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Challenges loom as higher education in Eastern Washington sees seismic shakeups

WSU president and Gonzaga president announced retirements earlier this year

By Nick Gibson, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 5, 2024, 6:00am

SPOKANE — Higher education in Eastern Washington will look a little different next year.

The largest private and public institutions in the Inland Northwest are on the hunt for new leadership. Washington State University President Kirk Schulz announced on April 19 his intent to retire at the end of June 2025 and three days later, Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh announced he’ll be following suit in July 2025.

The two schools may have that in common, but the outlook for each of the universities’ next chapters is starkly different.

Schulz’s announcement comes as the university finds itself at a crossroads. Uncertainty abounds for the future of Cougar athletics, budget challenges continue to plague departments and the post-pandemic recovery has been slower at WSU than at similar institutions.

The university has a slate of challenges to tackle, and will need to identify the next wave of leadership to do so, with vacancies in the athletic director’s role, the presidency and, until recently, the provost position.

WSU announced Thursday that T. Chris Riley-Tillman, a former dean of the University of Missouri’s College of Education and Human Development, will serve as the next provost starting July 1.

Mark Becker, president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, said the challenges WSU is facing are consistent with what other land grant universities are seeing across the country. Finances are a source of worry as federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds dry up, and declining enrollment continues to be a national trend, although both issues can differ in severity on a state-by-state basis, Becker said.

Becker, former president of Georgia State University, said there are also challenges specific to land grant universities, which include a growing number of antiquated facilities that have not kept pace with the cutting-edge research being conducted there. Many were built more than six decades ago and will need to be replaced in the coming years.

Another trend is the re-evaluation of how land grant universities can best serve the residents of the states in which they’re located, Becker said. Agricultural research, engineering developments and affordable access to higher education were all original tenets of the land grant mission put forth by the federal government in the 1800s, and WSU continues to carry out that work in extension offices, laboratories and fields across the state.

As the needs of those communities change, however, so has the conversation around what a land grant university can, or should, do. Rural communities have a lack of social support, whether it’s for mental health, dwindling skilled workforces or public health, and a university’s work in the agricultural realm may not address all of a community’s needs, Becker said.

“What I hear, talking with my colleagues at land grant universities, is they do see themselves as important stewards for the entire state,” Becker said. “WSU is in every county, and they do have faculty with expertise in these other areas, but they don’t have a funding stream to pay for this. I mean, it’s not as if somebody is paying for them to do these things.”

Becker spent decades serving as a professor, dean, provost and president in higher education before joining the APLU in 2022, which has provided him with an intimate understanding of what responsibilities and challenges the 12th president of WSU will have to manage.

“The mindset of all land grant institutions is we are in the service of the state we exist in,” Becker said. “We were established to support the vibrant economy and workforce in the state, and so that’s really a huge part of the ethos.”

Land grants were founded with a mission to serve, he said, which means there’s a lot of interested parties and responsibilities to address.

“You look at the enrollment, tens of thousands of students, many thousand employees, you run facilities, you’ve got an entire real estate infrastructure you’re responsible for. You’ve got campus safety,” Becker said. “You’re basically the mayor of a small city. But on top of that, if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to interface personally, to some real degree, with the agricultural community, with the business community, connecting with employers, the needs of the state.”

The next “mayor” of WSU will have a lot to manage, he added.

Enrollment woes

Fewer Americans are interested in pursuing higher education than a decade ago, and the next WSU president will be tasked with improving student recruitment following a pandemic-induced enrollment decline.

College enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds nationwide has been falling for more than a decade in a trend that was exacerbated by the pandemic, leading to a 1.2 million drop in enrollment among young Americans from 2011 -22. The decline is driven almost entirely by the number of young men pursuing higher education, according to the Pew Research Center. Men represent just 42% of four-year college students, down 5% since 2011.

Enrollment numbers are beginning to rebound nationally, with undergraduate enrollment last fall growing for the first time since the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse report published earlier this year.

WSU has not seen that rebound yet; enrollment continues to decline post-pandemic. The university logged a systemwide total fall enrollment of 31,607 in 2019, one of the largest in its history, but that fell to 27,539 by fall 2022. Systemwide enrollment at the start of this academic year fell another 3.8%.

Lisa Keohokalole Schauer, chair of the WSU board of regents, said she believes higher education as a whole is struggling to stress the value of a degree, and institutions will need to collaborate to change that perception.

“There’s a tremendous value proposition to higher ed, but I think we all need to be really clear about, why do you need a college education,” Keohokalole Schauer said. “And with all of the things that are impacting our current reality right now, global climate change, you think about health, and poverty, and inequality, and political instability, and cybersecurity threats and access to education. I mean, there’s so many things that we need creative, big-thinking, and forward-looking leadership on that a college degree is going to help you to be prepared to address.”

