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New leader navigates budget cuts at Western Washington U.

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard, on the campus Credit: WWU

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.

On Western’s campus, the football flap was overshadowed by budget issues as all Washington campuses took budget hits in November, then more with the legislative budget, and now WWU faces about a 2 percent reduction this summer. Western has become, Shepard notes, a “publicly supported” rather than a “public” institution, as state support drops this year to 43 percent, from 60 percent during 2008-2009.

Shepard says the biggest surprise of his freshman year was the lack of support at the Legislature; he spent most of his teaching career in Oregon, where state support has plummeted in recent years, and expected more from Washington. But legislators told him their voters believe higher education is “elitist” and “they [voters] don’t see their kids going to your university.”

The new guy in town has discovered what veterans have learned over the years: A policy of limiting state support for public colleges and universities also limits enrollment, which in turn means fewer Washington families see their children at a state school. When things turn tough, the downward spiral accelerates, further eroding public support.

If that is the case, Shepard and his counterparts in other state universities face a difficult challenge to reverse the trend. Private donors, he notes, seldom respond to appeals for operating funds — the daily cost of running a school or program. That’s one reason he believes private donors could not float Western’s continuing football deficit. Donors want to support visible innovations or scholarships or capital projects. “Donors don’t give to fill holes — they give to add margins of excellence.”

Western is due for a capital campaign, and Shepard plans one in the next year or two, depending on the economy. As with his budget, he’s beginning the planning at the ground level, once again using the word “transparency.”

That word has taken life on campus, although some complain that they get too many e-mails from the boss (he admits to a few simply stating that he doesn’t know what to expect). But the tactic is generally supported. “He has been big on ‘transparency,’ in a way that the other state university presidents have not been successful,” says Faculty Senate President Matthew Liao-Toth, “No marches here about how we are handling the budget cuts. There is a strong sense that we are on the right path as a university.”

The Western Board of Trustees approved a 2009-2010 budget on June 12, reflecting a state appropriation of $58.5 million, plus an estimated $8.9 million in federal stimulus funds. Even with a 14 percent tuition increase, the university will be about $6 million short of maintaining its current services.

Six days after that budget was adopted, Gov. Chris Gregoire warned university leaders that more cuts would be coming, and Shepard expects to take anoher 2 percent hit. He says he hopes to handle it by leaving more positions vacant and finding other savings; but he notes that faculty contracts are signed and admission notices sent to incoming students, limiting the flexibility he might have had earlier in the year.

Although faculty representatives worked closely with Shepard’s fiscal team to deal with budget cuts this year, both sides face potentially divisive union negotiations, which began June 15 and include salary schedules for the next two years. Last year’s bargaining — the first for the new United Faculty of Western Washington — gained faculty a one-time 10.5 percent pay increase. Current economic conditions will limit negotiators’ flexibility for the next two-year contract.

Early meetings are trying to avoid confrontation in the face of the sour economy. “Both the faculty union and the administration are committed to a problem-solving approach to bargaining rather than a confrontational one,” says Susan Costanzo, a history professor heading the union’s bargaining team. “Our meetings thus far have been positive and constructive.”

A signed union contract was one of two gifts left by Karen Morse as she departed Western after 15 years at the helm. The other was a conservative fiscal policy that left the school with some pad for the current budget cuts. Perhaps even more important, most of Morse’s senior team was at or nearing retirement, and Shepard has been able to form his own team at Old Main, the administrative center. Generally they seem to be well-received on campus, although the major academic player, new Provost Catherine Riordan, won’t arrive until August from Central Michigan University.

Because most of the administrative team is new or still in transit and because the budget squeeze overwhelmed every other happening on campus, Shepard won’t really place his mark on the Bellingham university until the 2009-2010 academic year.

He’s already working on his opening address to faculty, mulling the term “publicly-purposed university” to describe a school where state support is slipping and new relationships must be forged. Already, Western has announced plans to expand programs at its small Everett campus, and extend itself into Bellingham’s planned new waterfront development. Shepard also wants to work more closely with regional community colleges.

Shepard is a high-energy leader with a good head of steam built on his mission of “transparency” and the first-year honeymoon most leaders are allowed. But he’s gone about as far as he can go with “call me Bruce” and “transparency,” and the next year is likely to hold additional budget cuts that in turn may produce tensions with a faculty that likes the new guy but still isn’t sure where he wants to take the university.

The new Western leader appears to have the potential for an “A” grade, but the cautious will give him an “incomplete” until more results are in.

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