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Fort Lewis College president’s contract renewed for three years

Student body president objects, calling for shorter employment

Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus’ three-year employment contract was renewed Friday afternoon by the board of trustees, but the university’s student body president called for a shortened contract to sooner replace the incumbent, who is white, with a Black or Indigenous leader.

“If we're trying to diversify this campus, staff and faculty, it should start with some of the highest positions,” said Zhaida Wilbanks, student body president.

Much of the contract remained the same as the original when Stritikus was named president unanimously by the board in 2018. He was given a 3.5% raise along with FLC faculty and staff members, said Richard Kaufman, vice chairman of the board. Stritikus will also receive a 15% annual base salary retention bonus, which will be paid at the end of the three-year contract.

The president took a voluntary 20% salary reduction in May 2020 for six months in anticipation of financial losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stritikus also earns $20,000 annually as part of a retirement fund and has use of a car for business purposes, which has remained the same.

Wilbanks raised concerns about renewing Stritikus’ contract, saying the president’s behavior has left many students “uncomfortable.” Wilbanks accused Stritikus of disrespecting wait staff in town, calling students incorrect names and approaching a female student at an event at his home and saying, “I’m the man.” But, Wilbanks did not provide further specific details about the incidents and did not immediately respond to a request by The Durango Herald for further comment.

In an interview with the Herald, Stritikus said he “will always work to create an environment where the students can be successful.”

“I'm certainly willing to hold myself and everyone on this campus to the highest standards of behavior,” he said.

FLC spokeswoman Lauren Savage told the Herald no formal complaints have been made against Stritikus.

“We have a process for all formal complaints, which we encourage students, community members and employees to utilize,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “All formal allegations are taken seriously by the college.”

Kaufman said the board of trustees and Stritikus are “committed” to diversity, equity and inclusion. Wilbanks noted that commitment and told the board statements related to diversity and inclusion feel like marketing efforts. The school needs to take action, Wilbanks said, like hiring more people of color and appointing a Black or Indigenous president.

“I don't want to hear the phooey little excuse of, ‘It's hard to find these types of people,’” Wilbanks said. “When in reality, there are so many strong and powerful Black and Indigenous people who are able to take this position.”

During the meeting, Wilbanks said Native students face many “pressing issues” and are “not actually valued.” In an interview, Stritikus said making students feel welcome and representing diversity are priorities of FLC.

“We are always striving to create a campus where students feel welcome, feel like they belong, because we know that when they do they're likely to succeed academically,” he said. “It’s something that we really deeply care about.”

Janet Lopez, a member of the board, said evaluations of Stritikus by students, faculty and staff members in the last year were “overwhelmingly positive.”

FLC was ranked ninth for campus ethnic diversity at national liberal arts colleges in the 2021 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings. Students of color represent 57% of the student body and 45% of students are Native American or Alaska Native.

Stritikus told the board he’s eager to continue the role.

“We have tons of work to do, I'm not naive about that,” he said. “We've made big progress, we came through COVID as well as anyone could, and we have incredible faculty, staff and students to move forward on all the complicated issues, of which there are many, which makes the job fun and important.”

Board member Mary Rubadeau said she was “thrilled” to have Stritikus’ contract renewed.

“We're so happy that you're staying with us and staying the course,” she said. “There's so much work to do, and we appreciate the last three years and just really look forward to the next three years.”

Kaela Roeder is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a 2021 graduate of American University in Washington, D.C.

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