“I think that it’s a really clear ‘why’ statement, but I don’t think it’s really clear to everyone considering higher ed right now,” she added.

WSU Faculty Regent Judi McDonald said total enrollment numbers don’t provide the full picture, adding that retention rates appear to be promising. The university admitted smaller class sizes during the pandemic, and it will take years for those classes to work through the system.

Another factor contributing to the challenge is declining enrollment in the state’s community and technical college system, McDonald said. A large portion of those students usually go on to pursue higher degrees at four-year state schools thanks to Washington’s Direct Transfer Agreement.

“We didn’t get transfer students at the same rate as we would have, because the community colleges were equally, if not worse off than us, as far as falls in enrollment,” McDonald said. “So it’s not an instant recovery. It will be still a few more years before we start to replace those small classes with bigger classes at the higher level.”

Stressing the value of higher education will become more crucial due to the impending “enrollment cliff” that universities and colleges nationwide, whether private, public, four-year or two-year, will have to contend with for the next decade or so.

America is expected to hit a peak of 3.5 million high school graduates sometime around 2025, and after that, the typical student-age population is expected to decline steadily. The biggest contributing factor is a declining national birth rate since the country saw an all-time high number of births in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national birth rate fell by nearly 23% from 2007 to 2022.

That means a smaller and more competitive market for colleges and universities like WSU. Becker expects state schools to avoid the worst of the impacts, but private institutions and smaller, regional state schools like Western and Eastern Washington universities likely see a dip in enrollment and financial challenges as a result.

“The biggest concern is small privates, the next concern are regional state universities,” Becker said. “So not the flagships, not the land grants, but the regional state universities in rural areas are also facing enormous enrollment pressures. So relatively speaking, Washington State is in a better position, but still, it is fewer students. There is going to be pressure.”

Becker said conversations at the national level tend to center around what other demographics higher education could target to bolster enrollment, like older students or the millions of people who have some college credits but no degree. McDonald echoed his sentiments.

“We’ve got to look at how can we be in the education market and be more complete in who we offer services to and be more interested in,” McDonald said. “There’s a huge number of people in the state of Washington, like I want to say 100,000, that have more than 60 credits and no degree.”

Associate professor Eric Shelden, outgoing chair of WSU’s Faculty Senate, said the university will need to re-evaluate who and how the university teaches to address the needs of the communities the university serves.

Keohokalole Schauer said the university is developing “aggressive” strategies to market the value of attending WSU, at any of the campuses, or at any age. Part of that is removing barriers that may prevent someone from attending, like providing financial assistance or bolstering online offerings.

“We are paying close attention to what our enrollment numbers look like,” Keohokalole Schauer said. “But even more importantly, we are trying to understand what the strategy is to pivot and ensure that we are the choice for students in Washington state and beyond.”

Leading the university as it enters this next phase will come with difficulties, but Shelden said the value WSU brings to students’ lives, and the state as a whole, continues to be monumental. He hopes university leadership works closely with the community to tackle the shifting currents of higher education.

“I think that the pandemic has fundamentally changed our society in ways that are still unfolding,” Shelden said. “Navigating the near, intermediate and long-term future of higher education is going to be a real, real challenge. It demands a lot of flexibility, a lot of willingness to bring people along and engage them. You know, a solid vision, that nonetheless, is open to change. It’s going to be interesting.”

Budgetary restrictions

Financial challenges at Washington State University stretch far beyond the ones the athletic department is confronting following the dismemberment of the Pac-12 conference.

Academic departments will face another round of budget cuts this year, for the fourth time in the last five years. Cuts went as high as 10% across the board in 2020, and university leaders have asked campuses, colleges and departments to prepare for 1%, 3% or 5% reductions in 2024.

The cuts can be attributed to a handful of issues, including rising operating costs, declining tuition revenues and unexpected financial commitments.

Leslie Brunelli, who took over as executive vice president of finance and administration last May, told the Faculty Senate earlier this year that tuition revenues and state-appropriated funding have not kept up with operating expenses.

McDonald said state support has been insufficient since the financial crisis of 2008, and the differences are noticeable at the university. When she arrived to teach in the mathematics department in 2001, McDonald said she could not believe how much money the university could access.

“We started getting consistent budget cuts from 2008 on,” McDonald said. “I cannot look somewhere and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we’re spending that kind of money there.’ My department doesn’t even provide whiteboard markers for us to go teach with because we’re cut that tightly.”

The budget cuts, coupled with stagnating salaries, have led to some frustrations among the faculty. Earlier this year, a group of anonymous professors called on Schulz and other administrators to step down, citing concerns over declining financial stability, morale and enrollment.

Shelden said that while not all faculty members share the group’s opinion, the concerns are evident. He said salaries are not keeping up with recent inflation, which can make it hard for the university to stay competitive in the labor market.

