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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Schulz departing as Washington State University president

WSU President Kirk Schulz speaks at a ceremony announcing a partnership between the VA medical center and WSU medical school on Aug. 31, 2020. He’s leaving WSU in 2025.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nick Gibson and Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

Washington State University President Kirk Schulz announced Friday that he will retire at the end of June 2025, bringing his nearly decadelong stint as the university’s top leader to an end.

Schulz, who was appointed to the role in 2016, disclosed his plans at the end of a board of regents meeting on the university’s Spokane campus Friday morning.

The announcement comes as the university continues to grapple with the implications of the implosion of the Pac-12 Conference. Schulz has been at the forefront of the fight to ensure that the conference’s only remaining members, Oregon State and WSU, continue to have a seat at the table of college athletics, whatever that future may look like.

Schulz’s retirement was met with an extended silence from the board.

Chair Lisa Keohokalole Schauer said during the meeting that his retirement has been discussed with the regents since June, which has allowed them to prepare and take the proper steps to identify the university’s next president.

The search will be conducted by Isaacson, Miller, the same national firm conducting the ongoing search for a new provost.

“I really appreciate your leadership, and what we’re about to embark on is a change in this university,” Keohokalole Schauer said. “We will be forever in your debt for what you have done for this university, and we look forward to continuing to work towards the action items.”

With an extensive history in academia and administration, Schulz said he was retiring to make room for “somebody with some new ideas” to bring a fresh voice to WSU leadership.

“It doesn’t even mean that they have to come in and do everything differently. It’s just sometimes people think you’ve done what you can, and it provides some energy and excitement to the organization to be able to do that,” Schulz said in an interview after the announcement. “And I always told people I want the reaction to be to most of the individuals, ‘I wish he stayed a year longer’ than ‘he stayed a year too long.’ ”

Schulz made the decision to step down long before Friday’s announcement, in order to pave a smooth transition in his retirement, he said.

“This is about President Schulz telling us a year ago that the time was right for him to make a move. It was before the Pac-12. It’s before any of the other noise that might in some way appear as though it’s impacting his decision,” Keohokalole Schauer said. “We also want to respect his decision and continue to keep the university moving forward, which he’s done an exceptional job at.”

Schulz added: “I wanted the board to have time to think about what are the characteristics we need in that next leader for Washington State University, and to be able to go recruit that person that would serve as the 12th president and not feel they had to do it in a hurry.”

Schulz spent seven years as president of Kansas State University prior to his arrival in Pullman, and said he hopes to write a book in his retirement about his experiences as a leader in academia.

“I’ll be doing a kind of a study leave for a year doing some writing and some work in public higher education,” Schulz said of his retirement plans. “And, you know, I’m going to be a phone call away from the new president.”

Even so, Schulz said he will intentionally keep his distance to allow the new president to settle into their role and find their own leadership path. He said a former university president once told him early in his administrative career that “the best gift you can give to your successor is, when they’re appointed, you need to disappear for a while.”

“I want to give that same gift to the next person,” Schulz said. “Look, if they need me, I’m happy to help them. But I want to give them the freedom to be able to develop and lead the way that they would like to, without me looking over their shoulder.”

Schulz said he’s proud of what he’s been able to accomplish during his time at WSU, particularly his efforts to bring the university’s financial reporting systems into the 21st century and to bolster the athletic department’s facilities using donations.

“The new buildings and stuff that we do, they’re 100% donor funded,” Schulz said. “And we don’t start construction until we have the money in the door. And so when you see the indoor practice facility, or the baseball complex, or what we’re doing for the Champions Center, you pick whatever your favorite project is, those are all donor funded. And WSU did not operate that way until a little bit after my arrival, particularly Pat Chun as our (athletic director).”

Another area where Schulz felt he made a positive influence was in securing funding to allow the Spokane medical campus to grow.

While his predecessor, the late Elson S. Floyd Jr., was instrumental in getting the institution off the ground, the state Legislature had not yet allocated funding when Schulz came on. He worked hand-in-hand with legislators over several sessions to ensure the campus received the necessary support, Schulz said.

