Throughout his career in academia, David May says he never had his sights set on a top leadership position.
But after joining Eastern Washington University as a political science professor in 1999, May gradually climbed the administrative ladder, including stints as an associate dean and as a vice provost. Until recently, he was EWU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, spearheading the university’s shift to online classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Now May has stepped into the role of president following Mary Cullinan’s abrupt resignation in early August. He has the unenviable task of guiding EWU through a budget crisis that promises to pare down academic programs and cost hundreds of jobs.
With tax revenue a moving target, Washington’s Office of Financial Management has asked public universities to prepare for 15% cuts in state funding, and enrollment declines seem almost inevitable amid demographic shifts and the ongoing pandemic. That means further declines in tuition revenue.
“I’m a guy who likes to wake up and have a challenge in front of me,” May said in a recent interview. “I don’t necessarily always need a challenge this big.”
EWU has made significant investments in recent years in the interest of better serving students. Among other things, the university added a new Interdisciplinary Science Center to its Cheney campus and began moving some academic programs into the recently opened Catalyst building in Spokane’s University District.
Now that period of growth appears to be over.
Although professors and administrators have some creative ideas for saving money, May said financial challenges will leave EWU no choice but to stop offering some majors and minors. A consulting firm recently produced a report that assigns an “institutional value score” to each of the university’s degree programs, and May said he will consult business and community leaders to identify which programs best meet the needs of the region.
Health science and engineering programs are among the obvious top priorities, he said.
“We’re going to be resized and refocused,” he said. “One of the things that higher ed does is build. As a sector, we have a harder time looking at ourselves critically and saying, ‘Is what we’re doing today more important than what we should be doing tomorrow?’ “
May, 52, bounced from Oregon to Michigan to Georgia before his family settled in Walla Walla when he was in fifth grade. His father, also a professor, taught for 18 years at Whitman College, where May earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1990.
May said he took a “nontraditional” route through college. At one point, he thought he would eschew higher education and continue working in construction. At another, he planned to major in engineering. After graduating from Whitman, he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Washington State University.
In 2019, May became EWU’s provost under Cullinan. When the severity of the pandemic became clear in March, they decided nearly all courses would remain online through the fall semester. A silver lining was that EWU was between academic quarters at the time, so individual courses weren’t interrupted as they were at other universities.
But enrollment took a hit, and there were many costs associated with adjusting to the new normal. The board of trustees cut $22.5 million from EWU’s operating budget for fiscal year 2021. The university has notified 400 employees they are likely to be furloughed or laid off. Adjunct instructors aren’t having their teaching contracts renewed. The faculty union took 6% across-the-board pay cuts to stave off further job losses.
As EWU braced for a storm on the horizon, longstanding concerns about Cullinan’s leadership came to a head, and faculty leaders held a vote of no confidence. The board of trustees quickly rebuked the faculty and defended Cullinan’s record, but in early August she announced her resignation and joined the faculty as an English professor.
Cullinan is now on a nine-month paid sabbatical to hone her online teaching skills and finish writing a book – an option available to most EWU professors only after they have served on the faculty for six years. Thanks to a legal settlement and a clause in her presidential contract, she is expected to make about $228,000 from EWU through the year ending in September 2021. The arrangement has angered other professors and lecturers at the university, some of whom make a quarter that amount.
Instruction at EWU remains almost entirely online. May said about 45 course and lab sections are being taught on the Cheney campus – only those that require hands-on experience and those that aren’t practical to teach remotely.
EWU spokesman Dave Meany said the university beat gloomy enrollment projections for the fall quarter, and the total head count of 12,351 is up by 23 students compared to last fall. But that figure includes part-time students, Running Start students and those in online graduate programs, among others who pay varying tuition rates.
More telling in terms of financial impact is the number of more traditional or “state support” students. Meany said EWU enrolled 9,720 of those students for the fall, down 7.5% from a year ago. New freshman enrollment is down 15%, and new transfer student enrollment is down 12%, in line with trends at Western Washington University and Central Washington University, he said.
The drop-off in enrollment has been especially stark among low-income, minority and first-generation students. Those least likely to return to campus under the current conditions “are the students that EWU most prides itself on serving,” Jens Larson, the university’s associate vice president for enrollment management, told the board of trustees during a Zoom meeting Thursday.
May noted EWU’s problems could be compounded by a looming “enrollment cliff” – widely talked about in higher education circles – resulting from a decline in birth rates during the recession that began in 2008. The pool of likely college applicants is expected to shrink significantly around 2025, when students born during the recession begin reaching college age.
“While Washington state will continue to have an increasing number of high school graduates, the national landscape for those graduates is going to become increasingly competitive,” May said.
May said he approaches the job of president with a mentality he developed as a kid growing up on a farm in Walla Walla.
“My favorite time of year farming was cutting wheat, because you could show up with a full field of wheat, and at the end of the day you knew exactly how successful you were – how many acres of wheat did this team cut,” he said. “That’s kind of how I approach everything in my life. What’s the goal, who’s the responsible party and what’s the timeline?”
May’s term as interim president is slated to last two years. EWU faculty members, administrators and trustees considered it unwise to recruit an outsider to lead the university through such a tumultuous period, and so they are counting on May, a familiar face, to provide a sense of stability.
At some point, though, EWU plans to launch a nationwide search for a president to serve on a more permanent basis. May might apply to keep the job as part of that process.
But first, he said, he will have to evaluate his own performance. He said he doesn’t like to take on challenges unless he can fully commit to them, and while he’s had a comfortable working relationship with the faculty, he knows that some of his decisions will not be well received.
“Ask me in six months,” he said. “I’m still getting my hands around the totality of what this job is, and I know that there are some parts of it already that I really, deeply enjoy. But it’s also still the honeymoon period.”