merger was first suggested publicly in December by Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, who called on Drummond and Smith to prepare a plan for combining the two schools.
“Reports indicated that Eastern’s board members were surprised that the senator would come out with this proposal,” Albrecht said in an interview Tuesday. “But that was not the way we were led to believe that things were.”
Drummond was unavailable for comment.
Kirschbaum, a Spokane businessman, said Eastern’s board was rocked by West’s proposal because it went much further than what Eastern’s trustees had envisioned. A hastily conceived university merger also would mean officials would have to circumvent the trustees, faculty, students and others who have a stake in Eastern’s future, he said.
Following the Drummond-Smith meetings, Kirschbaum and Albrecht said they met in July with Gov. Gary Locke to discuss Eastern’s plight. Eastern trustee Jean Beschel of Spokane and WSU regent Richard Davis of Spokane also were present.
“We never discussed WSU taking over Eastern” during that meeting, Kirschbaum said. “But it’s possible that Smith and Drummond broached the topic earlier. If I was in Mark Drummond’s shoes, with the university the way it was, I would look at all possibilities.”
At the time of the Drummond-Smith talks, Eastern expected an enrollment decline of 1,000 students and the loss of up to $3.2 million in state money. The Cheney-based school currently has 700 fewer students than at its peak in 1994, and was awarded the state money to fund recruitment efforts and popular academic programs.
Kirschbaum said the group sought Locke’s direction on ways to cut costs by eliminating duplication of administrations in Spokane. Counting the community colleges, nine different executives control public higher education programs in Spokane County, he said.
The governor suggested to the group that the state Higher Education Coordinating Board study the problem. But Locke didn’t act until after West unveiled his idea for the WSU-EWU merger.
The HEC Board last week held a marathon fact-finding mission in Spokane County, drawing students and citizens to multiple hearings. The board will make preliminary recommendations by Feb. 15.
“If the HEC Board says that a merger is the best answer, then so be it,” Kirschbaum said. “I just hope we don’t change higher education because of the politics.”