Spokane Journal of Business

EWU leader settles in as school sets latest record

University has posted six years of rising enrollment

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Mary Cullinan, president of Eastern Washington University, is settling into her new role and has identified some key goals, she says, such as fighting for legislative funding, instituting a new transfer program, and attracting nontraditional students. 

Cullinan, who took office on Aug. 1, was formerly the president of Southern Oregon University, in Ashland, for eight years. Cullinan succeeds former EWU President Rodolfo Arévalo, who announced his retirement earlier this year.

EWU also is experiencing its sixth year in a row of record enrollment, Cullinan says, with a total of 13,453 students enrolled this fall. The university’s total enrollment for the 2013-14 academic year was 12,791, and for the previous year it was 12,587. 

“There’s just tremendous vitality on campus,” she says.

Tuition and fees at EWU for the 2014-15 year are $7,972 for Washington residents, $11,345 for Washington Undergraduate Exchange students, who come from participating states around the country, and $21,066 for nonresidents. 

Cullinan also has instituted what’s known as a reverse transfer program at EWU, something she brought with her from Oregon, she says. Cullinan signed the agreement with Christine Johnson, chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane, a few weeks ago. 

“It allows a student who’s at community college to transfer here before completing their AA (associate of arts) degree,” she says. “At some point while they’re here, they’ll have enough credits for an AA, and they can retroactively get that.”

The program enables students to receive a credential while working on their four-year degree, Cullinan says. 

“It’s very helpful, because so many of our students are taking that nontraditional path,” she says.

Cullinan also says about 50 percent of students at EWU are first-generation college students. 

“We really want to reach out to nontraditional students, such as students who never finished college and are working, who want to come back,” she says. “The Spokane campus is key to this.”

Cullinan says one of her goals at EWU is ensuring that students not only make it to graduation, but are prepared for post-graduation life. 

“The faculty here is really focused on students, and on students being successful after graduation,” she says. “I’m always saying to parents that I’m trying to make sure their student doesn’t move back in with them.”

Another of Cullinan’s focuses is on giving students comprehensive advising while they’re at the university, she says, especially nontraditional, online, and veteran students. 

“There’s just a wide variety of students these days, and I want them all to have great advising,” she says.   

Cullinan also says that, in some cases, students are taking too long to graduate, which can be expensive and stressful. 

“If they can just create an academic plan that will get them through, they’ll save money and finish in a timely manner,” she says. “We need to be thinking of alternate paths: online, night and weekend classes.”

Cullinan says she thinks the biggest challenge she faces is securing needed funding from the state. 

“Every state has financial challenges in terms of higher education, and Washington is no exception,” she says. “Each state is challenged by many demands on their resources. Sometimes higher education gets forgotten; it’s not seen as an urgent priority.”

Additionally, Cullinan says it’s easy for legislators to see the revenue stream from student tuition as a way for universities to make more money. 

“The legislature can say, you don’t need money, you can charge students more,” she says. “But we believe we have a compact with the state to have universities. We don’t want our students to accrue debt.”

As part of trying to manage its finances, Cullinan says EWU is looking very carefully at any new positions before deciding to hire for them. 

“If someone retires or leaves, we’re probably going to replace them,” she says. “The governor asked all public universities to prepare for a 15 percent budget cut scenario. It just creates panic. Here, we’ve been planning for a 5 percent budget cut. Since the bulk of our dollars are in positions, we have to look very carefully at any new ones.”

Cullinan says the university’s big funding request for the upcoming legislative session will be $70 million for a new science building on the Cheney campus. The original building dates back to 1950, she says. 

“It’s one of the older science buildings in the state,” she says. “It’s not big enough, and it hasn’t aged well … at some point you have to say, we just need a new building.” 

EWU also just opened a new college at its Spokane campus, Cullinan says, the College of Health Sciences and Public Health. Its programs include dental hygiene, physical therapy, and health services administration, among others. 

“Our College of Business is in Spokane as well,” Cullinan says. “It should make it much easier for people returning to school in those areas to go to school in Spokane.” 

In addition to its Cheney and Spokane campuses and programs with Community Colleges of Spokane, EWU offers classes through Bellevue College, in Bellevue, Wash.; Lower Columbia College, in Longview, Wash.; North and South Seattle Community Colleges; and Clark College, in Vancouver, Wash.

Upon her arrival at EWU this summer, Cullinan quickly dove into getting to know the community, she says. 

“It was great because my administration team really outlined the people and organizations I needed to get to know in my first 90 days,” she says. 

Cullinan began by meeting with legislators, other local university officials, and the Greater Spokane Incorporated board, she says. She also toured the community colleges where EWU offers classes.

“I also began focusing on the campus and finding my way around,” she says. “I also started meeting with the faculty and student organizations … once the academic year started, it’s been nonstop events.”

Cullinan, who was born in Texas but raised in Washington, D.C., knew previous EWU president Arévalo, she says.

“I had been friendly with Dr. Arévalo for a number of years, from previous positions we held in Texas,” she says. “We came to the Northwest around the same time.”

 From 2003 to 2006, Cullinan was provost and vice president for academic affairs at Stephen F. Austin University, in Nacogdoches, Texas.

“Last spring, when he said he was going to retire, I said, ‘I want your job,’” Cullinan says. “So I put my name in the hat … I had seen how Dr. Arévalo had taken this school through the recession. I knew it was in good shape, and I knew enrollment was good.”

Cullinan earned her master’s degree and doctorate in English literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Cullinan then took a position teaching in the MBA program at Berkeley, she says. She had other teaching jobs in California, including with California State University Stanislaus, in Turlock, Calif.

Cullinan also is the first permanent female president of EWU, she says, and currently the only female president of a public university in Washington state.

Looking toward the future, Cullinan says she wants to increase the university’s visibility in the state. 

“I really want this state to know what we do and to value what we do,” she says. “… Sometimes I think we’re not as visible as we might be … (Spokane) is such a rich academic environment, and people should recognize how valuable that is.”

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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