His mantra is "transparency," yet the most controversial decision of Bruce Shepard's first year as president of Western Washington University was opaque. Western folk from the greenest freshman to the most senior professor are invited — even instructed — to "call me Bruce," yet some of those who work with him believe he is less comfortable and skilled in one-on-one meetings than working with a crowd.
Shepard, who succeeded Karen Morse as head of the Bellingham campus, is candid and forthright in an interview and has the best relations with the student press of any president in recent years. Faculty members, focused on the effects of budget cuts and continuing economic troubles, give him good marks for a process in which every jot and tittle of the university budget is online and the president constantly asks for suggestions to better the process.
The one time he didn't ask for broad advice remains his most contentious action of the year. On Jan. 8, Shepard quietly announced that Western's century-old football program was being eliminated to save money and keep other sports alive. The decision had been so closely held that coaches and players were not notified before the announcement; nor were backers solicited for opinions or financial support.
Shepard said in an interview that he spotted the financial weakness of football when he arrived on campus; the sport was hemorrhaging some $450,000 in public funds annually with little public support. He had pledged to put the university's entire budget online for all to see, Shepard said, and he could not defend the football money.
On campus, the decision was popular with faculty and drew little comment from students. Zack Hale, editor of The Western Front, the twice-weekly student newspaper, scolded Shepard for the closed-door decision, but concluded, "Shepard made the wisest fiscal decision and chose to cut a costly program that wasn't central to Western's core mission." The lack of a public process also upset some faculty, but the decision to cut the football program appears to be almost universally supported.
Opposition from off campus continues to target Shepard, however, despite his clear statements that he will not retreat from the decision.
Football supporters, many of them former players, quickly organized Save WWU Football, with former quarterback and current FSN commentator Jason Stiles as the major player. The organization posted an active Web site and Stiles claims that within six weeks the group had rounded up 500 pledges for $1 million in support for football, spread over four years. Most were new to donating to Western, Stiles said, terming the Western Athletic Department's prior fundraising efforts as "archaic."
The group's efforts have not paid off with Shepard, however, and there is little contact with the president's office. "We will actively move forward with publicity," Stiles told Crosscut, although hopes for a return of football under Shepard have dimmed. Football supporters are convinced the new president came with an anti-football agenda that was furthered when hard economic times forced budget cuts, but the candle burns for a return of the sport in the future.
In its last configuration, with an NCAA II schedule that took the team further distances to play schools nobody had heard of (Dixie State, Colorado School of Mines) the football program had lost campus support as well as money. "We were just keeping it alive," said Ron Riggins, a veteran Western professor, dean and faculty athletic representative. "It probably had to be done the way it was done," Riggins adds, although football coaches and players (and Riggins) were unaware that the decision was being made.
Shepard contended at the time that he needed to move swiftly in order to give players options to transfer elsewhere if they wished, and that opening up a discussion would have delayed the cut — which he felt was inevitable — until too late for players and coaches to relocate.
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