He said he had the chance to see the fruit of that labor recently, while visiting with a family member receiving care in a Spokane hospital.

“One of the primary people giving her care was a fourth-year WSU medical student,” Schulz said. “And you know, you’re just kind of proud to have been part of something like that, that’s transformational in the state. And I’m a big believer in the land grant mission that WSU has, and I really want to empower all of our campuses to be able to work and thrive in their communities.”

Tumultuous timing

The university has weathered some turbulence this academic year, and Schulz said sticking around for one more will allow him to finish what he’s started.

Schulz sat in the Whitman County Courthouse last year as WSU and Oregon State won legal control over the remaining Pac-12 assets over the objection of the former members.

He serves on the College Football Playoff executive board and successfully advocated for revenue distributions for the remaining Pac-12 members this spring. Most recently, he vocally lamented former athletic director Chun’s decision to leave WSU for the same role at in-state rival University of Washington.

Schulz’s announcement is the latest departure from the Palouse following the news March 25 that men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith had taken the same job at Stanford after a five-year run with the Cougars.

The very next day, Chun announced that he was leaving WSU to become athletic director at UW, which was part of the Pac-12 breakup in August.

Washington and Oregon left for the Big 10 in August. That followed departures by Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State to the Big 12; USC and UCLA leaving for the Big 10; and California and Stanford joining the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That breakup left only WSU and Oregon State. Schulz was a key advocate, with his key position on the College Football Playoff executive board, for trying to secure revenue for what was left of the Pac-12.

Now, WSU will be left trying to replace Chun and Schulz, who otherwise would have been working to either expand the former Pac-12 or join other conferences.

In the meantime, the school continues to face at least $10 million a year on debt service for about $100 million of debt incurred when former president Floyd and then-athletic director Bill Moos expanded sports facilities as part of an effort to continue to attract coaches and recruits.

For the next two years, WSU has joined the West Coast Conference for all sports except football, baseball and women’s swimming, which are all headed to compete in the Mountain West Conference. Schulz said he’d work to find a permanent home for Cougars athletics and would like to have an idea of where by the beginning of 2025. Schulz and Keohokalole Schauer said they were confident the university can find its footing before Schulz retires.

“We feel pretty good about the fact that President Schulz has stabilized the Pac-12, has stabilized WSU athletics,” Keohokalole Schauer said. “I think that you’re seeing a board that’s fully supportive of fighting as well.”

The search begins

Despite the slate of challenges that the university is facing, which includes conference uncertainty, declining enrollment and budget cuts, Schulz is confident WSU has more than enough to offer to lure qualified applicants to the Palouse.

Potential draws include a “supportive” state Legislature that funneled millions from the state budget to fund operations, including $2.5 million, half of the school’s ask, to support the graduate student union’s new contract with wage increases.

“You’ve got a state that so values diversity, equity and inclusion, and you can see around the country we got people that are applicants and searching, because they say, ‘I gotta get out’ of the state they’re in,’ ” Schulz said. “Then I think you also have really excellent infrastructure across all of our campuses. You’ve got a really good working relationship between the board and executive leadership, and you can say, ‘Well, these should be the kind of things that are everywhere,’ but they’re not.”

Schulz said the role of president is a full-time gig, and the next one will need to have “thick skin”; it’s hard to please everyone as a leader in academia.

As far as other characteristics to look for in potential candidates, he said they’ll need to have a propensity for wading into conflict and addressing issues head-on, as well as a desire to serve the many involved parties present in higher education.

“I think you’ve got to want to do both the internal work and the external work,” Schulz said. “The president really represents the university as that face out there with donors, legislators, the board and others.”

The next president will need to find a way to juggle all of those responsibilities, while also ensuring they have a healthy way of dealing with the stress that comes with the role.

“It really doesn’t matter where you got your Ph.D. or what you did your research in, or what subject you taught in,” Schulz said. “There’ll be some people in a presidential search that are worried about how many publications the person has. But at the end of the day, it’s leadership characteristics: being able to sort of stand under fire and be able to have some personal discipline with how you manage stress, and the ability to be externally facing.”

Reporter Thomas Clouse contributed to this article.