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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: A long fall, but a soft landing, for EWU’s former president

Eastern Washington University President Mary Cullinan, center, roots for the Eagles against Idaho on Jan 12, 2018, during a home game at Reese Court.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington University President Mary Cullinan, center, roots for the Eagles against Idaho on Jan 12, 2018, during a home game at Reese Court. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

In a moment when thousands of Spokane County residents have lost their jobs – and with cuts looming at Eastern Washington University – the wildly prosperous failure of former EWU President Mary Cullinan is a strange story, indeed.

She left under a cloud, following a faculty revolt during a time of financial and existential crisis. But she fell into a feather bed of extraordinary perks that – in any other context – would make you think she was being rewarded for extraordinary performance.

The landings are always softest for those who fall from the top.

The dissatisfaction on campus with Cullinan’s performance has evolved over years as the university has faced challenges, including flattening enrollment and budget shortfalls, that were turned into an emergency by the coronavirus.

For several years, Cullinan oversaw an effort to restructure the college and consolidate departments that met resistance. Then the faculty produced a report in February challenging how much money the university spends on sports at the expense of education and student services – only to have it dismissed haughtily by Cullinan and the Board of Trustees.

In a survey, 70% of faculty respondents evaluated her performance as “poor” or “needs improvement,” and she faced criticisms for failing to communicate effectively and a lack of transparency. If professors spoke up, they feared repercussions to their programs, faculty leaders said.

The Faculty Senate gave Cullinan a no-confidence vote in June, by a 35-2 margin. (She’d also been met with a similar vote of no-confidence by the faculty of the previous institution she led, Southern Oregon University.)

After the faculty vote, the board immediately issued a seemingly full-throated statement of support for Cullinan and disappointment in the faculty – which was then apparently followed, bizarrely, by a quick effort to help Cullinan out the door.

This was the context into which Cullinan resigned in August.

The perks that accompanied this resignation were generous by any standard except for the ones that govern university presidents (and, in different ways, the executive class in general, which takes care of itself with great zeal).

After resigning, Cullinan was retained for six weeks as a special assistant to the interim president, while continuing at her presidential salary of $372,018; she was granted a severance of six months’ pay at that salary upon the end of this brief appointment, as well as other continuing perks, such as tickets to athletic events.

At the end of that six weeks, Cullinan shifted into a tenured faculty position in the English Department; she holds a doctorate in English literature and taught in that field before she entering the administrative ranks almost three decades ago. Her faculty salary at EWU will be $110,725, the average of the top 10% of salaries in that department. Most of this was brought to light by the reporting of The Spokesman-Review’s Chad Sokol, using public records.

This arrangement is part of her contractual “retreat rights,” and – as Culinan has said – it is a common element of contracts for university presidents. She was granted tenure as a faculty member by the board several years ago in preparation for the possibility.

Before she had even been formally moved into her new faculty position, though, Cullinan was granted a sabbatical for her first year on the EWU faculty – a paid year of leave for her first year as a professor since 1991. In her request for this accommodation, according to records, she wrote, “When I discussed reverting to faculty status with the English Department in 2014 we agreed that I would need time to hone my teaching skills, especially the technologies needed to be successful, before returning to teaching. This will also be a good time to learn strategies for teaching effectively online.”

She also said she planned to complete a book.

A paid year off to prepare for one’s first year of teaching at college, it probably goes without saying, is a very unusual sabbatical. Typically, a faculty member at EWU is eligible for such paid leave only after six years of teaching.

(Full disclosure: I am an EWU grad, and I teach part time at EWU – roughly one class every year or two for the past decade or so. I am friends and colleagues with many members of the faculty, including some in faculty leadership, and I feel comfortable estimating that 100% of them would have appreciated a year of leave to learn strategies for teaching effectively online.)

You might argue an unusual arrangement is appropriate for an unusual position – being president of a university of a unique, difficult job, and it’s to be expected that the people who do it will be treated uniquely. But the salaries and benefits awarded to presidents, and other top administrators, has grown year after year, often without any seeming connection to performance – the numbers just rise and rise, mirroring the extraordinary and unhealthy divide between executives and workers and historic levels of income inequality.

EWU is not the worst offender by any means, but it’s worth noting that Cullinan’s final salary as president was more than $100,000 higher than the highest salary of her predecessor, Rodolfo Arevalo, just five years ago. A 40 percent increase.

The sweetheart sabbatical comes at a time of crisis for EWU, a moment when leaders should demonstrate a sense of shared sacrifice. The university is weighing deep cuts, with the largest proportion of proposed savings targeted, so far, at academic affairs; a consultant just delivered a report that gives every major offered an “institutional value score” and shows how much the university could save by eliminating it.

The faculty took a 6% pay cut and gave up a raise, and now most of them are worried about the existence of their programs and the quality of education at EWU. The cost of Cullinan’s feather bed is not, in this context, the biggest problem – it’s the example, the leadership and the set of priorities behind it that rankle.

Lots of people will probably be losing their jobs at EWU in the not-too-distant future. None of them will be afforded anything like Mary Cullinan’s soft landing.

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