Bruce Shepard, president of Western since 2008, will retire next spring. Most of his tenure has taken place against the backdrop of sharp budget cuts and double-digit tuition increases.

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Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard announced Thursday that he will retire at the end of the 2015-16 academic year.

Shepard, who is 68, has been president of Western since 2008.

He took the reins just as the recession hit, and most of his tenure occurred against the backdrop of sharp budget cuts and double-digit tuition increases. Western lost about half its state funding during the recession.

Shepard said that while he remained positive in public, “Privately, I was worried that … whenever it came time to transition, I would be handing off a damaged university to whoever would follow me.”

But he said that the university faculty and staff helped him make strategic cuts without eliminating important programs, and “I believe I can document very convincingly that we’re stronger today than we were seven years ago.”

Shepard said the university is run so efficiently that an accrediting board recently recommended that Western hire more staff. In February, U.S. News & World Report named Western one of the most efficiently run universities in the Pacific Northwest. “We are scary lean,” he said.

One of Shepard’s most controversial moves came early in his tenure when, in 2009, he decided to eliminate Western’s football team, citing rising operation costs and cuts to the state budget.

In 2012, bucking the wishes of then-Gov. Chris Gregoire, and at a time when tuition was set to jump 16 percent, he raised faculty salaries. Shepard said it was essential to give raises, or risk losing talented faculty members who would go elsewhere for higher pay.

More recently, he drew fire for saying that Western needed to become more diverse. “If in decades ahead, we are as white as we are today, we will have failed as a university,” Shepard said during a spring 2014 convocation.

He was widely criticized by conservative media, and Shepard said his intent and words were often twisted out of context. But Shepard said he intended to be provocative, and his words helped start a deeper conversation on campus about the importance of diversity.

Shepard has worked to turn engineering technology into a full-fledged engineering program and strengthened its computer-science program. He helped create the school’s Institute for Energy Studies, and he has expanded partnerships with universities in China, South Korea and Mongolia. The university’s fundraising campaign recently surpassed its goal of $50 million and has set a new goal of $60 million.

Western isn’t the only state university that’s dealing with a change at the top. Almost all of Washington’s six public four-year universities have seen changes in the past year.

This spring, Michael Young, then president of the University of Washington, abruptly left to take the top job at Texas A&M University. He was replaced by interim president Ana Mari Cauce. The university has started a search for a permanent president; many believe Cauce is a likely choice for the position.

The Evergreen State College President Les Purce is retiring in September; he’ll be replaced by former Whitman College president George Bridges. At Eastern Washington University, Mary Cullinan replaced former president Rodolfo Arévalo last year, when he retired.

Washington State University President Elson Floyd is on an indefinite medical leave for treatment for colon cancer; in his absence, Provost Daniel Bernardo is overseeing day-to-day operations.

Western’s search for a new president will be led by Western trustee Sue Sharpe.

Karen Lee, chair of the board of trustees, said the search committee will begin the search by asking the university community what it wants in its next president. Among those questions: “What are the challenges facing Western in the future? What are our strengths? What does Western want to be?”

She praised Shepard as “one of the finest university presidents in the country,” and also praised Shepard’s wife, Cyndie, who started a mentoring program, Compass 2 Campus. The program pairs Western undergraduates with public-school children in the Bellingham area to offer tutoring, to serve as an inspiration, and to encourage students to go to college.

“Our nickname for them is the dynamic duo,” Lee said.

Cyndie Shepard said she’d work to help find a new director for the program. The couple plans to move to California, where Bruce Shepard grew up.

Before coming to Bellingham, Shepard was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and before that, worked as provost and professor of political science at Eastern Oregon University.

Western had about 12,200 students when Shepard took office. Since then, it has grown to an enrollment of about 15,000.