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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

EWU moves forward with budget cuts while some decry focus on athletics

Roos Field, the football stadium at Eastern Washington University, is seen in 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington University is continuing to pursue campuswide budget cuts while raising money for a new football stadium and routing funds into student-athlete scholarships, frustrating some faculty members who believe the administration and board of trustees are investing too heavily in athletics.

President Mary Cullinan, meanwhile, says the university is collecting donations for all kinds of projects and programs – not just the football stadium – and that the projected budget cuts of $3.5 million will have a negligible impact on students’ educational experience.

“The idea is to preserve faculty and preserve academic programs, but reduce the number of middle managers, which is department chairs and dean positions,” Cullinan said in an interview last week. “It’s really just that administrative layer. … It doesn’t really affect the day-to-day life of faculty and students very much.”

Faced with declining enrollment and tuition revenue, EWU leaders announced they would undertake a 3% budget “realignment” last spring. Departments were asked to avoid filling vacant positions and limit overtime and travel expenses.

Additionally, some tenured faculty members have taken buyouts, and administrators are working on a plan to merge EWU’s seven colleges into four. The College of Business, for example, will be folded into a larger unit tentatively named the College of Professional Studies, said David May, EWU’s interim provost.

The College of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics and the College of Health Science & Public Health will remain intact, May said. Details of the restructuring are still being worked out.

Administrators say they have no plan to eliminate majors, minors or certificates currently offered to students.

The budget cuts and restructuring have frustrated some professors, including David Bunting, the chairman of the economics department.

“First of all, there’s been really no discussion with the faculty,” Bunting said. “Departments are being joined or merged as subunits without rhyme or reason.”

May, however, said faculty suggestions have guided most of the restructuring process so far.

“We’re kind of at a point now where it’s not possible to satisfy all of the players,” he said.

Political science professor Jim Headley also expressed concern about the cuts. At a recent meeting, he said, department chairs and program directors were asked to consider getting rid of things like copy machines and phone lines.

“How is that OK?” Headley said. “Those things should be a given at a university.”

Like all EWU departments, the athletics department took a 3% reduction in state funding for the 2020 fiscal year – a cut of nearly $174,000, said EWU spokesman Dave Meany.

But the athletics department has other sources of revenue – including ticket sales, media rights and private fundraising – and its income and spending needs vary based on the performance of its teams.

Meany said the department was projected to spend about $16.3 million last year, but it ultimately spent nearly $18.1 million because of the football team’s run to the national championship game in Frisco, Texas. This year, he said, the department’s projected budget is $16.8 million.

The athletics department still spends more than it takes in. Last year, its deficit totaled more than $5 million.

“The usual argument is that athletics makes Eastern more attractive and increases enrollment, and that just hasn’t happened,” Bunting said, noting that the football stadium is rarely filled to capacity. The athletics department, he said, “is just a big hole that you dump money into.”

Of the $3.5 million that the university cuts from various departments, $1 million will be channeled into scholarships for student-athletes, Cullinan said.

Meany said the total amount of financial aid for student-athletes will remain about the same as in past years, about $4.2 million. While those scholarships cover tuition, some student-athletes pay the university for room and board, so there is a return on investment, Meany said.

“The subsidy that we’re giving to athletics for those scholarships is helping students stay in school who wouldn’t otherwise be here,” he said.

Headley questioned why the scholarship money for student-athletes doesn’t come out of the athletics department’s operating budget.

“That would be the most fair way to go about it,” Headley said.

“I’m certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t have athletics,” he said. “I am arguing that academics should take precedent at a university.”

Separately, EWU leaders announced in September that a local businessman, Jack Gillingham, had donated $5 million to kickstart fundraising for a major renovation of Roos Field.

The board of trustees also approved an ambitious plan to renovate the 52-year-old football stadium with $25 million in private money. The university is prohibited from using state funding or student fees to enhance athletic facilities.

The $5 million gift – the largest individual donation in the school’s history – also resulted in a minor controversy.

On Sept. 25, the board of trustees sent a letter to board members of the EWU Foundation, a nonprofit that is legally separate from the university. The trustees admonished foundation leaders to stop exploring financing options for the stadium renovations, saying the foundation had no authority to seek a public bond for the project.

“We are confident that the Foundation Board will fulfill its primary responsibility and focus on fundraising for the comprehensive campaign,” wrote Uriel Iñiguez, the chairman of the board of trustees.

Cullinan said the university recently began the “quiet phase” of a major, eight-year fundraising campaign, though the stadium gift was a welcome surprise that has sparked interest from other donors. The university, she said, is not raising money only for athletics.

“They will give to whatever they are passionate about, and we will use that money for what they want it to be used for,” Cullinan said.