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‘What makes Eastern unique?’: EWU’s new president aims to find out, in light of enrollment slump

Shari McMahan, photographed in Cheney, is Eastern Washington University’s new president.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Shari McMahan, photographed in Cheney, is Eastern Washington University’s new president. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

CHENEY – From a human resources orientation to Hoopfest, Shari McMahan’s first day as Eastern Washington University’s new president was quite varied.

Her day closed with last week’s Hoopfest kickoff, during which members of EWU’s wheelchair basketball team played in an exhibition game just outside the pavilion at Spokane’s Riverfront Park. Just days removed from flying into the region, the 58-year-old was decked out in Eagle red for the wheelchair team’s showcase.

“I was excited because I met so many community partners,” said McMahan, the 27th president in EWU’s history. “As I had my Eastern gear on, people would say ‘Go, Eags!’ There were alumni, so there was a lot of that going on.

“Not knowing who I was, it was just the passion for being an Eastern Eagle,” she continued. “It was pretty fun.”

That Friday marked Day One for McMahan, who – as other college and university presidents have done – plans to use her first 100 days in office as a “listening tour” to meet with students, faculty, staff and other college community members as part of an onboarding period.

And while McMahan predicted her priorities as president may evolve with those meetings, her list is sure to include ideas to help EWU rebound from the lowest fall semester enrollment levels recorded in the school’s recent history.

“Enrollment will be a critical juncture that I’m going to have to cross,” she said, “but more importantly is, what is the value proposition of a degree from Eastern? To me, that’s very important, and that’s why I need to hear from everyone about what makes Eastern unique.”

Hired by EWU’s Board of Trustees in February, McMahan is the university’s first full-time president since Mary Cullinan, who served for six years until her resignation in August 2020.

McMahan comes to EWU from California State University, San Bernardino, where she most recently served as provost and vice president for academic affairs. She was the first female provost in the college’s history, taking the job after 16 years at California State University, Fullerton.

McMahan, a native of Downey, California, is a first-generation college student who wanted to be an actress growing up.

Her parents, who ran an office furniture business, encouraged her to pursue a college degree so she could have more options with her life, said McMahan, who went on to earn a doctorate in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine.

Having started her teaching career as an assistant adjunct social ecology professor at UC Irvine, McMahan said she didn’t go into higher education looking to become a college president.

Rather, McMahan said her career unfolded in that direction, as she’s served in positions including department chair, dean and interim associate vice president for research.

“To watch students’ lives – particularly first-generation like mine – transform has been what my passion is,” she said. “Because I got good at it, they asked me to do more and more and more.”

McMahan was one of four finalists who sought for the president’s job, beating out a pool that included former interim President David May.

May, the university’s former provost and vice president for academic affairs, led EWU for nearly two years after Cullinan’s resignation. He sent his last campuswide memo just a few days before McMahan’s start date, saying he didn’t know what exactly was next – only that he planned on “taking a break from ‘doing’ for a while and try to get back to ‘being’ more.”

Along with navigating EWU through the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, May oversaw a process aimed at determining whether the university would be better served by a realignment with college athletics.

College administrators last year considered dropping EWU to a lower NCAA competitive division or staying in Division I without football as they explored ways to better stabilize the university’s athletics department budget. The Board of Trustees voted in support of May’s recommendation to keep the Eagles in Division I with a football team.

McMahan said it will be her role to evaluate that decision over the next few years to “determine if that’s the best fit for Eastern.”

“I’m very supportive of athletics and I’ve been in (Division I) and (Division II) programs in the past,” she said. “I’m going to be looking at it from the fiscal perspective and I’m going to be looking at it from the student perspective.

“Our students, in my mind – particularly our athletes – many of them are very strong role models because the ‘student-athlete’ is an experience that we provide,” she continued. “There’s a lot of personal development skills that are very important that our student athletes showcase.”

McMahan said Division I athletics help EWU stand out compared with peer institutions.

She said one of her priorities will be to identify other idiosyncrasies with EWU to better promote the university and attract more students.

“We have programs and experiences that are unique, and I’m going to highlight that,” McMahan said. “I’m going to be looking for how we highlight and find the connection between the next generation of students and showcasing all that Eastern has to offer.”

The push comes after a fall semester during which EWU’s total headcount was 10,892, the lowest for the fall since at least 2009, according to the earliest available data from the university’s Office of Institutional Research. Last fall’s enrollment was down from 12,350 in 2020 and 12,326 in 2019.

Beyond enrollment, McMahan said she also plans to prioritize student and staff morale and mental health, particularly given the pandemic’s impacts.

“The pandemic hit universities pretty hard both in terms of the value proposition – why should a student go to college – and building on those efforts,” McMahan said. “It’s not that you just get a four-year degree. It’s, what’s special about Eastern and how do we market that to Generation Z learners who are somewhat different than what we previously had?”

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