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EWU Board Can Help Build New Culture of Trust, if They Listen, Says Faculty Member

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Guest Column by Chris Kirby

My name is Christopher Kirby. I have been a part of the philosophy faculty at Eastern Washington University since 2008. Shortly after I arrived at Eastern, the university was reorganized from seven colleges to four. There was a vote of no confidence for the provost and faculty clashed with the Board of Trustees about how best to guide the institution through the crisis. Well, here we are again.

The common thread running from there to here is an institutional culture of mistrust and top-down leadership that focuses too narrowly on strategy, rather than cooperation. But, as the saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The budget strategy being considered is not an institutional savior. It’s just a financial algorithm. It cannot, nor should not, stand in place of real leadership, vision, or innovation. Moreover, it is not the only way to meet our current crisis. There are alternatives.   

In good faith, the faculty voiced its overwhelming dissatisfaction with this latest attempt to forsake leadership in favor of strategy. That voice has been summarily dismissed, despite coming from those whose worlds revolve around student success. Teaching is a daily exercise in innovation and re-invention. Faculty want to do this work at the institutional level, and we deserve leaders who will help us, not ignore us. 

The board members have an opportunity to help build a new culture of trust and cooperation at Eastern. But their statement that the Board “will continue to move forward on the course” it has “charted” is just more strategy. I hope they will listen to those of us who have direct experience in the teaching and learning that’s happening at this institution. Students don’t want choices made for them. Faculty don’t want their innovations shackled by unnecessary austerity measures. Alumni don’t want to see what led to their professional successes frittered away in a stop-gap measure.   

The statement issued by the Board claimed a deep respect for “the Senate’s voice and commitment to shared governance,” that “the Board will consider input from all interested parties,” and that “student success is the ultimate goal.” I believe they mean these things they claim. But, for any of them to be true, the assertion about continuing headlong cannot be made. Affirming a course has already been charted implies input from interested parties is either unneeded, or unwanted. A faculty’s voice that has been so thoughtlessly cast aside, is by definition not respected. 

Their claim that “EWU can’t be all things to all people” is not only untrue but also insulting. Of course we aren’t all things to all people, but we are a collection of unique opportunities of growth and self-discovery for students who may be the first in their families to go to college, students with families of their own, those working full-time jobs, those looking for an affordable education close to home, the daughters and sons of working class families, those who may have no experience of the world outside of the Inland Northwest, and international students looking for a reasonably priced entry into American education.

That claim is disingenuous and dishonors the unique work being done by faculty and students. I encourage them to drop such strategic talking points altogether and simply listen.

EWU still declares itself a regional comprehensive university… an identity that makes it special.

To me, EWU is a home, but also an opportunity to share with students a love of learning and a commitment to the examined life which I discovered as a first-generation college student.

It is true that these are unprecedented circumstances, but the budget strategy currently being considered will strip Eastern of its identity and perpetuate the culture that has landed us here again. The board has been shown other options. We implore them to be considered. I continue to hope for the dawning of a new day where faculty, administration and the Board can work together to ensure the success of our students.

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About Chris Kirby

Dr Chris Kirby is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Washington University

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