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EWU board’s choice of president ruffles faculty

Five weeks before she starts her new job leading Eastern Washington University, Mary Cullinan already is facing doubts from EWU’s faculty.

Cullinan was selected by EWU’s board of trustees earlier this month to replace retiring university President Rodolfo Arevalo. Cullinan is the president at Southern Oregon University, where earlier this year she was given a vote of no-confidence by the faculty senate.

That has raised concerns from EWU’s faculty. At a trustees meeting Friday, the faculty expressed disappointment in the board for not following the faculty’s recommendation in the hiring of the new president.

“We don’t feel like we understand the vision that led you to make this decision,” Julia Smith, president of the EWU Faculty Organization, told the board.

Cullinan, who will start work at EWU on Aug. 1, attended the meeting but did not address the concerns of the faculty. Later Friday, Cullinan said she will start meeting with EWU faculty next month to learn more about their concerns.

“It’s so important for us to work together, to stay focused and continue the strong momentum at EWU,” Cullinan said in an email. “We all have the same goals. In a short time, with ongoing communication, I’m hopeful that we’ll build trust and work together effectively to serve students and the region.”

Paul Tanaka, chairman of EWU’s board of trustees, responded to Smith in the Friday session that the faculty’s concerns were considered.

“I want to be very clear from the board’s perspective: We heard what you said. We chose a different path, but it’s not that we didn’t listen to you,” Tanaka said to Smith. “We sought out the opinion of everybody on this campus.”

He said they received feedback not just from the faculty, but from administrators, community members and staff.

Only nine of 28 members of the faculty senate voted Cullinan to be an acceptable candidate when she was a finalist for the job, Smith said. An overwhelming majority viewed Rex Fuller, EWU’s provost, to be the strongest candidate.

Smith said the decision to hire Cullinan left the faculty “baffled.” She said they thought of it as a rejection of the progress the university has made in recent years.

“The path forward is more challenging than it was two weeks ago,” Smith said.

EWU faculty leaders said an example of Fuller’s leadership is the collaboration among him, Arevalo and the faculty to form the Student Success and Retention Committee, which brings together constituents from different parts of campus to share ideas for student success. The committee aims to improve general education requirements at the school and engage students with the campus community in their first year so they are more likely to succeed.

Smith said Cullinan’s problems working with faculty members at Southern Oregon may illustrate a lack of leadership ability. Cullinan earlier attributed the vote of no-confidence from the Southern Oregon faculty to a difficult financial environment.

Arevalo will be a special assistant to Cullinan until December.

“Dr. Cullinan will continue our mission of working for the success of all students at Eastern,” Arevalo has said in a news release. “She and I currently sit on the board of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and I believe she shares the important passion and values EWU needs to keep moving forward.”

The faculty leaders asked the board to explain to the faculty senate the reasons for choosing Cullinan when the groups reconvene in the fall. Tanaka said the board would be “very happy” to discuss the decision.

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