On Monday, Washington State University president Kirk Schulz announced massive budget cuts in a letter to students and faculty. He instructed every department to "reduce its spending by 2.5 percent," and promised to "eliminate and restructure some positions" in Performing Arts, Student Affairs, academic colleges, Athletics, and Finance and Administration, all in effort to eventually eliminate the university's $30 million deficit.
He specifically called out the school's the Multicultural Student Services unit and the Office of Equity and Diversity as programs the university needs to scrap due to lack of permanent funds, never mind the fact that, according to the Daily Evergreen, Schulz plans "to bring in more money by enrolling more international students." Cutting resources the college will need to support the college's own fucking plan to get back on track financially is just the kind of backward bullshit you'd expect from a place that "spent its way to football relevancy," according to USA Today. But more on that in a second.
Schulz also specifically cited the Performing Arts program as a drain on the school's reserve fund, saying that it has "contributed significantly to the cultural richness of our community" but that its $1.6 million price tag, which was the cost to run the program for seven years, is too high.
Meanwhile, WSU head football coach Mike Leach is the highest paid state employee in Washington, pulling in $3,016,700 last year alone, which amounts to a raise of $166,700 from the year before.
Leach's former* fucking athletic director, William Moos, comes in 7th place with a salary of $776,000. And you can keep going down the line. WSU handsomely rewards the staff dedicated to damaging its students brains, but it stiffs the programs dedicated to improving them.
"This is what a serious investment project looks like in major college football," Brent Schrotenboer writes in USA Today of WSU's massive influx of support for its football program, "A five-story, $61 million building that has a cafeteria staffed with two full-time chefs, a mini-barbershop in the locker room and a top level full of coaches’ offices overlooking the stadium below."
Schrotenboer goes on to report that the athletic department "owes its university $51.5 million after posting operating deficits for six straight years." Citing NCAA financial forms, he also reports that "WSU athletics got about $800,000 in help from student fees and $3.7 million direct support from the school’s general fund." And according to the Spokesman-Review, an earlier version of of Schultz's plan to pay off the football debt included a request that students pay $50 per semester in extra fees. This contribution would be in addition to the $1,255 they already pay in student fees, which is already an insanely high amount.
The hope here is that the football team will win a bunch of games, bring in a bunch of fans, sell a bunch of tickets and TV time, and then become financially "sustainable." The fact that the university is willing to bet on its football team but not it's theater-makers—who actually have been successful on a small budget—is unsurprising but disappointing all the same.
WSU shuttered its theater department in 2008, but in an effort to maintain a continued presence of theater at WSU, former president Elson Floyd established the university's current Performing Arts program in 2011. Two student clubs, STAGE and Nuthouse Improv Comedy, are the lifeblood of the theater scene on campus and in Pullman in general. They work out of a 400-seat proscenium called Jones Theater and a 144-seat blackbox called the Wadleigh Theatre. Professors Benjamin Gonzales and Mary Trotter and two other administrators oversee the program. The professors' contracts won't be renewed after the theater's final show in April.
Gonzalez told me he doesn't know what will happen to the theater spaces following the dissolution of the program. His twin daughters turned two last week, and he's nervous about finding another job, but he's also nervous for the students in their theater program.
Though president Schultz eliminated Performing Arts, Gonzalez considered his and the students' work a success.
"I don’t think it was ever about ticket sales," he said. "I was part of the former theater department, and since the inception of the Performing Arts program our show attendance and our occupancy has skyrocketed. It’s true: no theater can live completely on ticket sales, but we were cranking out the shows. We were doing what we were hired to do."
Ted Tremper, former producer at The Daily Show and current director for Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America!, graduated from WSU in 2004. He told me in an e-mail that "WSU’s performing arts community—specifically the student theater organization STAGE—was the highlight of [his] life in Pullman."
"It is impossible to understate how large of an impact it had on my life and career," he continued. "Being immersed in a community of creative artists taught me how to improvise, write sketch comedy and plays, and gave me my first chance at filmmaking."
"I think it's shameful that these cuts are happening," Tremper added. "I understand the need to prioritize STEM programs over the arts—it’s where the money is. But to eliminate the performing arts entirely does a disservice to all the students at WSU—not just the weird kids (like me) who called Daggy Hall home."
"My theatre degree from Washington State pays my bills and has for over 10 years," says Laura Karavitis, production stage manager at Madison, Wisconsin's Forward Theatre. "My first job out of WSU with my theatre degree was as a personal assistant and illusion specialist for magician David Copperfield in Las Vegas and on international tour. I mean come the fuck on," she said.
"WSU has been sabotaging the theatre department and performing arts before I got there, the entire time I was there, and ever since," Karavitis added. "Of course something struggles when you suffocate it and don't ever talk about how it's getting regional and national recognition on a shoestring budget."
Stage and screen actor Jessica Weaver, who graduated from WSU's theater program in 2007, says she is who she is because of WSU theater. "The theatre department was the only thing that made me feel any sense of community, accomplishment, belonging, stability, and success," she said.
Quinn Hatch, a Chicago-based writer and comedian who graduated from WSU in 2007, said he would have been a college dropout if not for theater at the university. "Ben Gonzales took me under his wing and showed me what dedicating your life to art can do," he wrote in an e-mail.
I'm sure there are hundreds and thousands of stories just like these. Not just in Pullman, but all across the country, wherever universities are cutting back humanities in favor of football. University presidents like Schultz always say shit like "these decisions are painful...but they must be taken in order to restore the University’s overall fiscal health," as if he had no choice in the matter. But he does have a choice.
He can choose to be an academic institution and prioritize academic outcomes, or he can choose to be a business posing as an academic institution and prioritize returns on investment. Tacitly blaming diversity programs and theater for being unsustainable while also admitting to funding the programs with reserves, as Schultz does in his letter, reveals the choice he and WSU have been making for a long time.
*Eds note: This post originally suggested Moos was the current athletic director of WSU. Not the case. They're currently hiring for the position. We regret the error.