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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State University faculty members publish open letter calling on WSU President Kirk Schulz, other administrators to step down

WSU President Kirk Schulz speaks at a ceremony announcing a partnership between the VA medical center and WSU medical school on Aug. 31, 2020.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
By Amanda Sullender and Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

A group of long-time professors is calling on Washington State University President Kirk Schulz and other university administrators to step down.

In a public letter, the faculty members outline grievances including declining financial stability, staff morale and university enrollment.

“By most critical measures WSU’s stature has declined precariously under the current leadership. Immediate change in the form of fresh visionary leadership that invests in and empowers academic and research excellence is essential,” the open letter reads.

Tenured Regents Professor of Molecular Biosciences Dr. Michael Griswold has taught and conducted research at WSU for 48 years. A primary organizer of the Schulz ouster effort, Griswold said a group of five faculty met with WSU administration last year to address its concerns. But since then, the group has been “shut out” from communication and decided to air its grievances publicly.

“We’re convinced the current administration is not capable or willing to make the kind of changes we’re looking for,” he said.

WSU spokesperson Phil Weiler said that many of the concerns raised had merit, but they were difficulties common to higher education that are being addressed by WSU’s administration.

“We absolutely agree with their concerns; these are issues WSU needs to deal with,” Weiler said. “There has been a lot of movement around trying to address these concerns.”

Last year, Weiler said the same group of faculty sent out a letter airing similar concerns that he said the university responded to in different ways. Namely, to address dropping rankings, they established a task force to provide recommendations on strategies to WSU leadership.

In September, the task force released findings, recommending that the school concentrate resources into student achievement, like retention and graduation rates, student support services, and campus life. With improvements on student life, rankings will theoretically increase in tandem. Additionally, rankings could be raised through recruiting and retaining faculty and emphasizing research.

Griswold said that if WSU administration is working on these issues, the faculty “does not see a lot of evidence.” He also noted that many of the faculty included in the effort have been at WSU “for far longer than the current administration.”

“We’ve seen WSU at its best and we’ve seen what it could possibly be if it was running correctly. We’re all concerned about where the institution is going.”

The open letter claims to be “supported by a group of 207 concerned WSU faculty,” but does not include a list of signatories. According to Griswold, that number was gathered through the results of an informal survey asking if faculty supported the contents of the letter.

The survey results were anonymous, and Griswold did not know how much of the faculty participated.

“We were being considered by the administration as a small group of rabble-rousers, and we wanted to get some feeling for how wide the sentiment isn’t in the university,” Griswold said.

Fellow organizer and WSU Regents Professor of Chemistry and Materials Science Dr. Kerry Hipps said many of the supporters are untenured assistant professors who fear retaliation if they speak publicly against the administration.

“I’m doing this for the university that I’ve dedicated myself to for 50 years and for all the young faculty members who are going to either have their careers ruined or they’re going to leave,” Hipps said.

The letter also claims that the administration’s handling of the athletics department has caused “deep financial and reputational harm.” They also suggest the administration could have “mitigated the looming Pac-12 disaster.”

The missive notes WSU has fallen 38 rankings on the U.S. News & World Report since 2016, which they claim has influenced how enrollment on the system’s Pullman campus has fallen over the same period.

Weiler said WSU has been long aware of decreasing enrollment, a falling reputation and rising debt, and has implemented several strategies to address these concerns, exacerbated since the COVID-19 pandemic started and amid national criticisms of higher education in general.

“Some universities are doing well, but I would say those are the minority,” Weiler said. “The vast majority are facing major headwinds.”

Weiler added that the U.S. News and World Report rankings are highly scrutinized in the world of higher education. They change their methodology and add schools to their pool of rankings each year that influence WSU’s position, he said.

“From our perspective, that’s not the metric we should use to measure ourselves,” he said.

In airing grievances, Weiler said the school has a system of shared governance in place that gives faculty equal weight in the decision-making process as other roles on campus.

“I think the issue is there are different approaches to addressing these issues,” Weiler said. “We have a system in place for people to debate strategy like this; that system is the faculty senate.”

Griswold said the issues have been “raised within the Faculty Senate many times,” but there is “not a lot of momentum” for a Faculty Senate vote or overall support.

In a statement, the WSU Faculty Senate said it is aware of the letter and that it was published on the Faculty Senate website forum to “promote discussion and comment by the WSU community.”

“The faculty senate leadership is aware of the faculty’s concerns and acknowledges the challenges facing both WSU and higher education in general. We are, and have been, discussing these issues with WSU’s administration and Board of Regents,” the statement reads.

Reporter Elena Perry contributed to this article.