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EWU faculty senate votes no confidence in President Mary Cullinan, drawing swift rebuke from trustees

UPDATED: Mon., June 22, 2020

Cullinan  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Cullinan (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington University’s faculty senate on Monday held a vote of no confidence in President Mary Cullinan, showing overwhelming disapproval of her handling of the university’s brewing financial crisis.

“Longstanding concerns about her leadership have been discussed quietly for years,” EWU professor Julia Smith, who chairs the faculty senate, said in a statement after the vote. “As it’s become clear that those quiet conversations were not leading to change, the faculty decided to speak with a louder and more unified voice.”

The vote, taken during a Zoom meeting, was 35-2, with four faculty senators abstaining and one absent. It drew a swift rebuke from EWU’s board of trustees, who defended Cullinan and expressed no willingness to replace her as the university weathers financial challenges made drastically worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In unprecedented times, the EWU faculty senate appears to have intentionally overlooked a fair and comprehensive portrayal of Dr. Cullinan. The faculty senate failed to give credit to our university president for her many significant accomplishments and achievements,” the eight trustees said in a joint statement.

They noted, among other things, Cullinan’s work to secure state funding for EWU’s new Interdisciplinary Science Center, the expansion of health sciences programs, the establishment of a campus multicultural center and the pending transfer of some programs into the Catalyst building in Spokane’s University District.

“The BOT will continue to move forward with the course we have charted,” the trustees said. “Student success is the ultimate goal of the EWU board of trustees, the administration, faculty and staff. Only by working together, not against each other, will we achieve that goal.”

A statement from Cullinan’s office said she “remains committed to partnering with faculty to work through its concerns while ensuring students receive an excellent education. Cullinan also looks forward to working with the board of trustees, as well as students, staff and alumni, to pursue ways Eastern can sustain its core mission while navigating these challenging times.”

Both Cullinan’s office and the trustees said they respect EWU’s “shared governance” model and the input of the faculty senate.

Some faculty members have denounced Cullinan’s decision, which she recently reversed, to close EWU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Many have decried the university’s spending on athletics, particularly football.

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

This is familiar territory for Cullinan.

Before taking the helm of EWU in 2014, she 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.

Administrators say EWU 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 pandemic. That would follow two years of much smaller reductions that have involved layoffs and a major restructuring of academic departments.

Recently, nearly 400 EWU employees were notified they could soon be furloughed or laid off; faculty members also face layoffs.

Only recently did Cullinan and the trustees agree to hire consultants to review EWU’s athletics budget. The trustees shot down a faculty request for an independent analysis in February, but now the university is preparing to take bids. Some professors have proposed eliminating football, transferring the program into a lower NCAA division or eliminating the athletics department altogether.

The trustees are expected to vote Thursday on a university budget as well as a motion to declare a “severe financial crisis,” a move that would give Cullinan practically unbridled budget-slashing authority.

A separate meeting has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday solely to gather public comments. Those who wish to speak can find videoconferencing instructions on the trustees’ webpage.

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