Facing severe budget cuts, EWU faculty gives president Cullinan a vote of no confidence

click to enlarge EWU President Mary Cullinan lacks the confidence of EWU faculty. - EWU PHOTO
EWU photo
EWU President Mary Cullinan lacks the confidence of EWU faculty.

Six years ago, Mary Cullinan was given a vote of no confidence by the Southern Oregon University faculty. But Cullinan moved on to Eastern Washington University, where she thought she would she'd have more flexibility with the budget than in Oregon.

Now, any budget flexibility she may have once had at EWU is long gone. EWU has proposed cuts of nearly $23 million as it manages a budget shortfall, with the bulk of those cuts planned to come from academic affairs. On Monday the EWU faculty organization gave Cullinan its own vote of no confidence because faculty members doubt she can lead the university through the budget crisis. A total of 35 out of 42 faculty senators supported the no-confidence vote.

"I think we're deeply worried about her navigation through the COVID-19 crisis," says EWU faculty organization president Julia Smith. "But the concerns actually come from before. The COVID-19 crisis just makes this more pressing and more concerning."

Before the vote of no confidence Monday, Cullinan joined the Zoom meeting and gave a statement in anticipation of what was to come.

"I'm disappointed that many of you are disappointed in my leadership," Cullinan said. "These are incredibly difficult times for Eastern. I know faculty is intensely concerned. I'm intensely concerned." 

EWU is projecting losses of tens of millions of dollars in state funding and tuition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, however, EWU was already in the process of making budget cuts, due in part to a dip in enrollment. In February, a group of faculty suggested that EWU cut more athletic spending before making cuts to academics, but the Board of Trustees declined to authorize an outside review of the athletics budget. EWU's Board of Trustees has since changed course from its February decision and will now hire an outside consultant to review the athletics budget.

Before COVID-19 hit, the faculty initiated an evaluation of administrators that found that 60 percent or more rated Cullinan's performance as lacking.

"Such negative marks by full-time faculty would be reason to call for a vote of no confidence in times of relative economic and social stability, but we are obviously not living in such a period," reads a June 7 memo sent to Smith earlier this month recommending a vote of no confidence.

The pandemic only made the budget issues worse. Because of the budget shortfall, EWU recently made cuts impacting 400 staff members.

The university may declare a "severe financial crisis" that gives Cullinan more leeway in making cuts to academics. That has faculty uneasy about cuts to instruction. EWU recently shared a plan with the faculty that would cut the budget for academic affairs by 27 percent but athletics by just 7 percent. That would mean that cuts of $19 million to instruction and less than 500,000 in athletics.

Faculty members further questioned that proposal Monday.

"The key to a university is students, and what they're actually there for, which is getting degrees," Smith tells the Inlander. "Everything else is a little less vital to the university."

Mary Voves, EWU's vice president of business and finance, says those would represent only "the first cut for athletics" and the university would wait for further cuts based on the consultant's report. 

The June 7 memo to Smith recommending Monday's no-confidence vote outlined other concerns with Cullinan's leadership. For one, some faculty feel that Cullinan has "made a habit of blaming forces outside of her control for problems that Eastern was facing long before the COVID-19 pandemic struck."

"What we have observed is a complete disregard for, and perhaps an inability to embrace, the principles of leadership that a president of a comprehensive university should embody," says the memo from a group of faculty members.

A statement on June 16 from a separate group of faculty members criticized Cullinan for her "attack on the Office of Diversity & Inclusion," referring to her terminating the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion before reversing course when students objected to the move

The statement adds that they don't trust Cullinan's decisions if granted the power of a "severe financial crisis." Michael Conlin, the president of EWU's United Faculty of Eastern, says the UFE will recommend that the Board of Trustees not declare a severe financial crisis to give Cullinan that leeway. Conlin says the UFE will recommend resizing the athletics program, use reserve funds and negotiate a tenure buyout for faculty.

In a statement sent out moments after the no-confidence vote on Monday, Board of Trustees chair Vicki Wilson says the board is "disappointed" and "saddened" by the vote. The board says the faculty has "intentionally overlooked a fair and comprehensive portrayal" of Cullinan, noting her success getting capital funding for a new science building, Eastern's move into the Catalyst Building in Spokane and expanding EWU's health sciences program.

"The [Board of Trustees] will continue to move forward with the course we have charted," the statement says.

Smith, the faculty organization president, says the vote Monday represented the faculty speaking "with a louder and more unified voice" with concerns that have "been discussed quietly for years."

"In times of crisis, stability of leadership might be valued, but it's because we so desperately need an effective, compassionate, and tough-minded president who can articulate a coherent and concrete vision that we had to act now, in order to preserve our core function — the personal, professional, and academic growth and success of our students," Smith says.