WCU president retires, interim president yet to be named

Board of Trustees forming hiring committee

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

Western Colorado University president and chief executive officer Gregory Salsbury, in conjunction with Western’s Board of Trustees, announced his retirement last week. Western is now preparing to appoint an interim president and forming a hiring committee for Salsbury’s permanent replacement. The announcement came just before commencement weekend and signals what many hope will be the end of a tumultuous relationship on the Western campus during recent months between the president and Western’s faculty, staff and students. The tension has spanned longer for some faculty and staff members.

The president’s last day will be June 29, the end of the university’s fiscal year. Salsbury has served as president at Western for seven years. The Board of Trustees has a special meeting scheduled for May 13 at 8 a.m. that includes an executive session and then the potential discussion topics and action items of appointing an interim president and establishing a presidential hiring committee. The meeting is open to the public, although the executive session is not.

Although Salsbury is often credited among the Board of Trustees and others as having ushered the campus through a time of transition that has left it more fiscally sound and stable, many in the student body and in the faculty senate have called for Salsbury to be replaced.

When Salsbury issued a statement after the January 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol that likened the violence to some of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, many called for a change in leadership.

The Western faculty voted on the matter in March and the majority gave Salsbury a vote of no confidence regarding his ability to lead the institution. The senate vote included 85 percent of all faculty members, and a majority (56 percent) agreed with the referendum’s statement, “Western Colorado University Faculty Statement in Support of New Leadership at Western.”

Salsbury was asked to respond to the vote by March 18, and the Board of Trustees, who have the power to retain or replace the president, voted in April to keep Salsbury in his position. He responded that he appreciated the support of the Board of Trustees and others on campus and looked forward to the road ahead.

Then on May 7, he wrote in an email to the Western community: “I am writing today to announce my retirement from Western Colorado University…It has been an honor to serve this great institution for the last 7+ years. When I arrived here in 2014, I certainly could not have predicted the wild ride that lay ahead. “

Salsbury reviewed his time at Western and the context within the world of higher education. “Very few people at the time, outside or inside of the Academy, fully appreciated the colossal transformation unfolding for higher education, including massive escalation in high-quality low-cost competition, the dramatic shrinkage of the college candidate pool, the seismic technological shifts in educational modalities and digital marketing/recruiting, and the impact of shrinking proportional funding from the state.

“All of this magnified Western’s own challenges of dangerous debt-to-income and CFI ratios with limited reserves, dwindling enrollment, soaring costs of tuition, fees, and salaries, a competitor school trying to appropriate our name, and unbalanced curricula offerings.

“Just when we were beginning to get a handle on a number of these, we were hit with a worldwide pandemic that created the worst crisis in the history of our school. Despite all of this and a fair number of other distractions over the years, we were able to navigate, survive and even progress. Thanks to some fabulous students, donors, alumni, faculty, dedicated trustees, and hardworking Westerners, I can look back on this time with great pride in what we have been able to do here,” he wrote.

Patrick Magee, Western’s newly elected Faculty Senate chairperson, spoke with the Crested Butte News on Tuesday, May 11. Magee has served on the senate for four years, and began serving as chair on May 3. He is a wildlife biology professor at Western as well. He said Salsbury’s decision to retire was not expected, to his knowledge.

“But I think I can speak for the majority of the senate that there has been a pretty strong opinion that we were ready for new leadership,” he said.

“Salsbury has been here for seven years and he had some great accomplishments. He was really skilled in helping us understand what the university climate was and what was needed in terms of the stability of the university.”

Magee referred in particular to data showing that the higher education student populations are aging, the number of college students is generally declining, and competition among institutions has increased.

“He did a really good job of articulating what that challenge was, and had some good ideas on how to address that, particularly with recruitment strategies. How successful it all was is up to debate. But it was a good effort,” said Magee. “He had a lot of other great accomplishments as well.”

Magee said tensions had been brewing as students, faculty and staff felt they were not heard or valued by Salsbury.

“The thing that drove the faculty toward wanting new leadership was some of the interpersonal skills that made faculty feel unheard, not valued, disrespected, and some would use the word demoralized.”

Magee said after the Board of Trustees voted to keep Salsbury in place, Salsbury addressed all members of the campus by email stating that he wanted to work on the issues.

“So it was a little surprising, but I think it was his general lack of support on campus,” said Magee.

“I think [Salsbury] really cares about the university and has made some great accomplishments. I think some people were really ready for a change and now I think we can move forward, especially with someone to whom inclusivity and diversity, equity are important and who values the opinions of the faculty and engages the faculty, students and staff in a much more collaborative way. People are looking for fresher relationship,” concluded Magee.

Salsbury was also contacted for this story but had not responded as of press time. He delegated his Master of Ceremony duties at commencement last weekend to Western’s vice president Bill Niemi.

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