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EWU President Mary Cullinan faces no-confidence vote by faculty senate

UPDATED: Mon., June 22, 2020

Eastern Washington University students walk the Cheney campus on Friday, April 12, 2019. The school and Washington State University are offering pandemic grading systems to keep students eligible for financial aid.   (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington University students walk the Cheney campus on Friday, April 12, 2019. The school and Washington State University are offering pandemic grading systems to keep students eligible for financial aid.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

For the second time in her career, Eastern Washington University President Mary Cullinan faces a vote of no confidence from the faculty she leads.

The vote by EWU’s faculty senate is scheduled for Monday as the board of trustees mulls whether to declare a “severe financial crisis,” a move that would give Cullinan practically unbridled budget-slashing authority.

Administrators say the university in fiscal 2021 could lose more than $12 million in state funding and more than $24 million from tuition and other sources due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic.

That would follow two years of much smaller reductions that have involved layoffs and a major restructuring of academic departments, frustrating many faculty members who decry the university’s spending on athletic programs, particularly football. Recently, some 200 EWU employees were notified they could soon be furloughed or laid off; faculty members also face layoffs.

“In such troubling times, it is easy, and even appropriate in some cases, to blame events outside of our control for our current predicament, and to stand behind institutional leaders in a display of solidarity,” professors Nick Jackson, Kelly Evans and Tony Flinn wrote in a recent faculty senate memo. “President Cullinan, however, made a habit of blaming forces outside of her control for problems that Eastern was facing long before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.”

Before taking the helm of EWU in 2014, Cullinan resigned as president of Southern Oregon University after an overwhelmingly poor performance evaluation and a no-confidence vote by the SOU faculty. Professors accused her and other administrators of financial mismanagement. One professor at the time said Cullinan’s leadership had facilitated “a climate of fear at SOU.”

A similar situation is unfolding at EWU.

In a recent survey, 70% of 226 responding EWU faculty members evaluated Cullinan’s overall performance as “poor” or “needs improvement.” Cullinan also received low marks for her leadership in Cheney and Olympia, and for her consultation and communication with students, faculty and staff.

“Consistent with her habit of making empty statements during her announcements at faculty senate, or saying nothing at all, and then deferring to the vice presidents, Dr. Cullinan’s general method of communication is to not provide any details, to be vague, to not answer questions, to not refer to what is specifically happening at other universities statewide or nationwide,” the three professors wrote in their memo. “One is left wondering whether Dr. Cullinan is withholding details or does not know what the details are.”

Cullinan was not made available for an interview on Friday.

A statement provided by EWU spokesman Dave Meany said Cullinan “strongly supports the EWU Faculty Organization’s role in the shared governance process that is critical to the planning and development of universitywide policy,” and she “has always valued the insight and perspective of the organization’s Academic Senate.”

“The president is aware of the pending motion set forth by the Senate, and respects its right to voice its opinions,” the statement continued. “She has always valued a strong and transparent relationship with the Faculty Organization and looks forward to it continuing as the university works together through these challenging times to ensure students have an excellent learning experience.”

Faculty members also have denounced Cullinan’s decision to close EWU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a budget-cutting measure that drew swift backlash from students who have relied on the office for support. The administration reversed course earlier this month and decided to retain Shari Clarke as vice president of diversity and inclusion.

“While Eastern portrays itself as a champion of diversity and support for underrepresented students on campus, our president thought it would be wise to close the main office that strengthened our resolve in this area, and to degrade the position of vice president of diversity to associate vice provost,” the three professors wrote. “We suspect that she did this, not only without consulting Eastern students and faculty, but without consulting the program directors of our academic programs that focus on diversity.”

Those who responded to the survey represent just under half of EWU’s full-time faculty – the highest participation rate since biennial evaluations of the president began. Only 82 faculty members responded in 2015, and only 72 responded in 2017.

“It’s past time to act on that evaluation and all the incompetence that lead to it,” says another memo signed by Evans, Flinn and eight other professors. “Eastern is in a crisis and only strong leadership can lead us through this storm. We do not trust Mary Cullinan to provide effective leadership nor to make the important decisions necessary, especially if she is granted the power of severe financial crisis by the (board of trustees).”

They added: “Some faculty have indicated that they are fearful their programs will be targeted in budget cuts if they speak out and do the right thing.”

Unless she resigns voluntarily, as she did at SOU, the decision to remove Cullinan from her position rests with the board of trustees.

Trustee Jim Murphy said Friday the trustees have decided not to comment on the no-confidence vote individually. He said the board would comment only through its chairwoman, Trustee Vicki Wilson. Through Meany, the university spokesman, Wilson said the board would defer comment until after Monday’s faculty senate vote.

In a phone call Friday, professor Julia Smith, who chairs the faculty senate, said she has strong lines of communication with the trustees and meets regularly with Wilson.

“I have a great deal of trust in our board,” Smith said. “I think that they’re a group of really dedicated people who work really hard to try to figure out what’s best for the university. I have faith, then, that they will listen to the faculty, because we’re the eyes on the ground. … The faculty does, I think, have great confidence that the board will do what needs to be done.”

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