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Former EWU President Mary Cullinan takes 9-month paid sabbatical to write book, hone teaching skills

Mary Cullinan, who resigned as president of Eastern Washington University in August, stands in front of Showalter Hall on Feb. 20, 2015.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Mary Cullinan, who resigned as president of Eastern Washington University in August, stands in front of Showalter Hall on Feb. 20, 2015. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Mary Cullinan, the former president of Eastern Washington University, has joined the school’s faculty as a tenured English professor but won’t be teaching any students until fall 2021.

Cullinan resigned as president in early August amid faculty criticism of her leadership and a university financial crisis made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now she is taking nine months of paid leave to hone her teaching skills and work on a forthcoming book.

“This fall, I will learn what courses I should be prepared to teach in the next academic year and will work with folks during the remainder of the year to get up to speed with the technologies and best practices for online and face-to-face teaching,” Cullinan said in an email to The Spokesman-Review. “I also have a book project that has been on hold for many years, and I will be happy to get back to it.”

Cullinan recently finished a six-week term as a special assistant to interim EWU President David May, during which she was responsible for smoothing the transition to new leadership. The fall quarter at EWU began Wednesday.

It is common for university administrators to be granted “right of retreat” to faculty positions upon their departure from the administration. Cullinan, who holds a doctorate in English literature, was granted tenure in EWU’s College of Arts, Letters and Education in 2015, the year after she left Southern Oregon University to start as EWU’s president.

Cullinan negotiated into her presidential contract a clause that would determine her salary as a professor. As president, she made about $372,000 a year. As a professor, she is approved to make $111,725 a year, a figure calculated by taking the average of the top 10% of professors’ salaries in her college.

Her actual income from EWU during the current academic year will vary, however.

The United Faculty of Eastern recently agreed to a 6% salary reduction to avoid layoffs and buyouts as the university faces millions of dollars in losses in state revenue. And under the union’s collective bargaining agreement, faculty members make only 80% of their usual salaries while on professional leave.

Cullinan also reached a legal settlement with EWU that provides a severance payment equal to six months’ of her presidential salary, minus her wages as a faculty member. In effect, Cullinan is expected to make about $228,000 from EWU by the end of September 2021, plus benefits.

The settlement, which was signed in mid-August, also allows Cullinan to live in the president’s house on the Cheney campus through the end of 2020, and provides up to $5,000 in moving assistance. It also grants Cullinan two tickets to all EWU athletics home games through January 2023.

EWU provided a copy of the settlement and other documents to The Spokesman-Review last week in response to public records requests.

Under the faculty union’s collective bargaining agreement, the board of trustees can grant paid sabbaticals “for the purpose of providing opportunities for study, research and creative activities for the enhancement of the university’s instructional and research programs.”

The contract says professors must serve on EWU’s faculty for six consecutive years before becoming eligible for paid professional leave, and they must present applications for leave to a committee of administrators and fellow faculty members. The provost, however, may grant a limited number of sabbaticals at his or her discretion.

In an email, EWU spokesman Dave Meany said Cullinan’s leave “was approved under the provost’s authority to award a certain number of leaves each year, separate from the eligibility requirements for the ordinary application process.”

Records show Brian Donahue, who served as EWU’s interim provost for about seven weeks, approved Cullinan’s sabbatical request on Aug. 17. May, who was promoted from the provost position to serve as interim president, approved Cullinan’s salary as a professor.

Sabbaticals ultimately are approved by the board of trustees. The collective bargaining agreement requires professors to return to work after periods of paid leave or reimburse the university for wages and benefits received while on leave.

Geology professor Richard Orndorff, the faculty union’s vice president for bargaining, did not immediately comment on the specifics of Cullinan’s sabbatical. In an email Friday, Orndorff said the collective bargaining agreement “is clear regarding eligibility (after six years of consecutive service as full-time faculty), submission and review requirements for professional leave.”

Physics professor David Syphers, the vice president of EWU’s Faculty Organization, said he and other professors were “aghast” to learn of the pay and leave period offered to Cullinan, who implemented a hiring freeze in one of her final actions as president.

Syphers argued Cullinan should have been subject to the six-year eligibility requirement and have her leave application reviewed by faculty peers.

“On the reasoning for leave, all the faculty of Eastern had to suddenly develop online teaching skills in two weeks back in March. Certainly we all would have enjoyed a paid year to do this preparatory work, but none of us received that,” Syphers said in an email.

“Research and writing are routine duties that are part of our normal contracts,” he wrote. “The professional leave application and review process exists so that peer faculty can judge if the particular project at hand is so demanding as to require additional focus beyond this.”

Cullinan defended her employment as a professor.

“I’m sorry that anyone is unhappy about this, but it’s a normal and customary approach at universities nationwide,” she said in her email. “I worked as a faculty member for many years, and I am very much looking forward to returning to the classroom.”

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