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EWU’s newest president making waves with advocacy, innovation

Eastern Washington University President Mary Cullinan, right, visits with ASEWU President Dahir “DJ” Jigre on Feb. 20 at a civics conference for students from the West Valley School District on the EWU campus. (Dan Pelle)
Eastern Washington University President Mary Cullinan, right, visits with ASEWU President Dahir “DJ” Jigre on Feb. 20 at a civics conference for students from the West Valley School District on the EWU campus. (Dan Pelle) Buy this photo

The conference room at Eastern Washington University was full of youngsters who volunteered for a day of civics immersion.

University President Mary Cullinan stepped to the lectern for a quick welcoming message, spied a few WSU sweatshirts and logos from other colleges in the crowd and decided it’s never too early to begin recruiting future Eagles.

“This is the perfect university to hold a conference like this,” Cullinan told the crowd of mostly elementary and middle schoolers from the West Valley School District. “Eastern Washington University is committed to our schools and to civic … and community engagement.”

She went on to describe Eastern’s value and dedication to success, transitioning effortlessly from chief executive to head cheerleader.

It’s a familiar role for Cullinan, 64, who has been on the job in Cheney for about six months now. Before moving to EWU, she spent eight years at the helm of Southern Oregon University, where she oversaw the creation of a new honors college, reorganized basic undergraduate instruction and enlisted famous graduates to help expand the alumni foundation.

She also has served as provost at Stephen F. Austin University in rural eastern Texas and before that, had moved from teaching into administrative roles while with California’s state university system.

Raised in metropolitan Washington, D.C., and educated in the Ivy League, Cullinan has found her niche at America’s small and midsize regional universities.

She sees them as the backbone of the higher education system, tasked with helping mold the next generation of community leaders while overcoming the kinds of challenges research and flagship universities seldom encounter.

Lobbying for Internet-based course materials

Eastern has the state’s largest percentage of first-generation students – the first in their families to attend college. Like other regional universities, it also has a large percentage of older and other nontraditional students.

“I really want to see Eastern Washington University be the place that has helped students figure out how to be successful,” Cullinan said during a recent interview. “Particularly for first-generation students, that first year can seem really unfocused and confusing.”

She’s continuing the reorganization of core undergraduate instruction that was begun under the previous administration. The goal is to emphasize early in a college career how seemingly disconnected academic disciplines work together to provide students with a greater and more rounded understanding of their chosen field.

It’s similar to the revamp she oversaw at Southern Oregon and has been shown to improve retention and graduation rates, particularly among first-generation students who often struggle with the idea that their first two years of college are spent immersing themselves in coursework outside of their intended major.

“I think it’s very sad for a state to have students dropping out of school,” said Cullinan, who is the university’s 26th president. “We need to be helping them.”

Eastern already features the cheapest in-state tuition and fees of any four-year university in the state, just under $8,000 per year, and enrollment has been climbing. The university set another enrollment record in the fall, with about 13,500 students.

Cullinan is trying to make an EWU degree more affordable in other ways, too.

Legislation working its way through Olympia would turn Eastern into a test campus for open-course instructional materials, which is designed to get around the escalating cost of textbooks by using free and low-cost instructional materials often made available over the Internet. Cullinan is lobbying lawmakers for the designation.

She describes the availability of affordable higher education as a compact states have with their residents – one that many university presidents say has been dangerously eroded through legislative spending cuts and climbing tuition rates. Cullinan and the state’s other university presidents have banded together to send lawmakers a collective warning that the state needs to begin restoring that lost support.

Her aggressive legislative advocacy is winning converts among the university’s faculty.

“She’s acknowledged, in a way previous presidents haven’t, the importance of our relationship with Olympia,” said English professor Tony Flinn, who served as president of the labor union representing faculty last year. Flinn was among several faculty members who expressed concern over a no-confidence vote issued by Southern Oregon’s faculty against Cullinan and other administrators at the university.

“Naturally, we were curious about what that meant,” Flinn said of the no-confidence vote, noting that the questions raised weren’t intended to eliminate anyone from consideration but to make sure the issues were fully examined.

The no-confidence vote came during severe legislative spending cuts on higher education in Oregon. Flinn described it as a valuable inquiry.

“What we did learn, of course, is that the Oregon Legislature treats its higher education institutions even more poorly than Washington’s,” he said.

In Cheney, Cullinan brought representatives of the various labor unions and other campus groups together to develop a coordinated legislative agenda that still leaves each group the flexibility to disagree or pursue individual priorities.

“She has been very open about her work in Olympia,” said visual communication design professor Mindy Breen, who serves as president of the Faculty Organization. “In the faculty’s opinion, she’s been a great listener and she’s really tried to make herself available to the departments and faculty in general to hear their thoughts and concerns.”

Chosen for her ability to lead a regional university

Jo Ann Kauffman, chairwoman of the EWU board of trustees, praised Cullinan’s work so far and said it was important to bring in a leader with a sense of optimism and innovation.

The previous administration under Rodolfo Arévalo shored up the university’s finances, which gave the trustees the chance to look for someone who could bring fresh perspectives on the role of regional universities in general and how to best serve their student populations in particular, Kauffman said.

“We were looking for someone who would shepherd the university to the next level of excellence,” Kauffman said. “She has been a leader nationally in terms of recognizing the challenges … and strengths of regional universities.

“For instance, our students might struggle more, for any number of reasons … but she’s really working with her team across the disciplines to overhaul and address that.”

Former colleagues say it’s been a driving part of what drew Cullinan to higher education.

“She’s very much a visionary,” said Sylvia Kelley, who served as vice president for development at Southern Oregon with Cullinan and now is executive vice president at Portland Community College. “She’s able to put the puzzle pieces together. She always sees the whole picture.”

Among her accomplishments at Southern Oregon was the establishment of a dedicated honors college, which drew interest from academically gifted students from across the nation.

“She saw it as an opportunity to reach a different group of students,” Kelley said. “She was absolutely exciting to work for because you knew if she had a vision it was going to happen.”

Back at the lectern in front of the roomful of youngsters getting the not-so-subtle EWU pitch, the group was learning about the university’s push into science, technology and medical education and, of course, the national attention its football and basketball teams have received.

“Why are you the Eagles?” a young girl asked.

Cullinan, without missing a beat, played directly to the crowd.

“Eagles are beautiful, they’re powerful and they adapt to all sorts of environments,” she said. “They are a symbol … that reaches out to the world.”

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