Citing a grim revenue forecast in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eastern Washington University’s board of trustees on Thursday unanimously approved an operating budget for fiscal 2021 that’s estimated to be $22.5 million, or nearly 8%, smaller than the budget for the current fiscal year.
The trustees approved only an “aggregate” budget that accounts for projected drops in state funding and an ongoing enrollment decline, and it remains to be seen how cuts will be distributed across departments. Many faculty members and some students have voiced concerns that too much emphasis might be placed on athletics, exacerbating challenges for academic programs.
The trustees don’t typically sign off on how the administration distributes money to every department. But given the severity of the situation, the trustees decided next year’s allocations will require their stamp of approval in the coming weeks.
The board also approved a reorganization of EWU’s various colleges and postponed a vote on whether to declare a “severe financial crisis,” a move that would invoke a clause in the faculty union’s contract and give President Mary Cullinan broad latitude to reduce spending across academic departments.
The faculty senate earlier this week voted no confidence in Cullinan, who responded Thursday that she hopes to work in concert with concerned professors moving forward.
EWU’s operating budget for fiscal 2020 assumed revenues totaling nearly $296 million and expenditures totaling about $291 million. Officials still are attempting to gauge the state’s pandemic-related revenue shortfall, and EWU spokesman Dave Meany said the exact amounts in the university’s 2021 budget are a moving target.
Mary Voves, EWU’s vice president for business and finance, said the university has “a strong balance sheet” but will need increased flexibility to recover from its current state. She asked the trustees for permission to spend up to 20% of the university’s reserve funds over the next two years.
Thursday’s meeting was held via Zoom and lasted more than four hours as the trustees heard numerous presentations by administrators and faculty representatives.
“After years of deliberation and months of discussion, the faculty voted that we have no confidence in our president. We did this in good faith because we need to find a way forward for this university,” Faculty Organization President Julia Smith said at the outset of the meeting.
Smith, a professor in EWU’s geography, anthropology and planning department, summarized several primary concerns voiced by other faculty members. She said administrators were slow to acknowledge that EWU has struggled with declining enrollment – and thus declining tuition revenue – for years, while comparable schools like Western Washington University have not experienced the same problem.
Smith also lamented cuts to EWU’s faculty during the past two years of budget cuts, as well as frequent turnover in the administration.
“This is a university in chaos,” Smith said. “Mary Cullinan has been president for six years, and in that time she has had four provosts. Four provosts in six years is not normal. Three vice presidents of student affairs is not normal. Three vice presidents of advancement is not normal. Laying off and then rehiring a vice president of diversity is not normal.”
The eight trustees have stood firmly behind Cullinan and defended her leadership, but several apologized Thursday for sounding “dismissive” when they responded to the faculty senate’s no-confidence vote in a joint statement.
“It may have come off that way, but I just want to tell you, honestly, it was not intended to be dismissive,” Trustee Jay Manning told Smith. “And we are very sincere when we say we really want to engage with faculty to understand your perspective, and to be partners with you as we figure out this path to the future.”
The meeting then took on a conciliatory tone, with faculty members, administrators and trustees pledging participation in constructive dialogue as they work out details of the budget cuts.
EWU’s faculty union, the United Faculty of Eastern, operates independently of the Faculty Organization and its senators.
The union’s president, history professor Michael Conlin, said Thursday that professors have proposed many changes to their working conditions, including furloughs, that could save the university up to $5 million without requiring tenured faculty buyouts.
Conlin said the union wants to reopen contract negotiations to enact those changes, and he asked the trustees to encourage the administration to participate in that process.
Provost David May, the university’s chief academic officer, said there may have been some miscommunication between the union and the administration. But he said proposals such as furloughs may be untenable, as students’ classroom experience could suffer if their professors leave partway through a quarter or program.
In an interview with The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday, Cullinan said she would seek to rectify faculty concerns about the level of communication they receive from her administration. But she rejected the idea that her administration has not been transparent in enacting budget cuts or reorganizing colleges.
“We’ve been keeping people apprised as much as possible going forward here. We’ve had presentations to the faculty senate, to the board of trustees. We have a lot of information on the website. We send out memos all the time,” Cullinan said, noting that the faculty senate recently gave its stamp of approval for the reorganization plan.
“They’ve been participating in this process all along,” Cullinan said.
On Thursday, she stressed that EWU must take a holistic approach toward its inevitable downsizing.
“Educating students, preparing them to be successful, is our mission at the university. But I want to stress that educating students takes much more than a faculty member walking into a classroom,” Cullinan said.
“Eastern is a small city,” she said. “There are hundreds of people behind that faculty member and that room full of students – people who run payroll, who manage the web and IT, raise scholarship dollars, handle HR, manage budgets, feed and house students, get students enrolled, get them their grades and transcripts, advise and counsel them, keep the campus safe, repair and clean buildings, run the boilers.
“If everyone does their job well, the faculty member and those students don’t even really know the support people are there. They just experience a campus that works. As budgets have tightened, we’ve been cutting back on those support services, but we still have to continue them. We still need them.”
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