“I think that the faculty, by and large, are quite dedicated to Washington State University and to serving the needs of the state in terms of education and research missions at the university, so I don’t see it as a wholesale reason for an exodus,” Shelden said. “But I do think this is something that needs to be addressed.”

McDonald agreed, adding that the budget cuts and wage concerns are not enough to get in the way of doing her job to the best of her ability. She said faculty have dealt with the waves of budget cuts in creative ways while staying committed to serving their students.

“I do think we’re at a juncture, however,” Shelden said. “I don’t think that trajectory can go on too much longer without having a significant impact on our ability to recruit and retain faculty.”

One of the budgetary concerns cited by the vocal group of professors, and in a Seattle Times op-ed penned by three former WSU provosts, is a perceived increase in administrative positions and costs during Schulz’s tenure.

One of the most evident examples for critics is Schulz’s creation of the Pullman chancellor position held by Elizabeth Chilton. Chilton is now responsible for many duties previously tasked to the president.

“I think that faculty do have valid concerns, and they look for some sort of logical reason for why things are the way they are, and this is one of the things that gets pointed to, as well as the athletic budget,” Shelden said. “But whether or not these are actually the roots of Washington State’s financial issues is not clear to me at all. That comes back to, I think, our faith and hope in our new vice president for finance and administration, Leslie Brunelli, bringing a lot of clarity and transparency to all these issues.”

“I think we will be able to figure this out and then do something about it,” he added.

Schulz announced last month a review of the administrative structure across the system in preparation for the next academic year, a process McDonald said she believes is already underway. She’s noticed some restructuring of the organizational chart in recent months that should provide more oversight and clear responsibilities for administrators, she said.

The university also is starting a new budgeting process intended to increase spending transparency, which gives McDonald faith that the financials are headed in the right direction. She and Shelden are encouraged by the work Brunelli’s done during his first year.

“From my perspective, I like that we’re getting fewer people at the top with more ability to look at what’s going on in multiple places,” McDonald said. “And that seems to be the shift that’s been made.”

Searching for ‘someone superhuman’

Keohokalole Schauer said the role of a university president is an incredibly difficult job.

To help ensure they find the right person for it, the WSU board of regents has tasked the national firm Isaacson, Miller with the search, and will form a selection committee of more than 25 regents, professors, alumni, donors and others from across the state.

The job posting is expected to go live in September. In the meantime, Keohokalole Schauer said a series of internal focus groups will be conducted to gather community input that will set the course for the search.

“We’ve been focused on how we would design a process that feels inclusive, and we’ve been focused the last year on who might be interested in helping to move the process forward,” Keohokalole Schauer said. “We’ve been talking about how we would transition President Schultz, but we have not spent any time really envisioning our next leader. That is the work that we really want to spend the quality time focused on now.”

Keohokalole Schauer said she’s excited about the opportunity to work with the Cougars community to envision the next phase of the university, its new leader and how to best serve the mission of a land grant university.

McDonald already has a picture in mind of what Schulz’s successor should be like: “someone superhuman,” she said.

They’ll ideally have plenty of experience as a leader in higher education, an eagerness to initiate change and will be able to form strong relationships within the university and externally, with donors, legislators, other university presidents and the community colleges where prospective transfer students are.

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“Having a president that’s really ready to engage in that change in a careful but deliberate manner is very important, I think,” McDonald said. “I don’t want somebody that just charges off the cliff. I equally think the same old, same old is not going to do it for the next five to 10 years.” “

Ed Schweitzer, founder of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and one of WSU’s largest donors, said the shake-up in leadership is an opportunity to get back to the roots of the university and its mission as a land grant institution.

He said he and his company are both products of land grant universities, and he greatly appreciates the value they bring to individuals and the communities they serve.

“It’s so open, accessible,” Schweitzer said. “And that kind of environment brings out the creativity, brings out the best in people and fills a very fundamental human need to be creative, to do something of worth. And that’s what our universities do at their best, and helping them focus on that purpose is a tremendous opportunity that we have right now.”

Schweitzer said he’s excited to see what the next president will bring to the table in terms of priorities and lived experience. He added that the next phase for WSU is also an opportunity to set aside the noise of the athletic department woes and refocus on the academics, cutting-edge research and workforce development the university was founded to do.

“We’d love to have a president who thinks along those lines, who really understands that as a president of a land grant university, that you have this tremendous legacy laid down by these brilliant people, President Lincoln, Senator Morrill, many other people, who made sure that education is accessible, affordable, and of high quality,” Schwitzer said, referencing the Vermont senator who sponsored the bill in 1862 creating land grant colleges.

“Just an openminded, practical, down-to-earth leader respectful of students, staff, faculty, taxpayers.”

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